A Private in the Guards

by Stephen Graham. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1919. 8vo, viii+345 pp. $2.50.
IF the amiable Eastern maxim be true, which insists that he who steals a lion-cub from a lioness stands in less danger than he who steals an illusion from its possessor, Mr. Stephen Graham must expect to see the storm which this book has occasioned in England hourly increase in sound and fury. For this fine study, first revelation of a humane and civilized man’s reaction to war and military life, will leave in the reader’s hands but a few shreds and tatters of an illusion which has recently acquired a quasi-sacred character.
In the romantic cant of the day, participation in the war, in spite of its unspeakable horror and brutality, is somehow felt to be automatically ‘ennobling.’ Even simple service under arms is believed to transform the mere casual and sinful civilian into a child of light beside whose moral grandeur a Roland himself grows pale.
This is an extraordinary illusion. The fact of the matter is that slaughtering others is a horrible and corrupting business, and that army life can kill as well as cure. Yet now that the liberated world, America included, seems determined to retain military training as a part of the education for citizenship, it is of the highest importance for us to subject the discipline of arms and the modern military ideal to the keenest scrutiny. Mr. Graham’s picture of what that discipline can do to make a man coarse, machinal, and brutal is unique in the literature of the war, and makes the publication of his book an act of high courage.
The book begins with Mr. Graham’s introduction to the severe discipline of the Guards. Sergeants, company mates, barrack characters, pass in review, all well drawn, all interpreted with understanding and humanity. The account of ‘ B-, a well-known musical composer,’ is worth quoting, for it gives the flavor of the book:
‘When he came out of the hospital, he was excused all drills and military exercises, and put to do dirty domestic work. He was most conscientious, and used to sit in a corner of the barracks with the appalling ration-tins, in a cloud of bathbrick dust, and he would scour, scour, scour for hours on end. Watching him one day when he was doing something else, I suddenly saw that his face no longer expressed music, but reflected ration-tins; it was ration-tins all over — a most appalling physical expression.’
In the scenes at the front which follow, less emphasis is laid on the physical side of the horror than on the change in the characters of the men. The world behind will he shocked by Mr. Graham’s assertion that the Guards were ordered to take no prisoners. ‘When the Huns throw up their hands, the fellow with his finger on the trigger of the machine-gun just forgets to take it off.’
A brave book, essentially a true book, a book which should be read by all who would see what war and military life can do to human beings. As a comrade-in-arms, the writer agrees heart and soul with Mr. Graham. Let us have done with illusions and cant, and face what the war has meant to us and our civilization. There can be no better preparation for the task than a reading of A Private in the Guards. H. B. B.