THE GLORY OF THE TRENCHES
Author of "CARRY ON: LETTERS IN WARTIME," etc.
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY HIS FATHER, W. J. DAWSON
"The glory is all in the souls of the men—it's nothing external." —From "Carry On"
TO YOU AT HOME
Each night we panted till the runners came, Bearing your letters through the battle-smoke. Their path lay up Death Valley spouting flame, Across the ridge where the Hun's anger spoke In bursting shells and cataracts of pain; Then down the road where no one goes by day, And so into the tortured, pockmarked plain Where dead men clasp their wounds and point the way. Here gas lurks treacherously and the wire Of old defences tangles up the feet; Faces and hands strain upward through the mire, Speaking the anguish of the Hun's retreat. Sometimes no letters came; the evening hate Dragged on till dawn. The ridge in flying spray Of hissing shrapnel told the runners' fate; We knew we should not hear from you that day— From you, who from the trenches of the mind Hurl back despair, smiling with sobbing breath, Writing your souls on paper to be kind, That you for us may take the sting from Death.
TO YOU AT HOME. (Poem)
HOW THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN
IN HOSPITAL. (Poem)
THE ROAD TO BLIGHTY
THE LADS AWAY. (Poem)
THE GROWING OF THE VISION
THE GLORY OF THE TRENCHES. (Poem)
GOD AS WE SEE HIM
HOW THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN
In my book, The Father of a Soldier, I have already stated the conditions under which this book of my son's was produced.
He was wounded in the end of June, 1917, in the fierce struggle before Lens. He was at once removed to a base-hospital, and later on to a military hospital in London. There was grave danger of amputation of the right arm, but this was happily avoided. As soon as he could use his hand he was commandeered by the Lord High Commissioner of Canada to write an important paper, detailing the history of the Canadian forces in France and Flanders. This task kept him busy until the end of August, when he obtained a leave of two months to come home. He arrived in New York in September, and returned again to London in the end of October.
The plan of the book grew out of his conversations with us and the three public addresses which he made. The idea had already been suggested to him by his London publisher, Mr. John Lane. He had written a few hundred words, but had no very keen sense of the value of the experiences he had been invited to relate. He had not even read his own published letters in Carry On. He said he had begun to read them when the book reached him in the trenches, but they made him homesick, and he was also afraid that his own estimate of their value might not coincide with ours, or with the verdict which the public has since passed upon them. He regarded his own experiences, which we found so thrilling, in the same spirit of modest depreciation. They were the commonplaces of the life which he had led, and he was sensitive lest they should be regarded as improperly heroic. No one was more astonished than he when he found great throngs eager to hear him speak. The people assembled an hour before the advertised time, they stormed the building as soon as the doors were open, and when every inch of room was packed they found a way in by the windows and a fire-escape. This public appreciation of his message indicated a value in it which he had not suspected, and led him to recognise that what he had to say was worthy of more than a fugitive utterance on a public platform. He at once took up the task of writing this book, with a genuine and delighted surprise that he had not lost his love of authorship. He had but a month to devote to it, but by dint of daily diligence, amid many interruptions of a social nature, he finished his task before he left. The concluding lines were actually written on the last night before he sailed for England.
We discussed several titles for the book. The Religion of Heroism was the title suggested by Mr. John Lane, but this appeared too didactic and restrictive. I suggested Souls in Khaki, but this admirable title had already been appropriated. Lastly, we decided on The Glory of the Trenches, as the most expressive of his aim. He felt that a great deal too much had been said about the squalor, filth, discomfort and suffering of the trenches. He pointed out that a very popular war-book which we were then reading had six paragraphs in the first sixty pages which described in unpleasant detail the verminous condition of the men, as if this were the chief thing to be remarked concerning them. He held that it was a mistake for a writer to lay too much stress on the horrors of war. The effect was bad physiologically—it frightened the parents of soldiers; it was equally bad for the enlisted man himself, for it created a false impression in his mind. We all knew that war was horrible, but as a rule the soldier thought little of this feature in his lot. It bulked large to the civilian who resented inconvenience and discomfort, because he had only known their opposites; but the soldier's real thoughts were concerned with other things. He was engaged in spiritual acts. He was accomplishing spiritual purposes as truly as the martyr of faith and religion. He was moved by spiritual impulses, the evocation of duty, the loyal dependence of comradeship, the spirit of sacrifice, the complete surrender of the body to the will of the soul. This was the side of war which men needed most to recognise. They needed it not only because it was the true side, but because nothing else could kindle and sustain the enduring flame of heroism in men's hearts.
While some erred in exhibiting nothing but the brutalities of war, others erred by sentimentalising war. He admitted that it was perfectly possible to paint a portrait of a soldier with the aureole of a saint, but it would not be a representative portrait. It would be eclectic, the result of selection elimination. It would be as unlike the common average as Rupert Brooke, with his poet's face and poet's heart, was unlike the ordinary naval officers with whom he sailed to the AEgean.
The ordinary soldier is an intensely human creature, with an "endearing blend of faults and virtues." The romantic method of portraying him not only misrepresented him, but its result is far less impressive than a portrait painted in the firm lines of reality. There is an austere grandeur in the reality of what he is and does which needs no fine gilding from the sentimentalist. To depict him as a Sir Galahad in holy armour is as serious an offence as to exhibit him as a Caliban of marred clay; each method fails of truth, and all that the soldier needs to be known about him, that men should honour him, is the truth.
What my son aimed at in writing this book was to tell the truth about the men who were his comrades, in so far as it was given him to see it. He was in haste to write while the impression was fresh in his mind, for he knew how soon the fine edge of these impressions grew dull as they receded from the immediate area of vision. "If I wait till the war is over, I shan't be able to write of it at all," he said. "You've noticed that old soldiers are very often silent men. They've had their crowded hours of glorious life, but they rarely tell you much about them. I remember you used to tell me that you once knew a man who sailed with Napoleon to St Helena, but all he could tell you was that Napoleon had a fine leg and wore white silk stockings. If he'd written down his impressions of Napoleon day by day as he watched him walking the deck of the Bellerophon, he'd have told you a great deal more about him than that he wore white silk stockings. If I wait till the war is over before I write about it, it's very likely I shall recollect only trivial details, and the big heroic spirit of the thing will escape me. There's only one way of recording an impression—catch it while it's fresh, vivid, vital; shoot it on the wing. If you wait too long it will vanish." It was because he felt in this way that he wrote in red-hot haste, sacrificing his brief leave to the task, and concentrating all his mind upon it.
There was one impression that he was particularly anxious to record,—his sense of the spiritual processes which worked behind the grim offence of war, the new birth of religious ideas, which was one of its most wonderful results. He had both witnessed and shared this renascence. It was too indefinite, too immature to be chronicled with scientific accuracy, but it was authentic and indubitable. It was atmospheric, a new air which men breathed, producing new energies and forms of thought. Men were rediscovering themselves, their own forgotten nobilities, the latent nobilities in all men. Bound together in the daily obedience of self-surrender, urged by the conditions of their task to regard duty as inexorable, confronted by the pitiless destruction of the body, they were forced into a new recognition of the spiritual values of life. In the common conventional use of the term these men were not religious. There was much in their speech and in their conduct which would outrage the standards of a narrow pietism. Traditional creeds and forms of faith had scant authority for them. But they had made their own a surer faith than lives in creeds. It was expressed not in words but acts. They had freed their souls from the tyrannies of time and the fear of death. They had accomplished indeed that very emancipation of the soul which is the essential evangel of all religions, which all religions urge on men, but which few men really achieve, however earnestly they profess the forms of pious faith.
This was the true Glory of the Trenches. They were the Calvaries of a new redemption being wrought out for men by soiled unconscious Christs. And, as from that ancient Calvary, with all its agony of shame, torture and dereliction, there flowed a flood of light which made a new dawn for the world, so from these obscure crucifixions there would come to men a new revelation of the splendour of the human soul, the true divinity that dwells in man, the God made manifest in the flesh by acts of valour, heroism, and self-sacrifice which transcend the instincts and promptings of the flesh, and bear witness to the indestructible life of the spirit.
It is to express these thoughts and convictions that this book was written. It is a record of things deeply felt, seen and experienced—this, first of all and chiefly. The lesson of what is recorded is incidental and implicit. It is left to the discovery of the reader, and yet is so plainly indicated that he cannot fail to discover it. We shall all see this war quite wrongly, and shall interpret it by imperfect and base equivalents, if we see it only as a human struggle for human ends. We shall err yet more miserably if all our thoughts and sensations about it are drawn from its physical horror, "the deformations of our common manhood" on the battlefield, the hopeless waste and havoc of it all. We shall only view it in its real perspective when we recognise the spiritual impulses which direct it, and the strange spiritual efficacy that is in it to burn out the deep-fibred cancer of doubt and decadence which has long threatened civilisation with a slow corrupt death. Seventy-five years ago Mrs. Browning, writing on The Greek Christian Poets, used a striking sentence to which the condition of human thought to-day lends a new emphasis. "We want," she said, "the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things—we want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest." It is this glory of divine sacrifice which is the Glory of the Trenches. It is because the writer recognises this that he is able to walk undismayed among things terrible and dismaying, and to expound agony into renovation.
W. J. DAWSON. February, 1918.
Hushed and happy whiteness, Miles on miles of cots, The glad contented brightness Where sunlight falls in spots.
Sisters swift and saintly Seem to tread on grass; Like flowers stirring faintly, Heads turn to watch them pass.
Beauty, blood, and sorrow, Blending in a trance— Eternity's to-morrow In this half-way house of France.
Sounds of whispered talking, Laboured indrawn breath; Then like a young girl walking The dear familiar Death.
THE ROAD TO BLIGHTY
I am in hospital in London, lying between clean white sheets and feeling, for the first time in months, clean all over. At the end of the ward there is a swinging door; if I listen intently in the intervals when the gramophone isn't playing, I can hear the sound of bath-water running—running in a reckless kind of fashion as if it didn't care how much was wasted. To me, so recently out of the fighting and so short a time in Blighty, it seems the finest music in the world. For the sheer luxury of the contrast I close my eyes against the July sunlight and imagine myself back in one of those narrow dug-outs where it isn't the thing to undress because the row may start at any minute.
Out there in France we used to tell one another fairy-tales of how we would spend the first year of life when war was ended. One man had a baby whom he'd never seen; another a girl whom he was anxious to marry. My dream was more prosaic, but no less ecstatic—it began and ended with a large white bed and a large white bath. For the first three hundred and sixty-five mornings after peace had been declared I was to be wakened by the sound of my bath being filled; water was to be so plentiful that I could tumble off to sleep again without even troubling to turn off the tap. In France one has to go dirty so often that the dream of being always clean seems as unrealisable as romance. Our drinking-water is frequently brought up to us at the risk of men's lives, carried through the mud in petrol-cans strapped on to packhorses. To use it carelessly would be like washing in men's blood——
And here, most marvellously, with my dream come true, I lie in the whitest of white beds. The sunlight filters through trees outside the window and weaves patterns on the floor. Most wonderful of all is the sound of the water so luxuriously running. Some one hops out of bed and re-starts the gramophone. The music of the bath-room tap is lost.
Up and down the ward, with swift precision, nurses move softly. They have the unanxious eyes of those whose days are mapped out with duties. They rarely notice us as individuals. They ask no questions, show no curiosity. Their deeds of persistent kindness are all performed impersonally. It's the same with the doctors. This is a military hospital where discipline is firmly enforced; any natural recognition of common fineness is discouraged. These women who have pledged themselves to live among suffering, never allow themselves for a moment to guess what the sight of them means to us chaps in the cots. Perhaps that also is a part of their sacrifice. But we follow them with our eyes, and we wish that they would allow themselves to guess. For so many months we have not seen a woman; there have been so many hours when we expected never again to see a woman. We're Lazaruses exhumed and restored to normal ways of life by the fluke of having collected a bit of shrapnel—we haven't yet got used to normal ways. The mere rustle of a woman's skirt fills us with unreasonable delight and makes the eyes smart with memories of old longings. Those childish longings of the trenches! No one can understand them who has not been there, where all personal aims are a wash-out and the courage to endure remains one's sole possession.
The sisters at the Casualty Clearing Station—they understood. The Casualty Clearing Station is the first hospital behind the line to which the wounded are brought down straight from the Dressing-Stations. All day and all night ambulances come lurching along shell-torn roads to their doors. The men on the stretchers are still in their bloody tunics, rain-soaked, pain-silent, splashed with the corruption of fighting—their bodies so obviously smashed and their spirits so obviously unbroken. The nurses at the Casualty Clearing Station can scarcely help but understand. They can afford to be feminine to men who are so weak. Moreover, they are near enough the Front to share in the sublime exaltation of those who march out to die. They know when a big offensive is expected, and prepare for it. They are warned the moment it has commenced by the distant thunder of the guns. Then comes the ceaseless stream of lorries and ambulances bringing that which has been broken so quickly to them to be patched up in months. They work day and night with a forgetfulness of self which equals the devotion of the soldiers they are tending. Despite their orderliness they seem almost fanatical in their desire to spend themselves. They are always doing, but they can never do enough. It's the same with the surgeons. I know of one who during a great attack operated for forty-eight hours on end and finally went to sleep where he stood from utter weariness. The picture that forms in my mind of these women is absurd, Arthurian and exact; I see them as great ladies, mediaeval in their saintliness, sharing the pollution of the battle with their champions.
Lying here with nothing to worry about in the green serenity of an English summer, I realize that no man can grasp the splendour of this war until he has made the trip to Blighty on a stretcher. What I mean is this: so long as a fighting man keeps well, his experience of the war consists of muddy roads leading up through a desolated country to holes in the ground, in which he spends most of his time watching other holes in the ground, which people tell him are the Hun front-line. This experience is punctuated by periods during which the earth shoots up about him like corn popping in a pan, and he experiences the insanest fear, if he's made that way, or the most satisfying kind of joy. About once a year something happens which, when it's over, he scarcely believes has happened: he's told that he can run away to England and pretend that there isn't any war on for ten days. For those ten days, so far as he's concerned, hostilities are suspended. He rides post-haste through ravaged villages to the point from which the train starts. Up to the very last moment until the engine pulls out, he's quite panicky lest some one shall come and snatch his warrant from him, telling him that leave has been cancelled. He makes his journey in a carriage in which all the windows are smashed. Probably it either snows or rains. During the night while he stamps his feet to keep warm, he remembers that in his hurry to escape he's left all his Hun souvenirs behind. During his time in London he visits his tailor at least twice a day, buys a vast amount of unnecessary kit, sleeps late, does most of his resting in taxi-cabs, eats innumerable meals at restaurants, laughs at a great many plays in which life at the Front is depicted as a joke. He feels dazed and half suspects that he isn't in London at all, but only dreaming in his dug-out. Some days later he does actually wake up in his dug-out; the only proof he has that he's been on leave is that he can't pay his mess-bill and is minus a hundred pounds. Until a man is wounded he only sees the war from the point of view of the front-line and consequently, as I say, misses half its splendour, for he is ignorant of the greatness of the heart that beats behind him all along the lines of communication. Here in brief is how I found this out.
The dressing-station to which I went was underneath a ruined house, under full observation of the Hun and in an area which was heavily shelled. On account of the shelling and the fact that any movement about the place would attract attention, the wounded were only carried out by night. Moreover, to get back from the dressing-station to the collecting point in rear of the lines, the ambulances had to traverse a white road over a ridge full in view of the enemy. The Huns kept guns trained on this road and opened fire at the least sign of traffic. When I presented myself I didn't think that there was anything seriously the matter; my arm had swelled and was painful from a wound of three days' standing. The doctor, however, recognised that septic poisoning had set in and that to save the arm an operation was necessary without loss of time. He called a sergeant and sent him out to consult with an ambulance-driver. "This officer ought to go out at once. Are you willing to take a chance?" asked the sergeant. The ambulance-driver took a look at the chalk road gleaming white in the sun where it climbed the ridge. "Sure, Mike," he said, and ran off to crank his engine and back his car out of its place of concealment. "Sure, Mike,"—that was all. He'd have said the same if he'd been asked whether he'd care to take a chance at Hell.
I have three vivid memories of that drive. The first, my own uneasy sense that I was deserting. Frankly I didn't want to go out; few men do when it comes to the point. The Front has its own peculiar exhilaration, like big game-hunting, discovering the North Pole, or anything that's dangerous; and it has its own peculiar reward—the peace of mind that comes of doing something beyond dispute unselfish and superlatively worth while. It's odd, but it's true that in the front-line many a man experiences peace of mind for the first time and grows a little afraid of a return to normal ways of life. My second memory is of the wistful faces of the chaps whom we passed along the road. At the unaccustomed sound of a car travelling in broad daylight the Tommies poked their heads out of hiding-places like rabbits. Such dirty Tommies! How could they be otherwise living forever on old battlefields? If they were given time for reflection they wouldn't want to go out; they'd choose to stay with the game till the war was ended. But we caught them unaware, and as they gazed after us down the first part of the long trail that leads back from the trenches to Blighty, there was hunger in their eyes. My third memory is of kindness.
You wouldn't think that men would go to war to learn how to be kind—but they do. There's no kinder creature in the whole wide world than the average Tommy. He makes a friend of any stray animal he can find. He shares his last franc with a chap who isn't his pal. He risks his life quite inconsequently to rescue any one who's wounded. When he's gone over the top with bomb and bayonet for the express purpose of "doing in" the Hun, he makes a comrade of the Fritzie he captures. You'll see him coming down the battered trenches with some scared lad of a German at his side. He's gabbling away making throat-noises and signs, smiling and doing his inarticulate best to be intelligible. He pats the Hun on the back, hands him chocolate and cigarettes, exchanges souvenirs and shares with him his last luxury. If any one interferes with his Fritzie he's willing to fight. When they come to the cage where the prisoner has to be handed over, the farewells of these companions whose acquaintance has been made at the bayonet-point are often as absurd as they are affecting. I suppose one only learns the value of kindness when he feels the need of it himself. The men out there have said "Good-bye" to everything they loved, but they've got to love some one—so they give their affections to captured Fritzies, stray dogs, fellows who've collected a piece of a shell—in fact to any one who's a little worse off than themselves. My ambulance-driver was like that with his "Sure, Mike." He was like it during the entire drive. When he came to the white road which climbs the ridge with all the enemy country staring at it, it would have been excusable in him to have hurried. The Hun barrage might descend at any minute. All the way, in the ditches on either side, dead pack animals lay; in the dug-outs there were other unseen dead making the air foul. But he drove slowly and gently, skirting the shell-holes with diligent care so as to spare us every unnecessary jolting. I don't know his name, shouldn't recognise his face, but I shall always remember the almost womanly tenderness of his driving.
After two changes into other ambulances at different distributing points, I arrived about nine on a summer's evening at the Casualty Clearing Station. In something less than an hour I was undressed and on the operating table.
You might suppose that when for three interminable years such a stream of tragedy has flowed through a hospital, it would be easy for surgeons and nurses to treat mutilation and death perfunctorily. They don't. They show no emotion. They are even cheerful; but their strained faces tell the story and their hands have an immense compassion.
Two faces especially loom out. I can always see them by lamp-light, when the rest of the ward is hushed and shrouded, stooping over some silent bed. One face is that of the Colonel of the hospital, grey, concerned, pitiful, stern. His eyes seem to have photographed all the suffering which in three years they have witnessed. He's a tall man, but he moves softly. Over his uniform he wears a long white operating smock—he never seems to remove it. And he never seems to sleep, for he comes wandering through his Gethsemane all hours of the night to bend over the more serious cases. He seems haunted by a vision of the wives, mothers, sweethearts, whose happiness is in his hands. I think of him as a Christ in khaki.
The other face is of a girl—a sister I ought to call her. She's the nearest approach to a sculptured Greek goddess I've seen in a living woman. She's very tall, very pale and golden, with wide brows and big grey eyes like Trilby. I wonder what she did before she went to war—for she's gone to war just as truly as any soldier. I'm sure in the peaceful years she must have spent a lot of time in being loved. Perhaps her man was killed out here. Now she's ivory-white with over-service and spends all her days in loving. Her eyes have the old frank, innocent look, but they're ringed with being weary. Only her lips hold a touch of colour; they have a childish trick of trembling when any one's wound is hurting too much. She's the first touch of home that the stretcher-cases see when they've said good-bye to the trenches. She moves down the ward; eyes follow her. When she is absent, though others take her place, she leaves a loneliness. If she meant much to men in days gone by, to-day she means more than ever. Over many dying boys she stoops as the incarnation of the woman whom, had they lived, they would have loved. To all of us, with the blasphemy of destroying still upon us, she stands for the divinity of womanhood.
What sights she sees and what words she hears; yet the pity she brings to her work preserves her sweetness. In the silence of the night those who are delirious re-fight their recent battles. You're half-asleep, when in the darkened ward some one jumps up in bed, shouting, "Hold your bloody hands up." He thinks he's capturing a Hun trench, taking prisoners in a bombed in dug-out. In an instant, like a mother with a frightened child, she's bending over him; soon she has coaxed his head back on the pillow. Men do not die in vain when they evoke such women. And the men—the chaps in the cots! As a patient the first sight you have of them is a muddy stretcher. The care with which the bearers advance is only equalled by the waiters in old-established London Clubs when they bring in one of their choicest wines. The thing on the stretcher looks horribly like some of the forever silent people you have seen in No Man's Land. A pair of boots you see, a British Warm flung across the body and an arm dragging. A screen is put round a bed; the next sight you have of him is a weary face lying on a white pillow. Soon the chap in the bed next to him is questioning.
"Machine-gun caught me in both legs."
"Going to lose 'em?"
"Don't know. Can't feel much at present. Hope not."
Then the questioner raises himself on his elbow. "How's it going?"
It is the attack. The conversation that follows is always how we're hanging on to such and such an objective and have pushed forward three hundred yards here or have been bent back there. One thing you notice: every man forgets his own catastrophe in his keenness for the success of the offensive. Never in all my fortnight's journey to Blighty did I hear a word of self-pity or complaining. On the contrary, the most severely wounded men would profess themselves grateful that they had got off so lightly. Since the war started the term "lightly" has become exceedingly comparative. I suppose a man is justified in saying he's got off lightly when what he expected was death.
I remember a big Highland officer who had been shot in the knee-cap. He had been operated on and the knee-cap had been found to be so splintered that it had had to be removed; of this he was unaware. For the first day as he lay in bed he kept wondering aloud how long it would be before he could re-join his battalion. Perhaps he suspected his condition and was trying to find out. All his heart seemed set on once again getting into the fighting. Next morning he plucked up courage to ask the doctor, and received the answer he had dreaded.
"Never. You won't be going back, old chap."
Next time he spoke his voice was a bit throaty. "Will it stiffen?"
"You've lost the knee-joint," the doctor said, "but with luck we'll save the leg."
His voice sank to a whisper. "If you do, it won't be much good, will it?"
He lay for a couple of hours silent, readjusting his mind to meet the new conditions. Then he commenced talking with cheerfulness about returning to his family. The habit of courage had conquered—the habit of courage which grows out of the knowledge that you let your pals down by showing cowardice.
The next step on the road to Blighty is from the Casualty Station to a Base Hospital in France. You go on a hospital train and are only allowed to go when you are safe to travel. There is always great excitement as to when this event will happen; its precise date usually depends on what's going on up front and the number of fresh casualties which are expected. One morning you awake to find that a tag has been prepared, containing the entire medical history of your injury. The stretcher-bearers come in with grins on their faces, your tag is tied to the top button of your pyjamas, jocular appointments are made by the fellows you leave behind—many of whom you know are dying—to meet you in London, and you are carried out. The train is thoroughly equipped with doctors and nurses; the lying cases travel in little white bunks. No one who has not seen it can have any idea of the high good spirits which prevail. You're going off to Blighty, to Piccadilly, to dry boots and clean beds. The revolving wheels underneath you seem to sing the words, "Off to Blighty—to Blighty." It begins to dawn on you what it will be like to be again your own master and to sleep as long as you like.
Kindness again—always kindness! The sisters on the train can't do enough; they seem to be trying to exceed the self-sacrifice of the sisters you have left behind. You twist yourself so that you can get a glimpse of the flying country. It's green, undisturbed, unmarred by shells—there are even cows!
At the Base Hospital to which I went there was a man who performed miracles. He was a naturalised American citizen, but an Armenian by birth. He gave people new faces.
The first morning an officer came in to visit a friend; his face was entirely swathed in bandages, with gaps left for his breathing and his eyes. He had been like that for two years, and looked like a leper. When he spoke he made hollow noises. His nose and lower jaw had been torn away by an exploding shell. Little by little, with infinite skill, by the grafting of bone and flesh, his face was being built up. Could any surgery be more merciful?
In the days that followed I saw several of these masked men. The worst cases were not allowed to walk about. The ones I saw were invariably dressed with the most scrupulous care in the smartest uniforms, Sam Browns polished and buttons shining. They had hope, and took a pride in themselves—a splendid sign! Perhaps you ask why the face-cases should be kept in France. I was not told, but I can guess—because they dread going back to England to their girls until they've got rid of their disfigurements. So for two years through their bandages they watch the train pull out for Blighty, while the damage which was done them in the fragment of a second is repaired.
At a Base Hospital you see something which you don't see at a Casualty Station—sisters, mothers, sweethearts and wives sitting beside the beds. They're allowed to come over from England when their man is dying. One of the wonderful things to me was to observe how these women in the hour of their tragedy catch the soldier spirit. They're very quiet, very cheerful, very helpful. With passing through the ward they get to know some of the other patients and remember them when they bring their own man flowers. Sometimes when their own man is asleep, they slip over to other bedsides and do something kind for the solitary fellows. That's the army all over; military discipline is based on unselfishness. These women who have been sent for to see their men die, catch from them the spirit of undistressed sacrifice and enrol themselves as soldiers.
Next to my bed there was a Colonel of a north country regiment, a gallant gentleman who positively refused to die. His wife had been with him for two weeks, a little toy woman with nerves worn to a frazzle, who masked her terror with a brave, set smile. The Colonel had had his leg smashed by a whizz-bang when leading his troops into action. Septic poisoning had set in and the leg had been amputated. It had been found necessary to operate several times owing to the poison spreading, with the result that, being far from a young man, his strength was exhausted. Men forgot their own wounds in watching this one man's fight for life. He became symbolic of what, in varying degrees, we were all doing. When he was passing through a crisis the whole ward waited breathless. There was the finest kind of rivalry between the night and day sisters to hand him over at the end of each twelve hours with his pulse stronger and temperature lower than when they received him. Each was sure she had the secret of keeping him alive.
You discovered the spirit of the man when you heard him wandering in delirium. All night in the shadowy ward with its hooded lamps, he would be giving orders for the comfort of his men. Sometimes he'd be proposing to go forward himself to a place where a company was having a hot time; apparently one of his officers was trying to dissuade him. "Danger be damned," he'd exclaim in a wonderfully strong voice. "It'll buck 'em up to see me. Splendid chaps—splendid chaps!"
About dawn he was usually supposed to be sinking, but he'd rallied again by the time the day-sister arrived. "Still here," he'd smile in a triumphant kind of whisper, as though bluffing death was a pastime.
One afternoon a padre came to visit him. As he was leaving he bent above the pillow. We learnt afterwards that this was what he had said, "If the good Lord lets you, I hope you'll get better."
We saw the Colonel raise himself up on his elbow. His weak voice shook with anger. "Neither God nor the Devil has anything to do with it. I'm going to get well." Then, as the nurse came hurrying to him, he sank back.
When I left the Base Hospital for Blighty he was still holding his own. I have never heard what happened to him, but should not be at all surprised to meet him one day in the trenches with a wooden leg, still leading his splendid chaps. Death can't kill men of such heroic courage.
At the Base Hospital they talk a good deal of "the Blighty Smile." It's supposed to be the kind of look a chap wears when he's been told that within twenty-four hours he'll be in England. When this information has been imparted to him, he's served out with warm socks, woollen cap and a little linen bag into which to put his valuables. Hours and hours before there's any chance of starting you'll see the lucky ones lying very still, with a happy vacant look in their eyes and their absurd woollen caps stuck ready on their heads. Sometime, perhaps in the small hours of the morning, the stretcher-bearers, arrive—the stretcher-bearers who all down the lines of communication are forever carrying others towards blessedness and never going themselves. "At last," you whisper to yourself. You feel a glorious anticipation that you have not known since childhood when, after three hundred and sixty-four days of waiting, it was truly going to be Christmas.
On the train and on the passage there is the same skillful attention—the same ungrudging kindness. You see new faces in the bunks beside you. After the tedium of the narrow confines of a ward that in itself is exciting. You fall into talk.
"Nothing much—just a hand off and a splinter or two in the shoulder."
You laugh. "That's not so dusty. How much did you expect for your money?"
Probably you meet some one from the part of the line where you were wounded—with luck even from your own brigade, battery or battalion. Then the talk becomes all about how things are going, whether we're still holding on to our objectives, who's got a blighty and who's gone west. One discussion you don't often hear—as to when the war will end. To these civilians in khaki it seems that the war has always been and that they will never cease to be soldiers. For them both past and future are utterly obliterated. They would not have it otherwise. Because they are doing their duty they are contented. The only time the subject is ever touched on is when some one expresses the hope that it'll last long enough for him to recover from his wounds and get back into the line. That usually starts another man, who will never be any more good for the trenches, wondering whether he can get into the flying corps. The one ultimate hope of all these shattered wrecks who are being hurried to the Blighty they have dreamt of, is that they may again see service.
The tang of salt in the air, the beat of waves and then, incredible even when it has been realised, England. I think they ought to make the hospital trains which run to London all of glass, then instead of watching little triangles of flying country by leaning uncomfortably far out of their bunks, the wounded would be able to drink their full of the greenness which they have longed for so many months. The trees aren't charred and blackened stumps; they're harps between the knees of the hills, played on by the wind and sun. The villages have their roofs on and children romping in their streets. The church spires haven't been knocked down; they stand up tall and stately. The roadsides aren't littered with empty shell-cases and dead horses. The fields are absolutely fields, with green crops, all wavy, like hair growing. After the tonsured filth we've been accustomed to call a world, all this strikes one as unnatural and extraordinary. There's a sweet fragrance over everything and one's throat feels lumpy. Perhaps it isn't good for people's health to have lumpy throats, and that's why they don't run glass trains to London.
Then, after such excited waiting, you feel that the engine is slowing down. There's a hollow rumbling; you're crossing the dear old wrinkled Thames. If you looked out you'd see the dome of St. Paul's like a bubble on the sky-line and smoking chimneys sticking up like thumbs—things quite ugly and things of surpassing beauty, all of which you have never hoped to see again and which in dreams you have loved. But if you could look out, you wouldn't have the time. You're getting your things together, so you won't waste a moment when they come to carry you out. Very probably you're secreting a souvenir or two about your person: something you've smuggled down from the front which will really prove to your people that you've made the acquaintance of the Hun. As though your wounds didn't prove that sufficiently. Men are childish.
The engine comes to a halt. You can smell the cab-stands. You're really there. An officer comes through the train enquiring whether you have any preference as to hospitals. Your girl lives in Liverpool or Glasgow or Birmingham. Good heavens, the fellow holds your destiny in his hands! He can send you to Whitechapel if he likes. So, even though he has the same rank as yourself, you address him as, "Sir."
Perhaps it's because I've practised this diplomacy—I don't know. Anyway, he's granted my request. I'm to stay in London. I was particularly anxious to stay in London, because one of my young brothers from the Navy is there on leave at present. In fact he wired me to France that the Admiralty had allowed him a three-days' special extension of leave in order that he might see me. It was on the strength of this message that the doctors at the Base Hospital permitted me to take the journey several days before I was really in a condition to travel.
I'm wondering whether he's gained admission to the platform. I lie there in my bunk all eyes, expecting any minute to see him enter. Time and again I mistake the blue serge uniform of the St. John's Ambulance for that of a naval lieutenant. They come to carry me out. What an extraordinarily funny way to enter London—on a stretcher! I've arrived on boat-trains from America, troop trains from Canada, and come back from romantic romps in Italy, but never in my wildest imaginings did I picture myself arriving as a wounded soldier on a Red Cross train.
Still clutching my absurd linen bag, which contains my valuables, I lift my head from the pillow gazing round for any glimpse of that much-desired brother. Now they've popped me onto the upper-shelf of a waiting ambulance; I can see nothing except what lies out at the back. I at once start explaining to the nurse who accompanies us that I've lost a very valuable brother—that he's probably looking for me somewhere on the station. She's extremely sympathetic and asks the chauffeur to drive very slowly so that we may watch for him as we go through the station gates into the Strand.
We're delayed for some minutes while particulars are checked up of our injuries and destinations. The lying cases are placed four in an ambulance, with the flap raised at the back so we can see out. The sitting cases travel in automobiles, buses and various kinds of vehicles. In my ambulance there are two leg-cases with most theatrical bandages, and one case of trench-fever. We're immensely merry—all except the trench-fever case who has conceived an immense sorrow for himself. We get impatient with waiting. There's an awful lot of cheering going on somewhere; we suppose troops are marching and can't make it out.
Ah, we've started! At a slow crawl to prevent jarring we pass through the gates. We discover the meaning of the cheering. On either side the people are lined in dense crowds, waving and shouting. It's Saturday evening when they should be in the country. It's jolly decent of them to come here to give us such a welcome. Flower-girls are here with their baskets full of flowers—just poor girls with a living to earn. They run after us as we pass and strew us with roses. Roses! We stretch out our hands, pressing them to our lips. How long is it since we held roses in our hands? How did these girls of the London streets know that above all things we longed for flowers? It was worth it all, the mud and stench and beastliness, when it was to this that the road led back. And the girls—they're even better than the flowers; so many pretty faces made kind by compassion. Somewhere inside ourselves we're laughing; we're so happy. We don't need any one's pity; time enough for that when we start to pity ourselves. We feel mean, as though we were part of a big deception. We aren't half so ill as we look; if you put sufficient bandages on a wound you can make the healthiest man appear tragic. We're laughing—and then all of a sudden we're crying. We press our faces against the pillow ashamed of ourselves. We won't see the crowds; we're angry with them for having unmanned us. And then we can't help looking; their love reaches us almost as though it were the touch of hands. We won't hide ourselves if we mean so much to them. We're not angry any more, but grateful.
Suddenly the ambulance-nurse shouts to the driver. The ambulance stops. She's quite excited. Clutching me with one hand, she points with the other, "There he is."
I raise myself. A naval lieutenant is standing against the pavement, gazing anxiously at the passing traffic.
"Your brother, isn't it?"
I shook my head. "Not half handsome enough."
For the rest of the journey she's convinced I have a headache. It's no good telling her that I haven't; much to my annoyance and amusement she swabs my forehead with eau-de-Cologne, telling me that I shall soon feel better.
The streets through which we pass are on the south side of the Thames. It's Saturday evening. Hawkers' barrows line the kerb; women with draggled skirts and once gay hats are doing their Sunday shopping. We're having a kind of triumphant procession; with these people to feel is to express. We catch some of their remarks: "'Oo! Look at 'is poor leg!" "My, but ain't 'e done in shockin'!"
Dear old London—so kind, so brave, so frankly human! You're just like the chaps at the Front—you laugh when you suffer and give when you're starving; you never know when not to be generous. You wear your heart in your eyes and your lips are always ready for kissing, I think of you as one of your own flower-girls—hoarse of voice, slatternly as to corsets, with a big tumbled fringe over your forehead, and a heart so big that you can chuck away your roses to a wounded Tommy and go away yourself with an empty basket to sleep under an archway. Do you wonder that to us you spell Blighty? We love you.
We come to a neighbourhood more respectable and less demonstrative, skirt a common, are stopped at a porter's lodge and turn into a parkland. The glow of sunset is ended; the blue-grey of twilight is settling down. Between flowered borders we pick our way, pause here and there for directions and at last halt. Again the stretcher-bearers! As I am carried in I catch a glimpse of a low bungalow-building, with others like it dotted about beneath trees. There are red shaded lamps. Every one tiptoes in silence. Only the lips move when people speak; there is scarcely any sound. As the stretchers are borne down the ward men shift their heads to gaze after them. It's past ten o'clock and patients are supposed to be sleeping now. I'm put to bed. There's no news of my brother; he hasn't 'phoned and hasn't called. I persuade one of the orderlies to ring up the hotel at which I know he was staying. The man is a long while gone. Through the dim length of the ward I watch the door into the garden, momentarily expecting the familiar figure in the blue uniform and gold buttons to enter. He doesn't. Then at length the orderly returns to tell me that the naval lieutenant who was staying at the hotel, had to set out for his ship that evening, as there was no train that he could catch on Sunday. So he was steaming out of London for the North at the moment I was entering. Disappointed? Yes. One shrugs his shoulders. C'est la guerre, as we say in the trenches. You can't have everything when Europe's at war.
I can hardly keep awake long enough for the sister to dress my arm. The roses that the flower-girls had thrown me are in water and within handstretch. They seem almost persons and curiously sacred—symbols of all the heroism and kindness that has ministered to me every step of the journey. It's a good little war I think to myself. Then, with the green smell of England in my nostrils and the rumbling of London in my ears, like conversation below stairs, I drowse off into the utter contentment of the first deep sleep I have had since I was wounded.
I am roused all too soon by some one sticking a thermometer into my mouth. Rubbing my eyes, I consult my watch. Half-past five! Rather early! Raising myself stealthily, I catch a glimpse of a neat little sister darting down the ward from bed to bed, tent-pegging every sleeping face with a fresh thermometer. Having made the round, back she comes to take possession of my hand while she counts my pulse. I try to speak, but she won't let me remove the accursed thermometer; when she has removed it herself, off she goes to the next bed. I notice that she has auburn hair, merry blue eyes and a ripping Irish accent. I learn later that she's a Sinn Feiner, a sworn enemy to England who sings "Dark Rosaleen" and other rebel songs in the secret watches of the night. It seems to me that in taking care of England's wounded she's solving the Irish problem pretty well.
Heavens, she's back again, this time with a bowl of water and a towel! Very severely and thoroughly, as though I were a dirty urchin, she scrubs my face and hands. She even brushes my hair. I watch her do the same for other patients, some of whom are Colonels and old enough to be her father. She's evidently in no mood for proposals of marriage at this early hour, for her technique is impartially severe to everybody, though her blue eyes are unfailingly laughing.
It is at this point that somebody crawls out of bed, slips into a dressing-gown, passes through the swing door at the end of the ward and sets the bath-water running. The sound of it is ecstatic.
Very soon others follow his example. They're chaps without legs, with an arm gone, a hand gone, back wounds, stomach wounds, holes in the head. They start chaffing one another. There's no hint of tragedy. A gale of laughter sweeps the ward from end to end. An Anzac captain is called on for a speech. I discover that he is our professional comic man and is called on to make speeches twenty times a day. They always start with, "Gentlemen, I will say this—" and end with a flourish in praise of Australia. Soon the ward is made perilous by wheel-chairs, in which unskilful pilots steer themselves out into the green adventure of the garden. Birds are singing out there; the guns had done for the birds in the places where we came from. Through open doors we can see the glow of flowers, dew-laden and sparkling, lazily unfolding their petals in the early sun.
When the sister's back is turned, a one-legged officer nips out of bed and hops like a crow to the gramophone. The song that follows is a favourite. Curious that it should be, for it paints a dream which to many of these mutilated men—Canadians, Australians, South Africans, Imperials—will have to remain only a dream, so long as life lasts. Girls don't marry fellows without arms and legs—at least they didn't in peace days before the world became heroic. As the gramophone commences to sing, heads on pillows hum the air and fingers tap in time on the sheets. It's a peculiarly childish song for men who have seen what they have seen and done what they have done, to be so fond of. Here's the way it runs:—
"We'll have a little cottage in a little town And well have a little mistress in a dainty gown, A little doggie, a little cat, A little doorstep with WELCOME on the mat; And we'll have a little trouble and a little strife, But none of these things matter when you've got a little wife. We shall be as happy as the angels up above With a little patience and a lot of love."
A little patience and a lot of love! I suppose that's the line that's caught the chaps. Behind all their smiling and their boyish gaiety they know that they'll need both patience and love to meet the balance of existence with sweetness and soldierly courage. It won't be so easy to be soldiers when they get back into mufti and go out into the world cripples. Here in their pyjamas in the summer sun, they're making a first class effort. I take another look at them. No, there'll never be any whining from men such as these.
Some of us will soon be back in the fighting—and jolly glad of it. Others are doomed to remain in the trenches for the rest of their lives—not the trenches of the front-line where they've been strafed by the Hun, but the trenches of physical curtailment where self-pity will launch wave after wave of attack against them. It won't be easy not to get the "wind up." It'll be difficult to maintain normal cheerfulness. But they're not the men they were before they went to war—out there they've learnt something. They're game. They'll remain soldiers, whatever happens.
THE LADS AWAY
All the lads have gone out to play At being soldiers, far away; They won't be back for many a day, And some won't be back any morning.
All the lassies who laughing were When hearts were light and lads were here, Go sad-eyed, wandering hither and there— They pray and they watch for the morning.
Every house has its vacant bed And every night, when sounds are dead, Some woman yearns for the pillowed head Of him who marched out in the morning.
Of all the lads who've gone out to play There's some'll return and some who'll stay; There's some will be back 'most any day— But some won't wake up in the morning.
THE GROWING OF THE VISION
I'm continuing in America the book which I thought out during the golden July and August days when I lay in the hospital in London. I've been here a fortnight; everything that's happened seems unbelievably wonderful, as though it had happened to some one other than myself. It'll seem still more wonderful in a few weeks' time when I'm where I hope I shall be—back in the mud at the Front.
Here's how this miraculous turn of events occurred. When I went before my medical board I was declared unfit for active service for at least two months. A few days later I went in to General Headquarters to see what were the chances of a trip to New York. The officer whom I consulted pulled out his watch, "It's noon now. There's a boat-train leaving Euston in two and a half hours. Do you think you can pack up and make it?"
Did I think!
"You watch me," I cried.
Dashing out into Regent Street I rounded up a taxi and raced about London like one possessed, collecting kit, visiting tailors, withdrawing money, telephoning friends with whom I had dinner and theatre engagements. It's an extraordinary characteristic of the Army, but however hurried an officer may be, he can always spare time to visit his tailor. The fare I paid my taxi-driver was too monstrous for words; but then he'd missed his lunch, and one has to miss so many things in war-times that when a new straw of inconvenience is piled on the camel, the camel expects to be compensated. Anyway, I was on that boat-train when it pulled out of London.
I was in uniform when I arrived in New York, for I didn't possess any mufti. You can't guess what a difference that made to one's home-coming—not the being in uniform, but the knowing that it wasn't an offence to wear it. On my last leave, some time ago before I went overseas, if I'd tried to cross the border from Canada in uniform I'd have been turned back; if by any chance I'd got across and worn regimentals I'd have been arrested by the first Irish policeman. A place isn't home where you get turned back or locked up for wearing the things of which you're proudest. If America hadn't come into the war none of us who have loved her and since been to the trenches, would ever have wanted to return.
But she's home now as she never was before and never could have been under any other circumstances—now that khaki strides unabashed down Broadway and the skirl of the pipers has been heard on Fifth Avenue. We men "over there" will have to find a new name for America. It won't be exactly Blighty, but a kind of very wealthy first cousin to Blighty—a word meaning something generous and affectionate and steam-heated, waiting for us on the other side of the Atlantic.
Two weeks here already—two weeks more to go; then back to the glory of the trenches!
There's one person I've missed since my return to New York. I've caught glimpses of him disappearing around corners, but he dodges. I think he's a bit ashamed to meet me. That person is my old civilian self. What a full-blown egoist he used to be! How full of golden plans for his own advancement! How terrified of failure, of disease, of money losses, of death—of all the temporary, external, non-essential things that have nothing to do with the spirit! War is in itself damnable—a profligate misuse of the accumulated brain-stuff of centuries. Nevertheless, there's many a man who has no love of war, who previous to the war had cramped his soul with littleness and was chased by the bayonet of duty into the blood-stained largeness of the trenches, who has learnt to say, "Thank God for this war." He thanks God not because of the carnage, but because when the wine-press of new ideals was being trodden, he was born in an age when he could do his share.
America's going through just about the same experience as myself. She's feeling broader in the chest, bigger in the heart and her eyes are clearer. When she catches sight of the America that she was, she's filled with doubt—she can't believe that that person with the Stars and Stripes wrapped round her and a money-bag in either hand ever was herself. Home, clean and honourable for every man who ever loved her and has pledged his life for an ideal with the Allies—that's what she's become now.
I read again the words that I wrote about those chaps in the London hospital, men who had journeyed to their Calvary glad-hearted from the farthest corners of the world. From this distance I see them in truer perspective than when we lay companions side by side in that long line of neat, white cots. I used to grope after ways to explain them—to explain the courage which in their utter heroism they did not realise they possessed. They had grown so accustomed to a brave way of living that they sincerely believed they were quite ordinary persons. That's courage at its finest—when it becomes unconscious and instinctive.
At first I said, "I know why they're so cheerful—it's because they're all here in one ward together. They're all mutilated more or less, so they don't feel that they're exceptional. It's as though the whole world woke up with toothache one morning. At breakfast every one would be feeling very sorry for himself; by lunch-time, when it had become common knowledge that the entire world had the same kind of ache, toothache would have ceased to exist. It's the loneliness of being abnormal in your suffering that hurts."
But it wasn't that. Even while I was confined to the hospital, in hourly contact with the chaps, I felt that it wasn't that. When I was allowed to dress and go down West for a few hours everyday, I knew that I was wrong most certainly. In Piccadilly, Hyde Park, theatres, restaurants, river-places on the Thames you'd see them, these men who were maimed for life, climbing up and down buses, hobbling on their crutches independently through crowds, hailing one another cheerily from taxis, drinking life joyously in big gulps without complaint or sense of martyrdom, and getting none of the dregs. A part of their secret was that through their experience in the trenches they had learnt to be self-forgetful. The only time I ever saw a wounded man lose his temper was when some one out of kindness made him remember himself. A sudden down-pour of rain had commenced; it was towards evening and all the employees of the West End shopping centre were making haste to get home to the suburbs. A young Highland officer who had lost a leg scrambled into a bus going to Wandsworth. The inside of the bus was jammed, so he had to stand up clutching on to a strap. A middle-aged gentleman rose from his seat and offered it to the Highlander. The Highlander smiled his thanks and shook his head. The middle-aged gentleman in his sympathy became pressing, attracting attention to the officer's infirmity. It was then that the officer lost his temper. I saw him flush.
"I don't want it," he said sharply. "There's nothing the matter with me. Thanks all the same. I'll stand."
This habit of being self-forgetful gives one time to be remindful of others. Last January, during a brief and glorious ten days' leave, I went to a matinee at the Coliseum. Vesta Tilley was doing an extraordinarily funny impersonation of a Tommy just home from the comfort of the trenches; her sketch depicted the terrible discomforts of a fighting man on leave in Blighty. If I remember rightly the refrain of her song ran somewhat in this fashion:
"Next time they want to give me six days' leave Let 'em make it six months' 'ard."
There were two officers, a major and a captain, behind us; judging by the sounds they made, they were getting their full money's worth of enjoyment. In the interval, when the lights went up, I turned and saw the captain putting a cigarette between the major's lips; then, having gripped a match-box between his knees so that he might strike the match, he lit the cigarette for his friend very awkwardly. I looked closer and discovered that the laughing captain had only one hand and the equally happy major had none at all.
Men forget their own infirmities in their endeavour to help each other. Before the war we had a phrase which has taken on a new meaning now; we used to talk about "lending a hand." To-day we lend not only hands, but arms and eyes and legs. The wonderful comradeship learnt in the trenches has taught men to lend their bodies to each other—out of two maimed bodies to make up one which is whole, and sound, and shared. You saw this all the time in hospital. A man who had only one leg would pal up with a man who had only one arm. The one-armed man would wheel the one-legged man about the garden in a chair; at meal-times the one-legged man would cut up the one-armed man's food for him. They had both lost something, but by pooling what was left they managed to own a complete body. By the time the war is ended there'll be great hosts of helpless men who by combining will have learnt how to become helpful. They'll establish a new standard of very simple and cheerful socialism.
There's a point I want to make clear before I forget it. All these men, whether they're capturing Hun dug-outs at the Front or taking prisoner their own despair in English hospitals, are perfectly ordinary and normal. Before the war they were shop-assistants, cab-drivers, plumbers, lawyers, vaudeville artists. They were men of no heroic training. Their civilian callings and their previous social status were too various for any one to suppose that they were heroes ready-made at birth. Something has happened to them since they marched away in khaki—something that has changed them. They're as completely re-made as St. Paul was after he had had his vision of the opening heavens on the road to Damascus. They've brought their vision back with them to civilian life, despite the lost arms and legs which they scarcely seem to regret; their souls still triumph over the body and the temporal. As they hobble through the streets of London, they display the same gay courage that was theirs when at zero hour, with a fifty-fifty chance of death, they hopped over the top for the attack.
Often at the Front I have thought of Christ's explanation of his own unassailable peace—an explanation given to his disciples at the Last Supper, immediately before the walk to Gethsemane: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Overcoming the world, as I understand it, is overcoming self. Fear, in its final analysis, is nothing but selfishness. A man who is afraid in an attack, isn't thinking of his pals and how quickly terror spreads; he isn't thinking of the glory which will accrue to his regiment or division if the attack is a success; he isn't thinking of what he can do to contribute to that success; he isn't thinking of the splendour of forcing his spirit to triumph over weariness and nerves and the abominations that the Huns are chucking at him. He's thinking merely of how he can save his worthless skin and conduct his entirely unimportant body to a place where there aren't any shells.
In London as I saw the work-a-day, unconscious nobility of the maimed and wounded, the words, "I have overcome the world," took an added depth. All these men have an "I-have-overcome-the-world" look in their faces. It's comparatively easy for a soldier with traditions and ideals at his back to face death calmly; to be calm in the face of life, as these chaps are, takes a graver courage.
What has happened to change them? These disabilities, had they happened before the war, would have crushed and embittered them. They would have been woes utterly and inconsolably unbearable. Intrinsically their physical disablements spell the same loss to-day that they would have in 1912. The attitude of mind in which they are accepted alone makes them seem less. This attitude of mind or greatness of soul—whatever you like to call it—was learnt in the trenches where everything outward is polluted and damnable. Their experience at the Front has given them what in the Army language is known as "guts." "Guts" or courage is an attitude of mind towards calamity—an attitude of mind which makes the honourable accomplishing of duty more permanently satisfying than the preservation of self. But how did this vision come to these men? How did they rid themselves of their civilian flabbiness and acquire it? These questions are best answered autobiographically. Here briefly, is the story of the growth of the vision within myself.
In August, 1914, three days after war had been declared, I sailed from Quebec for England on the first ship that put out from Canada. The trip had been long planned—it was not undertaken from any patriotic motive. My family, which included my father, mother, sister and brother, had been living in America for eight years and had never returned to England together. It was the accomplishing of a dream long cherished, which favourable circumstances and a sudden influx of money had at last made possible. We had travelled three thousand miles from our ranch in the Rockies before the war-cloud burst; obstinacy and curiosity combined made us go on, plus an entirely British feeling that by crossing the Atlantic during the crisis we'd be showing our contempt for the Germans.
We were only informed that the ship was going to sail at the very last moment, and went aboard in the evening. The word spread quickly among the crews of other vessels lying in harbour; their firemen, keen to get back to England and have a whack at the Huns, tried to board our ship, sometimes by a ruse, more often by fighting. One saw some very pretty fist work that night as he leant across the rail, wondering whether he'd ever reach the other side. There were rumours of German warships waiting to catch us in mid-ocean. Somewhere towards midnight the would-be stowaways gave up their attempt to force a passage; they squatted with their backs against the sheds along the quayside, singing patriotic songs to the accompaniment of mouth-organs, confidently asserting that they were sons of the bull-dog breed and never, never would be slaves. It was all very amusing; war seemed to be the finest of excuses for an outburst of high spirits.
Next morning, when we came on deck for a breath of air the vessel was under way; all hands were hard at work disguising her with paint of a sombre colour. Here and there you saw an officer in uniform, who had not yet had time to unpack his mufti. The next night, and for the rest of the voyage, all port-holes were darkened and we ran without lights. An atmosphere of suspense became omnipresent. Rumours spread like wild-fire of sinkings, victories, defeats, marching and countermarchings, engagements on land and water. With the uncanny and unaccustomed sense of danger we began to realise that we, as individuals, were involved in a European war.
As we got about among the passengers we found that the usual spirit of comradeship which marks an Atlantic voyage, was noticeably lacking. Every person regarded every other person with distrust, as though he might be a spy. People were secretive as to their calling and the purpose of their voyage; little by little we discovered that many of them were government officials, but that most were professional soldiers rushing back in the hope that they might be in time to join the British Expeditionary Force. Long before we had guessed that a world tragedy was impending, they had judged war's advent certain from its shadow, and had come from the most distant parts of Canada that they might be ready to embark the moment the cloud burst. Some of them were travelling with their wives and children. What struck me as wholly unreasonable was that these professional soldiers and their families were the least disturbed people on board. I used to watch them as one might watch condemned prisoners in their cells. Their apparent indifference was unintelligible to me. They lived their daily present, contented and unruffled, just as if it were going to be their present always. I accused them of being lacking in imagination. I saw them lying dead on battlefields. I saw them dragging on into old age, with the spine of life broken, mutilated and mauled. I saw them in desperately tight corners, fighting in ruined villages with sword and bayonet. But they joked, laughed, played with their kiddies and seemed to have no realisation of the horrors to which they were going. There was a world-famous aviator, who had gone back on his marriage promise that he would abandon his aerial adventures. He was hurrying to join the French Flying Corps. He and his young wife used to play deck-tennis every morning as lightheartedly as if they were travelling to Europe for a lark. In my many accusations of these men's indifference I never accused them of courage. Courage, as I had thought of it up to that time, was a grim affair of teeth set, sad eyes and clenched hands—the kind of "My head is bloody but unbowed" determination described in Henley's poem.
When we had arrived safe in port we were held up for some time. A tug came out, bringing a lot of artificers who at once set to work tearing out the fittings of the ship that she might be converted into a transport. Here again I witnessed a contrast between the soldierly and the civilian attitude. The civilians, with their easily postponed engagements, fumed and fretted at the delay in getting ashore. The officers took the inconvenience with philosophical good-humour. While the panelling and electric-light fittings were being ripped out, they sat among the debris and played cards. There was heaps of time for their appointment—it was only with wounds and Death. To me, as a civilian, their coolness was almost irritating and totally incomprehensible. I found a new explanation by saying that, after all, war was their professional chance—in fact, exactly what a shortage in the flour-market was to a man who had quantities of wheat on hand.
That night we travelled to London, arriving about two o'clock in the morning. There was little to denote that a European war was on, except that people were a trifle more animated and cheerful. The next day was Sunday, and we motored round Hampstead Heath. The Heath was as usual, gay with pleasure-seekers and the streets sedate with church-goers. On Monday, when we tried to transact business and exchange money, we found that there were hitches and difficulties; it was more as though a window had been left open and a certain untidiness had resulted. "It will be all right tomorrow," everybody said. "Business as usual," and they nodded.
But as the days passed it wasn't all right. Kitchener began to call for his army. Belgium was invaded. We began to hear about atrocities. There were rumours of defeat, which ceased to be rumours, and of grey hordes pressing towards Paris. It began to dawn on the most optimistic of us that the little British Army—the Old Contemptibles—hadn't gone to France on a holiday jaunt.
The sternness of the hour was brought home to me by one obscure incident. Straggling across Trafalgar Square in mufti and commanded by a sergeant came a little procession of recruits. They were roughly dressed men of the navy and the coster class. All save one carried under his arm his worldly possessions, wrapped in cloth, brown-paper or anything that had come handy. The sergeant kept on giving them the step and angrily imploring them to pick it up. At the tail of the procession followed a woman; she also carried a package.
They turned into the Strand, passed by Charing Cross and branched off to the right down a lane to the Embankment. At the point where they left the Strand, the man without a parcel spoke to the sergeant and fell out of the ranks. He laid his clumsy hand on the woman's arm; she set down on the pavement the parcel she had been carrying. There they stood for a full minute gazing at each other dumbly, oblivious to the passing crowds. She wasn't pleasing to look at—just a slum woman with draggled skirts, a shawl gathered tightly round her and a mildewed kind of bonnet. He was no more attractive—a hulking Samson, perhaps a day-labourer, who whilst he had loved her, had probably beaten her. They had come to the hour of parting, and there they stood in the London sunshine inarticulate after life together. He glanced after the procession; it was two hundred yards away by now. Stooping awkwardly for the burden which she had carried for him, in a shame-faced kind of way he kissed her; then broke from her to follow his companions. She watched him forlornly, her hands hanging empty. Never once did he look back as he departed. Catching up, he took his place in the ranks; they rounded a corner and were lost. Her eyes were quite dry; her jaw sagged stupidly. For some seconds she stared after the way he had gone—her man! Then she wandered off as one who had no purpose.
Wounded men commenced to appear in the streets. You saw them in restaurants, looking happy and embarrassed, being paraded by proud families. One day I met two in my tailor's shop—one had an arm in a sling, the other's head had been seared by a bullet. It was whispered that they were officers who had "got it" at Mons. A thrill ran through me—a thrill of hero-worship.
At the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square, tragedy bared its broken teeth and mouthed at me. We had reached the stage at which we had become intensely patriotic by the singing of songs. A beautiful actress, who had no thought of doing "her bit" herself, attired as Britannia, with a colossal Union Jack for background, came before the footlights and sang the recruiting song of the moment,
"We don't want to lose you But we think you ought to go."
Some one else recited a poem calculated to shame men into immediate enlistment, two lines of which I remember:
"I wasn't among the first to go But I went, thank God, I went."
The effect of such urging was to make me angry. I wasn't going to be rushed into khaki on the spur of an emotion picked up in a music-hall. I pictured the comfortable gentlemen, beyond the military age, who had written these heroic taunts, had gained reputation by so doing, and all the time sat at home in suburban security. The people who recited or sung their effusions, made me equally angry; they were making sham-patriotism a means of livelihood and had no intention of doing their part. All the world that by reason of age or sex was exempt from the ordeal of battle, was shoving behind all the rest of the world that was not exempt, using the younger men as a shield against his own terror and at the same time calling them cowards. That was how I felt. I told myself that if I went—and the if seemed very remote—I should go on a conviction and not because of shoving. They could hand me as many white feathers as they liked, I wasn't going to be swept away by the general hysteria. Besides, where would be the sense in joining? Everybody said that our fellows would be home for Christmas. Our chaps who were out there ought to know; in writing home they promised it themselves.
The next part of the music-hall performance was moving pictures of the Germans' march into Brussels. I was in the Promenade and had noticed a Belgian soldier being made much of by a group of Tommies. He was a queer looking fellow, with a dazed expression and eyes that seemed to focus on some distant horror; his uniform was faded and torn—evidently it had seen active service. I wondered by what strange fortune he had been conveyed from the brutalities of invasion to this gilded, plush-seated sensation-palace in Leicester Square.
I watched the screen. Through ghastly photographic boulevards the spectre conquerors marched. They came on endlessly, as though somewhere out of sight a human dam had burst, whose deluge would never be stopped. I tried to catch the expressions of the men, wondering whether this or that or the next had contributed his toll of violated women and butchered children to the list of Hun atrocities. Suddenly the silence of the theatre was startled by a low, infuriated growl, followed by a shriek which was hardly human. I have since heard the same kind of sounds when the stumps of the mutilated are being dressed and the pain has become intolerable. Everybody turned in their seats—gazing through the dimness to a point in the Promenade near to where I was. The ghosts on the screen were forgotten. The faked patriotism of the songs we had listened to had become a thing of naught. Through the welter of bombast, excitement and emotion we had grounded on reality.
The Belgian soldier, in his tattered uniform, was leaning out, as though to bridge the space that divided him from his ghostly tormentors. The dazed look was gone from his expression and his eyes were focussed in the fixity of a cruel purpose—to kill, and kill, and kill the smoke-grey hordes of tyrants so long as his life should last. He shrieked imprecations at them, calling upon God and snatching epithets from the gutter in his furious endeavour to curse them. He was dragged away by friends in khaki, overpowered, struggling, smothered but still cursing.
I learnt afterwards that he, with his mother and two brothers, had been the proprietors of one of the best hotels in Brussels. Both his brothers had been called to arms and were dead. Anything might have happened to his mother—he had not heard from her. He himself had escaped in the general retreat and was going back to France as interpreter with an English regiment. He had lost everything; it was the sight of his ruined hotel, flung by chance on the screen, that had provoked his demonstration. He was dead to every emotion except revenge—to accomplish which he was returning.
The moving-pictures still went on; nobody had the heart to see more of them. The house rose, fumbling for its coats and hats; the place was soon empty.
Just as I was leaving a recruiting sergeant touched my elbow, "Going to enlist, sonny?"
I shook my head. "Not to-night. Want to think it over."
"You will," he said. "Don't wait too long. We can make a man of you. If I get you in my squad I'll give you hell."
I didn't doubt it.
I don't know that I'm telling these events in their proper sequence as they led up to the growing of the vision. That doesn't matter—the point is that the conviction was daily strengthening that I was needed out there. The thought was grotesque that I could ever make a soldier—I whose life from the day of leaving college had been almost wholly sedentary. In fights at school I could never hurt the other boy until by pain he had stung me into madness. Moreover, my idea of war was grimly graphic; I thought it consisted of a choice between inserting a bayonet into some one else's stomach or being yourself the recipient. I had no conception of the long-distance, anonymous killing that marks our modern methods, and is in many respects more truly awful. It's a fact that there are hosts of combatants who have never once identified the bodies of those for whose death they are personally responsible. My ideas of fighting were all of hand-to-hand encounters—the kind of bloody fighting that rejoiced the hearts of pirates. I considered that it took a brutal kind of man to do such work. For myself I felt certain that, though I got the upper-hand of a fellow who had tried to murder me, I should never have the callousness to return the compliment. The thought of shedding blood was nauseating.
It was partly to escape from this atmosphere of tension that we left London, and set out on a motor-trip through England. This trip had figured largely in our original plans before there had been any thought of war. We wanted to re-visit the old places that had been the scenes of our family-life and childhood. Months before sailing out of Quebec we had studied guidebooks, mapping out routes and hotels. With about half a ton of gasolene on the roof to guard against contingencies, we started.
Everywhere we went, from Cornwall to the North, men were training and marching. All the bridges and reservoirs were guarded. Every tiniest village had its recruiting posters for Kitchener's Army. It was a trip utterly different from the one we had expected.
At Stratford in the tap-room of Shakespeare's favourite tavern I met an exceptional person—a man who was afraid, and had the courage to speak the truth as millions at that time felt it. An American was present—a vast and fleshy man: a transatlantic version of Falstaff. He had just escaped from Paris and was giving us an account of how he had hired a car, had driven as near the fighting-line as he could get and had seen the wounded coming out. He had risked the driver's life and expended large sums of money merely to gratify his curiosity. He mopped his brow and told us that he had aged ten years—folks in Philadelphia would hardly know him; but it was all worth it. The details which he embroidered and dwelt upon were ghastly. He was particularly impressed with having seen a man with his nose off. His description held us horrified and spell-bound.
In the midst of his oratory an officer entered, bringing with him five nervous young fellows. They were self-conscious, excited, over-wrought and belonged to the class of the lawyer's clerk. The officer had evidently been working them up to the point of enlistment, and hoped to complete the job that evening over a sociable glass. As his audience swelled, the fat man from Philadelphia grew exceedingly vivid. When appealed to by the recruiting officer, he confirmed the opinion that every Englishman of fighting age should be in France; that's where the boys of America would be if their country were in the same predicament. Four out of the five intended victims applauded this sentiment—they applauded too boisterously for complete sincerity, because they felt that they could do no less. The fifth, a scholarly, pale-faced fellow, drew attention to himself by his silence.
"You're going to join, too, aren't you?" the recruiting officer asked.
The pale-faced man swallowed. There was no doubt that he was scared. The American's morbid details had been enough to frighten anybody. He was so frightened that he had the pluck to tell the truth.
"I'd like to," he hesitated, "but——. I've got an imagination. I should see things as twice as horrible. I should live through every beastliness before it occurred. When it did happen, I should turn coward. I should run away, and you'd shoot me as a deserter. I'd like—not yet, I can't."
He was the bravest man in the tap-room that night. If he's still alive, he probably wears decorations. He was afraid, just as every one else was afraid; but he wasn't sufficiently a coward to lie about his terror. His voice was the voice of millions at that hour.
A day came when England's jeopardy was brought home to her. I don't remember the date, but I remember it was a Sabbath. We had pulled up before a village post office to get the news; it was pasted behind the window against the glass. We read, "Boulogne has fallen." The news was false; but it wasn't contradicted till next day. Meanwhile, in that quiet village, over and above the purring of the engine, we heard the beat of Death's wings across the Channel—a gigantic vulture approaching which would pick clean of vileness the bones of both the actually and the spiritually dead. I knew then for certain that it was only a matter of time till I, too, should be out there among the carnage, "somewhere in France." I felt like a rabbit in the last of the standing corn, when a field is in the harvesting. There was no escape—I could hear the scythes of an inexorable duty cutting closer.
After about six weeks in England, I travelled back to New York with my family to complete certain financial obligations and to set about the winding up of my affairs. I said nothing to any one as to my purpose. The reason for my silence is now obvious: I didn't want to commit myself to other people and wished to leave myself a loop-hole for retracting the promises I had made my conscience. There were times when my heart seemed to stop beating, appalled by the future which I was rapidly approaching. My vivid imagination—which from childhood has been as much a hindrance as a help—made me foresee myself in every situation of horror—gassed, broken, distributed over the landscape. Luckily it made me foresee the worst horror—the ignominy of living perhaps fifty years with a self who was dishonoured and had sunk beneath his own best standards. Of course there were also moments of exaltation when the boy-spirit of adventure loomed large; it seemed splendidly absurd that I was going to be a soldier, a companion-in-arms of those lordly chaps who had fought at Senlac, sailed with Drake and saved the day for freedom at Mons. Whether I was exalted or depressed, a power stronger than myself urged me to work feverishly to the end that, at the first opportunity, I might lay aside my occupation, with all my civilian obligations discharged.
When that time came, my first difficulty was in communicating my decision to my family; my second, in getting accepted in Canada. I was perhaps more ignorant than most people about things military. I had not the slightest knowledge as to the functions of the different arms of the service; infantry, artillery, engineers, A.S.C.—they all connoted just as much and as little. I had no qualifications. I had never handled fire-arms. My solitary useful accomplishment was that I could ride a horse. It seemed to me that no man ever was less fitted for the profession of killing. I was painfully conscious of self-ridicule whenever I offered myself for the job. I offered myself several times and in different quarters; when at last I was granted a commission in the Canadian Field Artillery it was by pure good-fortune. I didn't even know what guns were used and, if informed, shouldn't have had the least idea what an eighteen-pounder was. Nevertheless, within seven months I was out in France, taking part in an offensive which, up to that time, was the most ambitious of the entire war.