On Having Been Both a Soldier and a Sailor
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
WHEN this cruel war is over, and the mad rounds of parades, banquets, and reunions begin, I shall immediately set to work to organize the most exclusive of clubs. A mocking and envious friend suggests that our uniform consist of a white sailor hat, a soldier’s tunic, — British, French, or American, according to the flags under which we served, — and a pair of sailor trousers with an extra wide flare. For the club is to be composed of those fortunate souls who like myself have seen ‘the show’ on land and on sea. To my mind, however, instead of mixing the uniforms, it would be better to dress in khaki when we feel military; in blue when our temperament is nautical. Think of belonging to a club whose members can dissect a trench-mortar with ease, and at the same time say, ‘Three points off the port bow,’ without turning a hair.
Marines admitted only after a special consideration of each case. Not that I don’t admire the marines. I do. I yield to no one in my admiration of our gallant devil dogs. But the applicant for admission to our club must have first served as a bona-fide soldier and then as a bona-fide sailor, or vice versa. Not that I am a sailor, or ever was a sailor in Uncle Sam’s navy. All that I can claim to have been is a correspondent attached to the navy ‘over there.’ But four months’ service, most of it spent at sea on the destroyers, subs, and battleships, entitles me, I think, to membership; consequently, being president, I have admitted myself.
‘Well, you’ve seen the war both on land and on sea; which service do you prefer — the army or the navy?’ This question is hurled at me everywhere I go. I answer it with deliberation, enjoying the while to the full the consciousness of being an extraordinary person, a sort of literary Æneas, multum jactatus et terris et alto. And I answer briefly, ‘The navy.’
I hasten to add, however, that you will find my answer colored by a passion for the beauty and the mystery of the sea with which some good spirit endowed me in my cradle. I was born in one of the most historic of New England sea-coast towns, where brine was anciently said to flow through the veins of the inhabitants. On midsummer days the fierce heat distills from the cracked, caked mud of tidal meadows, the clean, salty smell of the unsullied sea; dark ships, trailing far behind them long dissolving plumes of smoke, weave in and out between the tawny whale-backed islands of the bay, and tame little sea birds, almost the color of the shingle, run along at the edge of the incoming tide. So I admit a bias for the service of the sea.
Does the navy demand as much of the sailor as the army does of the soldier? A vexed question. The army, comparing grimly its own casualty lists with the navy’s occasional roll, sometimes imagines, naturally enough, that the sailor lives, as the old hymn has it, ‘on flowery beds of ease.’ As a whole, there is no denying that living conditions are far better in the naval service, though much depends on the boat to which the sailor is assigned. A soldier in the trenches sleeps in his clothes; so does a sailor on a destroyer or a patrolboat; and I do not believe that I felt much more comfortable at the end of a long trip in an old destroyer, during which the vessel rolled, pitched, tossed, careened, stood on her head, sat on her tail, and buckled, than I did after a week or so at the front. Certainly, there was little to choose between the overcrowded living quarters of the sailors and a decent dugout. True, the ‘ toto,’ alias ‘ grayback, ’ alias‘ cootie,’ or his occasional but less famous accomplice, the ‘crimson rambler,’ does not infest a navy ship. How many times have I not heard army folk say in heartfelt tones, ‘Those navy people can keep clean! ’
But a truce to the cootie. Much more has been made of him than he deserves. During the first six months of the war the creature was in evidence; but after the hostilities began to limit themselves to the trench-swathe, and this localizing war made possible a stable system of hospitals, cantonments, and baths, the cootie became as rare as a day in June, and to have such guests was an indication of abysmally bad luck or personal uncleanliness. Moreover, a little gasoline begged from a lorry driver and sprinkled on one’s clothes confers absolute immunity.
Consider the crew of a submarine. They do not have to plash about in a gully of smelly mud, of the consistency of thick soup, or wander down alleyways of red-brown mud, so cheesy that it sticks to the boots till one no longer lifts feet from the ground, but shapeless, heavy, thrice-cussed lumps of mire. No one has yet risen to sing the epic of the mud of France; yet ’t is the soul of the war. The submarine sailors are spared the mud, but they live in a sealed cylinder into which sunlight does not penetrate, live in the close atmosphere of a garage; they cannot get exercise or change their clothes. A submarine crew that has had a hard time of it look quite as worn out as soldiers just out of battle, and their color is far worse. And if there is a more heroic service than this submarine patrol, I should like to know of it.
And now the army in me rises to protest. ‘I admit,’ says the military voice, ‘that service on ships may be a confounded sight more disagreeable than I had imagined; but the sailor has a chance when he gets to port to change his uniform, while a poor lad of a soldier must fight, eat, and sleep in the same old uniform, and must limit his changes to a change of underclothes.’
True, oh, military spirit! Civilian, — and thou, too, oh, sailor, — do you know what it is to be confined, to be wedded, without jest, ‘ till death do us part,’ to one suit? One faithful, persistent, necessary uniform and one only. Two thirds of the joy of permission is the pleasure of getting out of a dirty, stale, besweated uniform. Heaven bless, Heaven shower a Niagara of happiness on those kindly ladies who sent us supplies of socks and jerseys! Don’t be content to knit Johnny one pair of socks and a sweater: keep on knitting him a number of them, and send them over at intervals. The dandies of a section used to leave extra clothes in villages behind the lines. Alas, sometimes, the group, after service aux tranchées, was not marched back to the same village, and it was difficult to get permission to visit the other village, even were it near. Such expedients, however, are for luxurious times. Quite often there are no habitable villages for miles behind the lines, or else the civilian inhabitants have been ruthlessly warned away. In such circumstances there is no clean cache of clothes to be left behind in madame’s closet. But the sailor — though he return as grimy as a printer’s devil and as bearded as a comic tramp, there is always a clean suit of ‘liberty blues’ in his bag, and to-morrow, clad in the handsomest of all naval uniforms, he will be found ashore, breaking fair British or Irish hearts.
I have tried to show that, in the judgment of an ex-soldier, the difference between the life of a sailor in a fighting ship and the life of a soldier in a fighting regiment is by no means as great as has been imagined. The army, I suppose, will grumble at such a pronunciamento. Let an objector, then, try being a lookout man all winter long on a destroyer — or try firing a while. All is not quite purgatorial, even at the front. Most army men know of quiet places along the line held, on our side, by rubicund, wine-bibbing, middleaged French territoriaux — bons pères de famille who show you pictures of Étienne and Maurice; and garrisoned, on the enemy’s border, by fat old Huns who want very, very much to get home to their great pipe and steaming sauerkraut. In places like these each side apologizes for the bad caste of its supporting artillery, while grenade-throwing is regarded as the bottom level of viciousness.
Once in a while people die there of old age, gout, or chronic liver complaint. No one is ever killed. Such ententes cordiales were far more frequent than those behind the line have ever suspected. On the other hand, some twenty miles down the trenchswathe, there may be a hillock constantly contested, a strategic point which burns up the lives of men as casually as the sustaining of a fire consumes faggots. Now it is the quick, merciful bullet in the head, now the hot, whizzing éclat of a high explosive, now the earthquake of the subterranean mine. But after all, a mine at sea is no more gentle than one on land; and to have a mine exploded under him is perhaps the eventuality which a soldier fears more than anything else. On land, the thundering release of a giant breath from out of the earth; a monstrous pall of fragments of soil, stones, and dust — perhaps of fragments more ghastly; at sea, a thundering pound, a column of water which seems to stand upright for a second or two, and then falls crashing on whatever is left of the vessel. Quelle monde!
I here is a distinct difference between the psychology of the soldier and that of the sailor. A soldier of any army is sure to be drilled, and drilled, and drilled again, till he becomes what he ought to be, a cog in an immense machine, scientifically designed for the release of violence; a sailor, drilled scientifically enough but not so mechanically, preserves some of the ancient freedom of the sea. Then, too, the soldier with his bayonet is a fighting force; the sailor, though prepared for it, himself rarely fights, but works a fighting mechanism — the ship. The battleship X may sink the cruiser Y, but there is rarely a corps-à-corps, such as takes place for instance in a disputed shellcrater.
Thus removed from the baser brutalities of war, the sailor never reveals that vein of Berserker savagery which soldiers will often reveal in a conquered province. As a class, sailors are the best-natured, most good-hearted souls in the world. Rough some may be, some may be scamps; but brutal, never. Moreover, living under a discipline easier to bear than the soldier’s, Jack has not the sullen streaks that overtake betimes men under arms. Of course he grumbles — enlisted men are not normal if they don’t grumble; but Jack’s grumbling is as nothing compared to the fierce smothered hate for things in general which every soldier sometimes feels.
I would follow the sea, because I am a lover of the mystery and beauty of the sea, and because my comrades would be sailormen. I would knock at the navy’s door, because, after all is said and done, the naval power is the ultima ratio of this titanic affair. I have seen many of the great scenes of this war, among them Verdun on the first night of the historic battle, but nothing that I saw on land impressed me as did my first view of the British Grand Fleet in its northern harbor — the dark ships, the hollow ships, rulers of the past, rulers of the future, unconquered and unconquerable.