The South Downs
May 22, 1920. The southern face of the hill fell, an abrupt promontory, to the woods of the plain. Its face was scored by the weather, and the dry drainage channels were headlong cascades of grey pebbles. Clumps of heather, sparse oak scrub with young leaves of bronze, contorted birch, and this year s croziers of the bracken (heaven knows their secret for getting lush aromatic sap out of such stony poverty), all made a tough life which held up the hill, steep as it was though the hill was going, for the roots of some of the oaks were exposed, empty coils of rope from which the burden had slipped. In that sea of trees whose billows came to the foot of our headland, and out of sight beneath its waves, children were walking, gathering bluebells. We knew they were there, for we could hear their voices. But there was no other sign of our form of life except a neolithic flint scraper one of us had picked up on the hill-top. The marks of the man who made it were as clear as the voices below. It had been lost since yesterday, it might be--anyhow, about the day the first Pyramid was finished. It depends on how one looks at the almanac. For you could feel the sun fire was young. It had not been long kindled. Its heat in the herbage was moist. One of the youngsters with me, bruising the bracken and snuffing it, said it smelt of almond and cucumber. Another said the crushed birch leaves smelt of sour apples. We could not say what the oak leaves smelt like. Then another grabbed a handful of leafmould, damp and brown and full of fibre. What did that smell of? They were not sure that they liked it. Perhaps it was the smell of the hill. They admitted that it wasn't a bad smell. They seemed a little afraid of that odour.
But I was trying to read, and neolithic times and the bluebell gatherers had run together. They were in the same day. My book had made of that May morning in Surrey an apparition without time and place. We hear ourselves laughing now, intent, for instance, on confirming the almond and cucumber in bruised bracken, or catch the sound of our serious voices raised in a dispute over literature or politics. But these things are not really in our minds. We would not betray our secret thoughts to bluebell gatherers and boys snuffing the bracken. This book I was reading, and a fancied resemblance in that hill and its prospect, moved the shadows again--they are so readily moved--and I saw two of us in France on such a hill, gazing intently and innocently over just such a prospect, in the summer of 1915, without in the least guessing what, in that landscape before us, was latent for us both. Those downs across the way would be Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval. Bluebells! The publishers may send out what advice they choose to authors concerning the unpopularity of books about the WarÄalways excepting, of course, the important reminiscences, the soft and heavy masses of words of the great leaders of the nations in the War which merely reveal that they never knew what they were doing. Certainly we could spare that kind of war book, though it continues to arrive in abundance; a volume by a famous soldier explaining why affairs went strangely wrong is about the last place where we should look for anything but folly solemnly pondering unrealities. But whatever the publishers may say, we do want books about the War by men who were in it. Some of us have learned by now that France is a memory of such a nature that, though it is not often we dare stop to look directly at it, for the day's work must be done, yet it looms through the importance of each of these latter days as though the event of our lives were past, and we were at present merely watching the clock. The shadow of what once was in France is an abiding presence for us. We know nothing can happen again which will release us from it. And yet how much has been written of it? That is the measure of its vastness and its mysteryÄit possesses the minds of many men, but they are silent on what they know. They rarely speak of it, except to one of the fraternity. But where are their thoughts? Wandering, viewless and uneasy wraiths, over Flanders, in Artois and Picardy. Those thoughts will never come home again to stay.
It is strange to me that publishers should suppose that books, intimate about the invisible but abiding shadow which is often more potent than present May sunshine, should not be wanted. Take for example this book I was reading, The Squadroon, by Ardern Beaman. To induce readers to buy it it has a picture on its dust-cover which kept me from reading it for weeks. This wrapper shows a ghostly knight in armour leading a charge of British cavalry in this War. I should have thought we had had enough of that romantic nonsense during the actual events. The War was "written up" for the benefit of readers who made a luxury of the sigh, and who were told and no doubt preferred to believe that the young soldier went into battle with the look we so admire in the picture called The Soul's Awakening. He was going to glory. There are no dead. There are only memorial crosses for heroes and the Last Post. The opinions of most civilians on the War were as agreeable as stained-glass windows. The thought of a tangle of a boy's inside festooned on rusty wire would naturally have spoiled the soul's awakening and the luxury of the sigh. I heard of a civilian official, on his way to Paris after the Armistice, who was just saved by rapid explanations from the drastic attention of a crowd of Tommies who mistook him for a War Correspondent.
But Mr. Beaman's book is not like war correspondence. It can be commended to those who were not there, but who wish to hear a true word or two. Mr. Beaman as a good-natured man remembers how squeamish we are, and, being also shy and dainty, indicates some matters but briefly. I wish, for one thing, that when describing the doings of his cavalry squadron after the disaster on the Fifth Army frontÄthe author enables you to feel how slender was the line of resolute men which then saved the Army from downfall--he had ventured to record with more courage the things which it shamed him to see. Why should only such as he know of those shocks to affability? But all he says about some unpleasant matters is: "During those days we saw things of which it is not good to speakÄof which afterwards we never did speak, except late at nights, in the privacy of our own mess."
Mr. Beaman's simple narrative, however, with its humanity and easy humour, often lets in light on strange affairs, as though he had forgotten what had been locked up, and had carelessly opened a forbidden door. He shuts it again at once, like a gentleman, and we follow him round hoping that presently he will do the same again. Ambrose Bierce could have made something of what is suggested in such a passage as this:"On the borders of this horrid desolation (the Somme) we met a Salvage Company at work. That warren of trenches and dugouts extended for untold miles. . . . They warned us, if we insisted on going further in, not to let any man go singly, but only in strong parties, as the Golgotha was peopled with wild men, British, French, Australian, German deserters, who lived there underground, like ghouls among the mouldering dead, and who came out at nights to plunder and kill, In the night, an officer said, mingled with the snarling of carrion dogs they often heard inhuman cries and rifle-shots coming from that awful wilderness. Once they (the Salvage Company) had put out, as a trap, a basket containing food, tobacco, and a bottle of whisky. But the following morning they found the bait untouched, and a note in the basket, 'Nothing doing!'"