WE were on our way to the front; but from the general attitude of the men you might have thought that we were on a cheap tour. The "management" was subjected to much criticism. The train was very far from being a train de luxe. We had boarded it in the dark. Forty men with forty packs and forty rifles had tumbled, no one quite knew how, into a pitch-dark van, and somehow sat down. At first we most of us sat on each other; but by degrees, and with much wriggling, we managed to separate ourselves more or less, and squatted through long hours in cramped, contorted attitudes. At length, in the small hours, the train stopped, and we bundled out, to find ourselves in a diminutive French town. There was nothing very interesting or sensational about it as far as we could see. The houses were modern, and of a dull red brick. The road was cobbled, and uncomfortable for marching. One could not quite say why, but it certainly had an unfamiliar air about it. It was somehow different to any English town. There was an indefinable something about the architecture of the jerrybuilt villas which betrayed the workings of a foreign mind. We were cold and tired and stiff, and we decided then and there that France was a failure, and that we should have done better to stay at home. We marched through a dull flat country with occasional farms, and avenues of trees appearing in ghostly fashion through the early morning mist. They did not plant trees in avenues like that in England, and we condemned the practice as inartistic.
Very, very tired, we at last arrived at a large barn, and entering lay down in the thick straw, and were soon fast asleep. A short sleep accomplished wonders. We woke to find the May sunlight streaming in through the chinks of our barn. We felt a good deal less critical than we had; in fact we were prepared to be rather excited at the novelties that life was offering. The barn was big and airy, and the straw clean and sweet. We felt encouraged to investigate farther. Outside we found a meadow clothed in long green grass, dotted with one or two big trees, and full of wild flowers. In a corner was a pond of clear water. We stripped, found a bucket, and poured water over ourselves, and then lay down in the long grass and basked in the sun. We were tasting the joys of the simple life---the life of the tramp, for instance; and we thought that if it were always May, and if the sun always shone, there might be a good deal to be said in its favor. We felt our British respectability slipping away from us. The glamour of vagabondage caught us. When we returned to our office in the City or our shop in the suburbs we would take another holiday after this fashion, and wander down English lanes one spring morning, with a rucksack on our back. We would sleep in an English barn, or under an English hedge, and bathe in the water of an English pool. What would Aunt Maria say? A fig for Aunt Maria! We were losing our prejudices, and becoming Bohemian in our tastes. We knew then, as we had never known before, what it is to be young in the sweet springtime. We had never felt like this, even at Brighton or Southend! There was something exquisitely clean and wholesome about this picnic life.
We stayed at the village for several days. In the morning we would go for a walk round the country. It was rather amusing, except that the "management" insisted on our carrying all our luggage on our backs wherever we went. In the afternoon we would go and bathe in a canal half a mile away. In the evening we were free to roam about the village. It was not a bit like an English village. There didn't seem to be any proper shops, and nearly every cottage had something for sale. Large, flat, round loaves, lovely fresh butter, and milk and eggs, delicious coffee, weak beer, and cognac---these were obtainable almost anywhere, at the farms and cottages alike. And these French villagers had a wonderful way with them. Somehow you never felt like a customer. You were made to feel like an old and valued friend of the family. You went into a cottage marked "Estaminet," and you ordered your glass of beer. You sat and sipped it en famille, with Madame making coffee or cooking supper on the big stove, Mamselle sewing in the corner, and Bébé playing on the floor. Sometimes there was a Monsieur, too, but if so he was an old gentleman who smoked his pipe, and smiled genially at you. If you could talk any French, tant mieux. There was plenty to talk about, and everyone joined in with an easy, well-bred courtesy worthy of the finest gentleman. Ah, they were wonderful people, those good villagers of ----- !
Somehow they had the faculty of being sociable and friendly without any adventitious aids. The Englishman cannot be quite at his ease with a stranger unless he has stood him a drink., or eaten with him. The English cannot sell you anything and at the same time make you feel that you are a guest rather than a customer. We felt that there was something to be said for the French, after all.
Of course there were no young or even middle-aged men in the village. They were all---well, making a tour in Belgium and Eastern France. That evidently made a difference. Imagine an English village visited by a number of young Frenchmen. If there were no young Englishmen about, but only women and old men, no doubt they would be received with open arms. The young women would mildly flirt with them, the older women would mother them, and the old men would be quite paternal. But imagine the effect if the English youths suddenly returned. Then there would be jealous lovers, jealous sons, jealous husbands. The women would have to curb their hospitable inclinations. The youths of the two nations would look down their noses at each other, and find each other "gesticulating monkeys" or "mannerless boors." Each would try to feel the better race, and would turn to the women as judges of their quarrel. No, perhaps it was just as well that at ----- there were no young Frenchmen. As it was we were regularly fêted, and being on our best behavior felt that we were a success. What could be more pleasant or gratifying?
We did not stay at ----- very long. Soon we were en route for Belgium. This time we marched, which would have been very pleasant if we had not had to carry all our own luggage. As it was, the marches proved very tiring. The only advantage of a pack is that it makes a very comfortable pillow if you do get a chance to lie down. Every hour we had a short halt, and lay flat on our backs by the side of the road, with our packs under our heads, and were happy. We marched through several nice little French towns, with fine old churches and hotels de ville, and generally a pleasant square in the center, full of seductive-looking auberges and cafés. Unfortunately the "management" did not elect to let us linger in these jolly little towns, but hurried us on to some sequestered farm on the confines of a small village, and billeted us in a barn. We got to know quite a lot about barns. They are very nice if they are clean; but when they have been slept in by about fifty successive parties in a few months they begin to lose their charm. The straw loses its sweetness, and the water of the pond, its crystal clearness. Often we would crowd into a barn in the semi-darkness, and, having with difficulty found six feet of floor space for ourselves and our belongings, discover beneath our heads a little trove of decaying bully, or damp, moldy biscuits. We got used to it; but it was objectionable at first. On the whole, though, we did not fare too badly. There was generally a hospitable little estaminet to visit in the evening, and a cup of lovely hot coffee to be had at the farm in the morning. The sun was always shining, the grass green, and the wild flowers blooming. We said that France was not a bad place to be in in the springtime.
To our destination we gave never a thought. Such is the way of youth. What was the good of worrying? We would take things as we found them. But when we got into Belgium the stern realities of war began to obtrude themselves. The towns which we passed through were half empty. Broken windows, holes in the roof, and here and there the whole front of a house missing, told their story of when the war had swept that way. The people in the villages were no longer genially hospitable. They wore an anxious look, and were obviously out to make money if they could. Our beer was badly watered, and our chocolate cost us more. We did not like Belgium very much.
Finally we came to the trenches themselves, and all around was desolation and ruin. There are few more mournful spectacles than a town or village lately reduced to ruins. The ruins of antiquity leave one cold. The life that they once harbored is too remote to excite our sympathies. But a modern ruin is full of tragedy. You see the remains of the furniture, the family portraits on the wall, a child's doll seated forlornly on a chair, a little figure of the Virgin under a glass case. In the middle of the little square is a little iron bandstand, and you can almost see the ghosts of the inhabitants walking up and down, laughing, chatting, and quarreling, with no sense of the disaster overshadowing them. You wonder what became of them. The girl whose rosary lies on yonder dressing-table, and who doubtless prayed every night be fore that little figure of the Virgin, was she raped by some bloodstained Uhlan? Or did she escape in time to relations or friends at a safe distance? And to what purpose were all these homes sacrificed? Why are all these good people scattered and beggared and fugitive? Cui bono? On the Day of Judgment someone will have to answer. As we thought of the pleasant towns and villages that we had left behind, with their honest, kindly inhabitants, we set our teeth and resolved that, if we could prevent it, the receding tide should never return over the fair lands of France.
So long we stayed in these scenes of desolation that we almost forgot what a live town looked like. It is hard to describe the delights of the journey home, made in far other fashion than the journey out. As we sat in the comer of our carriage in the train de luxe, and watched the busy life of the towns through which we passed, we felt as if we had awakened from a nightmare. But that was many months ago, and now that we are sound of limb again we hear the call of desolate Belgium and threatened France, and long to do our bit once more to hasten that slowly receding tide of devastation.
EVERYONE knows that war means to the soldier a big measure of deprivation. Every week the recognition is made by thousands of womenfolk at home, when they dispatch the parcel of little luxuries to their "boy"" at the front. And at the front we could only marvel at the aptness of the contents which love had unerringly chosen. Generally the parcel contained eatables---a homemade cake, fruit, chocolate, and what not. Often, too, it contained vermin-killers, carbolic soap, or clean underlinen. And the senders were right. They remembered our love of good food, and they remembered our cold tubs and extravagant laundry bills; and as a matter of fact these were, for most of us, the luxuries which we had most prized, and the loss of which we chiefly mourned.
Every week, however, there used to come to the writer an envelope containing a gift more exquisitely subtle---a soft handkerchief wrapped round a sprig of verbena or of lavender. It was so out of keeping with every circumstance of one's life, so like a breath of fragrance from another world, that its preciousness was infinite, unspeakable. It brought with it memories of the deep quiet of old gardens, the prim brightness of herbaceous borders, and all things dainty and most utterly remote from the sordid business of trench warfare. It was the source of the most intimate personal delight; but at the same time it must be confessed that it did also arouse and point that feeling of deprivation which is never quite absent from life in the trenches. It revived the finer perceptions which had become dulled by constant contact with the squalid makeshifts of an artificially primitive life---perceptions which one had perhaps been content to see atrophied, feeling that if one had to live like a savage it were best to become like one. It was, paradoxically enough, at once a consolation and an irritant: a narcotic bringing sweet dreams of the unattainable, and a tonic stimulating inconvenient faculties into a new and insistent life.
The laziness which made one content to "sink i' the scale" and become a brute was checkmated. The æsthetic faculties, once roused, refused to die of inanition, and found food even in the rest camp and the trenches. One suddenly realized that one was living very close to Nature, far closer perhaps than ever in one's life before, and that Nature in June is wondrous kind to her lovers. To sleep in the long grass, to be awakened by the pale spreading gold of dawn, to bathe in the clear waters of a pool, and to lie down after among the ragged robins and forget-me-nots while the grows warmer and warmer is a joy that not come to those who live in stout dwellings of brick and stone; but it is the daily experience of soldiers in some rest camps The trouble is that they do not always realize the joy of it. They bury their heads in their blankets and curse at being awakened so early. But to the man who has had his æsthetic faculties aroused it is an experience pregnant with exhilaration and delight. And even when he leaves the rest camp for the firing line he finds that in some ways man's calamity has been Nature's opportunity. Villages are wrecked , crops ungathered; but Nature has rioted unchecked. Never were such meadows, deep, thick with mingled grass, and oats, and barley, full of cornflowers, poppies, campions, marguerites, and other delights. Many a man, glancing back over the rich meadows in the early dawn, after a night of sleepless anxiety, must have, felt as he never felt before the compelling charm of Nature run wild. But it is then that the trouble becomes acute. The contrast between the full joyous harmony of spring and the sordid strife of men is too great to be borne with a quiet mind. It makes a man restless and discontented. It fills him with a love of life and a loathing for the days of danger and discomfort to which he stands by honor committed. War is an exacting trade, demanding stern courage and endurance, and perhaps life itself, and it does not make a man a better soldier to rail against it and condemn it. The æsthete does not make a good fighter.
Some men, faced with this dilemma, find it best to turn their backs resolutely on the meadows behind the trench, and to account Nature a traitress and a temptress. They can find no synthesis between the joy of life and its destruction, no bridge between honor and duty on the one side and red ragged robins, provokingly lovely, on the other. Like St. Paul, they are careful to sow only spiritual things, that they may gain eternal life.
Well, it is better to be a Puritan than a beast, and it may be that even Paul would have found no room for flowers in the hour of life and death. But if we go to a greater than Paul, He will show us a more excellent way. The Puritan fails to see the Spirit in the beauty of the flowers, and the æsthete sees only the sordidness in pain and death. But Paul's Master showed the beauty' of both. He saw in the lilies of Galilee the tokens of a Father's love, an assurance of the beauty of the life which is eternal, while the Cross, with its tradition of sordid degradation, He raised to be the symbol of love divinely beautiful, and of life triumphant over death.
And if the Master was right---if beauty is one and life eternal---is not the problem solved? Then we see with new eyes.
Scarlet poppy, blue cornflower, red ragged robins, and all that company of gaily dressed fellows are not the pagans we thought them, but good Churchmen after all. To be gay and debonair just for a day is the work that the good Father has given them. It is their beauty and His glory, and therefore it is our pure joy to have them nodding at our feet. On the other hand, the same good Father has laid it on men to offer their life for an ideal. If we fought from blood-lust or hate, war would be sordid. But if we fight, as only a Christian may, that friendship and peace with our foes may become possible, then fighting is our duty, and our fasting and dirt, our wounds and our death, are our beauty and God's glory. The glory of the flowers is one and the glory of the man is another, but both alike belong to the One Father and Creator of all.
THE battalion had had a fortnight of it, a fortnight of hard work and short rations, of sleepless vigil and continual danger. They had been holding trenches newly won from the Germans. When they took them over they were utterly unsafe. They had been battered to pieces by artillery; they were choked with burst sandbags and dead men; there was no barbed wire; they faced the wrong way; there were still communication trenches leading straight to the enemy. The battalion had had to remake the trenches under fire. They had had to push out barbed wire and build barriers across the communication trenches. All the time they had had to be on the watch. The Germans were sore at having lost the trenches, and had given them no rest. Their mortars had rained bombs night and day. Parties of bombers had made continual rushes down the old communication trenches, or crept silently up through the long grass, and dropped bombs among the workers. Sleep had been impossible. All night the men had had to stand to their arms ready to repel an attack, or to work at the more dangerous jobs such as the barbed wire, which could only be attempted under cover of darkness. All day they bad been dodging bombs, and doing the safer work of making latrines, filling sandbags for the night, thickening the parapet, burying the dead, and building dug-outs. At first they had hardly received any rations at all, the communication with the rear had been so precarious. Later the rations had arrived with greater regularity; but even so the shortage, especially of water, had been terrible. For several days one mess tin of water had had to satisfy half a dozen men for a whole day. They had not grumbled. They had realized that it was inevitable, and that the post was a post of honor. They had set their teeth and toiled grimly, doggedly, sucking the pebble which alone can help to keep at bay the demon Thirst. They had done well, and they knew it. The colonel had said as much, and he was not a man to waste words. They had left the trench as safe as it could be made. And now they had been relieved. They were out of danger, slogging wearily along the road to the rest camp. They were sick with sleepiness. Their shoulders ached under their heavy packs. Their feet were sore. Their clothes., which they had not changed for a fortnight, were filthy and lousy. They no longer attempted to march in step or to hold themselves erect. Each man limped along as best he could. They were dead tired; but they were not dejected.
They were going to rest; they were going to sleep long and soundly, undisturbed by bombs. They were going to drink their fill of good hot tea and thin Belgian beer. They were going to get stews of fresh meat instead of the eternal Chicago bully. They were going to have a hot bath, and be served out with clean shirts and socks. They were far from dejected. The thought of all these good things to come gleamed in their eyes as they marched, and also the thought that they had done well and had upheld the honor of the New Army, the brigade, and the proud regiment whose name they bore.
A few even began to talk. "Say, mate," remarked one, "ow'd a good ole feather bed do now?" "Ah, and a nice steak and chips when you got up in the morning." "Ah, and whats wrong wiv a pint o' good British beer to wash it dahn wiv?" "And the old woman a-bringing yer a cup o' tea in the morning to your bed?" "And a nice fire in the kitchen while you reads your paper." "Gahn! Wot's the good of talking silly? 'Ow many of us d'yer think'll ever see 'ome agin?" "Well, mate, there's no 'arm in wishing, and they do say as we shall all 'ave a week's 'oliday arter the brigade's come aht of the trenches the next time."
Soon the talk died down. The chill air of the hour before dawn began to exert its proverbial power of depression. The men felt cold and clammy, they had an acrid taste in their mouths, their spirits seemed to fall to zero. They dragged their feet along the cobbled road with a savage, sullen look on their faces. The last stage of exhaustion was almost reached. A young subaltern, who had been taught that the time to enforce discipline is when the men are tired, started to shout at them: "Keep up there! Pick up the step! Left-left-left, right, left." The men's faces darkened a shade. A few muttered curses were heard. For the most part they ignored him. The captain, an old campaigner, called him off curtly.
At last they reached the field where they were to bivouac. The dawn was already breaking, and the air beginning to warm. The battalion formed up in column of companies, four long double lines. Arms were piled, and the men marched clear. Then they lay down as they were in rows upon the grass, and the sun rose over a field of sleeping men.
Two hours passed. Away in the distance could be heard the incessant rattle of musketry, mingled with the roar of the big guns. No one heeded it. A motorcycle appeared at express speed. The colonel was roused, the company commanders sent for. The men were wakened up. Down the lines the message passed: "Stack valises by platoons, and get ready to march off in fighting order; the Germans have broken through." The men were too dazed to talk. Mechanically they packed their greatcoats into their valises, and stacked them. The Germans broken through! All their work wasted! It was incredible. Water bottles were filled, extra ammunition served out, in silence. The battalion fell in, and marched off along the same weary road by which they had come. Two hours' sleep, no breakfast, no wash, no drink. The men were dejected now.
The road was full of troops. Columns of infantry slogged along at the side. Guns and ammunition-wagons thundered down the paved center. Motor dispatch riders flew past with fresh orders for those in rear. The men sucked their pebbles in grim silence. It was no time for grumbling. This meant business. They forgot their fatigue, their thirst, their hunger. Their minds were full of the folk at home whom they might not see again, and of the struggle that lay before them. So they marched, silently, and with frequent halts, most of the morning. At length they left the road and took to the fields. They were going back whence they had come, by a circuitous route. Shrapnel burst overhead. As they neared the firing line they met streams of wounded returning from the scene of action. The company commanders took charge. One company rested to let another pass, and the men exchanged greetings. Men spoke to each other who only knew each other by sight. An officer caught the eye of a corporal and they both smiled, and felt that there was some curious link between them, hitherto unguessed.
A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honor of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honor of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him. They set off again, in single file. There was a cry. Someone had stopped a bullet. Don't look round; he will be looked after. It may be your turn next.
They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Shells shrieked through the air, and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow, then the first platoon would advance, in extended order. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbor regarded him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Something had stopped inside him.
A whistle blew. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one could see. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake. . . .
It appeared that there was a trench at the edge of the wood. It had been unoccupied. A couple of hundred yards in front., across the open ground, was the trench which they were attacking. Half a dozen men found themselves alone in the open ground before the German wire. They lay down. No one was coming on. Where was everyone? They crawled cautiously back to the trench at the edge of the wood, and climbed in. One or two were there already. Two or three wounded men limped in from the rear, and sank on the floor of the trench. The storm raged on; but the attack was over. These were what was left of two companies. All stain on the honor of the brigade had been wiped out---in blood.
There were three men in a bay of the trench. One was hit in the leg, and sat on the floor cutting away his trousers so as to apply a field dressing. One knelt down behind the parapet with a look of dumb stupor on his face. The third, a boy of about seventeen from a London slum, peered over the parapet at intervals. Suddenly he disappeared over the top. He had discovered two wounded men in a shell hole just in front, and was hoisting them into the shelter of the trench. By a miracle not one of the three was hit. A message was passed up the trench: "Hold on at all costs till relieved." A council of war was held. Should they fire or lie low? Better lie low, and only fire in case of attack. They were safe from attack as long as the Bosches kept on firing. Someone produced a tin of meat, some biscuits., and a full water-bottle. The food was divided up, and a shell bursting just in rear covered everything with dirt and made it uneatable. The water was reserved for the wounded. The rest sucked their pebbles in stoical silence.
Supports began to trickle in, and the wounded who could not stand were laboriously removed from the narrow trench to some dug-outs in the rear. Two of them were badly hit, and crying out incessantly for water, or to shift their position. One was unconscious and groaning. From the wood came frenzied shouts from a man in delirium. The more slightly wounded tried to look after the others; but soon the water was exhausted, and all they could do was to promise that as soon as darkness fell help would come.
Darkness fell. The battalion had been relieved; but the better part of it lay out in the wood, or in the open before the wood, dead or dying. The wood was full of groaning. Four stretcher-bearers came and took away one man, an officer. The rest waited in vain. An hour passed, and no one else came. Two were mortally hit, and began to despair. They would die before help came. For Christ's sake get some water. There was none to be had.
A man wounded in the leg found that he could crawl on all fours. He started to look for help. He crawled laboriously along the path through the wood. It was choked with corpses. He crawled over them as best he could. Once he found a full water-bottle, which he gave to a sentry to send back to his mates. At last he was picked up, and taken to the doctor, while others went to look for his mates.
The doctor was in a field. Rows of wounded lay there waiting for stretcher-bearers to come and take them to the ambulances. As many as could went on, those wounded in the leg with their arms on the shoulders of those whose legs were whole. They limped painfully along the interminable road till they came to the ambulance. Then their troubles were over. A rapid drive brought them to the dressing station. There they were given cocoa, inoculated for tetanus, their wounds washed and bound up. Another drive took them to the camp by the railway. Next morning they were put in the train, and at length reached the hospital. There at last they got the longed-for bath and the clean clothes and---joy of joys---were put to sleep, unlimited sleep, in a real bed with clean white sheets. They were at peace. But out in the open space between the trenches lay some they had known and loved, unburied. And others lay beneath wooden crosses behind the wood. Yet it was well. The brigade was saved. Its honor was vindicated. Though its men might be fresh from home and untried in war, they would not fail. The brigade had had its baptism in blood, and its self-confidence was established for all time.
NOTE.---The action described in the above article has been identified by correspondents at the front., and so it is necessary to state that although based in the main on an actual experience, features have been freely borrowed from other occasions, and the writer has no authority for placing the construction that he has on the main event.
ON the barrack square of a Special Reserve battalion you may see both the raw material and the finished product---the recruit but newly arrived from the depot, and the war-worn veteran, with anything over one year's service, just discharged from hospital. The change wrought in one year is remarkable. It "sticks out all over." It is seen in their physique, their bearing, the poise of their head, their expression, and most of all in their eyes. The recruit is not set. He stands loosely. He is never still. His expression is always changing. His eyes are restless. Now he is interested, and his pose is alert, his eyes fixed on the instructor. Now his attention is distracted elsewhere, his attitude becomes less tense, his eyes wander. Now he is frankly bored, his head and shoulders droop forward, he stands on one leg, his eyes are fixed on the ground. His movements reflect every passing mood. His will is untrained, his character unformed, his muscles undeveloped. He has no control over his mind or his limbs. He is just a boy. The fascination about him lies in his potentialities, in the uncertainty as to how he will turn out. There are so many pitfalls ahead of him. . . . The trained soldier, who has fought, seen death, suffered wounds, endured hardness, offers a complete contrast. He is thicker. His limbs are quiet and under control. He stands solidly motionless and upright. His mouth is firmly shut. His eyes are steady, and their expression unvarying. His whole attitude and his expression suggest quiet expectancy. He is still; but he is ready to move at a seconds notice. He is intensely self-controlled. Of course all generalizations are untrue. But probably this is how the contrast between the recruit and the trained soldier would present itself to anyone who watched a number of them as they paraded on the barrack square.
Recruits come from all sorts of classes in these days, and so it is not easy to describe a "typical case" which would not offend quite a number of them. Yet this, I think, is a fair specimen of perhaps the commonest type: All his life he had lived in a stuffy little home in a big town with a mother and father, and a swarm of brothers and sisters. He had lived there, but he had not spent much time there, and it had not been by any means a determining factor in his life. In the early morning he had tumbled out of bed in the semidarkness, pitched on such clothes as he had discarded for the night, swallowed a cup of strong tea and a slice of bread-and-dripping, and without the ceremony of a wash or brush-up dashed off to work. There he had carried on a sort of guerrilla warfare on his own account against anyone and everyone who seemed inclined to "put it on him." It was rather amusing, and distinctly helped to make life interesting. He and his mates all played the same game of trying to do less than their share of the day's work, while appearing to do more. He did what he was told---when he could not help it. In his warfare with the foreman each had a trump card. The foreman's trump was "the sack," and the boy's was the right to "chuck the job." The boy had played his trump two or three times, without suffering from it overmuch, and two or three times the foreman had played his. But on the whole "work" had been much less of a discipline than one might expect. It had taught him one idea, which is somewhat less than a truth, that a man's first duty is to stick up for himself, and avoid being put upon. In the evening he used to dash off home, indulge in a good wash of the exposed portions of his anatomy, brush his hair, eat a hurried tea, and go off to meet his pals, male and female, in the street. Though he hadn't got much money to spend there was always a certain amount of amusement to be got out of the street, and by the time he reached home he was glad to get to bed. It was an odd existence, with much more interest and variety than you would think. But it was not a particularly wholesome one. It developed no fixity of purpose, and there was no real discipline in it. His father occasionally asserted his authority with sudden spasmodic violence, usually ill-timed. Otherwise there was practically no authority in it at all.
Then came the time when his mates began to disappear. Posters stared at him from the hoardings telling him that his King and country needed him. Recruiting sergeants eyed him doubtfully. He did not look much more than sixteen. Here was a chance of variety. His restless temperament responded to the suggestion with enthusiasm. He loved change, and feared monotony above all things. Besides, he would be on his own. Even the shadow of parental control would be removed. He would be a man, and his own master. So he reckoned! "Mother" noticed his excitement, and with a sure instinct guessed what was the matter. "Our George is going for a soldier," she remarked to her husband. "I can see it in 'is eyes." "Father" taxed him with it, and waxed indignant. "Ain't yer satisfied with yer 'ome?" he demanded. "Ain't yer got no gratitood to yer mother? Don't know when yer well off, yer young fool." This clinched matters. The boy said nothing. He could afford not to. His answer was to enlist next day. When it was done "Mother" shed a surreptitious tear, and "Father" grunted; but both were secretly proud of him, though it meant seven shillings a week less in the family exchequer. He went away feeling a little lost and young, and with a lump in his throat for the sake of the home that he had valued so cheaply.
Freedom! He didn't find much of that after all! The barracks were full of authorities far more peremptory and potent than foreman or father. There was the corporal of his room, who unsympathetically kicked him out of bed in the morning---bed being a mattress on the floor---and made him wash, and do his share of cleaning up the room. There was the sergeant who made him march up and down the square all the morning, doing what he was told, and in the intervals lectured him on his duties, his morals, and his personal cleanliness. There was the sergeant-major, a terribly awe-inspiring person, to whom even the sergeant was deferential, and to whom the corporal was positively sycophantic. There were subalterns and a captain, mysterious beings from another world, whose business in life seemed to be to preserve an attitude of silent omniscience, and to criticize his personal appearance. Instead of freedom, he found discipline. His uprisings and his outgoings, and all the smallest details of his being, even to the length of his hair and the cleanliness of his toes, were ordered by Powers against whom there was no appeal. They held all the trump cards. He could not even "chuck the job" in the old lordly way, without becoming a criminal, and having all the resources of the police enlisted to bring him back.
Yet the despotism, though complete, was not brutal. Even the sergeant-major was genially abusive, while the subaltern was almost paternal. But these were only signs of the plenitude of their power. They could afford to be jovial! Indeed, he soon noticed that urbanity of manner was apt to increase in a direct ratio to an individual's rank. It was the corporal, the least of all his masters, whose manner was least conciliatory. Submission was obviously the only course; and by degrees he learned to do more than submit. He learned the pride of submission. He came to believe in the discipline. He gained self-respect from his subordination to it, and when he went home on furlough, wearing the uniform of it, he boasted of it, to the evident envy of his civilian chums. He was learning one of the great truths of life, a truth that so many fail to learn---that it is not in isolation but as a member of a body that, a man finds his fullest self-expression: that it is not in self-assertion but in self-subordination, not as an individual but as one of many brethren, sons of one Father, that a man finds the complete satisfaction of his instincts, and the highest form of liberty.
Our recruit has not learned quite all this; but he has made a beginning. He has learned a certain pride in his company, in his regiment, in his N.C.O.'s even, and in his officers. He is learning to be proud that he is English. He has given up his personal freedom, which was not really of much use to him, and in return he has received what is infinitely more precious---his share of the common heritage of the regiment, its glorious past, its present prowess, its honor and good name, its high resolves. His self-respect has increased enormously. His bearing has altered completely. It is not the fear of punishment that makes him so smart and clean; but his care for the honor of his regiment. It is not the fear of punishment that makes him sweep and scrub and tidy his part of the barrack-room so scrupulously; but his care for the reputation of the company, his desire to please his officer, his loyalty to his corporal. Besides this, he is learning to share with his mates instead of to grab. He is learning to "play the game" by them, and to think more of fairness all round than of his own personal benefit. He does his bit and takes his share, and as long as the other fellows do ditto, he is content. It is impressed on his mind that for the honor of the company they must all be tolerant, and pull together. Also he has a "chum." In the Army everyone has a "chum." As far as his chum is concerned the good soldier obeys the "golden rule" in its literal sense. He shares with him. He divides with him his parcel from home, he helps him to clean his rifle and equipment, he is a friend in the Baconian sense, who halves sorrows and doubles joys. The recruit is all the better for observing the golden rule even towards one person.
The recruit is developing rapidly. His perspective is altering hourly. Old prejudices are vanishing, and new ones forming. His old selfishness is giving way to good comradeship, his individuality is being merged in a bigger corporate personality. As he becomes less of an individualist, he becomes quieter, and more contented. In a few months he will be drafted out to the front, there to learn harder lessons still, and lessons even better worth learning. He will learn to endure without complaint, to be unselfish without "making a song about it," to risk life itself for the good of the world, the honor of the regiment, and the safety of his comrades. A man does not rise much above that. Perhaps he will make the supreme sacrifice, and so be taken hence at his best. Perhaps he will return to "Blighty." If he does the latter he will be no longer a boy but a man.
"FACILE descensus Averni," and the Avernus of the journalist in war time is a fatal facility for writing heroics. Everyone who has handled the pen of a scribe knows how the descent comes about. A man sees or experiences something which cries out for expression. He puts pen to paper, and the result is acclaimed as a little masterpiece. "Write more," say his friends, and he casts about for another theme which will bear the same heroic treatment. He tries to reproduce the dramatic staccato which came so naturally before; but this time the inspiration is lacking, the heroics are spurious, and the result is "journalese." His heroics don't ring true. What cant is to religion, they are to heroism. They take what is fine and rare and make it cheap.
The typical Englishman hates heroics. He regards them as un-English. If he has done a fine action the last thing that he wants is for the fact to be exploited, advertised. It is not exactly modesty that prompts his instinct for reticence; it is something nearer akin to reverence. He does not want his pearls cast before swine. He knows that the beauty of a fine action is like the bloom of the wild flower, elusive, mystical. It will not survive the touch of the hot, greasy hands that would pluck the flower from its root and hawk it in the street. So when the "serious" journalist takes to heroics the typical Englishman takes refuge in satire, on exactly the same principle as when false sentiment invades the drama he abandons it for musical comedy.
The satirist always claims to be a realist, though not everyone will admit his title. He mocks at the heroic, and says that he will show you the real thing. In war time no one can afford to be a satirist who has not done his bit, a fact which gives him an additional weight. Men like Captain Bairnsfather of the Bystander and "Henry" of Punch have earned the right to mock, and in their mockery they often get closer to the portrayal of authentic heroism than do their more idealistic brethren. Take Bairnsfather's picture of two Tommies sitting in a dug-out, while their parapet is being blown to smithereens about a yard away. It bears the legend, "There goes our blinkin' parapet again!" The 'eroes in the dug-out are about as unheroic in appearance as it is possible to imagine. They are simply a pair of stolid, unimaginative, intensely prosaic Tommies of the British workman type. They have low foreheads and bulgy eyes, " tooth-brush" mustaches and double chins; their hair is untidy, and one of them is smoking a clay pipe. It is obvious that they are blasphemously fed-up. Of course they are not really typical at all. They are much too prosaic and unimaginative. But the picture does bring home to you that the fellows in the trenches are very ordinary people after all, which is a fact that folk at home are very apt to overlook. And at the same time, though the realism is too sordid to be quite true to life, it cannot hide the fact that the stoicism of the two heroes is rather heroic, in spite of their obvious lack of any sense of the dramatic.
Bairnsfather's sketches represent the extreme reaction from the heroic. His trench heroes are so animal in type and expression as to be positively repulsive. As the editor says in his introduction, "the book will be a standing reminder of the ingloriousness of war, its preposterous absurdity, and of its futility as a means of settling the affairs of nations." Yet for that very reason it is an incomplete picture of war. It is perfectly true, and it is a good thing that we should realize it, that the majority of men go through the most terrific experiences without ever becoming articulate. For every Englishman who philosophizes there are a hundred who don't. For every soldier who prays there are a thousand who don't. But there is hardly a man who will not return from the war bigger than when he left home. His language may have deteriorated. His "views" on religion and morals may have remained unchanged. He may be rougher in manner. But it will not be for nothing that he has learned to endure hardship without making a song about it, that he has risked his life for righteousness' sake, that he has bound up the wounds of his mates, and shared with them his meagre rations. We who have served in the ranks of "the first hundred thousand" will want to remember something more than the ingloriousness of war. We shall want to remember how adversity made men unselfish, and pain found them tender, and danger found them brave, and loyalty made them heroic. The fighting man is a very ordinary person, that's granted; but he has shown that the ordinary person can rise to unexpected heights of generosity and self-sacrifice.
The fact is that neither heroics nor satire are a completely satisfactory record of what we shall want to remember of this war. Least of all does the third type of war journalism satisfy---that of the lady who writes in the society paper of her "sweet ickle tempies with the curly eyebrows," and her "darling soldier-lad with the brave, merry smile."
Whether the Press forms or reflects public opinion is a moot point; but there is certainly an intimate correspondence between the two, as the soldier who is sent to "Blighty" finds to his cost. The society journalist pets him, the "serious"' journalist writes heroics about him, and the satirist makes fun of the heroics. He looks in vain for a sane recognition that he has earned the right to be taken seriously as a man. So, too, the society lady of a certain sort pets him, has him to tea at the "Cri," or invites him to Berkeley Square. The larger public lionizes him., gives him concerts and lusty cheers, takes his photo at every possible opportunity, and provides him with unlimited tobacco and gramophones. While the authorities satirize the lionizers by treating him exactly as if he really was the creature in Bairnsfather's sketches---a gross, brainless, animal fool, who cannot be trusted. This is all very well. I suppose that most men like to be petted by a pretty woman, specially if she has a handle to her name, though the charm soon wears off. Being lionized is boring, but has solid advantages. Satire is amusing on paper, though infuriating when translated into action. Very soon, however, the wounded soldier begins to long to be less petted, less lionized, and instead to be treated as a rational being who is entitled to a certain elementary respect.
One can only speak from personal observation. One place differs from another. But from what the writer has seen and experienced he judges that the one thing which a wounded soldier cannot expect is to be treated as a man. He is sent to "Blighty." He arrives at a hospital. His chief pleasure, oddly enough, lies in the prospect of seeing something of his relations and friends. He is surprised and indignant when he finds that he is only allowed to see visitors of his own choice two at a time, for two hours, twice a week. On the other five days he has to put up with the licensed visitors of the hospital. They may be very elevating and amiable people; but he feels no conceivable interest in them. He is still further dismayed when he discovers that under no circumstances may he visit his home while he is a patient. He may go to tea with Lady Snooks, or the Duchess of Downshire; but not with his wife or his mother. The writer's neighbor in the hospital ward was a case in point. He was a man of about thirty who, at the outbreak of war, was holding a responsible position in Sydney. He had all the self-respect which is typical of the colonial of even a few years' standing. He was receiving ten minutes' electrical treatment per diem, with a view to restoring sensation to one of his hands. Otherwise he was able-bodied. His father lived within twenty minutes' walk of the hospital; but not only was he not allowed to live at home and attend as an out-patient, he was not even allowed to visit his home. He was told that the treatment would have to be continued for some six months, and meanwhile he must be a prisoner in the hospital. At the V.A.D. convalescent home to which the writer was subsequently transferred, and which was regulated from the hospital, there were several married men whose homes were within reach. They were absolutely forbidden to visit them. One man, who had been in hospital for nine months without ever going home, was so disgusted that he eventually took French leave for a couple of days. On his return he was put in the punishment ward of the main hospital, where he was deprived of tobacco and visitors, and was informed that when he was discharged he would be sent to his battalion for punishment! His comment was, "You'll see; when this war is over it will be just as it was after South Africa. We shall be so much dirt." When we did leave the grounds it had to be in the conspicuous garb, of a military convalescent, that all men might stare, and under the escort of a nurse. Many a quiet, sensible fellow preferred not to go out at all.
Another example of the humiliation to which wounded soldiers are subject refers to their difficulty in obtaining their arrears of pay. One man, who had got the eight days' furlough to which a soldier is entitled on leaving hospital, could only obtain twenty-four shillings "advance of pay," though entitled to many pounds. It barely covered his train fare, and left him nothing for paying his living expenses (and his relations were very poor) or for pocket money. The Army is the only profession which I know in which a man receives, not the money to which he is entitled, but such proportion of it as the authorities like to disburse.
This is how the authorities satirize the lionizers, and not all the petting and the lionizing in the world will compensate for the denial of the elementary rights of a man., the right to choose his own visitors, to visit his own home, and to receive the money which he has earned.
A man soon tires of being petted and lionized, and craves in vain for the sane respect which is a man's due.
I am aware that there are many hospitals where soldiers are treated much more rationally, and I have never heard that they have abused their reasonable liberty. Nevertheless I feel that it is worth while to utter a protest against the state of affairs described above because it is, after all, so typical of the general failure of the Press, the public, and the powers that be to recognize that the soldier who has fought for his country has earned the right to be regarded as a man. He doesn't want to be petted. Heroics nauseate him. He is not a child or a hero. He is just a man who has done his duty, and he wants a man's due.
It is desirable that soldiers should receive their due now; but it is much more vitally important that when the war is over, and the craze for petting and lionizing has died down, it should be recognized that the soldier who has fought for his country is something more than a pet that has lost his popularity, and a lion that has ceased to roar. There is grave danger that all that will survive of the present mixed attitude towards the soldier will be the attitude of authority, which regards him as an irresponsible animal. For after all, this attitude is just that which before the war poisoned the whole administration of charity, and the whole direction of philanthropy. Before the war a cry was heard, "We don't want charity, we want the right to live a wholesome life." Too often the reply of the "upper classes" was to denounce the "ingratitude" of the poor. The cry that we hear now---"We are not pets or lions, but men"---is the same cry in a new guise. It is the cry of the working classes for a sane respect. Be sure that when the war is over that cry will be heard no less strongly, for the working classes have proved their manhood on the field of honor. In this time of trouble and good-will we have the chance to redeem the error of the past, and to lay the foundation of a nobler policy by adopting a saner, a wider, a more generous outlook; but we seem to be in a fair way to intensifying our error, and laying up endless difficulties in the days that are to come.
Concerning "A Student in Arms"
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