November 11, 1918. The newspapers tell us that to-day the signal to "cease fire " will be given. This news is called "Official," to give us assurance in the fog of myth. Maroons will explode above the City. Then we shall know it is the end of the War. We ought to believe it, because They tell us this; They who do everything for us--who order us what to think and how to act, arrange for our potatoes, settle the coming up and the going down of the sun, and who for years have been taking away our friends to make heroes of them, and worse. They have kept the War going, but now They are going to stop it. We shall know it is stopped when the rockets burst.
Yet "The War" has become a lethargic state of mind for us. We accepted it from the beginning with green-fly, influenza, margarine, calling-up notices, and death. It is as much outside our control as the precession of the equinoxes. We believed confidently in the tumultuous first weeks of the affair that mankind could not stand that strain for more than a few months; but we have learned it is possible to habituate humanity to the long elaboration of any folly, and for men to endure uncomplainingly racking by any cruelty that is devised by society, and for women to support any grief, however senselessly caused. Folly and cruelty become accepted as normal conditions of human existence. They continue superior to criticism, which is frequent enough though seldom overheard. The bitter mockery of the satirists, and even the groans of the victims, are unnoticed by genuine patriots. There seems no reason why those signal rockets should ever burst, no reason why the mornings which waken us to face an old dread, and the nights which contract about us like the strangle of despair, should ever end. We remember the friends we have lost, and cannot see why we should not share with them, in our turn, the punishment imposed by solemn and approved dementia. Why should not the War go on till the earth in final victory turns to the moon the pock-scarred and pallid mask which the moon turns to us?
I was looking, later this morning, at Charing Cross Bridge. It was, as usual, going south to the War. More than four years ago I crossed it on a memorable journey to France. It seemed no different to-day. It was still a Via Dolorosa projecting straight and black over a chasm. While I gazed at it, my mind in the past, a rocket exploded above it. Yes, I saw a burst of black smoke. The guns had ceased?
A tug passing under the bridge began a continuous hooting. Locomotives began to answer the tug deliriously. I could hear a low muttering, the beginning of a tempest, the distant but increasing shouting of a great storm. Two men met in the thoroughfare below my outlook, waved their hats, and each cheered into the face of the other.
Out in the street a stream of men and women poured from every door, and went to swell the main cataract which had risen suddenly in full flood in the Strand. The donkey-barrow of a costermonger passed me, loaded with a bluejacket, a flower-girl, several soldiers, and a Staff captain whose spurred boots wagged joyously over the stern of the barrow. A motor cab followed, two Australian troopers on the roof of that, with a hospital nurse, her cap awry, sitting across the knees of one of them. A girl on the kerb, continuously springing a rattle in a sort of trance, shrieked with laughter at the nurse. Lines of people with linked arms chanted and surged along, bare-headed, or with hats turned into jokes. A private car, a beautiful little saloon in which a lady was solitary, stopped near me, and the lady beckoned with a smile to a Canadian soldier who was close. He first stared in surprise at this fashionable stranger, and then got in beside her with obviously genuine alacrity. The hubbub swelled and rolled in increasing delirium. Out of the upper windows of the Hotel Cecil, a headquarters of the Air Force, a confetti of official forms fell in spasmodic clouds. I returned soon to the empty room of an office where I was likely to be alone; because, now the War was over, while listening to the jollity of Peace which had just arrived, I could not get my thoughts home from France, and what they were I cannot tell.
But there were some other memories, more easily borne. There was that night, for instance, late in the August of 1914, when three of us were getting away from Creil. It was time to go. We were not soldiers. Lying on the floor of a railway carriage I tried to sleep, pillowed involuntarily on someone's boot. I never knew to whom that foot belonged, for the compartment was chaos, like the world. The carriage light was feeble, and the faces I saw above me drooped under the glim, wilted and dingy. The eyes of the dishevelled were shut, and this traveller, counting the pulse of the wheels beneath, presently forgot everything . . . there was a crash, and my heart bounded me to my feet. There had been a fortnight of excitements of this kind. A bag fell and struck me back to the floor. Unseen people trampled over me, shouting. Somebody cried: "Here they are!" A cascade of passengers and luggage tumbled over to a station platform.
It was a chilly morning. And where were we? A clock in a tower said it was five. People hurried without apparent reason in all directions. So the world may appear to us if some day we find, to our surprise, that we have returned from the dead. I leaned against a lamp-post, my mind gravel-rashed, and waited for something that could be understood. The Germans would do. We heard the enemy was close, and that the railway officials would get us away if they could. The morning became no warmer, there was no coffee, and our tobacco pouches were empty. But at least we were favoured with the chance of watching the French railwaymen at work. This was a junction, and the men moved about as though they were only busy on holiday traffic. They were easy and deliberate. I could see they would hold that line to the last pull of cotton-waste, and would run their trains while there was a mile of track. So we learned gradually that confident invaders are baffled by railwaymen and other common people, such as old women insistent on their cows, almost as much as they are by bayonets. A country's readiness for war may be slight, yet the settled habits of the peaceful Nobodies, which are not reckoned by Imperialists when they are calculating the length of the road to conquest, are strangely tough and obstinate. You could go to a girl at the pigeonhole of a booking-office in France, demand a ticket for a place which by all the signs might then have fallen behind the van of the German Army, and she would hand the ticket to you as though she had never heard of the War. Then the engine-driver would go on towards the sound of the guns till you wondered, made uneasy by the signs without, whether he was phrenetic and intended to run the enemy down. The train would stop, and while the passengers were listening to the shells the guard would come along and give some advice as to the best thing to do.
A little ahead of the Germans, a train came into that junction and took us away. I fell asleep again, and presently awoke to see a sombre orchard outside my window of our stationary train. It was a group of trees entranced, like a scene before the stage is occupied. The grass in the twilight beneath the trees was rank. My sight fell drowsily to an abandoned képi, and, while wondering what had become of the man who used to wear it, I saw a bright eye slyly shut at me. A wink in the grass! A bearded face was laughing up at me from under the képi. A rifle with a fixed bayonet slid forward. Then I saw the orchard had a secret crop of eyes, which smiled at us from the ground. We moved on, and farewell kisses were blown to us.
Among the laurels of a garden beyond field batteries were in position. We crossed a bridge over a lower road and a stream. Infantry were waiting below for something, and from their attitudes seemed to expect it soon. My fellow-passengers were now awake to these omens. Broad streams of cattle undulated past our train going south, but west. "My poor Paris!" exclaimed a French lady. It was not for themselves these people were sorry. The common sort of people in the train were sorry for Paris, for all their unlucky fellows. The train moved with hesitancy for hours. During one long pause we listened to a cannonade. One burst of sound seemed very close. A young English girl, sitting in a corner with her infant, abruptly handed the child to her husband. She rummaged in a travelling case with the haste of incipient panic. She produced a spirit-lamp, a bowl, and a tin. She had suddenly remembered it was past her baby's feeding-time.
Who won the War for us? It was such folk. They turned in docility, with no more than a pause, a pause of ignorance and wonder, of dismay they could hardly conceal, from the accustomed order of their days to form vast armies, to populate innumerable factories for the making of munitions of war, and, while their households came everywhere to ruin, they held stubbornly to the task fate had thrust upon them; yet their august governors and popular guides, frantic and afraid through the dire retribution which had fallen on that monstrous European society which so many of us had thought eternal, abjured and abused the common sort whose efforts were all that could save us. What did they call the Nobodies? Slackers, cowards, rabbits, and field vermin mean creatures unable to leave their football and their drink. I recall one sombre winter's day of the first November of the War, when a column of wounded Belgian soldiers shambled by me, coming out of the Yser line, on the way to succour which I knew they would not find. The doctors and the hospitals were few. These fellows were in rags which were plastered to their limbs with mud. Their eyes had the vacant look of men who had returned from the grave and who had forgotten this world. The bare feet of some of them left bloody trails on the road. Others clutched their bodies, and the blood drained between their fingers. One dropped dead at my feet. I came home with that in my mind; and the next sunrise, hearing unusual sounds outside, I lifted the blind to a dawn which was cold and ominously scarlet behind skeleton trees. I saw beneath the trees a company of my young neighbours, already in khaki, getting used to the harshness of sergeants, and to the routine of those implacable circumstances which would take them to Neuve Chapelle, to Gallipoli, to Loos, to the Somme; names that had no meaning for us then.
That serious company of young Englishmen making soldiers of themselves in a day with so unpropitious an opening light did not look like national indifference. Those innocents getting used to rifles were as affecting as that single line of bodies I saw across a mile of stubble near Compiègne, where a rearguard of the "Contemptibles" had sacrificed themselves to their comrades. But one could not be sure. I went to find one who could tell me whether England was awake to what confronted it. I remembered he was a quiet observer, that he knew what allowance to make for those patriotic newspapers which so early were holding up in ruinous caricature their country and their countrymen for the world to see and to scorn. He was a scholar, he was a Socialist and a pacifist, he had a sense of humour to keep him balanced. But he had gone. He had enlisted; and he is dead.
It was a common experience. From the day the Germans entered Belgium a dumb resolution settled on our Nobodies. They did not demonstrate. They made long silent queues at the recruiting offices. It is true those offices were not ready for them and turned them away; and when by sheer obstinacy they got into the Army they were put into concentration camps that were as deadly as battle. That did not daunt them, nor turn them from their purpose, whatever that was, for they never said; and the newspapers, by tradition, had no time to find out, being devoted to the words and activities of the Highly Important. We therefore knew nothing of the munition factories that were springing up magically, as in a night, like toadstools, all over the country, and were barely aware that for some mysterious reason the hosts of the enemy were stopped dead on the road to Calais. Whose work was all this? But how should we know. Who can chronicle what Nobody does?
Sometimes there was a hint. Once again, when I returned from France in 1916, unhappy with a guess at what the future would be like, I learned that our workers were not working. They were drinking. They had been passionately denounced by the Great and Popular, and our Press was forced to admit this disastrous crime to the world, for fidelity to the truth is a national quality. I went to an engineer who would know the worst, and would not be afraid to tell me what it was. I found him asleep in his overalls, where he had dropped after thirty-six hours of continuous duty. Afterwards, when his blasphemous indignation over profiteers, politicians, and newspapers had worn itself out, he told me. His men, using dimmed lights while working on the decks of urgent ships, often forced to work in cramped positions and in all weathers, and while the ship was under way to a loading berth, with no refreshment provided aboard, and dropped at any hour long distances from home, were still regarded by employers in the old way, not as defenders of their country's life, but as a means to quick profits, against whom the usual debasing tricks of economy could be devised. A battleship in the north had been completed five months under contract time. Working girls, determined to make a record output of ammunition, persisted twenty-two hours at a stretch, topped their machines with Union Jacks, and fainted next morning while waiting for the factory gates to open. The spirit of the English! What virtue there is in bread and tea! Yet we might have guessed it. And again we might have remembered, as a corrective, how many grave speeches, which have surprised, shocked, and directed the nation, have been made by Great Men too soon after a noble dinner, words winged by the Press without an accompanying and explanatory wine list.
But the Nobodies are light-minded, casual, and good-hearted. Their great labour over, and their sacrifices buried, they have come out this day to celebrate the occasion with hilarious and ironic gaiety. They have won the Greatest of Wars, so they ride in motor-lorries and make delirious noises with comic instruments. Their heroic thoughts arc blattering through penny trumpets. They have accomplished what had been declared impossible, and now they rejoice with an inconsequential clatter on tea-trays and tin cans.
Yet some of us who watched their behaviour saw the fantastic brightness in the streets on Armistice Day only as a momentary veiling of the spectres of a shadow land which now will never pass. Who that heard "Tipperary" sung by careless men marching in France in a summer which seems a century gone will hear that foolish tune again without a sudden fear that he will be unable to control his emotion? And those Nobodies of Mons, the Maine, and the Aisne, what were they? The "hungry squad," the men shut outside the factory gates, the useless surplus of the labour market so necessary for a great nation's commercial prosperity. Their need kept the wages of their neighbours at an economic level. The men of Mons were of that other old rearguard, the hope of the captains of industry when there are revolts against the common lot of our industrial cities where the death-rates of young Nobodies, casualty lists of those who fall to keep us prosperous, are as ruinous as open war; a mutilation of life, a drainage of the nation's body that is easily borne by Christian folk who are moved to grief and action at the thought of Polynesians without Bibles.
Yet the Nobodies stood to it at Mons. They bore us no resentment. We will say they fought for an England that is not us, an England that is nobler than common report and common speech. Think of the contempt and anger of the better end of London just before the War, when, at the other end, the people of Dockland revolted and defied their masters! I knew one mother in that obscure host of ignorant humanity in revolt. Two of her infants were slowly fading, and she herself was dying of starvation, yet she refused the entrance of charity at her door, and dared her man to surrender. He died later at Ypres. He died because of that very quality of his which moved his masters and superiors to anger; he refused at Ypres, as he did in Dockland, like those who were with him and were of his kind, to do more than mock defeat when it faced him.
That figure of Nobody in sodden khaki, cumbered with ugly gear, its precious rifle wrapped in rags, no brightness anywhere about it except the light of its eyes (did those eyes mock us, did they reproach us, when they looked into ours in Flanders?), its face seamed with lines which might have been dolorous, which might have been ironic, with the sweat running from under its steel casque, looms now in the memory, huge, statuesque, silent but questioning, like an overshadowing challenge, like a gigantic legendary form charged with tragedy and drama; and its eyes, seen in memory again, search us in privacy. Yet that figure was the "Cuthbert." It was derided by those onlookers who were not fit to kneel and touch its muddy boots. It broke the Hindenburg Line. Its body was thrown to fill the trenches it had won, and was the bridge across which our impatient guns drove in pursuit of the enemy.
What is that figure now? An unspoken thought, which charges such names as Bullecourt, Cambrai, Bapaume, Croiselles, Hooge, and a hundred more, with the sound and premonition of a vision of midnight and all unutterable things. We see it in a desolation of the mind, a shape forlorn against the alien light of the setting of a day of dread, the ghost of what was fair, but was broken, and is lost.