From Out of Soundings, Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 15, p223-254.
A Footnote to the War Books
H. M. Tomlinson
AS for this subject of the war, and especially of literature as it relates to the war, it is said that some of us are a little crazy. It would not be easy, and it is not necessary, to deny it. I was asked once--there was a kindly thought, perhaps, that if I tried I might still the importunities of a haunting shadow: "Why don't you write about it?" That idea I considered--it looked attractive--but while reflecting the bright hope it occurred to me that a cynical enemy could accuse me of having written about nothing else since 1914. He could make a sound case, too, I fear.
He could interrupt to show that evidence for a bat or two aloft is manifest in me at this moment. It is, but I do not repine. There is good company and confidential gossip in my favourite asylum. Some of us live there not only with the quick; there are also the ghosts, and they have nothing against us now. They are even cheerful and intimate. In our seclusion with ghosts and the bats we have something to gossip about which is not sex, though that occasionally intrudes; and is not politics, except in brief and comic asides; and is not the relativity of time and space and other human standards, because that notion is as familiar to us as home, and as the place-names of the Somme. But books we sometimes discuss, especially books on the subject which is our lunacy--and it is something, is it not, to be able to regard an object of art with an intimate knowledge of what it could portray?--because Heaven help the writer, who, we will instance, puts a tin hat on a soldier at Neuve Chapelle, or doesn't know the qualities of the various sorts of French mud.
Now we pass freely in and out of that dire eastern postern of Ypres known as the Menin Gate it is comfortable to us at last. We recall, with a certainty of being understood, some other names, which are even deeper in time than Ypres: le Cateau, Soissons, Crépy-en-Valois, Meaux; for at least I heard the guns of the first battle of the Marne, without knowing at first whether they were to come this way or go that; but I heard those sounds grow less, for the first time in the early days of the war. No wild surmise upon a peak in Darien could have equalled my own, and that of two friends with me, in that bright September day. And for that and other reasons, which are no better than most that set cronies wasting time, I will confess that if now I get hold of a map of northwestern France I am lost for a spell.
I have been warned that this is indulgence. It is as deplorable in its effect, I am told, as bibbing.
What! To a fellow who heard men singing "Tipperary" in an autumn that seems to have been gone a century? To one who was frightened in the Ypres Salient when that appalling waste was already old, and tin hats and gas masks were all the go? When I stood amidst the dead on the Somme and the hills were erupting? Something to think about, there!
It cannot be helped now. Allow some of us to indulge--it is only more war casualties--and let happy and confident youth get on with its job of world reconstruction; for there, somehow, youth will kindly note, the ground still is, though cumbered with wreckage, for them to rebuild upon. And remember that there is this to be said for such an obsession as mine: though I saw something of it all, I was not a soldier. I but looked on, and therefore it happens to be my province to testify. Looking on was not altogether a task for a subsequent honourable decoration, I cheerfully admit, yet passively observing battle, and enduring long spells of the mud and monotony of war, was not so comfortable and interesting as might be supposed. It had its drawbacks. It is not so easy to watch other men do the dirty work; for one had to be with them, and sometimes when the occasion was distinctly unattractive. There was nothing--nothing worth speaking about--that one could do to help them. Most of them were youngsters, were even boys; and to have looked into their eyes, as one turned about for a quieter and safer place, and left to them a task they could not leave, is a haunting fact not easily exorcised. How can you and I dodge our responsibility for the work to which they had to be left in those days? For my part, I intend to rub it in till I die. It is about all I can do now. They left with us, we will bear in mind, their younger brothers, who mostly are unaware of the nature of war, even now.
But, you may reasonably plead, there have been other wars? That war was not peculiar, except in its extent and some details?
I can only reply that in the very early days of it, in August and September of 1914, you could have supposed the whole of Europe had been tilted up, and all its anciently established things were being up-ended and spilled down to the sea. It was a continental landslide. It was the greatest disturbance of mankind since the glaciers pushed out hunting forefathers down to the south. Was not that peculiar? The anciently established civil communities of Europe and their faiths were adrift again; and one may ask, Have they settled down yet?
We not only know they have not, but that they will not have settled down in our time. It has been said, I think by General Botha: "Humanity has struck its tents again, and once more is on the march." Whither?
So it begins to look as though we had about us something like a subject for an epic, if we could find the man to write it. And if it affords complaining critics any comfort, let them courageously pretend that what happened in Flanders and by the Maine and elsewhere was episodic; that such things have happened before, and may happen again. Let them pretend that they may pass over so many place-names in France, from Nancy to Dunkirk, names still portentous to some of us, as mere ploughlands once more, waste ground, cemeteries, and reconstruction. That will not do. It is useless to pretend, to deny, to ignore. I do not doubt that the men to whom Mons and Verdun and the Somme mean so much, were present when old Europe fell. They were right underneath when the roof came down. The downfall of Europe's august but faulty establishment, the end of the industrial era as our fathers knew it, with the collapse of its Imperialism under the weight of its own necessary and inevitable guns, and even rifts in its cathedrals and atenæums, are more than phrases. They really indicate inherencies of the common disaster and revolution. To the men who were in France they never were mere phrases. Those fellows read those phrases in a spectacle terrible enough to break up familiar acceptances and to destroy ancient faiths. The lesson could not have been more emphasized by a veritable archangel descending to earth to announce doom. There were days and nights on the Somme when the scene of earth suggested the day after the Last Day. "Things," the men used to say, "can't ever be the same again." They cannot be.
For some years after the war was over, publishers and readers were very shy of war books. Now, we learn, there is a distinct and growing disposition to revisit the glimpses. It is said that the public is now showing a desire to read, sometimes with wide approval, stories of war; stories of what we will agree to call The War.
The reading public was bound to come to that mood at last. During the conflict the emotions of the public were kept at high tension with shocks of propaganda, with rhetorical appeals to its love of virtue, which was itself, and to its hatred of vice, which was the enemy; with noble but brazen music; with luscious stories of heroes. The end came; and then it felt as did the man the morning after the orgy. Many good folk, too, who had not been unaware of the falsities about them but who sat patiently for years under bombing raids, or had waited, hoping they would not get the fatal message from the battle line which indeed did at last come to them, tried to forget it, though they found they could not. But they would not speak of it and would not read any more about it.
Yet somehow, vaguely, they felt those years of the war to be gravely significant. They surmised fearfully that their fellow creatures were the most dangerous animals on earth; were likely, in fact, to wreck this planet in a mood of resolute and exultant virtue. They lost faith in their neighbours, a loss which is called by some observers a revolt against democratic institutions; they began to think that evil was stronger than the healing powers, and to see progress only as another name for change, generally for the worse. They began to dread the impermanence of delicate truth in this world of huge and arrogant lies. They supposed, in fact, that most people worshipped a god who may be called Dagon, and that Dagon is a gleaming and highly efficient engine of overwhelming power which sets the pace for everything, and compels everybody to the direction of its predestined wheels. This engine, they saw, obliterated whatever got in its way. It went over truth and beauty, and nobody cared. So they gave up. As you know, most of the young men who were in the war, and survived, they gave up. They did not believe in anything any more, except the old lies they once thought they were destroying.
Yet in common opinion we may note now another change coming; for as to war, we are becoming inquisitive, and are turning to the sincere records of the last affair. We are growing disinclined for romantic nonsense. We have survived the fevered and heroic mood, and are not so moved as formerly by helpless sobs and laurel wreaths. We are afraid that graves are opening and that ghosts are gibbering.
In truth, they are. Exactly the kind of men and their agents for publicity whose so recent efforts to give us security all but finished us, exactly the same sort of people, we fear, are preparing to bestow on us still more of their ancient but empty magic. Yet something new in history is happening. We are doubting the old ways of attaining to peace and security. There is a possibility, we wonder, that good will may be safer than guns? We are losing an old dreary fatalism over whatever our governors, hidden behind an indifferent and cheerful public, may prepare for us, and are beginning to protest, with noticeable dislike, about being dragged into another obscene crime against intelligence like the last world-war. We know that the pomp and majesty of it, the sombre and throaty calls to national honour and great traditions, as now we give a backward glance, is all as ugly and distressing as foul play and a betrayal of the light. We are beginning to understand. That fine fellow we hear so much about, but never meet, the great military expert, who knows how to produce for us a security which the First Cause unfortunately omitted from the plans for genesis, if ever a final statue is raised to his memory will be shown with ears so long that happy wayfarers will never forget to laugh as they pass it. We are beginning to feel, in fact, that we may save our earth, if we try, and so are reading with a new interest, and for our better knowledge, what of truth there is to be got about the last affair.
How are we to recognise that shy virtue when we see it in a book? That recognition is not always an easy matter; yet is not the test for all literature the same? It is unimportant whether the subject is a nightingale in full song or the Passchendael ridges in 1917; we are, for some reason, aware of an unusual revelation. There is, we will say, unexpected light. There is no noise about light, and it is still. We are aware of what had been hidden from us. And light does not argue; it does not attempt to persuade; it is not rhetorical nor heroic. Like the common flowers of the field, which could well compare with the glories of a great king, light simply is. You need know nothing of the nature of light to understand well enough that you see things better by its aid than by, we will say, fireworks, which are so much more colourful, sensational, and decorative. Let us take, for one proof, a famous statesman's History of the War. The Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill's history has been welcomed, even by important critics, as "great prose." We should know something of prose, for we are not unaware of Browne, Bunyan, Swift, Sterne, and Lamb. There are also Melville, Hardy, and Doughty. So there is not much excuse for us when deliberately, after a critical scrutiny, which suggests we have a right to judge, we give to limelight the honour which should go to the broadening of dawn. I have read the right honourable gentleman's recent and famous history, and I find this in its first volume, He describes for us the methods of diplomatists, and the consequence of their expert deliberations:
"They sound so very cautious and correct, these deadly words. Soft quiet voices purring, courteous, grave, exactly measured phrases in large peaceful rooms. But with less warning cannons had opened fire and nations had been struck down by this same Germany. So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, and at last defenceless?" "We may picture it," this writer assures us, "this great fleet, with its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought."
Steel castles bowed in anxious thought! Wireless whispers! Belly-ripping torpedoes! Murder leaping out of darkness! It gives a reader the fear that the performer may, in his exultation, step right over the footlights and let his eloquence have its way on the big drum.
Is wisdom there? It looks to me as though there were a lack of control, which is not wise. Is light there? Yes, of a kind, the kind which comes in chromatic beams from the wings to give an object on the stage an appearance it does not own. It is, I should say, eloquence in an Eton collar on Speech Day. It is intended to impress us; and we may doubt that genuine eloquence ever so intends. "But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity." That moves us; yet I think Browne was merely talking aloud to himself, a lonely man who was deeply stirred by his vision of the world, and felt the need to speak, yet had but one hearer. It was the expression of the natural rhythm of his mind. He was unconscious of it. If we think we ought to be eloquent because the subject deserves it, and try to be, then we are not. The test for a book about the war is the same as that for any other sort of book.
There is another war book which shows whether or not the quality of the writing is different where a writer is moved, first of all, by sympathy for his fellows and sorrow for their state. This passage, from C. E. Montague's Disenchantment, concerns Cologne, 1918, when the war was over:
"For the day of the fighting-man, him and his chivalric hobbies, was over. The guns had hardly ceased to fire before from the rear, from the bases, from London, there came flooding up the braves who for all those four years had been squealing threats and abuse, some of them begging off service in arms on the plea that squealing was indispensable national work. We had not been long in Cologne when there arrived in hot haste a young pressman from London, one of the first of a swarm. He looked a fine strong man. He seemed to be one of the male vestals who have it for their trade to feed the eternal flame of hatred between nations, instead of clearing out stables, or doing other work fit for a male. His train had fortunately brought him up just in time for luncheon. This he ate and drank with good will, complaining only of the wine, which seemed to me to be good, that it was not better. He then slept on his bed until tea-time. Reanimated with tea, he said, genially, 'Well, I must be getting on with my mission of hate,' and retired to his rooms to write a vivacious account of the wealth and luxury of Cologne, the guzzling in all cafés and restaurants, the fair round bellies of the working-classes, the sleek and rosy children of the poor. I read it, two days after, in his paper. Our men who had helped to fight Germany down were going short of food at the time, through feeding the children in houses where they were billeted."
That has no eloquence,, except so much as indignation will give to good sense and kindly feeling when recording an outrage on fellowship. Montague gave us the first book on the war which compelled us to look upon that affair objectively, to see it as something which had a nature and history not necessarily related to the emotions we had cherished for more than four years. When his Disenchantment came for appraisement to the office where I posed as literary editor, I put it in my pocket, and for some reason got into an underground train and overshot several stations beyond my destination. I thought, indeed, I heard at last the accents of the truth about a matter, concerning which I knew, to my grief, Truth so far had said no more than she could get up from the bottom of her well when the cover was kept on it. If I chose to be critical, I might say that to be disenchanted one first must be enchanted. No matter; Montague, though much too old for it, did more than the fiercest fire-eater on the home front could have expected of a man of his years; he served in the line, and he served at a base when he was far too sagacious about battle and its relevant matters to be among Brass Hats. He had had to judge the flight of minenwerfers so that he might not be there when they burst; yet he also went to live in France at General Headquarters where he could watch such intrigues, described for us in that revealing story--not in the least fanciful, I have reason to know--Honours Easy, in his Fiery Particles.
There is no answer to his indictment. There you have the transit of a loyal soldier who happened to have a mind of his own, from his original pure intent in a high cause to the day when he had no illusions left. His book has been called sad. For that matter, we know that to read any masterpiece of literature exalts us with the suggestion of kinship with a noble line; and the shadow falls across its pages from the weird which man must dree. In my experience it is always there. And on the pages of Disenchantment the shadow is plain enough. What else would we expect from that title, in the book of a sober comrade who would have us remember the nameless boy, seen by the light of a star-shell briefly in the desolation his betters had made, and then lost forever? We may be sure it was the strain of those years which ended Montague too soon. But his book remains, the first, and one of the best essays at recording those years we have had, or are likely to have. His book will endure. He would be the last to complain that he had to pay the full price for it.
There have not been enough books to go with it, even now, to make a lengthy bibliography. One of the earliest of the English--it is forgotten now--was called Field Ambulance Sketches, by A. Corporal. Let it be not thought unliterary to speak heartily of a corporal's sketches of ambulance work because Homer sang of Troy. What is Troy, when we remember Delville Wood? This corporal was at Neuve-Église, which is, or was, behind Plug Street, when the Germans broke through in April, 1918. The Corporal's was actually the first book I read of the front which was not heroic swipes. "Occasionally," he says, "above the darker gloom of the trees one of the new star-shells would rear its white face, like a cobra in an opium dream, and stand there a few moments, expanding its hood and slavering sparks, until, its suspicions apparently allayed, it faltered, relaxed its watchful pose, and sank again to cover." When a man can write like that about a star-shell he is worth attention when he has to tell us of Passchendael in 1917. He was there with a group of stretcher-bearers, playing cards in a dug-out, waiting for "zero," which was 3.30 A.M.; and later there was a man on a stretcher, with no face, who had a last message to give them; and the man wished to confess that, just before the grenade got him, he had stolen a pot of marmalade. He was grieved, that man. He wished to own up before he died.
That pot of marmalade is more momentous than a Cabinet Minister's steel castles bowed in anxious thought. For the truth is simple. It is of the heart; the mind will give it form, but had better not attempt to improve it. From the desire to heighten and improve came the books about the war which we will not read now, though once we thought they were wonderful. The impulse to suggest the sound of drum-fire by words resembling the rolling of drums is dangerous. The sound of drum-fire was hardly that, except superficially. What was that stately sound? Perhaps it was no more than beat through the mind of the draper's assistant when he heard it, and knew he must make his way stoutly right into it, through the mud and wire. Perhaps if we want Truth at any time we shall have to surprise her. She is shy. Words rolling like drum-fire seem to scare her clean out of sight. Her secret is in the heart of the draper's assistant, and he, poor fellow, doesn't know it. After all, though with klaxons, loud speakers, and other mechanical aids for making presences known, it still may not be in the wind and not in the tempest that Truth is speaking; yet we are in such a hurry nowadays, and are on the alert for such stentorian warning of what is important, that we may completely miss hearing that fabulous gentle voice. And better for our composure, perhaps, that we are deaf to it; for when and if it is heard, it will make a difference. As simple and inevitable as the Parables, I remember, were Georges Duhamel's short stories of the war. You will find them in two books, Civilization and the New Life of Martyrs. When you begin one of his stories about a prone figure in a casualty station--Duhamel was a surgeon, but he is also a poet--you are at once arrested. You are not too pleased about it, either, if you do not wish to change your preconceptions of heroes. But that French surgeon's eye is compelling, though mild. It does not permit an easy escape. And presently, with oblique and trifling words that suggest a more dreadful doom than that brought to a ship and her men by the untimely death of an albatross, you find your notion of the war suffering a change. The Irish have a saying that a man may sleep comfortably on another man's wound. And Duhamel tells us that man must suffer in his flesh alone, and that that is why war is possible. Then he tells us a story or two.
Yes, he has disclosed the secret. We can so easily bear the sufferings of others, especially if we do not even hear the boy crying in No Man's Land where none may aid him. Let us imagine that in a war every civilian concerned developed continuous neuralgia, which could ease and vanish only when "Cease fire" sounded on the battle front. Now think of the long queues of people, their sallow faces wrapped in flannel, to be seen, dismal and grievous, waiting for an urgent word with premier or president, waiting to consult noble lords and senators and right honourable gentlemen on the period set for their agony; and those august experts, poor noble fellows, helped by fire in all their teeth, would themselves be wondering in involuntary tears whether it were better to use common sense, or go on to a knock-out blow, bankruptcy, and still larger cemeteries of heroes. But man suffers in his flesh alone; and that is why war is possible. Yet Duhamel does in a measure resolve the cruel enigma. One cannot read his stories without finding that pity and remorse diminish the glorious and ecstatic show of war, and silence its trumpets and drums with the sight of a man in a bed, who, in a sense, is now no man at all. His decoration lies on the coverlet, but he does not see it. The war is what went on in the mind of the draper's assistant, and of his wife, who, one evening, stood with an official telegram at her gate, and stared down the empty road.
Out of sheer gratitude for a novel which reads like that of a master, free, cheerful, and even exuberant, critics have hailed Sergeant Grischa as the first really great novel of the war. That is not right. R. H. Mottram's Spanish Farm trilogy is just as masterly in its scope and significance, and it happens to be English. Mottram's rendering of the scene in Flanders is a gift of the gods, and we ought to be proportionately grateful for receiving what we never get except the gods are kind to us. The Spanish Farm entitles the English to speak up for themselves in this matter of war literature. Nevertheless, you cannot read the opening chapters of Sergeant Grischa without recognizing in surprise and wonder the signs of genius at its task, absorbed and happy, haughty in its sweeping gestures, careless of our habits of thought, bringing things to pass out of what seems to be nothing, showing us casual irrelevances which grow into significance as we look on in bewilderment. There the rare miracle is. Germany in that book is shown to be what any nation must be in war, when logic shall justify all crimes beneficial to a noble cause, when lies undergo a change and become truth, and deceit is a virtue, and the worst is the best. War makes every pushful duffer important. It cheers all the eager busybodies. It liberates to full usefulness, for our improvement, every humbug, coward, and charlatan, who sees his opportunity. The good men mostly die; the others live on. Sergeant Grischa dies.
There is Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War. Something in Blunden's story is more than queer. As you read deeply into it your uneasiness grows. This poet's eye is not in a fine frenzy rolling. There is a steely glitter in it. It appears to be amused by drolleries not obvious to us. It is as though, in the midst of a pleasing and animated conversation after dinner, you fancied you heard distant and indeterminate music not altogether unfamiliar. What was that? You withdraw your attention a little from the talk to get a clue to those disturbing strains; you become absent in mind from the lamplight and the cosy talk, and see an outer world of dubious reflections and ominous shapes, a region vast and dark and as cold to human hope and aspiration as a polar solitude. What, at dinner? Yes, there the heads of happy talkers remain between you and that foreboding night, still animated and unaware, and they continue to say nothing while making foolishly eager movements. You have to pull yourself together--come out of that disturbing dream--begin to chatter again with the others. Blunden's book, in fact, is by a ghost for other ghosts; some readers will not know what it is all about they will say so, not being ghosts, and seeing none. Yet it is a humorous book, though its fun is wan through its pale fun you can see the tangibilities of today solid in their appropriate places. You soon have more than a suspicion that Blunden is not addressing us at all, but presences not visible. His cheerful voice is addressed over our shoulder, and our amusement fades when that fancy chills it.
We turn round, and nothing is there! This ghostly play, once we are aware of it, disturbs our confidence in the tangibilities of our own hearty day with a hint that there are tidings withheld. What is it the shades know and laugh over?
Blunden says nothing about that. Why should he? The shades would know it, and so need not be told. Yet the uneasy reader persists in trying to find out. He suspects that this is a rare book in which much is secreted in the blank spaces; the best of it, maybe. He might be overhearing, by chance, allusive but exciting reminiscences by men out of sight. At first he supposes their shattering adventures were by the body and of the sword; then becomes awed by more than a suspicion that these reminiscences are of something worse than the blood, mire, and the shocks of war's explosions. Somebody was shot through the heart, we gather, yet continued to smoke and laugh. Something was worse than the fury of the enemy. What was it? The listener wonders whether it might have been the old folk at home; for the soldier appears to have been lonelier in spirit when in London and more antagonistic to what was current there than when on his belly at night behind the German wire wondering whether he would get what was meant for him. He had a better understanding of Fritz than of us. We were the aliens. There was understanding through common adversity in France; in London there was but a revival of the old horrible hue-and-cry, and to the soldier home "on leave" that was dismaying. Yet no. It is not that. Though that may have been so, it will not account for all we find in book--or rather, for what falls across it like a shadow, sounds through it as an elfish laugh. Is it any good trying to understand the ghost of a child who has played knuckle-bones in hell for shocking forfeits? As a haunting presence it has some upsetting ways, especially when it would play with us by the study fire, after midnight. You find yourself hoping that nobody else in the house heard that laugh. Somehow, though, its spectral merriment is more to us than all the starry host.
There is loveliness in this narrative of Blunden's. Let no man read it who fears the magic of names: Mesnil, Beaumont Hamel, Givenchy, Festubert, Mazingarbe, Zillebeke, Thiépval, Richebourg St. Vaast. And Ypres! The jags of that city's pallid ruin, with imprisoned echoes jibbering at the hurrying wayfarer, rise again in Blunden's story. The fellows who went through the Menin Gate of Ypres and vanished, they live again, and glints and suggestions of the night which swallowed them; the face of a pal seen for a moment by the light of a star-shell; the friends in a dug-out eyeing each other while waiting to be buried ("we do not exist"); the elder chum who ignored the worst of it, whose complexion was always rosy, whose solidity could not be moved by any sudden frightfulness, and who jollied his weaker brethren then with steadying advice; the boozy sergeant-major, good-humoured and soft, who became a centre of gravity when things went wrong. After all, the men are the best of Blunden's book; and that is right. That at least we were sure to get from a poet. This story of war stirs and proceeds with living figures, and its scenes are authentic with trifles forgotten till Blunden reminds us of them. The old front line comes back. It is solid. You can hear the mud of The Salient when the duck-boards squelch under the feet of unseen men "going up" at night. You can smell the Somme. You may potter around Mesnil, and shudder again in the silence of its ghastly sunlight. And if to stir those apprehensions does not mean we are reading good prose, then there is no other way of proving it that I know. Yet there is more in the book than that. Something æolian breathes through its lines. You may hear echoing, as one used to hear desolation murmuring when the night was suspect and the flares above the trenches were few before dawn, the wonder and awe of the sacrificed who did not know why this had come to them; for Blunden's is a tribute to the unknown soldier more lasting than the pomps about a cenotaph.
This is not the place to mention the Divisional histories, the memoirs, the oddments, the books about the war which nobody but old soldiers and a few others ever look at; I wish it were. I have a room full of such books, and old trench maps, to which I retire when the wind is north-north-east. There is one fragment of a record I value greatly--I have read it many times and always with regret that it so soon ends: Herbert Read's In Retreat. Nobody but an English scholar could have gone through such a dire experience in such detachment, and then have written about it as though prolonged disaster were rather like a wet day; but how Read's simple words vibrate with the anger he suppressed! One other short story I know, Two Masters, by A. W. Wheen, cannot be discussed, for like Melville's Pierre it poses us with a question which not many men dare answer. And there are one or two poets I would name. I cannot see my own quiet nook complete now without Siegfried Sassoon's war poems. They have grown essential to it, like the familiar and allusive voice of a friend who knows, without prompting, where one's thoughts are at midnight. Through Sassoon's poems sound the intimacies of men whose voices we shall never hear again.
And the other poets--and we ought to pay some attention to their common opinion--tell us of a young soldier, who went west just before the final signal was given, and who left with us a poem called Strange Meeting. You will find it in a slim volume published by Chatto & Windus. Owen's fellow poets tell us, in confidence, that Strange Meeting is the best poem out of the war. And I think we may, when reading it a second and a third time, begin to hear then, in strange music, a lament for all that light and loveliness which was extinguished too soon, when we were so very sure our ardours and endurances were establishing the right of virtue to exist upon the earth. The man was slain who wrote Strange Meeting. He died within reach of the Armistice. And so now, as the echoes die away from our late victorious cheering, we may, by chance, if reflective in the ensuing quiet, hear the faint echo of another appealing cry of long ago . . . "For they know not what they do."
Yet it is said that heroes are the less heroic when they cry out, though in a measure which makes poets of them, against the hardships and suffering inevitable in war. It is a sign in them, some people say, of softness. They may be poets then, but are less than stout men. The true soldier endures the worst we can inflict upon him and says no word. We are told to believe that only inferior men cry out when they are hurt; it may be taken as sad evidence that civilization weakens character when young soldiers, having survived the mud and explosions of four years of warfare, emerge from their hell to tell us what it was like, and to protest against so cruel an iniquity.
It may be so. Yet we ought to remember that it was a point of honour in Red Indians to keep a straight face even when they were being flayed alive. Savage men endure afflictions stoically, even to death, without any quickening of the intelligence. They never reflect that their punishment may be the consequence of savagery. We hear of an appeal to Heaven forced out long ago by torture, when the victim felt he was forsaken. Was that a sign of a soft defect in the character of the victim?
My own surmise is that this stern reproval of protesting young soldiers by cool and realistic critics is in itself a sign of secret fear. When people are afraid, they greatly dislike having the cause of their fear indicated to them. They will not look at it, and get angry when invited to do so. They assert roundly that they are superior to whatever may be disturbing their minds. Good men, it was my experience when watching men at war, fear not to confess their fear, for they are aware that the stoutest heart never knows when it may fail. This reproval of anguished cries forced from torn bodies and lacerated minds by the cruelty of the machine-made horror of modern war is itself merely a sign of timid barbarism. Barbarians keep straight faces under torture; that is the barbaric code. We hear that Priam forbade the Trojans to weep when, during a truce, they and the Greeks were burying their dead. He thought weeping would soften his men, and that they would show less resolution on the morrow. Agamemnon did not ban sorrow to the Greeks; he was not afraid of his men. A soft-hearted man I know, a gunner, during one of the final ferocious battles in France, had a brother in the line before his guns. The infantry that day captured the German trenches; they broke the Hindenburg line. And that gunner, advancing his battery in haste after the retreating enemy, found a captured trench before him. He could not get his wheels over it. He filled the hollow with the bodies of the British who had fallen in the attack upon it, and amongst them was the body of his brother; and over those piled bodies the guns were driven. That gunner is a sentimentalist. He wept when he told me of it, long after. Were his tears a sign of weakness?