The following account was assembled from the writings of a French military surgeon in 1916, detailing an incident of a wounded soldier’s delusions after an experience on the battlefield of the Somme.
These journal entries, dated October 1916, belonged to Doctor Coetmellec, the residing chief surgeon and mental health specialist at Base Hospital #11, near Bapaume. The hospital was primarily used for rehabilitation of soldiers wounded in the Battle of the Somme. The Doctor was killed in the war and his possessions were sent home. Among the items that actually made it back were a journal containing the writings of interest and a series of sketches.
In our research we have come to the conclusion that the remaining items have been sold a number of times through different estate sales finally ending up in the hands of an historian, who acquired them in the 1980’s. He then began to research the materials and published info pertaining to the Doctor’s work and this odd discovery. He’s still in possession of the assets and has released transcriptions of the journal entries and digital scans of the few sketches that remain.
Of the Doctor’s entries the ones that sparked our interest pertain to patient #213 Marcel Lazare and his story.
October 9, 1916
Patient #213: Sous-Lieutenant Marcel Lazare – 151st Régiment d‘Infantrie, wounded by Artillery battery fire. Prior to his war involvement, Lazare was a notable artist d‘ Nouveau in Nice. Patient was pulled from battle and brought to my care after a shell explosion left him for dead. He is calm, considering the significant damage to his legs. His first words to me: “It was him.” I assume he is speaking of the soldier who pulled him from battle. The rest of his men were obliterated, their lives forever taken in an apocalyptic shelling.
October 10, 1916
Removed Patient 213‘s legs – impacted shrapnel.
October 12, 1916
Patient seems not to know or care about the loss of his legs, has no questions about when he might recover or return home. Instead, he has begun to repeat phrases, such as: “The others…he ripped them apart” - “They could not stop him” - “He is coming for me.”
Patient Lazare is experiencing common post-traumatic delusions; that is, he is creating nightmares to explain his war experience. These delusions distract the patient from reality, yet, once gone, the patient is hit with compounded survivor‘s guilt and shock. If he continues with this for much longer, I will request transfer to a psych ward.
October 19, 1916
Today, Patient 213: “One holds his scythe. One grabs and lifts you from the earth. Another uses its long fingers to dissect you slowly, and the last rips your screaming head from your body.”
October 20, 1916
A nurse found Patient 213 drawing on his sheets and casts. When she took his pencil, he apologized, clear eyed and steady. She told me that, though she was confused by his behavior, she felt as though she was talking to a sane man. His desire to draw has given me a thought. If Lazare is able to express himself in the way that he finds most natural, through his artistic talent, he may be able to quickly exorcise the delusion. I gave him some basic drawing supplies that I could find, and asked him to illustrate what he saw.
October 21, 1916
This morning, I returned to a stack of sketches. The drawings are precise and consistent, not the typical work of a man who has lost his mind. The main component is a creature: Massive, his head a hollow, empty skull, with four sinewy arms that lead to long, spider-like pointed fingers. His chest is protected with heavy, ornate armor, with black leather tassets hanging from his belt. His knees are plated by sculptures of screaming lions, and steel bracer gauntlets cover his long wrists. One of the arms holds a curved, gleaming scythe. He shows how the monster moves. It leaves a rotting trail of destruction from the perils of war – helmets, rusted weaponry, remnants of fallen soldiers‘ uniforms – deteriorating and swirling beneath its feet, industrial battle trash and residue of those who were once fathers and sons. There is smeared blood on the paper where bodies are drawn, piled. I notice that Patient 213‘s fingertips are bleeding, pricked with the sharpened lead of the pencils.
In one sketch, the creature holds a soldier‘s body with one of his tangled arms. With another arm, he holds the head inside the soldier‘s own battle helmet, as if presenting it to us on a platter. Under the creature‘s heavy boots are the bodies of other soldiers, bleeding and crushed under the weight of this massive sack of bones. The empty eyes of the skull seem to have gotten blacker, while the smile of his crooked jaw seems to have gotten wider.
The creature is unmistakably Death.
As a doctor, I am determined to call this a severe post-traumatic hallucination. Yet his precision and adamancy has given me pause. typically only men of sound minds can conjure such detailed exacting illustrations. Either I have underestimated the magnitude of his mental condition; or he is absolutely, without a doubt, telling the truth.
As a man, I cannot say what I believe.
October 22, 1916
It is 2AM. The evening Nurse called me, terrified, saying there were horrifying screams, and sounds of crunching and scraping coming from Patient 213‘s wing.
When I entered his room, there was nothing out of the ordinary. He seems to have died peacefully in his sleep.
Although Marcel Lazare is now passed on, in quiet slumber my nights are haunted by the passionately expressed works he left behind. They, more than any of the horrors I have witnessed in this war, have challenged my definition of sanity. I have packed the art works of Lazare into a valise and had them sent back home so that I can contemplate their true meaning once this war is over, for to do so now is at great peril to my own fragile stability.
Reports were confirmed that Lazare was the only survivor of Artillery battery fire that obliterated his entire platoon. Yet, he had a different story of what happened on the battlefield.
He was convinced that a skeleton-like creature, with four arms and long bony fingers, tortured and ripped his fellow soldiers to pieces:
“One holds his scythe. One grabs and lifts you from the earth. Another uses its long bladed fingers to dissect you slowly, and the last rips your soul from your body.”
Did Lazare suffer from a post-traumatic delusion, a concoction of Lazare’s subconscious to eradicate the memory of a gruesome incident? The scythe he described is similar to that of the mythical “Grim Reaper”, which was a pervasive and well known image at the time. Did Lazare’s psyche place this character into his delusion to represent the senseless death he witnessed or was it more genuine? From the journal, however, it seems that Dr. Coetmellec quickly went from skeptical to drawn in by Lazare’s vision, almost to the point of believing the story. Instead of sending the soldier to a psych ward, as he should have, Coetmellec allowed the man to sketch what he had seen. After seeing the sketches, Coetmellec surprisingly ascertains: “The creature is unmistakeably death.”
NOTE: In reading through Coetmellec’s other journal entries, I am hard pressed to find that he was anything but a sensible doctor – not the type to buy into a story, or easily convinced of such a story given its fantastical nature. The fact that he continued to allow Lazare’s “delusions” is beyond me. I can only guess that, in the stress of war, anyone is vulnerable to a disconnect from reality. The part that is hard to explain is that there was something that held his attention and kept him from just passing Lazare off.
This set of sketches is what remains of the many Lazare completed as referenced in the journal. They depict the creature and the alleged scene on the battlefield, as told by Patient #213.
The magnitude and intensity of these drawings is blatantly clear when seeing them firsthand. The pages are a series of roughs, with attention on the violent intricacies – the jagged jaw of the skeleton, the crushing of a soldier’s skull by long, bony fingers. They are terrifying, and drawn in such disturbing detail, it is almost as if they are coming to life on the page. They seem rushed, with a sense of urgency but still uphold a disturbing sense of detail, it’s as if Lazare’s hand is being driven maniacally by his fervent and fearful passion.
It is, as the Doctor expressed, unmistakably Death.
As Lazare was an artist by trade before going to war, he had a great artistic talent, and had the ability to draw such life like illustrations of which his past work was well known for. At face value, it seems he was adapting them from a representation of the mythical Grim Reaper. However, in our research, we cannot find anything close to what Lazare’s wild imagination created to represent Death. He captures details and elements that are unique only to his vision which suggest that he was either highly imaginative or was drawing from a vision of what was real.
There is no evidence of it returning with Doctor Coetmellec’s belongings but there was a reference made to a more definitive piece, with “clean strokes and expert shading” ironically, it was said to have been completed on a wooden panel from an ammunition crate. This piece turned up sometime in the 1950’s and was displayed as the photos below will show. The Austrian museum it was kept by has since closed but the entire collection was archived within the Musee d’Orsay in France. Sources within say they have no real definitive answer on the current whereabouts of the painting – it too has been lost to time, but provided us with the photos from their archive of the painting on display.
After reading the vivid journal entries and viewing these sketches, against my better judgment, I think I understand why Dr. Coetmellec came to believe the story of Patient #213.
Lazare’s chilling story accompanied by the visual assets inspired a recent reproduction of the ammo case lid painting. Enough detail was able to be pulled from the images documenting the painting that we feel provide an accurate representation, and as vivid of a look at the Grim Reaper that haunted Sous-Lieutenant Marcel Lazare.