The Winter's War

THE doctors have pronounced me fit again, and in seven days I go back to France — to summer, to sunshine, and, possibly, to dryness. That level country northwest of Armentières, — it never looked as though a hundred suns could dry it. For three months almost, ever since the day they carried me to hospital, my mind has been out there, picturing the mud, the new men come to take the places of the fallen, wondering what line we held, and whether the old billets, the old landmarks, still remained, or whether they were shoved behind us. A week from now I shall know.

We had stuck out the winter and seen the approach of spring; everything was looking easier — and then I was carried away. My main sensation was one of disappointment. I had felt so thoroughly acclimatized — ‘salted,’ our doctors call it. Under the circumstances there was nothing for it but to submit; and here I am in England, waiting for seven more days to pass, and enjoying my recovered strength.

I had had four months of crowded life, masculine, abrupt, and strenuous. Sometimes it seemed a severance from all I had known before, the beginning of a new life; at other times it seemed tedious beyond words and gray with all monotony. Soldiering has its moods and varying phases, I soon discovered, — these held in place by the automatic checks of discipline, discipline accepted and become a habit; discipline grown to a faith and a religion. By its aid I discovered that I could go without sleep, rise at unearthly hours, hold on to my wits until no wits were needed, go hungry or thirsty as luck decreed, and accept the whole position without rebellion.

I had come new to war like most of us, and sometimes it was a matter of curiosity with me to watch how the human machine stood the sheer physical wear and tear of it. One saw men grow ten years older under one’s eyes, so to speak; or one saw them tougher and tougher till they seemed unbreakable — a pathetic enough error when the shock came.

The newspapers have described the invisible qualities of this war: the seemingly empty fields, the disguised guns, the sheer blank that confronts the spectator with eyes searching the earth. Up in the air matters may be more lively. Shell-bursts make little clouds; the aeroplanes hum; sometimes you may see the flash of a heavy howitzer as well as hear the boum of its report. It was a dull business last winter — unseen and haphazard death, with little apparent method or objective. At night, however, it occasionally grew dramatic. Sounds that were like some dim performance in the day swelled up at night and rapidly became orchestral. The din of the motor-transport was hushed, one lay alone in the darkness with one’s thoughts, and presently the rifle-fire would roar and ebb and flow like an angry sea. The voices of the guns seemed to draw closer. Yes, it was terrible if your imagination ran loose, peopling the darkness; but perhaps it was your luck to be snug in your sleeping-bag, with boots actually off and your head on an air-cushion. Then, ‘D—n it,’ you would say, ‘I’m going to sleep, I am. I don’t care what happens so long as I get some sleep.’ In the morning you would go out to the field where a couple of shells, mercifully short, had blown their craters in the mud. The young wheat was coming through, and you would stand entranced by the sunrise.

One of the most poignant memories, it may be, that I have brought back from the war is the unearthly beauty of the dawn in that low country. Morning after morning I watched it, and the wonder never ceased. Water, mirroring willows and the silvery sky, stood ever in the foreground; the low farmhouses lay mysterious; the battered church was whole again. With the full light and an awakened world the picture was commonplace; in the half light and the silence its beauty seemed the one spiritual element in a ravaged world.

That hour passes and the business of the day begins. Each day is like its fellow and there is no rest on the Sundays. Here, behind the firing line, you see this traffic at its densest; the roads are full of men and every form of traction. The horse-transport comes out and drives off to its rendezvous; the motor lorries roll up to empty the supply trains; the cavalrymen — a useless arm just now — go winding down the roads to exercise the horses; away in the meadows you see men digging precautionary lines of trenches, in case the enemy break through. Outside the billets men come marching in, mudstained, unshaven. They have been relieved and exchange greetings with a company drawn up previous to a close inspection. The well-greased rifles are speckless, while those of the returning men are muddied and often broken. Well in the open again, you meet an artilleryman with a roving anti-aircraft gun. For three months, he will tell you, he has carried on his small command, and every one of his five hits has been a fluke. The weapon, painted red and green and yellow so as to look like nothing from above, is wearing out. For some unexplained reason he wears the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor; and he will not tell you why, nor do you ask him. A few minutes later you discover a kilted orderly shaving by the roadside. His lathered chin amuses you and you pass on. Here at the Front nothing surprises you; down at the Base men carry on as though they were at home.

One day, quite unexpectedly, I ran into three young men from my own village. I came to them as something familiar in a land full of strangeness and a life all new to them. It was pleasant to see how they brightened and quite forgot their homesickness. I lunched that day with a colonel fresh from the grave of his only son. He too was from my own country, so there was something else to speak about. We ran over a dozen friends, all members of this great brotherhood. For that is what our army has become at last. The social cant and class distinctions have all gone down before the test of war.

One spirit we have inherited from the old army: the fire of its traditions has never burned so brightly; we guard that flame as religiously as ever it was upheld before. All the old regiments are alive to-day, and some — the most splendid — have grown to brigades and overrun into divisions. It is no uncommon thing to find a twentieth battalion of a famous name, and the youngest recruit carries forward the old pride and wears his badges as a personal distinction. A queer thing, our army, with its individual choice and clan or territorial claims. I do not think the French have ever understood that side of it. Their regiments of the line carry numbers, and one number is much the same as any other. I spent a lively half hour with an old French lady trying to explain the difference. She had wanted to know why our men were so spick and span and groomed themselves so assiduously. It was the regiment and not the man who counted, I tried to say, the regiment with two hundred years behind it. She caught the point at last, and said it was all very well in a small army. ‘It will be all the same in a big one,’ I ventured; ‘our men join the Gordons or the Buffs, and they would make their choice with conscription.’

Somehow, here at home, one recalls mainly the things that touched one; the things against which one steeled one’s self are left behind. I see the long hospital train at a certain station and the stretcher-bearers bringing in the wounded, gray-faced and prone, yet still, perhaps, content. Their quiet suffering always had an eloquence that was most noble. The worst cases are concealed by a blanket that is almost like a shroud. One passes these as though one were in church during a service. With this, one has a picture of the new men rolling in. They come in their thousands — fresh-faced lads from every quarter. There is something virginal about them at the start; they feel their inexperience, the strangeness of a foreign country; we whom they find here are treated as veterans. One stands on the sidewalk watching the long columns, a lump in one’s throat, proud of the youth and health and pluck of them. ‘ Are there any men left in England?’ asks a Frenchwoman who for months and months has seen the transports in the quay outside her shop. At Havre and the other landingplaces they have evidence that Britain is doing her share unstintedly and well.

The French are a generous race. Half a dozen times has a chance-met party volunteered the statement that without us all would have been over in the autumn of last year. A little watchmaker with whom I had some dealings began it; a Normandy farmwife who gave me some cider and bread and cheese repeated it. For a proud people this seemed a flattering admission. I think the French underestimated themselves and overestimated the enemy; but for all that, it is triste, as a small boy expressed it, with all the strong men away and only the women and children left in the villages. There are the old men too! I saw one such rush out to greet a party of the wounded. His hands were full of cigarettes, and to and fro he went like an eager bird. It was a joy to watch his pleasure and dancing activity.

And it is a pleasure, too, to see the ladies with their coffee-stalls at the stations, at all hours of the day and night and in all weathers. ‘Êtes-vous blessé?’ asked one such who had come to me passing through. ‘Pas encore,’ I answered smiling; but she did not smile. I am afraid we have a more primitive sense of humor than these serious Latin peoples. The educated French seem serious at heart, an old people, without illusions and full of knowledge. The working classes are gayer and not too different from our own. It was instructive to watch the British rank and file fraternize with the vast bulk of the population: where we officers found it difficult, they were immediately at home. What language they talked is still a mystery, but somehow they got the women to wash and dry their clothes, to pass on the baby, and to exchange information about the size and nature of their families. So many of our men are married and full of photographs of those at home. Often I saw these produced to a sympathetic audience.

Yet, even before I left, the old professional army had almost vanished. Gradually, one became aware of the change in officers and men; a certain stiffness had disappeared; in talk one could range a wider group of interests, and often one looked closely at a private, feeling that he was much the same type as his officers. I questioned two young sappers, to discover that they were Cambridge undergraduates; a hospital orderly, when asked, told me that before the war he had been an organist; while a driver in the artillery had been a professional reciter! The old-time soldier possessed the limitations as well as the virtues of a caste; the present army is the nation, and as varied as its origins. And we being rather a conservative nation on the whole, one found that the new army was in some respects more Catholic than the Pope — extra-keen, extrazealous, and extra-proud to be in uniform. The last will explain the prosperity of any and every photographer.

In this war an officer is responsible for the private correspondence of his men, and I hardly know how many letters I have read, addressed to mothers, wives, and other dear ones. The men who run the greatest risks are the most sober, and the phrase, ‘If I am spared,’ is ever on their pens. In these tense times the simple language of the Book of Common Prayer comes home to them; it is the clerkly ones, sitting in offices and running few risks, who employ the stale idiom of the newspaper; while quite safe in the bases and supply depots are the heroes who prate most of shot and shell. These give their public what it wants, and depict themselves in the attitudes and situations of the sensational poster-artist. It was my luck to do a deal of censoring on one of the days immediately after Christmas. Our Royal Family had thought of every one of us, and it was a pleasure to see how man after man regarded his gift and cards as a personal and individual attention. The card from the King and Queen was sent home in every letter, with strict injunctions to treat it carefully, and Princess Mary’s box, pipe, tobacco, cigarettes, and card were described with an appreciation that was as charming as unaffected. Apart from this correspondence, one guessed that many a lonely fellow expecting nothing on that day had been surprised and in a way comforted. I remember my own zeal in opening the parcel from home and comparing it with those received by my comrades. Since one’s schooldays one had been a stranger to this particular emotion; and later, after our Christmas dinner, the same idea came back, as one saw gray-headed field officers prancing round the dining-room. We were like boys that night, the oldest and the youngest of us. Beyond the English, and probably the American, I do not think there is any people that could have played the fool so heartily.

Another memory of those winter months — and of to-day and yesterday — are the letters written to the friends of fallen comrades, mere boys, so many of them, judged by their years, their candor, and their inexperience. One wrote — it was all one could do. The black-edged answers are the most touching letters I have ever opened. Not one mother who did not face her loss. ‘ I am glad that I had him to give,’ one read, and never a word of repining. Often one had never seen these correspondents; and yet they wrote with freedom, and sometimes with an intimacy so moving that their words had all the force of the great masters. One hesitates to destroy such letters, and yet they must be as common in England to-day as were the thoughtless and hurried scrawls that so many of us posted a year ago.

Another feature of the winter’s war, and one even more prominent in the new armies, was the presence of those roving and adventurous men who have streamed home from every quarter of the globe. In one day I met a man who had hastened back from Persian oilfields, a second who had been ostrichfarming in Florida, a third from Portuguese East Africa, and two comrades who had sailed from China. There are ranchers from Texas and Wyoming, exofficers of our mercantile marine, men whose last address was somewhere about the Andes, and gentlemen from Labuan and the Siberian wilds. Good soldiers they made as well as fascinating conversationalists; and though as a rule the Englishman is voted a dull dog when it comes to foreign languages, here was gathered the most amazing collection of linguists I have ever encountered. The motor-ambulance drivers and Red Cross men, too, were marked by qualities uncommon in the old army. Many of them were what the journalist calls ‘intellectuals’; and I remember that one of the real talks about books, writing, and pictures I had out there was with an Oxford man whose present occupation is to drive the sick and wounded. A second equally delightful evening was spent with a French writer of some note who is acting as interpreter with one of our brigades. A gentle, sensitive creature, he was pleased to observe his indifference to shell-fire and other matters on which he had had doubts. The war had released in him a latent mysticism, a rare quality among the Latin French, with their passion and genius for logic and exactitude of form. He was pleased to come across some one with an interest in such matters, for, as he plaintively remarked, the bulk of his conversations had dealt entirely with requisitionings and billets; and so we mysticized till a late hour, and then to bed. At seven the next morning I received my own injury and first made acquaintance with the Sisters behind the firing line.

It is difficult to speak without emotion of the Sisters, those quiet figures in scarlet and gray whom one discerns with the renewal of consciousness. One comes to them out of a welter of mud and blood and din; the calm and quiet where they rule gains by the contrast. Not very young women as the years go, they are of the right age for their work. Serene, devoted, they come and go through the half-lights of awakening and return; selfless, untiring, they anticipate one’s smallest needs through the dragging hours of the long night. Among them I recall faces whose beauty was three parts love and pity. I cannot write of them here; I can only salute in silence and pass on.

In hospital one feels, too, the kindness of the ordinary man. Placed together in wards of six or eight or even ten, it might be thought that the cases requiring quiet would be disturbed. They are not. One grew aware of consideration and thoughtfulness, natural, unostentatious; the patients who were fit and able went down to the smokeroom when they wanted to chat and play. Each morning the medical officer made his rounds, — cheery, buoyant, breathing optimism. He was accompanied by specialists who had sacrificed income and practice to be here. I got on the human side of such a one when things went better. He was elderly, spectacled, rather insignificant, and irreverent subalterns had named him ‘Crippen.’ He had renounced a good practice and most of his income; and yet, ‘I would n’t have missed this for a thousand pounds,’ he said; and he meant it.

One passes from one’s personal memories to record the main impression generated by this struggle. Everywhere one feels the strong hand of organization ; war has become a business, and its leaders and captains require more than anything the qualities of the arch-industrialist. The men on the firing-line are important; but viewed objectively and coldly, even more important are the men who feed man, horse, and gun. It is the supply officer and the ordnance officer who stoke the vast engine and maintain its power, and their business is one whose ramifications are as extensive as the world. The farms of every continent are called upon for the food and forage which keep these mammoth armies alive; and sometimes it seemed to me that North American oats and South American beef must be more common in France than across the Atlantic. The same with the raw material of projectiles and explosives, of aircraft and field kitchen, motor lorry and limber.

I conclude these random memories in a tent lit by a hurricane lamp. My table is an empty bacon-box and the rain is beating on the canvas. I go back to France as an officer of one of the new armies. I have read much of late of the horror and sacrifice of war, yet the men I see round me prove that there are compensations. We may have lost a couple of hundred thousand men and we may lose half a million more, but against this must be balanced those three million new men who twelve months ago were living the life of cities and the rural life of selfish idleness or ill-paid toil. Some were clerks, others were shopmen, others were rustics not far removed from serfs. For close on a year they have lived a man’s life in the open, and anybody seeing them would recognize at a glance that they are twice the men to-day that they were at this time last year.

Striking a balance, it seems to me that with all our losses, past or to be, we British are something to the good, and that in losing we have gained immeasurably, and that out of these present sorrows we may emerge stronger, saner, and healthier than we have ever been before.