Our Soldiers

“They say in the Civil War there were two hundred thousand soldiers of sixteen years and under; eight hundred thousand of eighteen years and under, and only forty-six thousand of twenty-five and over.”

‘Everybody ought to fight for their country—or anyhow have the heart to do it!’ Maggie burst out as she went around the dinner-table in her blue checked apron, handing the potatoes. (Mr. Hoover says to eat freely of potatoes.)

It was the day after the drawing of the numbers of the registered men in Washington, and every one among us was asking which of our boys had been drawn. Our state motto is ‘Montani Semper Liberi,’ and in this war for liberty our West Virginia men are living up to the words. So many volunteered from the State capital that the draft, when it came, hardly took any from here. One of the sons of our own very small village is on General Pershing’s staff; from the town next to us sixty-five have offered themselves, out of a total population of three thousand; and here in the ‘Big Draft’ five have volunteered out of a possible twenty-five. It all seems to bring ‘Somewhere in France’ poignantly close to home. The boys who have volunteered are to go ‘o’ Wednesday.’ I am told. I wish the prefix of the vowel, to which some of us still cling, did not make Falstaff’s ‘Where’s he who died o’ Wednesday?’ throb so through the mind—for today is Wednesday and they are gone.

Our little gray church, with its war-potatoes beside it, is to have a roll of honor bearing the names of those who have gone forth from the narrow green walls of the Big Draft into the larger life of the Nations. I sometimes think the mothers’ names ought to head the list. The boys may travel far both in soul and body, but the mothers—though they may live all their lives, and die all the many deaths that come to every human being, here in this pocket of the mountains—took a very extended journey indeed when they beheld their sons set forth. Their names may not be written in black and white beside their sons’ for the world to see; but there, just beyond our sight, doubtless the Great Historian emblazons them on the tablets of the spirit.

Mothers are mothers all the world over; but I think some of our mothers of men in the Big Draft have shown as fine a spirit as the best. I happened to drop in at the log cabin of one of these mothers just as a rickety old automobile lurched down the rough road, and left an official summons for one of the sons who had volunteered. The mother’s face was lean and brown, with magnificent black eyes, high cheekbones, a fierce clean-cut chin, and not an extra pound of flesh anywhere upon her. Two of her sons have volunteered. She has five boys; three are of the fighting age, and the other two will soon be if the war keeps on. I offered some uncertain murmurs of sympathy, but was met by the proud retort, ‘Mothers have got to make sacrifices. I figure it out that’s the way it’s always been, an’ so it’ll always have to be, an’ if you hold yer sons back yer don’t git nowhere.’

Viewing her words in retrospect, it seems to me now that she was really talking more to herself than to me, arguing it out passionately, seeking earnestly the right road to travel. And I think in a sense she had come to her journey’s end, and had found what she was seeking, when she added, ‘There’s a-plenty lays right down an’ carries on, an’ thinks they can’t stand it, but’—and here her fierce little chin went up, and the whole lean face set itself in a high determination—‘you kin ef you will!’

Oh! I hope that in little roadside cabins all over America, there is a spirit as high and fine as that blazing up in the face of the times! ‘You kin ef you will!’ Somehow the touch of vernacular thursts the phrase down into the bedrock of the nation, taking it away from all the surface oratory of the moment, and laying it deep and secure in the very foundations of the country. I hope it is something of this spirit that the other nations are to see now. Heretofore they have known us in our hours of ease, care-free, superficial holiday-makers, but now, please God, they are to see something different—an America with her fierce chin set square, and the light of consecration and vision blazing from her eyes. O my country! I know ‘you in ef you will!’

When the general spirit is so fine, one can hardly blame the mothers if they catch hopefully at their sons’ physical defects.

‘Eddy, he’s got a kind of a limp, I don’t think for a moment they’d take him.’

‘My Sam’s eyes ain’t so very good, an’ I don’t keer ef they ain’t.’

For one of the men from our county of Greenbrier has already been killed in the ranks of the Allies, so the mothers are not making an absolutely ignorant sacrifice. They know—oh, yes! they are quick enough to leap to the worst! When mothers such as these demand, ‘I want to know ef they’re takin’ the rich boys too?’ it is a pleasure to be able to answer that rich man, poor man, beggar-man, chief, they are all the same now—they are all Uncle Sam’s nephews.

The night before the boys went, a farewell prayer-meeting was held for them, at which some among us who have always delighted in the dissipation of weaving the red-hot emotions of religious gatherings into tears and hysteria, played so upon the tenseness of the moment, and drew such a picture of the horrors of war, that some of the boys’ relatives went wild with grief. Not so the little brown mother whose two boys are going. She stood firm amid all the waves of emotion and stoutly declared that she was proud to have men to send. Only readers who know something of the crowd-hysteria of a shouting prayer-meeting can have any idea of what she—accustomed all her life to that type of religion—withstood at that moment for the sake of her sons. And those sons will have something, fortifying to remember, something heroic on which to anchor their souls in the face of a night assault or of a gas attack.

And what about the rest of us? Is that mother the only one among us who has shown a great spirit to match the greatness of the times? Let us see how it is, skipping about from ridge to ridge, and going along the narrow road that wriggles up the Draft, with the mountains almost treading upon it at times.

Here on this ridge, at the first house, is a young fellow who volunteered, but could not pass the physical examination. He honestly wanted to go for the sake of France, and also, he hoped, if he was taken, it might excuse his younger brother. What shy and touching bits of affection between brothers, usually so jealously hidden, war drags into the light! At the next house on this ridge, a mile and a half away, there lives another man who, though over age and having a wife and child, has declared his intention of volunteering if he finds that his younger brother has done so.

‘Yes,’ I am told, ‘he’s certainly a-goin’, if Andy’s went. You know how set all that family is, once they take a notion. He says him and Andy never had one word in all their lives, an’ now if Andy’s went he’s certainly a-goin’ too.’

Leaving this ridge and descending into a branch of the Big Draft, one comes to a cabin from which one of our four volunteers has gone. Jumping across a ridge from there, is a house where two little people of about ten and twelve have asked their mother to give them corn-bread for dinner for the sake of the saving of wheat flour. From the house next below that, another volunteer has gone. At the next house lives the mother who is proud to have men to send. Directly across the road from her dwells a mother and daughter, both of whom belong to our Red Cross class. I sat next to the mother at one of our last meetings, and while we cut scraps for pads, we talked about the war. My mind must have wandered for I was suddenly aroused by hearing her say.

‘Oh, well, it’s all right for us to fight over here, but it don’t seem like we ought to go to France.’

I flared up at that, only to find to my amazement that she thought I was advocating sending an army of women to France; and while she thought she could fight on her own ground, she did doubt a bit whether we should go abroad. There was no question in her mind as to the men’s going, and this though she has four sons who may be drawn.

There are, no doubt, some among us who have not risen to great heights—who, true to the instincts of their whole lives, have not been able to burst through the shell of self and emerge into the greatness of the hour. But these are the ones who have always considered themselves a peculiar people, who have always thought to claim exemption from Fate. Their neighbors know the, and when they whine now, they receive scant consolation.

‘Your boys ain’t no different from anybody else’s,’ they are told uncompromisingly.

And what about the boys themselves? Well, they all look different to me in these days. Boys whom, a few short years ago, I looked upon somewhat askance, fearing that their outward and visible signs of innocence might cloak inward knowledge of our plums, are all seen now through the glamour of the great adventure. But I am a spectator, and perhaps a sentimentalist. How do the boys look to themselves, I wonder, there in that golden haze? Why, very much as usual, I should say. If they are aware of a golden haze, they doubtless see it just beyond themselves—over there in France, no doubt. If there is any great thrill of excitement running through them, they keep it for the most part to themselves. Yet I suspect, when they lie together in little knots under the trees, that fighting in France is the main topic of conversation. How did Joey, for instance, who milks our cow and grooms our Ford, take last Saturday, the day on which the numbers of the conscripted men were out? Why, with the utmost calmness. If his pulses went a beat or two faster, or if he wondered whether or not he had been drawn, there was certainly nothing in his outward manner to suggest it. It may have been, it is true, a suppressed excitement that made him report to Maggie that they was havin’ awful trouble in Dry Creek (our village), an’ would maybe have to send for a guard. And perhaps the indignant thrill of horror which his report drew from Maggie—who is of Irish descent and volatile—relieved his feelings, and repaid him for endangering his immortal soul with one of the most outrageous untruths of a checkered career; for never in the whole course of its history did our village present a more peaceful and everyday appearance. Why, any little two-for-a-cent election could have engendered more disorder than was bred on the day when the nation decreed which of her sons were to be called upon to risk their lives for her defense, and her ideals.

One is tempted to pause here and wonder what perverse devil at such a solemn moment could have inspired Joey—who, together with every young man of the neighborhood, so far as I know, is perfectly willing to serve if called—to paint that lurid picture of our youths being dragged off to war by an armed guard. Truly, one could find it in his heart to shake Joey! Perhaps, however, it is just this very unexpected, wholly outrageous, freakishness in the Joeys all over the country which so constantly throws out all the careful German calculations. Can one not imagine an efficient German spy reporting Joey’s tale as evidence of serious disaffection in the country districts? Whereas, as a matter of fact, it is an evidence of the country’s absolute loyalty, for it is only those between whom there is complete confidence who dare outrageous jokes.

No doubt Uncle Sam will understand Joey, but what German could? I am sometimes afraid it may even require a good deal of affection on the part of our French friends to understand this lack of seriousness on our part—or rather our lack of the appearance of seriousness. But I am completely sure that Tommy Atkins will understand. What else save this very trait made English soldiers—when dying daily for their country—so rejoice in singing the ‘Hymn of Hate’? Of course that threw Fritz off the track, but may it not throw our two armies into the closest of hilarious friendships? To believe in the same ideals lays a sure foundation on which to erect a friendship, and to laugh at the same jokes carves delightful finishing gargoyles to the sacred edifice.

But now our old Ryefield Hill is haunted. Just behind the curtain of tis yellow sunshine, of its grass and blue sky, is something else. Something which I had almost forgotten, but which circumstances have dragged suddenly so vividly into the foreground of memory, that all the afternoon, digging among the larkspurs and foxgloves in the garden, I have felt that at any moment the veil of the years might be rent and through a rift I might still catch a glimpse of twinkling bare legs, or an echo of flying laughter, of that gay, that whimsical and vivacious picture which surely only painted itself a moment ago up there on the skyline of the hill. First, there comes a big barrel bounding drunkenly down the slope; then in hard pursuit a string of four little boys, one after the other; and in the rear of two dogs—the old black one who went on three legs, and the terrier whose emotional temperament could always be counted upon to go off into hysterics of barks and enthusiasm over the least excitement. The great barrel bounds and leaps over the rough places; the dogs gallop after, with flying ears and canine applause; the little boys run and cheer, and now—Time has winked just once and three out of four of those little boys have volunteered. One does not really have to go back over so many years to hear one of them inquire earnestly, ‘If George Washington was a-livin’ now, would he fight any one who said anyfing to him about vat cherry tree?’ Or to see another, — always a passionate seeker for obscure bits of information, — eyes snapping with excitement, demand, ‘If a minnow had the strength of two whales could he jump up Niagara Falls?’

Oh, well, I knew war always caught youth on the very crest of its wave. They say in the Civil War there were two hundred thousand soldiers of sixteen years and under; eight hundred thousand of eighteen years and under, and only forty-six thousand of twenty-five and over. But it is one thing to realize a fact through cold black figures treading solemnly across a printed page, and quite another to see it visualized up there on Ryefield Hill in the persons of merry little boys chasing a barrel.

Now, as I write, glancing up, I can see on the mantel-shelf, beside the black Chinese idols, the photographs of four small boys. We call them ‘Our Soldiers,’ for though they are far away now, they all lived in the Big Draft when they were little, and two of them, indeed, lived here with us. Two of them are English and two American, and beside them on the mantel is the picture of my little niece, aged five, hugging her pussy cat, and looking out upon life very gay and confident. None of these children knew one another, and between the boys and the little niece, who still plays with hollyhock ladies and toy balloons, there is a stretch of many years; and yet it seems to me that the great giant War has come striding up, and, suddenly pouncing upon these children, has bound them all inextricably together. The two English brothers have been at the front, fighting desperately, for many months. They have both been wounded, but are both back again, still ‘carrying on.’ I suppose out there in the battle-line they are grown-up men, grim and hard and determined; but here on our quiet mantel-shelf, they are just ‘Reggie’ and ‘Mike’ two chubby children with no more knowledge of war than that embodied in the toy cannon which Reggie displays. O fierce fighting men! Do you never have a moment’s respite out there in the shock and tumult of war, to come back in your dreams to your little boyhood, dressing yourselves for your refreshment in the peace of the forgotten years? Oh, come back again sometimes in sleep to the Big Draft, and gathered into the everlasting peace of the hills, rest here a while beneath the outspread wings of its wide sky!

And what of the other pair of brothers, the little Americans, standing up in their very fresh suits, with their arms about each other’s necks? Your feet are set now upon the same track, you are all traveling now to the same goal. The Englishmen are well ahead of you upon the fiery way, but I hope they have a moment in the breathless conflict, to glance behind over their shoulders and know that you and your kind are on the way, that presently, saluting them, you will swing into your place at their side. Look across now in your pictured selves, and tell them so—those brothers of yours there, brothers in arms and brothers in race. I do not doubt that this is what you and all of you who are coming now from the North and South, from the East and West—from all the length and breadth of the nation—would say, if your hearts could speak to all your comrades before you in the great conflict. I know, for some of you have spoken already, have known how to offer your homage, and to make your promises for the future—even through the barrier of a foreign tongue; in witness of which let a French mother, whose two sons, her only children, have died for France, give her testimony: —

‘There have been here, in Paris,’ she writes, ‘many touching expressions of the gratitude of our French people toward America. The first soldiers who arrived here have been greeted with extraordinary manifestations of the most ardent patriotic joy. In return, those fine, handsome men have endeared themselves to us by traits which reveal the nobility of their character.

‘I myself have been by a mere chance the object of one of these manifestations, and it has moved me so deeply that I must tell you all about it.

‘I was waiting at the corner of l’Avenue du Trocadéro, all alone, standing on the edge of the sidewalk, wrapped in my somber mourning clothes. It was five o’clock in the afternoon. I was not thinking of the rides organized through Paris for the American boys, when, all of a sudden, an auto-bus appeared, decorated with the American and Allies’ flags, and carrying at least forty of your soldiers. A poilu, one of our men, was driving, and next to him sat a non-commissioned American officer, who, seeing me, took off his hat and, with a deep gesture, saluted me. All the soldiers in the bus rose and repeated the salute.

‘Behind this car at least twenty more autos followed, the occupants of which, one after the other, repeated the beautiful and touching homage to my dead sons, while smiling to me with an air both sad and resolute. I saluted them also, and understood well that they wished to say to me, “We have come to fight for them, to complete the task they have begun!” And I wished to tell them, “Courage et merci!”

‘Was not this a beautiful beginning for all those valiant fellows? You can well be proud of them, for we feel it a glory to have at our side such soldiers in this struggle for Right and Liberty.’

What may one say of an incident so beautiful? It is a deep spontaneous tribute offered from the heart of one nation, and received into the heart of another, and is beyond words or comment. And one is glad to note that the salute was given by a non-commissioned officer, and by the rank and file. Fate has all at once touched a hidden spring, and the old quiet times of yesterday have suddenly shot up very tall and very terrible before us. But thank God! He has touched an answering spring in the hearts of the young men, so that they too have leaped up, tall and heroic, to face the terror and greatness of the hour. The youth of the world is seeing and hearing something to-day that many an older person has failed to perceive. It is sad for those who are left behind, but it is not sad for the men themselves to offer their lives at the climax of youth, for the sake of a great adventure. It is sad to fear to make the offer, or to make it grudgingly, not knowing that there is a great adventure afoot, that the kingdom of Heaven has come nigh unto us.

Maurice Barrès in his paper, ‘Young Soldiers of France,’ says, ‘Tracts of the French soul which had long lain fallow in us are beginning to be fruitful once again; and these young men have won inner riches which we, their elders, had lost. … Acceptance of sacrifice, the consciousness of a great Presence at one’s side—we come across these again and again. … To-night we leave for the trenches. To-night I shall be watching over you, rifle in hand. You know who is watching over me.’ Shall our young soldiers fail to climb to the heights to which these others have ascended? And who would dare to hold them back from the attempt?

O little company of boys romping down Ryefield Hill! My eyes are dazzled by the glory that you are faring forth to meet! That old picture of the past is caught now and flashed upon by the splendor of the present. That is not our old Ryefield, it is the field of honor that you are racing down; and that which bounds on before you is not a barrel, it is a shining ideal of the nations set a-rolling for all time, and for all humanity! O little company! Good luck to you! Good luck in the Great Adventure!

And what about you, little niece, looking forth from your picture so gay and so confident, with your kitten in your arms? How has the war-giant bound you to these little boys? What does it all mean to you? It means that those soldiers there beside you are fighting to preserve that look of confidence and gayety on your small face; that they are fighting to make the world safe, not only for democracy, but for other things as well—for little nieces, for instance, and for all the warm and lovely things of life and the spirit.

Little girl, stop hugging your kitten for a single moment and bestow upon the little boys at your side a look of admiration and gratitude! No, you will not do it now, for you are only five and are still too busy with your hollyhock ladies; but in the years to come, when your skirts are lengthened and your curls put up, I know that you, together with all the maidens of that time, will take the cup of life from the hand of youth with a certain high reverence and a deep and passionate consecration, knowing that it is a sacred communion cup a gift to you from the little boys beside you; and, lifting it high, you shall pray that you may be enabled to quaff it worthily in remembrance of the death and passion of all the glorious young men whose blood was shed for you and for many, in the years of the great agony.