At dusk on the tenth of November 1918, the battalion of which I was signal officer halted at the Mons-Maubeuge road, a little to the north of Maubeuge. We had been marching hard all day vainly trying to establish contact with the retreating enemy. At dawn the next morning the colonel ordered me to march headquarter details back to Bavay, some miles to the rear, and find billets. I was surprised and a little shocked at this order. It seemed to me that our plain duty was to pursue the enemy by forced marches and bring his rear guards to action. But I was in no sense displeased; a few days' or even one day's rest would be very welcome. Rumor had it that the fast-marching Light Infantry would take our place.
We were in complete ignorance of the real situation. Since we had entered the burning city of Cambrai in October we had seen no newspapers, our letters from home told us nothing, and life had narrowed down to marching and fighting. We all believed that another two years must elapse before we got to Berlin.
About halfway on our march a staff officer rode up, and shouted to me that an armistice had been signed and would come into effect at eleven. He waved his hand in answer to my salute and galloped off. We had been fed so long on falsely optimistic news that I didn't quite believe him, especially as there was heavy gunfire to the north, which I believe was some peppy Canadians having a last-minute show on their own. Later, round about noon, the colonel showed me the official notification. I found an abandoned hovel, lay down on the dirty floor, and slept the sleep of exhaustion. The war was over, and we could rest at last.
After dinner that night, as soon as etiquette allowed, I left the officers' mess and walked out alone. It was a mild dark November night with a few misty stars, and some of the men were using up Very lights and SOS signals as fireworks. But what impressed me was the silence. For the first time in those endless years there was no night firing. Minute after minute passed with that beautiful silence flowing by like a soundless river of peace. Yet the habits of war had become so mechanical, the idea of peace was still so new and unbelievable, that I had unconsciously taken my gas mask and steel helmet.
The feelings and reflections of that insignificant young subaltern can be of no interest or importance to the world, except that they were typical of what millions of young soldiers were feeling and thinking that night. In the capitals and great cities of the Allies the civilian populations were shrieking and dancing in an orgy of hysterical triumph and rejoicing. But in the armies there was silence. Long before the cult of the Unknown Soldier and the Two-Minute Silence, the surviving soldiers in the battle area celebrated the eleventh of November in silence. While the imagination of civilians was intoxicated by the vivid but empty word ‘victory,’ the imagination of the soldier was heavy with ghostly silent battlefields and the innumerable lines of crosses. No doubt it was right that the civilians should rejoice and the soldiers mourn. An army is a body of young men dedicated to destruction that the rest of the community may survive. How natural that it should count its losses while the community rejoices in its own safety.
So that at first my thoughts were of the Somme and Arras battlefields, where so many interminable months of my life had been passed. And in all of them I mentally revisited places (now lost to my memory) where a cross or a little cluster of crosses marked the end of men with whom I had lived and marched and fought. Then came, with a shock of surprise, a slight feeling of pride in what we had done. That invincible German army had not been so invincible after all.
Two recent memories came to mind. One was of a division of French cavalry passing through our lines in pursuit of the retreating enemy. Under their neat steel helmets I recognized types of all the historical French armies of the past. There was the lean sallow medieval man-at-arms whose ancestors had met mine at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. There was the Renaissance soldier with trim pointed beard and intelligent eyes, the careless laughing soldier of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic grognard with heavy drooping Gaulish moustache, but above all the new hard-faced soldier of the World War. In them I saluted the imperishable vitality of France.
The other memory was also not a week old. It was of the Third British Army pouring through the square of an old French town, also in pursuit. I watched them for hours — infantry, artillery, supply transport, cavalry, passing, passing, passing. There was something almost terrible in their grim determination, in that superb demonstration of power, for they passed in silence. The songs and whistlings with which they had kept up their spirits in disappointment and defeat were gone. They kept their breath to march on. You heard nothing but the rumble of wheels and the rhythmic tramp of feet, urgent, hastening, left-right, left-right, left-right, the men's bodies bowed a little forward in the urgency of pursuit. It was quite terrific. We, who had taken that town a few hours earlier, watched them pass, not without emotion.
Human nature being what it is, I thought of myself. Again with a shock of surprise I realized that the provisional minute-to-minute surviving was gone. Many months before, I had exceeded the average expectation of life of an infantry subaltern. By all mathematical rules I ought to have been dead long ago. And my amazing luck had held to the end. Instead of counting my possible future life by hours, I could now count it by years. It was a gift almost of immortality. Of course, I realized, with a comical solemnity, that I was now an old man — I was just twenty-six — and therefore could not expect to make any great success in the world. But there would still be books to read and write, places and old buildings and pictures and sculpture to see, — I might even see again the Italy I had planned to revisit in September 1914, — and there would be gay evenings with friends (those who still lived) and walks over roads with no shell holes in them.
Not until three months later, when I was demobilized, did I discover that the most unwanted, disliked, and cold-shouldered person in the civilization he was supposed to have saved was the returned soldier. He was severely satirized on the London stage — sure mirror of public opinion — for wanting to exist as anything but the servant of the successful profiteer, the gentleman 'of national importance' who was too precious to lose in battle.
What right had cannon-fodder to survive?
But what of the great aims for which we had fought, the terms of the Armistice and the terms of the Peace to come? I knew nothing of the Armistice terms, for I was not consulted. As to the Peace, I assumed that, since we had now kicked the Prussian good and hard in the pants, we should make a just, generous, and lasting peace with the admirable German people. Like millions of other Allied soldiers, I had saved one thing from the wreck of all hopes and beliefs — an almost fanatical faith in Woodrow Wilson. How that civilian knew what we were thinking and feeling was a mystery to us, — who found most civilians incomprehensibly bloodthirsty and vindictive, — but he had done so and we believed in him. If he had told us to shoot our own generals I think we would have done it. Marshal Foch was officially commander of all the armies of Europe, but their true commander was President Wilson. If only he had known it! We knew we were only the cannon-fodder which had chanced to escape, but we also knew that Wilson would make the world afresh, not for us we were old men, finished, used-up — but for those who came after us.
Now there is war again. The children, the babies, the unborn, for whom we fought in the sure and certain hope that what we suffered would never be endured by them, face each other once again on the battlefields of Europe. There is no need for me to repeat the grievous tale of the blunders of French, British, and American politicians which created Hitlerism and forced this new war on an unwilling world. Once again, we are all guilty, and America nearly as much as the rest. I say 'nearly' because the old quarrel was not America's, and because I believe that America entered the last war for no paltry material motive but with the high moral purpose of ending war forever and building a new world. But heavy, heavy is the responsibility on those who withdrew American cooperation and cool common sense from the chaotic turmoil of post-war Europe. If only you could have been a little patient, if only you could have realized that the war-tormented peoples were not quite sane.
It is too late, and recrimination is vain. Now I am haunted by the thought that American idealism will again precipitate this great nation into war. I hope it will not be so. In the last war, America did its generous best, and failed — whether through its own weakness or the weakness of others, I do not presume to say. But now it has only one task — to preserve in peace those inheritances of European culture which the coming years will see destroyed in Europe. The only possible future for Europe is that it shall be recolonized in years to come with the civilization preserved in an intact America.