The Black Shade

I

CENSORSHIP by the state was a hasty and imperfect improvisation at the beginning of the last war. It did better, helped by time and tribulation. It discovered the little chinks which let in light. Its ways were peculiar and unexpected, and its consequences unforeseen. If, one morning, in a French newspaper, an attractive heading had a prominent place yet was followed by a column and a half of virgin white signed by a famous name, you feared the worst at a glance — doubtless something worse than was in the article. And, for my part, I remember that in the beginning one was allowed to mention the fact that a battlefield could be reproachful with the strewn results of flying metal. Later, only German soldiers were slain in battle. Later still, it was decided by the proper authority that a great battle could leave the floor as tidy as would a curate’s sewing circle.

We may judge, then, from these queer signs, that authority does respect the sensibility and intelligence of the public?

Certainly. After all, the mutable many, the hearths and the homes, are of ultimate importance. The multitude should be solicited, entertained, and its tenderness guarded. It has volatile qualities. It is unpredictable. Harm might chill its heart, should it learn of war’s lesser benefits. For this reason, we may suppose, when recently the Russians began to blast Baltic cities from the sea and air, the news was withheld from the German public just across the water. What a pity to disturb it! But how such a complete blackout reveals a possible perfection in censorship! It begins to look as if a whole nation might be kept in darkness absolute, and for so long that it might lose the desire to grope a way out. Not one of the Greek philosophers, good though they were at peeps into life’s mystery, ever discerned that as a possibility in civilization. It never occurred even to Aristotle, innocently bent upon increasing the light, that light may be bad for tender minds.

Yet so it is. It is much to be regretted, but to maintain unity of opinion and purpose in a nation the blackout is as essential as air to breathe. True, with better light, and more time, I suppose we might discover what our civilization amounts to, whether it is worth our love and faith, and where in it we are. We need to learn that. We shall never do better unless we see that. Today in Europe, however, having perfected the electric bulb, a trifling increment to light, we are compelled by a present way of life to smother it with a shade of black glass. These shades are to be bought anywhere, as is bread. Black glass hides most of the light when it is on. Light is unsafe. Need one add to that? Let us think it over. Think of it quite a lot. We could have more light, more than ever before, but fear to use it.

What is wrong with man, when light and knowledge can be dangerous? In some civilized countries learning is conscientiously frustrated. Books are burned, as a state ceremony. All but a censored knowledge is forbidden. In one such country a statesman eloquently proclaimed the first revolt against intellectualism since the French Revolution. The mind, he thought, is not only sensitive — it is a dangerous nuisance. In other lands we have been free to range in the news and to think what we pleased. We did not enjoy the news, it must be admitted. For a long time past, for a period which has gravely reduced the threescore years and ten, our dark horizon has been problematical, auguring and muttering. What was going to happen? There have been rumors of trouble in the making so preposterous that reason could not give full attention. Too silly! Crises and conferences. Rumbling of distant gun wheels. Coming our way?

In the democracies you could get any kind of news you wanted through a choice of newspapers. The inclination, naturally, was to choose the worst; the nearer to idiocy, the nearer to truth. Opinion, too, as to what was going on in the world was as free, among democrats, as in Bedlam. You could attend critically to all the home and foreign howling and whooping; no restrictions. If in the midst of the polyglot clamor you kept a bare hope that you yourself were not crazy, — not yet, — then the corollary faced you that whole nations seemed to be not quite all there. So what to do?

Nothing whatever. It is useless to argue with universal vociferation. When there is an eclipse of daylight one can but wait. As all the news of the day had no relation to welfare, its sole purpose being to get on the nerves, you were free to accept it, if you wanted to. There were lands in which you were allowed to laugh at it, if you felt that way, and a few cool people did.

Some of us, being peaceable, and in the habit of avoiding excited crowds, and not altogether unreasonable when the barometer is set fair, supposed that this infernal uproar, in which religion, politics, and economics were so confused that Deity was indistinguishable from self-interest, meant only that humanity had wandered from its accustomed paths. It was lost. Hard times had driven it from civility to look for short cuts to whatever it wanted, if it knew what it wanted. Perhaps it didn’t. This noise would subside. Sanity, though no more than a nostalgic desire for safety, would return to its own presently, not too late. Instead of that, we entered a week when presidents, premiers, and prelates were all beseeching a man of destiny not to pull the trigger because nobody would enjoy it. That was distinctly ominous; still, doubtless so many appeals to common sense would prevail? Any man not a lunatic would prefer life to death?

One morning, soon after these appeals, I was approaching a familiar village street, with country about me which is described in The Dynasts. I was not unhopeful. One is never quite without hope of one’s fellow creatures. So early, I saw the gossips all at their doors. They seemed subdued. Somehow I felt suspicious. Something had happened. I did not like the look of that street. A friend came out of the only shop, straight at me, and whispered, ‘They’ve started.’

They had started. The trigger had been pulled. We both sat on a bench and looked at the ground. Civility had ended. We continued to look at the ground, and said no more. There was no more to say.

II

Anyhow, suspense was over. Now we knew the worst. All we could do now was to brace ourselves for the shocks. Speculation was useless; besides, you never feel like judicious political speculation if bombing planes are probable. For that reason, on the instant, we discovered a thirst for material facts, which some people regard as absolutes. As good democrats we searched our daily papers for the truth, with a new wariness of propaganda. We were immediately awake to what we could not see between the lines. Do you remember the opening chapter of Hard Times?

‘Now what I want is Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life. . . . Stick to Facts, sir.’

Gradgrind was speaking. Not for a moment did that eminent industrialist pause to consider the nature of facts, He never doubted that he would know what they meant when he saw them. He was a realist. Gradgrind, busy man, had no time to waste wondering whether a test of intelligence may be the ability to perceive the implications of facts; yet how surprising, how cruelly deceitful facts can be, though apparently simple and frank! Who would have suspected that the mass destruction of civilization was inherent in an invention so attractive, so useful, as the internal-combustion engine?

No. With a plain fact under his nose a realist may not know what he is looking at. Fate, unseen, may be smiling over him at the certainty of his knowledge. Nevertheless, like Gradgrind, in war we demand only facts. Facts, my dear sir! We want to know exactly where we are. Where are we? Are we to have the truth? We are not sure. We doubt it. The censorship is over us. Suspicion will grow, even in a tolerant and judicious onlooker. There comes over him an instinctive inclination to blame somebody for something, he is not sure what. Suspense when in danger acts like that on most people.

Well, whatever the virtues may be of our civilization by machinery, a censorship by the state in a time of stress is involved. There can be no unity in policy without control of news and direction of opinions; distraction cannot be tolerated. Suspense we shall have to suffer. Embattled nations must get at each other in a pitchy midnight. That is one of the dire consequences for us of our age of science; the ranging of the mind must be kept within certain limits. This is only further evidence, did we need it, that the more our material advantages increase, the faster and more difficult and complicated life becomes. Personality must go, or at least much of it. Even warfare is not what it was. Its glory has departed. When a vast confusion is unintelligible in a prolonged and almost impenetrable darkness, it is difficult to add a touch of glory.

The prospect is unlovely, but we should have thought that out long before the eclipse was due. It was always so very obvious that it would be so. We have now come to it, and must acknowledge forthwith that in these years it is foolish to expect a government at war to allow anything to be published that does not accord with its strategy. We may only blame it when it issues lies, and that it will not do unless it fears its own people. Even a democracy at war must have its censorship. We should have known, but were too busy to give the necessary attention, that a parliamentary executive itself is the beginning of collectivism; and industrial society, grown into a huge sprawling organic body with many functions, must respond to the promptings of its capital, or decompose. We may not enjoy the thought of collectivism, but we have it; or it has us, whichever you please. So, when a community is at war, censorship is as necessary as food rationing and the conscription of life and property. Individuality disappears, except as a registered number. A nation at war, these days, is totally engaged, and its government must regard the supply of news as it does the output of munitions. Nobody is to blame for this; it arises from the nature of mankind’s common desires and activities.

In the free-and-easy past, a war correspondent could lightly embarrass his own generals and admirals. His published opinions concerned only a local affair. Life went its usual round. He did no harm; probably he did some good. All wars, whatever their nature and extent, are efforts to give a reasonable shape and direction to anarchy. It is not easy to give reason and order to anarchy, and a war correspondent in the old days could be sure of a rich variety of matter to make the folk at home wonder whether the art and science of war were unrelated to gumption. Had muddle its part in the romance and glory of armed conflict? Anyhow, his details helped to fill the columns of the newspapers until the glad morning dawned when the home folk far away could relish a real battlepiece with the breakfast porridge.

We shall never see the like of that again. Modern war is an industry, largely viewless, for a wholesale and monotonous output of death. These are the years of national wars. The whole of a nation’s power, its mines, factories, and workshops, its ships and agriculture, all the wealth and energy it directs towards daily bread, are deflected to keep its integrity against an attack by a rival power. A battlefield is now a continent, and even neutral nations must share the catastrophe, like it or lump it. They will be jostled and harassed. This cannot be helped. They must be alert to keep out of the way of propaganda, and explosives wandering in the sea and falling from the sky. And they will not be able to manage it, not all of the time.

So the enterprise and tenacity of factory hands have become as important as the stoutness of a nation’s troops. The spirit of the girls at munitions must be equal to that of the men of the war fleet. But that tenacity and spirit are more vulnerable than the ardor of the fighting forces. To maintain for a long and dreary period a routine against a distant foe is not like soldiering under the stimulation of flying bullets. It is more trying, in the long run, to keep undiminished the speed of wheels in a darkened factory, while unseen bombers may be hanging about whose blows can be neither parried nor answered, than to look into the eyes of a mortal opponent, equally armed.

Governments have to remember that. Not only factories and harbors are to be guarded, but the springs of national emotion, a much more kittle business. An inadvertent fact, not at all related to the main issue, plumped without warning into a common mood, tender and suspicious, may upset a public more than would drumfire the troops. The soldiers know within a little what is in front of them, and how to meet what they expect to get; the populace is in the dark, facing what is imponderable, and must trust to words broadcast from many stations, words which often flatly contradict each other. I know that in the last war my soul was always easier when under fire in the ruins than when enduring a spell of war bulletins at home. Uncertainty corrodes the spirit, and immediate peril rarely does that. In this period of total war, when not even a president or a premier knows the deciding truth of it till that emerges too saliently to need pointing at, a government may publish no more facts than will keep its people in hopeful heart. That nation is the winning nation which can keep going a selection of quickening facts which do certainly arise from the drift of events.

III

In the last war, the soldiers described the war correspondents in an unmentionable joke. I do not blame them. I was a war correspondent. The troops could never find in our reports the mud in which they were glued under the horrific sky, which stormed burning iron. No lice infested our prose, no stench from general corruption arose from our periods. The wearied men wondered why our words were so bright, tireless, and spotless. It was strange to them, even heartless. But not to us. Thus inevitably it had to be. There was no escape. At first I myself was restive under the blue pencil, though it deleted but little. Reflection, compelled by incidents, told me that since everybody had carelessly assumed war to be as right and proper to men as fire, and here at last it flared up and spread, ardent and flourishing, a roaring devourer, then everybody must suffer its many consequences. One was the censorship. And what is a judicious blue pencil to poison gas?

There was, I remember, a famous soldier-critic who was invited by the then Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, to visit the line. His lively yarn was not submitted to Press Headquarters. Why do that, when as a soldier he would know what the dangers were of giving things away? Two days after his sparkling story appeared in a London newspaper the enemy gave the locality he had honored by appearing in it an accurate and frightful hammering. He had been free with some apparently innocent topographical allusions, just to show his readers that he had been beside the guns. That paper was in Holland the next day. These trifling facts, suitably veiled, informed the Germans of the bearings of targets they had been looking for, which they then walloped, and more than once. The soldiers were never aware that these accidents were latent in our fountain pens.

Do not wonder that censors are governed by fear. They never know what an innocent-looking fact may disclose to the wrong eyes. You never can tell what the potency of an allusion may do, and when and where to expect its development. It may not give away artillery positions, but it may suggest to a people, hopefully working and enduring at home, the shadow of a grim reality which, in the exaltation of its defiance, it had overlooked. Truth, in war, can be more terrible than a flight of bombers. For that reason it is war’s first casualty. It must be retired with the enemy aliens, and suitably guarded. To complain of this is as idle as to grieve over much else we do not like in a society arising naturally out of principles we have accepted because we are too lazy to examine them. It has been observed that figs do not grow on barbed wire. We forget these little things till too late.

Facts are not values. This platitude is a fact most readers of the press are apt to ignore. If twenty observers report on a fact, then we shall get an apparent score of facts. A fact is not so important as the man who examines it. It is values that relate facts to each other and to us. Confident Gradgrind, in short, was an ass to suppose he could manage with facts alone. Clearly his facts had but misled him, because he had seen in them only the evidence which accorded with his prejudices, a fact of which he was unaware. The news of the day does not help us much, it may indeed do us harm, unless we can relate its value, that it may go with whatever governs our circumstance as do time and the sun. This is not so easy as reading our favorite newspaper.

I am aware of the grave potential danger in the censorship, even while acknowledging that in war it is as essential as money and guns. I have lived with censors, and have been forced to note the rum way in which they work their wonders to perform. One of them had to examine, not as an art critic, about twenty of Orpen’s pictures of the battlegrounds of the Western Front. The enemy, of course, could never view those examples of British art till the war was over. There to us the scenes were, as we knew them, but rendered imaginatively. What that censor saw in those pictures is a mystery to me still, but he rejected the lot, and he could not explain why, though we asked him. Perhaps he judged it indelicate to expose stark desolation to innocent eyes. Don’t upset the ladies!

IV

You may ask what we reporters of the last war did with ourselves all day long. We lived in a comfortable pre-Revolution château, about which curved a trout stream, secluded by woods near the field of Agincourt. In that house the battle of the Somme was planned. Haig and his army and corps generals met there once a month to plan things. So you think we had a chance to view a great battle? No. Nobody can review a modern battle.

There was a day when a thaw and a mist and several desertions had not forwarded a plan for a major attack by the British. I was on the spot early. The mist was still about. In it were flashes and bangs. Wounded men were hobbling toward us down a road out of nowhere. Some transport was disappearing in the other direction. I turned to the general in command. ‘What has happened so far, sir?’ I felt I was an idiot, as I spoke. ‘How in hell should I know, sir?’ asked the great man.

Of course he didn’t know; and the soldiers slinging bombs out of sight knew less than either of us. I may reveal here that what that victorious battle actually won was the precarious occupation of several thousand acres of old wire, slush, and shell craters. Naturally we had to pay a heavy rent for our rough entry. How would you have reported all that at the time, so that the enemy could learn nothing to gratify him, while the old folk at home could rest easy on the happy truth of it? What about squaring the circle?

Those major engagements were rare. Boredom, chiefly, was our lot. Monotony, stinks, mud, and lice, are the daily features of war. How to say so? Yet we correspondents had all the leisure we required to see our way through the problem of the art of writing about war, to plan our work for the day so that no word of the truth should be mislaid. Perhaps one preferred to stay in the château. In winter it was warmer there. After all, there were the confidential army reports to read. Why go out? We knew what the line was like. We had crawled along it often enough. Some of us had been over the top; were surprised, later on, when we found we were intact, and could hear our own easy breathing again. It is a revelation to know, in an instant, that you are still alive. If any old soldier supposes, because of our bland newspaper work, that we were unaware of his private feelings under a falling sky, he is mistaken. We have felt somewhat the same about it. But we were fixed by mud or what not just as he was himself. Though we were writers, present to witness earthquake and eclipse, there was no means by which we could frankly respond, except as did the soldiers — that is, in ribaldry to a pal. Ah! If only those private comments about that war, usual in France, could have been collected and published, unexpurgated, raw, hilarious, savage, and so near the truth of it that the Recording Angel up above must have rejoiced! All lost, now!

Should a war correspondent decide, on a morning, to face the virulent zone once more, what would he see? The same echoing wilderness, its scents and sounds admonishing the bowels; and you cannot make a long serial story of that, even when allowed to. Nothing in it. Even the transport mules knew it. Still, out some of us used to go, almost daily, down to the land of craters and broken walls. The chance of being bumped off was better than progressive rot of the mind through seclusion in that château, with its whispering of high politics and military intrigues. Somehow we had to make bricks without straw, war without pain, and describe ruin without saying anything about it.

There was an interlude we could have, for surcease. There was a neighboring château for distinguished visitors to the front, foreign generals, editors, and politicals — Mr. Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Sir J. M. Barrie, Mr. Horatio Bottomley, Lord Northcliffe, Trade Union officials, and all that. Occasionally it was declared to be our duty to go over and help entertain these fine people. The soldiers who waited at table at the hostel for visitors wore white gloves. Important guests did the war fairly well. I do not know what they learned of it, but many of them were enthusiastic in their approval of what they saw. You may be sure, therefore, that they were never guided into the Ypres Salient, or anywhere else where one was likely to drop into it up to the neck without warning. And what could any experienced man confide of the truth, at dinner, to Mrs. Humphry Ward?

V

Let us confess it, for it can do no further harm, and it is a fact to be commended to Gradgrind and other realists. Never again in war correspondence shall we get more than incidental stories that are but distantly related to the tragic drama. More will not be allowed because it cannot be. It would be just as reasonable to expect an order of battle to appear on the placards. Nations must battle blindly in darkness till day comes round again and they can sort out what is left. During the darkness there will be but flashes that could be mistaken for bombast, could be mistaken for light; it will be hard to tell which. Nothing better is possible.

Yet there is a grave danger in the censorship, as unavoidable as peril in downfall. In the last war, German propaganda and war correspondence for home consumption were brewed as a gross stimulant, and administered in large doses. Victories were continuous in the direction of ultimate triumph. Mark what happened. A day came when the German public had to be told that its armies, marching to victory, were falling back. Then that public, its courage kept by cleverly diluted falsities, collapsed. The stimulative propaganda meant to strengthen its heart was the cause of sudden heart failure. To give the frustration of rational life not only an intelligent but a cheerful countenance is the miracle which a censor is supposed to bring about; still, truth hath her victories, no less renowned than war bulletins.