The Battle of London
LONDON by night has become one of the world’s prodigies; and by day also occasionally, though, since the four great disasters to the German air fleet, its big bombers dare not venture over the city after the sun is up. Night, any night, is when the old capital of the British is apocalyptic, a vision not believable; though there it is, and there you are. The sounds and lights of it, and the instant serration of towers black against vivid eruptions, — in which for a moment you see a familiar shape, as though to prove that it is London indeed in which you are, — warrant the story that mankind is entering another era. The apparitional entrance to the new age seems unpropitious, and even very dangerous to those who would pass onward to a fairer time.
The port of London, until now, was not one of the world’s pageants. You never heard it mentioned with Penang and Rio. Nobody ever called it the Golden Gate. Indeed, the estuary of the Thames opens so wide a channel for the commerce of Europe that a traveler, before the coming of this new age, was amid its mud flats and shoals before he knew it. He had arrived, but nothing warned him. That small object the Nore lightship? Is that all? That was about all, except the broad waters. He had no desire to cheer. The coast of the lowlands, even when it can be made out, is never more than thin markings to divide an upper and nether light. In the wind and rain, it suggests but the tenuous subsistence of life. Still, did your ship ever move up Thames when day was declining into the smoke? Why, then, of course, one was apt to feel less important than one did a little earlier. There ahead was the daunting admonition of the past. That penumbra of an ancient establishment of men, the loom of their tradition, was in contest with the flames of the very sun. It was London.
All the same, our city is not beautiful. To say so would be going too far. You must listen to Charles Lamb for its enticement, and he, born in the Temple off Fleet Street, was prejudiced, as well as a poet. Poets have unusual tastes and odd views. Wordsworth, from a Thames bridge one sunrise, felt only then that London was revealed. He was deeply moved. Herman Melville, leaning on the parapet of London Bridge the morning he came to see us, took in the sullen Pool, and understood he was with his own. So he was. From there had departed the navigators for the discovery of seas and coasts, from Hudson, Davis, and Frobisher to Scott. Just below Melville, on the south side, was the mooring place of the Golden Hind, where Elizabeth went to knight Drake on his return from Acapulco and the Moluccas. Shakespeare learned what he knew of ships and shipmen along that waterfront. His theatre was near.
Yet we must fall back on the truth. London is not comely and personable. It loses itself in wide diffusion. No traveler, staying briefly in the city where the Thames is said to be somewhere about, — though he hardly ever knows where, — but is forced to admit it, I should have to admit it myself, and I am a Londoner. There is also the Fulham Road, Euston, Islington, Canning Town, and Bermondsey; and numerous other such places and parishes, though in every one of them you may find something nearly as good as the tavern in Southwark where Sam Weller was first seen while cleaning boots. Yet London is not a rival of Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, New York, or Istanbul. We can only say that because of its site on a kindly river, between the eastern and western land masses of the earth, London is performing today the office once held by Bruges and Venice. We remember there was an Industrial Revolution, — we are not allowed to forget it, since it continues to a very ominous din, — and then pots and pans for the many became vastly more important than silks and spices for the few. London then found itself in the providential place on its river so friendly to ships, for iron and coal were at hand. It had been growing fairly fast since Chaucer was a collector of customs at its wharves; and when the steam engine came along — but no words can measure what happened to London after that. Its continental rivals began to envy it, and with reason. It paid no attention to them. It only increased still more. Nothing grows in this world that is good for something but has its mart in London, with Cockney experts whose heritage it is to grade the stuff. It has been said of Fenchurch Street Station that the other end of the line is in China. And what seafarer does not know the East India Dock Road? Go along it one way, and you come to Westminster Abbey; the other way takes you to landfalls in all the seas. Choose the one you want.
Though it would be prudent of you, at present, to postpone your choice. That historic road to the docks of London is unattractive, except to hostile aircraft. Do you remember Ypres, and what the Menin Gate was to it, in the long ago? You ventured through the city towards that eastern gate at your peril. Ypres, the stumps of it, was in a desperate salient. So is London now, and its dockland is at the dangerous extremity of its vast sweep into the region of war. Tennyson warned us that it might happen, and it has come about. Navies are in fact grappling in the central blue, and London is under them. It is a battleground. Such is the progress of science, to say nothing of morals, that the altar, the hospital, and the nursery are promoted to the place of honor, as soldiers used to call the critical sector in battle. They are not only in the front line, but that part of it which must be kept at all hazards. London, in the chances of the Nazi revolt against civility, has become the main smoking bastion in the defense. You can call this the Battle of London; and in truth Austerlitz and Waterloo were brief and petty affairs in comparison — of smallish size and soon over, decisive in a day.
In the early summer we surmised that Hitler might not attack London, fearing for Berlin. And why ruin Buckingham Palace before he entered it in triumph, to announce that new way of life for all peoples revealed to him on Walpurgis Night? But his plans have been torn across. Our airmen have not waited for the German army to come to us; they have gone over to meet it. The war has been carried into Germany, and the means for invasion disarrayed and scattered before Hitler could set them moving against us. Yet if London’s many millions could be terrorized? If panic should come of destruction, and the work of the capital cease, despair take hold, and London welcome any sort of quiet? That was worth the effort, though Berlin had to pay for it. London’s schools and hospitals, therefore, are in the front line. Surgeons and nurses, those that survive, must burrow into collapsed masonry and steel to discover which of their patients survive. And where a nursery was, at bedtime, won’t always bear looking at in the morning. On your way to the office by the usual train — if you yourself were lucky during the night — you may have to lie on the floor of the carriage, the train at a stand, while listening to the horrific coming of a torpedo. The time you have for wondering whether it will get you seems long. Then it bursts. If you hear it go off, most likely you are still all right. But you will be late for work. You may have to walk the rest of the way, holding firmly your hope for the best, while the battle continues in the sky.
Children used to know an old game, with a rhyme, ‘London Bridge has fallen down . . . London’s burning, London’s burning.’ We have had nights when it seemed that had come about. There have been nights when fiends appeared to be at that game in reality, for the scale was past human scope; such a night was an inexplicable confusion of raving noises and flares, pandemonium, the heavens rent, flames and clangor bursting from opened hell. Would the ordinary sun ever rise again to throw light on what was left? Stunned thoughts made no answer to that. But another day did come, and there stood the spires of London, as if we had been dreaming badly the night before; you could have believed you had, except that smoke continued to roll away, the houses of neighbors had gone, and the stories began to come in. You will not know those stories till all is over, and I don’t suppose you will then. The rescue and ambulance parties are unable to say what they saw and did. The abominable thing can only be whispered.
The battle goes on. As an old soldier said to me the other night, looking at gun flashes playing like summer lightning over and around London, hearing the continuous salvos from thousands of guns, ‘This is like Flanders the night before a push.’ This time, however, his children are in it. Hate is upon us, the nurtured malignity of envy is satisfying its old grudge. Our ancient establishment, as we had been threatened, is suffering destruction. This is the hour. Those infernal lights, those numbing eruptions, portend our fate. Yet, when morning is around early once more, — and you look straight at your neighbor as he does at you over the fence, and neither of you say anything but give each other with great gravity the Nazi salute, variegated with the Communist clenched fist as an afterthought, — there the spires of London still are; and the city folk are already passing along for their train, each holding his hope for the best, and another day is beginning. But another warning will have gone before that train reaches its terminus, with more warnings and crashes to follow before the inclement dazzle of gunfire puts out the stars again, as usual.
There comes no end to it. The broadcaster tells you of a block of flats, a school, a public shelter, or a hospital being struck. Dear God! Where, this time? You are thinking of those you know. Yet it is wrong to bother the telephone girls. They have enough to do. Perhaps some of them will never return to duty. You must wait. That is why, when we get letters, we carefully check their postmarks with the last news reported of explosions in the neighborhood of those addresses. The suspense, the bearing of such a tension without showing it, demands fortitude. And the way one’s own folk bear up — as a sailor would say, steer towards duty, holding as near as they can manage into the storm — gives you a respect for ordinary men and women that otherwise you might not have found. Those Cockneys! They deserve a word. Their bastion smokes, but it is there. Thev hold.
London holds. What will the Nazis do next? Nobody knows, not even the Nazis. In Germany there is a frenzied man whose vision of life came of hypnosis through brooding over the nebulous coils of Teutonic mythology; and those legends and fabulous shapes, we are told, were born in the fears of savages amid the gloom of aboriginal forests. To him a dream of Thor’s thundering hammer is what the glory of the Lord was to Moses. Such a dream could grow spears, but make nobody’s bread and butter. But this fanatic is the leader of the Germanic tribes, and has taught them that spilling life magnifies something or other, and they believe, and follow him, eyes glazed, to a promised land, while the waters of the world, we can only conjecture, arc to be piled as miraculous walls on either hand as they pass over. It is no good dismissing this as of the hobgoblins, and a nightmare. We know that, yet the fantasy has sufficient reality to explode a torpedo over the high altar of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nelson one day was shaken in his tomb by it. One of its wanton bolts ruined the old hall where Twelfth Night was first performed, the author in the cast, perhaps to display the modern ascendancy of the dark powers over Ariel. Goldsmith’s burial place has suffered, and Lamb’s birthplace.
Do these names mean anything to you? This Germanic nightmare is one from which Londoners cannot escape by awakening, for they walk in it, wideawake, apprehensive of the next appearance of its horrible spectres. The ride of the Valkyries is heard over Paternoster Row.
As anyone who keeps his wonder over the mystery of human nature would have guessed, — anyone, that is, except men whose faith is based on the evil in us, — the Nazi attempt to break the spirit of the citizens in the centre of the British Commonwealth has raised an unexpected power against Hitler. He may lose the war because of it. It was apparent, when that man was first noticeable, that the energy of his followers came of resentful loutishness acting where reason was disconcerted and ignorance was free from restraint. He and his men till the other day knew nothing of Londoners; and not a few of the British, who did, were not sure of their quality. Yet see what happened, after his Wagnerian effort to shock those Nobodies into panic with the means by which he had crumbled other cities. Londoners are an easygoing lot. They are a medley of all the kingdom. They never show civic pride, and they have no unity. Thousands who live in such parishes as Deptford have never seen the Abbey at Westminster, and don’t want to. The Guildhall of the City Fathers is less to them than the local cinema. But one day they had to view their many dead scattered among the smoking rubble which was homes but yesterday; and now they are quiet, inconsolable, deaf to appeal, stubborn, sardonic, resolved. Hitler won’t know what he did to himself, when he tried to break them, till he is informed. There is a blasphemy against life to be exorcised.
After all, how could such a man know the spirit abiding in London’s mean streets, where the Nobodies live? He had never heard of it. That spirit is older than the Abbey. It built the Abbey. It knew the hill on which the Tower of London stands before William the Conqueror’s ancestors had so much as settled in Normandy; even before the Romans arrived to build a wall to enclose the hill’s east side. How ancient is the line of the Nobodies! Why, that east side of London, beyond the Roman wall of the city, now taking the worst shocks of the Nazi assaults, had been a battleground in Alfred’s reign, and before then. East-Enders today know a Roman Road, for so it is still called, but few of them know it was a causeway of the original Britons, and that Aulus Plautius used it when he marched against the sons of Cymbeline, to suffer a good hiding in the Lea marshes, and there had to wait, by Old Ford, till the Emperor Claudius came to his aid. A stiff-necked generation about there even then gave the Romans a deal of trouble. Near Old Ford is a shabby little turning we know as Priory Street. You recall what Chaucer said of a prioress and the kind of French she spake in her nose? Her Benedictine convent stood where those small houses and cheap shops are now. Pay no attention, for the moment, to the desolation Hitler has spread around near by. That convent was founded by Edgar, about 960, on the advice of Dunstan, who then was lord of Stepney Manor.
These origins are everywhere in London within the silence of time past. The ghosts are in all its ways. Do not suppose our city is only a world market. For my part, I know the quay where Conrad’s Torrens used to tie up, and saw her alongside. Do not suppose our ships carry only cargoes. And it is still something to us Londoners — we haven’t forgotten it, though it was long ago — that Wat the Tyler, an early stalwart for the rights of free men, died in Mile End, a short walk from the Benedictine convent. Our forefathers stood up to the matter in that distant year; but it is doubtful if any Nazi has read The Dream of John Ball, by William Morris. It is a dream still dreamed by sundry persons in London. For the folk of London and its neighborhood were ever a difficult people, strict for their privileges, which they had won from kings, and hopeful of still better times. Their kings learned to respect them, and had reason.
What a long journey it is from the sons of Cymbeline to Sam Weller! But it is a straight road, running from the beginning till now. One meets much the same sort of fellow all the way to where Sam is doing his best in a Southwark tavern, when we see him first, relishing his job, while understanding his master as well as he does his own father. Sam, we feel, is the outcome of a culture as mellow as that of the Chinese — tolerant, bantering, wary, derisive while helpful, able to keep his footing when others fall, kindly even to the high and mighty, having seen them many a time and knowing the way of all flesh; greeting heroics and eloquence with the wry smile of those who know how easily applecarts are upset. ‘Jim,’ exclaimed a Cockney in the last war, drawing back in mock surprise when his company was entering a trench for the first time, ‘why, this place is dangerous!’ It is not for nothing that London can count its representative genius in Sam Weller, Marie Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. If Hitler had appreciated that fact he might have preferred to wait a little longer. Now he must go on.
He learned what he knows of us from Ribbentrop, and that precocious student won his information at dinners, while ambassador in London, from a light and vain circle as remote as its lap dogs from the common English life which keeps the chimneys smoking and the wheels turning. So of course he never heard of Sam, and his surprise that such a fellow exists would be pleasant to watch. How queer it is of German knowledge, that, though extensive and logically ordered, it is apt to lack in the only place which could turn it into wisdom!
It was for that peculiar reason, and no other, that September 1940 was what it was for Londoners. One day in the first week of that month, before the alarm had sounded, when in an instant of time the sky was terrible with war engines, you could have supposed the halycon bird was about to nest on the calm waters of the Thames estuary, so lofty, radiant, and tranquil was the prelude to autumn. The shock of reality, uncovered in a moment, was a test of character. There was a pause of consternation. People looked at each other. Was this the thing itself? Then the test was past. All who had duties were at their posts. The day had come.
We had better make up our minds at once that the whole truth of it can never be known. What is history? A recorder can but give slight indications. War, that immense and blasting spectacle, is only what takes place in the lonely heart. A man suffers in his flesh alone, Duhamel told us in the last war, and that is why wars go on. Shall we put down what has happened when a mother extracts her child from brickbats and it is dead? Or say what is in a father’s mind, after he has hurried home to make sure of that place at least, to find all his street but unrelated smouldering dust? Is there anything to be said? There is nothing one can say; and yet just there, in that moment, in the ruins of households still reeking, where the dead are, is the truth of high politics, hitherto known only to the privileged. Now the mystery is plain. It is no more than a mother, who holds a dead child, and doesn’t know what to do with it, for she has nowhere to go.
That part of London east from Aldgate Pump to Tilbury Docks I ought to know well. Visitors rarely go that way. There is nothing to see. They view the Pool from Tower Quay or London Bridge. Eastward goes London River, as sailors call the stream, to the Maplin and Nore lights. It is London’s main highway. Twice a day the sea comes up to fill the heart of the capital. The sea makes a difference, and adapts those who know it to the presence of peril. I don’t suppose Ribbentrop knew that, or ever got as far in London as Poplar, Canning Town, and such riverside parishes, so he would be unaware of what was sure to happen if ever German war planes dropped their loads over them. A friendly but contumacious people, there. They have always been inclined to march with banners, when the mood came over them; though as they are but dockers, sailors, engineers, boilermakers, shipwrights, stevedores, and what not, they are never seen in fashionable circles; which is a pity, because the knowledge of what takes place when they are upset does not sufficiently circulate.
I remember, too, that in the last war I used to write of the heartening worth of the men of the rear guard, their fortune a crossroads, and what was to come to be there soon. For in life, as in reading, one has to take so many stories of human frailty amid the squalor of existence as a matter of course; and therefore to witness, once in a way, a few soldiers fixing their harness somewhat firmer, and lying down, very quiet, ready for death that their comrades may get clear, is almost the same as hearing very certainly the clarion of a heavenly messenger. I used to think so; for, yes, how usual is human frailty. But I have learned since how common is valor, though when things are well we do not see it in the strangers about us, because no special call has come. That, today, is an assurance of a better world, if we survive, and if we will it. It was not soldiers who kept the lines of London steady when Göring’s legions struck. Only one’s neighbors were there. They did it. One cannot picture the elderly man we see every morning going for his train as a cool one of the rear guard at a fatal crossroads. Nothing like it. He was always good at dahlias, though his literary opinions are inappropriate, but no soldier. There he was — there he still is — cool while shrapnel smacks about, walls are toppling, fires must be put out, and the dead taken from a stricken shelter, while the whooping of Hitler’s revelation still goes on about him. The fires springing up in unexpected places do not dazzle him.
I was unaware mettled people are so numerous. Valor seems ordinary in ordinary men and women. Very likely it comes of a natural revolt against iniquity, a native hatred of cruelty. Yet these people show no hate, only a shocked ruth, only a slow anger. There was a slight girl — better used, I should guess, to a draper’s counter — who took an ambulance party of her own sort into a neighborhood that resembled Sodom and Gomorrah when wrath was purging sin. She remarked afterwards that she could not see her way very well because there was so much smoke and dust, to say nothing of walls coming over. When more bombs began to spread more walls, her girls could not lie down, she pointed out, because broken glass covered the road. Besides, it did not seem to matter. She found and brought out the helpless. Tell me, are not medals and decorations out of date? They discriminate, where there is nothing to distinguish. I love my Cockneys.
If, when the man who was to write Moby Dick looked down Thames from London Bridge, it had been as late as the night of September 7, 1940, he would have seen something out of reach of words. It was the night of doomsday, and not only the earth but the firmament was blazing. He would have seen he was present at the final act, the culmination of the long conflict between good and evil; and there are no words for that known to men. His fear for human destiny, should pride in folly continue to challenge powers unknown, would have told him that he was the last, man, the lone watcher of the sacrifice of mankind’s effort to Abaddon. The story was ending. Others appeared to be beside him at the parapet, but they were only phantoms, gaping, as he was himself, at the scene in which human aspirations were going up in smoke. Phantoms they were; their day was over; and the smoke of all they had done in their lives was worthy of their unfortunate yet heroic ways, billowing and passionate volumes of smoke, — scarlet, orange, gold, purple, and silver, — the mounting inflammables of ambition and pride. These figures beside him, watching with him, were only masks lacquered red by the flames of the hot gulf along the gloomy verge of which they floated.
Could that be London? This was its old place. Those wavering shapes were of the Pool, and there the Norman battlements of the Tower were also, as ever, but all shook and pulsed, as if resolving into their incandescent elements, and would pass with everything, with the smoke. The Thames moved below as a river of blood. That dreadful wail he heard was the uprising of man’s universal anguish.
No, not quite. One of the phantoms beside him moved abruptly, and spoke. ‘Hey, out of it, you! Down below. Here the blighters come again.’ The wraith was off, as a galaxy of sparks exploded in the distance, followed by a blast. There were, that night, watchers on the hills in the suburbs who feared that London was done for, and who were heartened, next morning, when there it was the same as ever, but for patching smoke. They took their trains and buses, not without more difficulty than usual, found the old place veritably was standing, and they did what work they could in it. Ruins were fewer than they expected to find, though there were more than enough; but when the stories from their friends in the eastern parishes began to arrive, they understood well that something had happened which could never be overlooked, for it marked a turning point in the history of civilization. Beyond a peradventure, they knew what must be done. Not for nothing is there a London tradition, though in easy days it can be forgotten.
So we go on. There are nights in London, moonlighted, and altogether new to the old city, which are as beautiful and strange as in a space apart from tribulation. A street in the city, abandoned to only that pale light, is as eerie as the palace Kubla Khan decreed. It is waiting. One keeps to the shadow of a wall, as though in wary desecration of a place not meant for footfalls. For the warning has sounded. There is a whistle and crash, it is hard to say where, and across a turning in the light of the moon goes a group of helmeted figures at the double. It looks theatrical. It might be of the films, but it is wiser to accept it as present reality and dive underground, if you have time for it and refuge is at hand.
It should be said now, for this is the place, that but for one fact not even the stout hearts of Londoners could have saved their city from destruction. Their courage would have been unavailing. Faith saved them, as they cut off roaring gas mains, stopped the cataracts from fractured conduits, doused the volcanoes, got out the dead and dying. For citizens, though they heard the battle continuous in the clouds, and on certain days saw the gigantic hieroglyphics written on the heavens by the exhaust vapors of invisible engines, could rarely make out anything of it. It was in the heights. They knew their young gallants were aloft; navies were grappling in the central blue. Yet all they could do was to pray that all went well up there.
It went well. And though we had faith in our aerial fleet, as in that other fleet, we were dumbfounded when we heard the measure of victory. Nelson himself could not have asked for more. The enemy had been showered down. He is cruel, that enemy, for chivalry is expunged from his code, yet his fall is a dreadful sight. One day, during the affair, I was trying in vain to glimpse the battle in the sky. Sombre cumulus clouds poised in a brooding air were themselves sufficiently awful with the rays of a declining sun pouring through apertures. The unseen war was among them. Three vast fountains uprose on the calm waters, and stood strangely, as long as while we wondered whether they were planes or bombs. A livid ball appeared, and zigzagged down the bulge of a thundercloud, as if it were phenomenally slow lightning. That was a plane, and it was dying. A sharper rattle of machine guns took our eyes to a cloud right overhead. We shrank within ourselves. A Messerschmitt was diving at us. There was no time to move. It enlarged from a bright toy to a dire meteor, falling headfirst, body alight, arms helplessly outspread, and plunged. One is not likely to forget it. We stood, for another unseen plane seemed to be following immediately and directly at us, with an increasing drone which shuddered one’s bones with its power. Only when that sound had passed did we realize that it was the dying cry of the Messerschmitt following its body down. The cloud from which the German had fallen moved on. It uncovered, in an area of blue, a fleet of Hurricanes and Spitfires, bright and tiny as white moths, in leisurely evolutions, heading east, on easy duty bent, driving the enemy out of England.