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The Soul of the War by Philip Gibbs

Part 7 out of 7

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This was an impossibility, because the ground is so moist that water
is reached a few feet down. It was necessary to build shell-proof
shelters above-ground, and this was done by turning the troops into
an army of wood-cutters.

This sylvan life of the French troops here is not without its charm,
apart from the marmites which come crashing through the trees, and
shrapnel bullets which whip through the branches. The ground has
dried up during recent days, so that the long boarded paths leading to
the first lines are no longer the only way of escape from bogs and

It might have been the scene of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as I
made my way through thickets all aglint with the first green of the
spring's foliage, treading on a carpet of white and yellow flowers and
accompanied on my way by butterflies and flying beetles.

But a tremendous noise beyond the stage would have spoilt the play.
French batteries were hard at work and their shells came rushing like
fierce birds above the trees. The sharp "tang" of the French
"Soixante-quinze" cracked out between the duller thuds of the "Cent-
vingt" and other heavy guns, and there were only brief moments of
silence between those violent explosions and the long-drawn sighs of
wind as the shells passed overhead and then burst with that final
crash which scatters death.

In one of the silences, when the wood was very still and murmurous
with humming insects, I heard a voice call. It was not a challenge of
"Qui va la?" or "Garde a vous," but the voice of spring. It called
"Cuckoo! Cuckoo!" and mocked at war.

A young officer with me was more interested in the voices of the
guns. He knew them all, even when they spoke from the enemy's
batteries, and as we walked he said alternately, "Depart.. Arrive...
Depart... Arrive..." as one of the French shells left and one of the
German shells arrived.

The enemy's shells came shattering across the French lines very
frequently, and sometimes as I made my way through the trees
towards the outer bastions I heard the splintering of wood not far

But the soldiers near me seemed quite unconscious of any peril
overhead. Some of them were gardening and making little bowers
about their huts. Only a few sentinels were at their posts, along the
bastions built of logs and clay, behind a fringe of brushwood which
screened them from the first line of German trenches outside this
boundary of the wood.

"Don't show your head round that corner," said an officer, touching
me on the sleeve, as I caught a glimpse of bare fields and, a
thousand yards away, a red-roofed house. There was nothing much
to see--although the enemies of France were there with watchful eyes
for any movement behind our screen.

"A second is long enough for a shot in the forehead," said the officer,
"and if I were you I would take that other path. The screen has worn a
bit thin just there."

It was curious. I found it absolutely impossible to realize, without an
intellectual effort, that out of the silence of those flat fields death
would come instantly if I showed my head. But I did not try the
experiment to settle all doubts.


In the heart of the wood was a small house, spared by some freak of
chance by the German shells which came dropping on every side of
it. Here I took tea with the officers, who used it as their headquarters,
and never did tea taste better than on that warm spring day, though it
was served with a ladle out of a tin bowl to the music of many guns.
The officers were a cheery set who had become quite accustomed to
the menace of death which at any moment might shatter this place
and make a wreckage of its peasant furniture. The colonel sat back in
a wooden armchair, asking for news about the outer world as though
he were a shipwrecked mariner on a desert isle; but every now and
then he would listen to the sound of the shells and say, "Depart! ...
Arrive!" just like the officer who had walked with me through the

Two of the younger officers sat on the edge of a truckle-bed beneath
the portrait of a buxom peasant woman, who was obviously the wife
of the late proprietor. Two other officers lounged against the door-
posts, entertaining the guests of the day with droll stories of death.
Another came in with the latest communique received by the wireless
station outside, and there was a "Bravo! bravo!" from all of us
because it had been a good day for France. They were simple
fellows, these men, and they had the manners of fine gentlemen in
spite of their mud-stained uniforms and the poverty of the cottage in
which they lived. Hardly a day passed without one of their comrades
being killed or wounded, but some officer came to take his place and
his risk, and they made him welcome to the wooden chair and his
turn of the truckle-bed. I think in that peasant's hut I saw the whole
spirit of the French army in its surrender of self-interest and its good-
humoured gallantry.

The guns were still thundering as I drove back from the wood. The
driver of the car turned to me for a moment with a smile and pointed a
few yards away.

"Did you see that shell burst then? It was pretty close."

Death was always pretty close when one reached the fighting-lines of

Soldiers of France, for nearly a year of war I have been walking
among you with watchful eyes, seeing you in all your moods, of gaiety
and depression, of youthful spirits and middle-aged fatigues, and
listening to your tales of war along the roads of France, where you
have gone marching to the zone of death valiantly. I know some of
your weaknesses and the strength of the spirit that is in you, and the
sentiment that lies deep and pure in your hearts in spite of the
common clay of your peasant life or the cynical wit you learnt in Paris.
Sons of a great race, you have not forgotten the traditions of a
thousand years, which makes your history glorious with the spirit of a
keen and flashing people, which century after century has renewed
its youth out of the weariness of old vices and reached forward to
new beauties of science and art with quick intelligence.

This monstrous war has been your greatest test, straining your moral
fibre beyond even the ordeal of those days when your Republican
armies fought in rags and tatters on the frontiers and swept across
Europe to victories which drained your manhood. The debacle of
1870 was not your fault, for not all your courage could save you from
corruption and treachery, and in this new war you have risen above
your frailties with a strength and faith that have wiped out all those
memories of failure. It is good to have made friends among you, to
have clasped some of your brown hands, to have walked a little along
the roads with you. Always now the name of France will be like a
song in my heart, stirring a thousand memories of valour and fine
endurance, and of patience in this senseless business of slaughter,
which made you unwilling butchers and victims of a bloody sacrifice.
Bonne chance, soldats de France!

Chapter X
The Men In Khaki


When our little professional army landed on the coast of Prance there
was not one in a thousand soldiers who had more than the vaguest
idea as to why he was coming to fight the Germans or as to the
character of the fighting in which he was to be engaged. If one asked
him "Why are we at war with Germany" this regular soldier would
scratch his head, struggle to find a reasonable answer, and mutter
something about "them bloody Germans," and "giving a hand to the
Froggies." Of international politics, world-problems, Teutonic
ambitions, Slav perils, White Papers or Yellow Papers, he knew
nothing and cared nothing. As a professional soldier it was his duty to
fight anybody he was told to fight, of whatever colour he might be, or
of whatever country. For some months it had been in his mind that he
might have to do a bit of shooting in Ireland, and on the whole he was
glad that this enemy was to speak a foreign language. It made the
game seem more as it should be. What was it Blatchford had said
about the Germans? He couldn't quite remember the drift of it, except
that they had been preparing for years to have a smack at England.
Wanted to capture all our Colonies, and were building ships like
blazes. Of course our Government had been asleep as usual, and
didn't care a damn. No British Government ever did, as far as he
could remember. Anyhow, the Germans were his enemy, and the
French were our friends--which was queer--and the British army was
going to save Europe again according to its glorious traditions as
mentioned more than once by the Colonel. It had been a fine time
before saying good-bye to the wife and kids. Every man had been a
hero to his fellow citizens, who had clapped him on the back and
stood free drinks in great style. "Bring us back some German
helmets, Jock!" the girls had shouted out, "And mind your P's and
Q's with them French hussies."

It would be a bit of a change to see the Continental way of doing
things. They spoke a queer lingo, the French, but were all right. Quite
all right, judging from the newspapers, and a fellow who had gone out
as a chauffeur and had come back with fancy manners. "After you,
Monsieur. Pardonney-more." There would be some great adventures
to tell the lads when the business was over. Of course there would be
hot work, and some of the boys would never come back at all--
accidents did happen even in the best regulated wars--but with a bit
of luck there would be a great home-coming with all the bells ringing,
and crowds in the streets, and the band playing "See the conquering
hero comes," or "when Tommy comes marching home." We had
learnt a thing or two since South Africa, and the army was up to
scratch. These Germans would have to look out for themselves.


I think that represents fairly enough the mental attitude of the average
British soldier who came out to France into an unknown land in which
he was to do "his bit." The younger men knew nothing of the
psychological effect of shell-fire, and their imagination was not
haunted by any fear. The older men, brought back to the Colours
after a spell of civil life, judged of war according to the standards of
the South African campaign or Omdurman, and did not guess that
this war was to be a more monstrous thing, which would make that
little affair in the Transvaal seem a picnic for boys playing at the
game. Not yet had they heard the roar of Germany's massed artillery
or seen the heavens open and rain down death.

The British officer was more thoughtful, and did not reveal his
thoughts to the men. Only in quiet conversation in his own mess did
he reveal the forebodings which made his soul gloomy.

"There is no doubt the German army is the greatest fighting machine
in Europe. We might dislike some of their methods, their cast-iron
system and all that--oh, I know what the Times man said about their
last manoeuvres--but they have been preparing for this war for years,
and their organization is all cut and dried. How about the French?
Yes, they have plenty of pluck, and I've seen something of their
gunners--quite marvellous!--but have they got any staying power?
Are they ready? How about their politicians? I don't like the look of
things, altogether. We have joined in this infernal war--had to, of
course--but if things go wrong in France we haven't anything like an
army to tackle a job like this. . . . Not that I'm a pessimist, mind you."

No, they were not pessimists, these British officers, when they first
came out to France; and the younger men, all those lieutenants who
had come quite recently from Sandhurst and Stonyhurst, and public
schools in England, with the fine imperturbable manner of their class
and caste, hiding their boyishness under a mask of gravity, and not
giving themselves away by the slightest exuberance of speech or
gesture, but maintaining stiff upper lips under a square quarter of an
inch of fair bristles, went into this war with unemotional and
unconscious heroism. Unlike the French officer, who had just that
touch of emotionalism and self-consciousness which delights in the
hero-worship in the streets, the cheers of great crowds, the fluttering
of women's handkerchiefs, and the showering of flowers from high
balconies, these English boys had packed up their traps and gone
away from homes just as they had got back to school after the
holidays, a little glum, and serious, at the thought of work. "Good-bye,

The embrace had lasted a few seconds longer than usual. This
mother had held her son tight, and had turned a little pale. But her
voice had been steady and she had spoken familiar words of
affection and advice, just as if her boy were off to the hunting-fields,
or a polo match.

"Good-bye, darling. Do be careful, won't you? Don't take unnecessary

"Right-o! ... Back soon, I hope." That was all, in most cases. No sobs
or heartbreaks. No fine words about patriotism, and the sweetness of
death for the Mother Country, and the duty of upholding the old
traditions of the Flag. All that was taken for granted, as it had been
taken for granted when this tall fellow in brand new khaki with nice-
smelling belts of brown leather, was a bald-headed baby on a lace
pillow in a cradle, or an obstreperous boy in a big nursery. The word
patriotism is never spoken in an English household of this boy's
class. There are no solemn discourses about duty to the Mother
Country. Those things have always been taken for granted, like the
bread and butter at the breakfast table, and the common decencies
of life, and the good manners of well-bred people. When his mother
had brought a man-child into the world she knew that this first-born
would be a soldier, at some time of his life. In thousands of families it
is still the tradition. She knew also that if it were necessary, according
to the code of England, to send a punitive expedition against some
native race, or to capture a new piece of the earth for the British
Empire, this child of hers would play his part, and take the risks, just
as his father had done, and his grandfather. The boy knew also,
though he was never told. The usual thing had happened at the usual

"I suppose you will soon be ready for Sandhurst, Dick?" "Yes, I
suppose so, father."


So when the war came these young men who had been gazetted six
months or so before went out to France as most men go to do their
job, without enthusiasm, but without faltering, in the same matter-of-
fact way as a bank clerk catches the 9.15 train to the city. But death
might be at the end of the journey? Yes. Quite likely. They would die
in the same quiet way. It was a natural incident of the job. A horrid
nuisance, of course, quite rotten, and all that, but no more to be
shirked than the risk of taking a toss over an ugly fence. It was what
this young man had been born for. It was the price he paid for his

There were some undercurrents of emotion in the British army not to
be seen on the surface. There had been private dramas in private
drawing-rooms. Some of the older men had been "churned up," as
they would say, because this sudden war had meant a leave-taking
from women, who would be in a deuce of a fix if anything happened
to certain captains and certain majors. Love affairs which had been
somewhat complicated were simplified too abruptly by a rapid
farewell, and a "God bless you, old girl. ... I hate to leave you with
such ragged ends to the whole business. But perhaps after all it's a
way out--for both of us. Eh?" The war offered a way out for all sorts of
men with complicated lives, with debts that had been rather a worry,
and with bills of folly that could not be paid at sight, and with skeletons
in the cupboard rattling their bones too loudly behind the panels. Well,
it was a case of cut and run. Between the new life and the old there
would be no bridge, across which a woman or a ghost could walk.
War is always a way of escape even though it be through the dark
valley of death.

Nothing of this private melodrama was visible among those men who
came to France. When they landed at Boulogne there was no visible
expression on faces which have' been trained to be expressionless.
At Rouen, at Le Mans, at St. Omer, and many other towns in France I
watched our British officers and tried to read their character after
getting a different point of view among the French troops. Certainly in
their way they were magnificent--the first gentlemen in the world, the
most perfect type of aristocratic manhood. Their quietude and their
coldness struck me as remarkable, because of the great contrast in
the character of the people around them. For the first time I saw the
qualities of my own race, with something like a foreigner's eyes, and
realized the strength of our racial character. It was good to see the
physique of these men, with their clear-cut English faces, and their
fine easy swagger, utterly unconscious and unaffected, due to having
played all manner of games since early boyhood, so that their athletic
build was not spoilt by deliberate development.

And I gave homage to them because of the perfect cut and
equipment of their uniforms, so neat and simple, and workmanlike for
the job of war. Only Englishmen could look so well in these clothes.
And even in these French towns I saw the influence of English school
life and of all our social traditions standing clear-cut against the
temperament of another nation with different habits and ideals. They
were confident without any demonstrative sign that they were
superior beings destined by God, or the force of fate, to hold the
fullest meaning of civilization. They were splendidly secure in this
faith, not making a brag of it, not alluding to it, but taking it for
granted, just as they had taken for granted their duty to come
out to France and die if that were destined.

And studying them, at cafe tables, at the base, or in their depots, I
acknowledged that, broadly, they were right. In spite of an
extraordinary ignorance of art and letters (speaking of the great
majority), in spite of ideas stereotyped by the machinery of their
schools and universities, so that one might know precisely their
attitude to such questions as social reform, internationalism, Home
Rule for Ireland, or the Suffragettes--any big problem demanding
freedom of thought and un-conventionality of discussion--it was
impossible to resist the conviction that these officers of the British
army have qualities, supreme of their kind, which give a mastery to
men. Their courage was not a passion, demanding rage or religious
fervour, or patriotic enthusiasm, for its inspiration. It was the very law
of their life, the essential spirit in them. They were unconscious of it as
a man is unconscious of breathing, unless diseased. Their honour
was not a thing to talk about. To prate about the honour of the army
or the honour of England was like talking about the honour of their
mother. It is not done. And yet, as Mark Antony said, "They were all
honourable men," and there seemed an austerity of virtue in them
which no temptation would betray--the virtue of men who have a code
admitting of certain easy vices, but not of treachery, or cowardice, or

They had such good form, these young men who had come out to a
dirty devilish war. It was enormously good to hear them talking to
each other in just the same civil, disinterested, casual way which
belongs to the conversational range of St. James's Street clubs. Not
once--like French soldiers--did they plunge into heated discussions
on the ethics of war, or the philosophy of life, or the progress of
civilization, or the rights of democracies. Never did they reveal to
casual strangers like myself--and hundreds of French soldiers did--
the secret affections of their hearts, flowing back to the women they
had left, or their fears of death and disablement, or their sense of the
mystery of God. Not even war, with its unloosing of old restraints, its
smashing of conventionalities, could break down the code of these
young English gentlemen whose first and last lessons had been
those of self-concealment and self-control.

In England these characteristics are accepted, and one hardly thinks
of them. It is the foreigner's point of view of us. But in France, in war
time, in a country all vibrant with emotionalism, this restraint of
manner and speech and utter disregard of all "problems" and
mysteries of life, and quiet, cheerful acceptation of the job in hand,
startled the imagination of Englishmen who had been long enough
away from home to stand aloof and to study those officers with a
fresh vision. There was something superb in those simple, self-
confident, normal men, who made no fuss, but obeyed orders, or
gave them, with a spirit of discipline which belonged to their own
souls and was not imposed by a self-conscious philosophy. And yet I
could understand why certain Frenchmen, in spite of their admiration,
were sometimes irritated by these British officers. There were times
when the similarity between them, the uniformity of that ridiculous little
moustache on the upper lip, the intonation of voices with the peculiar
timbre of the public school drawl, sound to them rather tiresome.
They had the manners of a caste, the touch of arrogance which
belongs to a caste, in power. Every idea they had was a caste idea,
contemptuous in a civil way of poor devils who had other ideas and
who were therefore guilty--not by their own fault of course--of
shocking bad form. To be a Socialist in such company would be
worse than being drunk. To express a belief in democratic liberty
would cause a silence to fall upon a group of them as though some
obscenity beyond the limits allowed in an officers' mess-room had
been uttered by a man without manners.

Their attitude to French officers was, in the beginning of the war,
calculated to put a little strain upon the Entente Cordiale. It was an
attitude of polite but haughty condescension. A number of young
Frenchmen of the best families had been appointed as interpreters to
the British Expedition. There were aristocrats among them whose
names run like golden threads through the pages of French history. It
was therefore disconcerting when the young Viscomte de Chose and
a certain Marquis de Machin found that their knowledge of English
was used for the purpose of buying a packet of cigarettes for a
lieutenant who knew no French, and of running errands for British
officers who accepted such services as a matter of course. The rank-
and-file of the British army which first came into France was also a
little careless of French susceptibilities. After the first rapture of that
welcome which was extended to anyone in khaki, French citizens
began to look a little askance at the regiments from the Highlands
and Lowlands, some of whose men demanded free gifts in the shops,
and, when a little drunk, were rather crude in their amorous advances
to girls of decent up-bringing. These things were inevitable. In our
regular army there were the sweepings of many slums, as well as the
best blood of our peasantry and our good old families. Tough and
hardened fellows called to the Colours again from Glasgow and
Liverpool, Cardiff and Limehouse, had none of the refinements of the
younger generation of soldiers who prefer lemonade to whisky, and
sweetmeats to shag. It was these who in the first Expeditionary Force
gave most trouble to the military police and found themselves under
the iron heel of a discipline which is very hard and very necessary in
time of war.


These men were heroic soldiers, yet our hero-worship need not blind
us to the truth of things. There is nothing more utterly false than to
imagine that war purges human nature of all its frailties and vices,
and that under the shadow of death a great body of men gathered
like this from many classes and cities, become suddenly white
knights, sans-peur et sans reproche, inspired by the highest ideals of
faith and chivalry. If only some new Shakespeare would come out of
the ranks after this war to give us immortal portraits of a twentieth-
century Falstaff, with a modern Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph--what a
human comedy would be there in the midst of all this tragedy in
France and Flanders, setting off the fine exalted heroism of all those
noble and excellent men who, like the knights and men-at-arms of
Henry at Agincourt, thought that "the fewer men the greater share of
honour," and fought for England with a devotion that was careless of

After the British retreat from Mons, when our regular troops realized
very rapidly the real meaning of modern warfare, knowing now that it
was to be no "picnic," but a deadly struggle against great odds, and a
fight of men powerless against infernal engines, there came out to
France by every ship the oddest types of men who had been called
out to fill up the gaps and take a share in the deadly business. These
"dug-outs" were strange fellows, some of them. Territorial officers
who had held commissions in the Yeomanry, old soldiers who had
served in India, Egypt, and South Africa, before playing interminable
games of chess in St. James's Street, or taking tea in country
rectories and croquet mallets on country lawns; provincial
schoolmasters who had commanded an O.T.C. with high-toned
voices which could recite a passage from Ovid with cultured diction;
purple-faced old fellows who for years had tempted Providence and
apoplexy by violence to their valets; and young bloods who had once
"gone through the Guards," before spending their week-ends at
Brighton with little ladies from the Gaiety chorus, came to Boulogne or
Havre by every boatload and astonished the natives of those ports by
their martial manners.

The Red Cross was responsible for many astounding representatives
of the British race in France, and there were other crosses--purple,
green, blue, and black--who contributed to this melodrama of mixed
classes and types. Benevolent old gentlemen, garbed like second-
hand Field Marshals, tottered down the quaysides and took the
salutes of startled French soldiers with bland but dignified
benevolence. The Jewish people were not only generous to the Red
Cross work with unstinted wealth which they poured into its coffers,
but with rich young men who offered their lives and their motor-cars in
this good service--though the greater part of them never went nearer
to the front (through no fault of their own) than Rouen or Paris, where
they spent enormous sums of money at the best hotels, and took
lady friends for joy rides in ambulances of magnificent design.
Boulogne became overcrowded with men and women wearing military
uniforms of no known design with badges of mysterious import.

Even the Scotland Yard detectives were bewildered by some of these
people whose passports were thoroughly sound, but whose
costumes aroused deep suspicion. What could they do, for instance,
with a young Hindu, dressed as a boy-scout, wearing tortoise-shell
spectacles, and a field kit of dangling bags, water-bottles, maps,
cooking utensils, and other material suitable for life on a desert isle?
Or what could they say to a lady in breeches and top-boots, with a
revolver stuck through her belt, and a sou'wester on her head, who
was going to nurse the wounded in a voluntary hospital at Nice?
Contingents of remarkable women invaded the chief tea-shops in
Boulogne and caused a panic among the waitresses. They wore
Buffalo Bill hats and blue uniforms with heavy blue coats, which were
literally spangled with brass buttons. Upon their stalwart bosoms were
four rows of buttons, and there was a row of brass on each side of
their top-coats, on their shoulders, and at the back of their waist-belts.
In the light of the tea-shop, where they consumed innumerable buns,
one's eyes became dizzy with all these bits of shining metal. To a
wounded man the sight of one of these ladies must have been
frightening, as though a shell had burst near his bedside, with the glint
of broken steel. Young officers just drafted out with commissions on
which the ink was hardly dry, plucked at their budding moustaches
and said "War is hell."

Some of the older officers, who had been called out after many years
of civilian ease, found the spirit of youth again as soon as they set
foot on the soil of France, and indulged in I the follies of youth as
when they had been sub-lieutenants in the Indian hills. I remember
one of these old gentlemen who refused to go to bed in the Hotel
Tortoni at Havre, though the call was for six o'clock next morning with
quite a chance of death before the week was out. Some younger
officers with him coaxed him to his room just before midnight, but he
came down again, condemning their impudence, and went out into
the great silent square, shouting for a taxi. It seemed to me pitiful that
a man with so many ribbons on his breast, showing distinguished
service, should be wandering about a place where many queer
characters roam in the darkness of night. I asked him if I could show
him the way back to the Hotel Tortoni. "Sir," he said, "I desire to go to
Piccadilly Circus, and if I have any of your impertinence I will break
your head." Two apaches lurched up to him, a few minutes later, and
he went off with them into a dark ally, speaking French with great
deliberation and a Mayfair accent. He was a twentieth century
Falstaff, and the playwright might find his low comedy in a character
like this thrust into the grim horror of the war.


One's imagination must try to disintegrate that great collective thing
called an army and see it as much as possible as a number of
separate individualities, with their differences of temperament and
ideals and habits of mind. There has been too much of the
impersonal way of writing of our British Expeditionary Force as though
it were a great human machine impelled with one idea and moving
with one purpose. In its ranks was the coster with his cockney speech
and cockney wit, his fear of great silences and his sense of loneliness
and desolation away from the flare of gas-lights and the raucous
shouts of the crowds in Petticoat Lane--so that when I met him in a
field of Flanders with the mist and the long, flat marshlands about him
he confessed to the almighty Hump. And there was the Irish peasant
who heard the voice of the Banshee calling through that mist, and
heard other queer voices of supernatural beings whispering to the
melancholy which had been bred in his brain in the wilds of
Connemara. Here was the English mechanic, matter-of-fact, keen on
his job, with an alert brain and steady nerves; and with him was the
Lowland Scot, hard as nails, with uncouth speech and a savage
fighting instinct. Soldiers who had been through several battles and
knew the tricks of old campaigners were the stiffening in regiments of
younger men whose first experience of shell-fire was soul-shattering,
so that some of them whimpered and were blanched with fear.

In the ranks were men who had been mob-orators, and who had
once been those worst of pests, "barrack-room lawyers." They talked
Socialism and revolution in the trenches to comrades who saw no
use to alter the good old ways of England and "could find no manner
of use" for political balderdash. Can you not see all these men, made
up of every type in the life of the British Isles, suddenly transported to
the Continent and thence into the zone of fire of massed artillery
which put each man to the supreme test of courage, demanding the
last strength of his soul? Some of them had been slackers, rebels
against discipline, "hard cases." Some of them were sensitive fellows
with imaginations over-developed by cinematograph shows and the
unhealthiness of life in cities. Some of them were no braver than you
or I, my readers. And yet out of all this mass of manhood, with all their
faults, vices, coward instincts, pride of courage, unexpressed ideals,
unconscious patriotism, old traditions of pluck, untutored faith in
things more precious than self-interest--the mixture that one finds in
any great body of men--there was made an army, that "contemptible
little army" of ours which has added a deathless story of human
valour to the chronicles of our race.

These men who came out with the first Expeditionary Force had to
endure a mode of warfare more terrible than anything the world has
known before, and for week after week, month after month, they were
called upon to stand firm under storms of shells which seemed to
come from no human agency, but to be devilish in intensity and
frightfulness of destruction. Whole companies of them were
annihilated, whole battalions decimated, yet the survivors were led to
the shambles again. Great gaps were torn out of famous regiments and
filled up with new men, so often that the old regiment was but a name
and the last remaining officers and men were almost lost among the
new-comers. Yet by a miracle in the blood of the British race, in
humanity itself, if it is not decadent beyond the point of renaissance,
these cockneys and peasants, Scotsmen and Irishmen, and men
from the Midlands, the North, and the Home Counties of this little
England faced that ordeal, held on, and did not utter aloud (though
sometimes secretly) one wailing cry to God for mercy in all this hell.
With a pride of manhood beyond one's imagination, with a stern and
bitter contempt for all this devilish torture, loathing it but "sticking"
it, very much afraid yet refusing to surrender to the coward in their
souls (the coward in our souls which tempts all of us), sick of the
blood and the beastliness, yet keeping sane (for the most part) with
the health of normal minds and bodies in spite of all this wear and
tear upon the nerves, the rank-and-file of that British Expedition in
France and Flanders, under the leadership of young men who gave
their lives, with the largess of great prodigals, to the monstrous
appetite of Death, fought with something like superhuman qualities.


Although I spent most of my time on the Belgian and French side of
the war, I had many glimpses of the British troops who were enduring
these things, and many conversations with officers and men who had
come, but a few hours ago, from the line of fire. I went through British
hospitals and British ambulance trains where thousands of them lay
with new wounds, and I dined with them when after a few weeks of
convalescence they returned to the front to undergo the same ordeal.
Always I felt myself touched with a kind of wonderment at these men.
After many months of war the unwounded men were still unchanged,
to all outward appearance, though something had altered in their
souls. They were still quiet, self-controlled, unemotional. Only by a
slight nervousness of their hands, a slightly fidgety way so that they
could not sit still for very long, and by sudden lapses into silence, did
some of them show the signs of the strain upon them. Even the lightly
wounded men were astoundingly cheerful, resolute, and unbroken.
There were times when I used to think that my imagination
exaggerated the things I had seen and heard, and that after all war
was not so terrible, but a rather hard game with heavy risks. It was
only when I walked among the wounded who had been more than
"touched," and who were the shattered wrecks of men, that I realized
again the immensity of the horror through which these other men had
passed and to which some of them were going back. When the
shrieks of poor tortured boys rang in my ears, when one day I passed
an officer sitting up in his cot and laughing with insane mirth at his
own image in a mirror, and when I saw men with both legs amputated
up to the thighs, or with one leg torn to ribbons, and another already
sawn away, lying among blinded and paralysed men, and men
smashed out of human recognition but still alive, that I knew the
courage of those others, who having seen and known, went back to
risk the same frightfulness.


There was always a drama worth watching at the British base, for it
was the gate of those who came in and of those who went out, "the
halfway house" as a friend of mine called another place in France,
between the front and home.

Everything came here first--the food for guns and men, new boots for
soldiers who had marched the leather off their feet; the comforters
and body-belts knitted by nimble-fingered girls, who in suburban
houses and country factories had put a little bit of love into every
stitch; chloroform and morphia for army doctors who have moments
of despair when their bottles get empty; ambulances, instruments,
uniforms, motor lorries; all the letters which came to France full of
prayers and hopes; and all the men who came to fill up the places of
those for whom there are still prayers, but no more hope on this side
of the river. It was the base of the British Expeditionary Force, and the
Army in the field would be starved in less than a week if it were cut off
from this port of supplies.

There was a hangar here, down by the docks, half a mile long. I
suppose it was the largest shed in the world, and it was certainly the
biggest store-cupboard ever kept under lock and key by a Mother
Hubbard with a lot of hungry boys to feed. Their appetites were
prodigious, so that every day thousands of cases were shifted out of
this cupboard and sent by train and motor-car to the front. But always
new cases were arriving in boats that are piloted into harbour across
a sea where strange fish came up from the deeps at times. So the
hangar was never empty, and on the signature of a British officer the
British soldiers might be sure of their bully beef, and fairly sure of a
clean shirt or two when the old ones had been burnt by the order of a
medical officer with a delicate nose and high ideals in a trench.

New men as well as new stores came in the boats to this harbour,
which was already crowded with craft not venturesome in a sea
where one day huge submarine creatures lurked about. I watched
some Tommies arrive. They had had a nasty "dusting" on the
voyage, and as they marched through the streets of the port some of
them looked rather washed out. They carried their rifles upside down
as though that might ease the burden of them, and they had that
bluish look of men who have suffered a bad bout of sea-sickness. But
they pulled themselves up when they came into the chief square
where the French girls at the flower stalls, and ladies at the hotel
windows, and a group of French and Belgian soldiers under the
shelter of an arcade, watched them pass through the rain.

"Give 'em their old tune, lads," said one of the men, and from this
battalion of new-comers who had just set foot in France to fill up gaps
in the ranks, out there, at the front, there came a shrill whistling
chorus of La Marseillaise. Yorkshire had learnt the hymn of France,
her song of victory, and I heard it on the lips of Highlanders and
Welshmen, who came tramping through the British base to the
camps outside the town where they waited to be sent forward to the
fighting line.

"Vive les Anglais!" cried a French girl, in answer to the whistling
courtesy. Then she laughed, with her arm round the waist of a girl
friend, and said, "They are all the same, these English soldiers. In
their khaki one cannot tell one from the other, and now that I have
seen so many thousands of them--Heaven! hundreds of thousands!
--I have exhausted my first enthusiasm. It is sad: the new arrivals
do not get the same welcome from us."

That was true. So many of our soldiers had been through the British
base that they were no longer a novelty. The French flower-girls did
not empty their stalls into the arms of the regiments, as on the first

It was an English voice that gave the new-comers the highest praise,
because professional.

"A hefty lot! ... Wish I were leading them." The praise and the wish
came from a young English officer who was staying in the same hotel
with me. For two days I had watched his desperate efforts to avoid
death by boredom. He read every line of the Matin and Journal
before luncheon, with tragic sighs, because every line repeated what
had been said in the French newspapers since the early days of the
war. After luncheon he made a sortie for the English newspapers,
which arrived by boats. They kept him quiet until tea-time. After that
he searched the cafes for any fellow officers who might be there.

"This is the most awful place in the world!" he repeated at intervals,
even to the hall porter, who agreed with him. When I asked him how
long he had been at the base he groaned miserably and confessed to
three weeks of purgatory.

"I've been put into the wrong pigeon-hole at the War Office," he said.
"I'm lost."

There were many other men at the British base who seemed to have
been put into the wrong pigeon-holes. Among them were about two
hundred French interpreters who were awaiting orders to proceed
with a certain division. But they were not so restless as my friend in
the hotel. Was it not enough for them that they had been put into
English khaki--supplied from the store-cupboard--and that every
morning they had to practise the art of putting on a puttee? In order to
be perfectly English they also practised the art of smoking a briar
pipe--it was astoundingly difficult to keep it alight--and indulged in the
habit of five o'clock tea (with boiled eggs, ye gods!), and braved all
the horrors of indigestion, because they are not used to these things,
with heroic fortitude. At any cost they were determined to do honour
to le khaki, in spite of the arrogance of certain British officers who
treated them de haut en bas.

The Base Commandant's office was the sorting-house of the
Expeditionary Force. The relays of officers who had just come off the
boats came here to report themselves. They had sailed as it were
under sealed orders and did not know their destination until they were
enlightened by the Commandant, who received instructions from the
headquarters in the field. They waited about in groups outside his
door, slapping their riding-boots or twisting neat little moustaches,
which were the envy of subalterns just out of Sandhurst.

Through another door was the registry office through which all the
Army's letters passed inwards and outwards. The military censors
were there reading the letters of Private Atkins to his best girl, and to
his second best. They shook their heads over military strategy written
in the trenches, and laughed quietly at the humour of men who
looked on the best side of things, even if they were German shells or
French fleas. It was astonishing what a lot of humour passed through
this central registry from men who were having a tragic time for
England's sake; but sometimes the military Censor had to blow his
nose with violence because Private Atkins lapsed into pathos, and
wrote of tragedy with a too poignant truth.

The Base Commandant was here at all hours. Even two hours after
midnight he sat in the inner room with tired secretaries who marvelled
at the physical and mental strength of a man who at that hour could
still dictate letters full of important detail without missing a point or a
comma; though he came down early in the morning. But he was
responsible for the guarding of the Army's store-cupboard--that great
hangar, half a mile long--and for the discipline of a town full of soldiers
who, without discipline, would make a merry hell of it, and for the
orderly disposition of all the supplies at the base upon which the army
in the field depends for its welfare. It was not what men call a soft job.

Through the hotel where I stayed there was a continual flow of
officers who came for one night only. Their kit-bags and sleeping-
bags were dumped into the hall, and these young gentlemen, some
of whom had been gazetted only a few months ago, crowded into the
little drawing-room to write their letters home before going to the front,
and to inquire of each other what on earth there was to do in a town
where lights are out at ten o'clock, where the theatres were all closed,
and where rain was beating down on the pavements outside.

"How about a bath?" said one of them. "It is about the last chance, I

They took turns to the bathroom, thinking of the mud and vermin of
the trenches which would soon be their home. Among those who
stayed in the sitting-room until the patron turned out the lights were
several officers who had been on forty-eight hours' leave from the
front. They had made a dash to London and back, they had seen the
lights of Piccadilly again, and the crowds in the streets of a city which
seemed to know nothing of war, they had dined with women in
evening-dress who had asked innocent questions about the way of a
modern battlefield, and they had said good-bye again to those who
clung to them a little too long outside a carriage window.

"Worth it, do you think?" asked one of them.

"Enormously so. But it's a bit of a pull--going back to that--
beastliness. After one knows the meaning of it."

"It's because I know that I want to go back," said another man who
had sat very quietly looking at the toe of one of his riding-boots. "I had
a good time in town--it seemed too good to be true--but, after all, one
has to finish one's job before one can sit around with an easy mind.
We've got to finish our job out there in the stinking trenches."


I suppose even now after all that has been written it is difficult for the
imagination of "the man who stayed at home" to realize the life and
conditions of the soldiers abroad. So many phrases which appeared
day by day in the newspapers conveyed no more than a vague,
uncertain meaning.

"The Front"--how did it look, that place which was drawn in a jagged
black line across the map on the wall? "General Headquarters"--what
sort of a place was that in which the Commander-in-Chief lived with
his staff, directing the operations in the fighting lines? "An attack was
made yesterday upon the enemy's position at-----. A line of trenches
was carried by assault." So ran the officiai bulletin, but the wife of a
soldier abroad could not fill in the picture, the father of a young
Territorial could not get enough detail upon which his imagination
might build. For all those at home, whose spirits came out to Flanders
seeking to get into touch with young men who were fighting for
honour's sake, it was difficult to form any kind of mental vision, giving
a clear and true picture of this great adventure in "foreign parts."

They would have been surprised at the reality, it was to different from
all their previous imaginings. General Headquarters, for instance, was
a surprise to those who came to such a place for the first time. It was
not, when I went there some months ago, a very long distance from
the fighting lines in these days of long-range guns, but it was a place
of strange quietude in which it was easy to forget the actuality of war--
until one was reminded by sullen far-off rumblings which made the
windows tremble, and made men lift their heads a moment to say:
"They are busy out there to-day." There were no great movements of
troops in the streets. Most of the soldiers one saw were staff officers,
who walked briskly from one building to another with no more than a
word and a smile to any friend they met on the way. Sentries stood
outside the doorways of big houses.

Here and there at the street comers was a military policeman,
scrutinizing any new-comer in civilian clothes with watchful eyes.
Church bells tinkled for early morning Mass or Benediction. Through
an open window looking out upon a broad courtyard the voices of
school children came chanting their A B C in French, as though no
war had taken away their fathers. There was an air of profound peace

At night, when I stood at an open window listening to the silence of
the place it was hard, even though I knew, to think that here in this
town was the Headquarters Staff of the greatest army England has
ever sent abroad, and that the greatest war in history was being
fought out only a few miles away. The raucous horn of a motor-car,
the panting of a motor-cycle, the rumble of a convoy of ambulances,
the shock of a solitary gun, came as the only reminders of the great
horror away there through the darkness. A dispatch rider was coming
back from a night ride on a machine which had side-slipped all the
way from Ypres. An officer was motoring back to a divisional
headquarters after a late interview with the chief... The work went on,
though it was very quiet in General Headquarters.

But the brains of the Army were not asleep. Behind those doors,
guarded by sentries, men in khaki uniforms, with just a touch of red
about the collar, were bending over maps and documents--studying
the lines of German trenches as they had been sketched out by
aviators flying above German shrapnel, writing out orders for
ammunition to be sent in a hurry to a certain point on the fighting line
where things were very "busy" in the afternoon, ordering the food-
supplies wanted by a division of hungry men whose lorries are waiting
at the rail-head for bread and meat and a new day's rations.

"Things are going very well," said one of the officers, with a glance at
a piece of flimsy paper which had just come from the Signals
Department across the street. But things would not have gone so well
unless at General Headquarters every officer had done his duty to
the last detail, whatever the fatigue of body or spirit. The place was
quiet, because the work was done behind closed doors in these
private houses of French and Flemish bourgeoisie whose family
portraits hang upon the walls. Outside I could not see the spirit of war
unless I searched for it.

It was after I had left "G.H.Q." that I saw something of the human side
of war and all its ceaseless traffic. Yet even then, as I travelled nearer
and nearer to the front, I was astounded at the silence, the
peacefulness of the scenery about me, the absence of all tragic
sights. That day, on the way to a place which was very close to the
German lines, children were playing on the roadside, and old women
in black gowns trudged down the long, straight high roads, with their
endless sentinels of trees.

In a furrowed field a peasant was sowing the seed for an autumn
harvesting, and I watched his swinging gestures from left to right
which seem symbolical of all that peace means and of all nature's life
and beauty. The seed is scattered and God does the rest, though
men may kill each other and invent new ways of death...

But the roads were encumbered and the traffic of war was surging
forward ceaselessly in a muddled, confused, aimless sort of way, as it
seemed to me, before I knew the system and saw the working of the
brain behind it all. A long train of carts without horses stood, shafts
down, on the muddy side of the road. Little blue and red flags
fluttered above them. A group of soldiers were lounging in their
neighbourhood, waiting, it seems, for something to turn up. Perhaps
that something was a distant train which came with a long trail of
smoke across the distant marshlands.

At the railway crossing there was a great park of motor lorries. They,
too, seemed to be waiting for new loads. Obviously this was one of
the "railheads" about which I had a lecture that morning from a
distinguished officer, who thinks in railheads and refilling stations and
other details of transport upon which the armies in the field depend
for their food and ammunition. Without that explanation all these
roadside halts, all these stationary lorries and forage carts would
have seemed like a temporary stagnation in the business of war, with
nothing doing.

A thrill comes to every one when he sees bodies of British troops
moving along the roads. He is glad when his motorcar gets held up
by some old wagons slithering axle-deep in the quagmire on the side
of the paved highway, so that he can put his head out and shout a
"Hullo, boys! How's it going? And who are you?" After all the thrill of
the recruiting days, ill the excitement of the send-off, all the
enthusiasm with which they sang Tipperary through the streets of
their first port of call in France, they had settled down to the real

Some of them had been into the trenches for the first time a night or
two before. "How did you like it?" Well, it wasn't amusing to them, it
seems, but they "stuck it." They were ready to go again. That was the
spirit of it all. They "stuck it," gamely, without grousing, without
swanking, without any other thought than suffering all the hardships
and all the thrills of war like men who know the gravity of the game,
and the risks, and the duty to which they have pledged themselves.

I passed thousands of these men on a long motor journey on my first
day at the British front, and though I could not speak to very many of
them I saw on all their faces the same hard, strong, dogged look of
men who were being put through a great ordeal and who would not
fail through any moral weakness. They were tired, some of them,
after a long march, but they grinned back cheery answers to my
greetings, and scrambled merrily for the few packets of cigarettes I
tossed to them.

Thousands of these khaki-clad fellows lay along the roadsides looking
in the distance as though great masses of russet leaves had fallen
from autumn trees. They were having a rest on their way up to the
front, and their heads were upon each other's shoulders in a
comradely way, while some lay face upwards to the sky with their
hands folded behind their heads, in a brown study and careless of
everything that passed.

Away across marshy fields, intersected by pools and rivulets, I saw
our men billeted in French and Flemish farmhouses, of the old post-
and-plaster kind, like those in English villages.

They seemed thoroughly at home, and were chopping wood and
drawing water and cooking stews, and arranging straw beds in the
barns, and busying themselves with all the domestic side of life as
quietly and cheerily as though they were on manoeuvres in
Devonshire or Surrey, where war is only a game without death in the
roar of a gun. Well fed and well clothed, hard as nails, in spite of all
their hardships, they gave me a sense of pride as I watched them, for
the spirit of the old race was in them, and they would stick it through
thick and thin.

I passed that day through the shell-stricken town of. Ypres and
wandered through the great tragedy of the Cloth Hall--that old
splendour in stone which was now a gaunt and ghastly ruin. British
soldiers were buying picture postcards at booths in the market-place,
and none of them seemed to worry because at any moment another
shell might come crashing across the shattered roofs with a new
message of destruction.

Yet on all this journey of mine in the war zone of the British front for at
least 100 kilometres or so there was no thrill or shock of war itself. A
little way off, on some parts of the road men were in the trenches
facing the enemy only a few yards distant from their hiding-places.

The rumble of guns rolled sullenly now and then across the
marshlands, and one knew intellectually, but not instinctively, that if
one's motor-car took the wrong turning and travelled a mile or two
heedlessly, sudden death would call a halt.

And that was the strangeness of it all--the strangeness that startled
me as I drove back to the quietude of the General Headquarters, as
darkness came down upon this low-lying countryside and put its cloak
about the figures of British soldiers moving to their billets, and gave a
ghostliness to the tall, tufted trees, which seemed to come striding
towards my headlights.

In this siege warfare of the trenches there was a deadly stillness
behind the front and a queer absence of war's tumult and turmoil. Yet
all the time it was going on slowly, yard by yard, trench by trench, and
somewhere along the front men were always fighting and dying.

"Gentlemen," said a staff officer that night, "there has been good
work to-day. We have taken several lines of trenches, and the
operation is proceeding very well."

We bent over his map, following the line drawn by his finger, listening
to details of a grim bit of work, glad that five hundred German
prisoners had been taken that day. As he spoke the window rattled,
and we heard the boom of another gun... The war was going on,
though it had seemed so quiet at the front.


For several months there was comparative quietude at the British
front after the tremendous attacks upon our lines at Soissons and
Venizel and Vic-sur-Aisne, and the still more bloody battles round
Ypres in the autumn of the first year of war. Each side settled down
for the winter campaign, and killing was done by continual artillery fire
with only occasional bayonet charges between trench and trench.
That long period of dark wet days was the most tragic ordeal of our
men, and a time when depression settled heavily upon their spirits, so
that not all their courage could keep any flame of enthusiasm in their
hearts for such fine words as honour and glory.

In "Plug Street" and other lines of trenches they stood in water with
walls of oozy mud about them, until their legs rotted and became
black with a false frostbite, until many of them were carried away with
bronchitis and pneumonia, and until all of them, however many
comforters they tied about their necks, or however many body-belts
they used, were shivering, sodden scarecrows, plastered with slime.
They crawled with lice, these decent Englishmen from good clean
homes, these dandy men who once upon a time had strolled down
the sweet shady side of Pall Mall, immaculate, and fragrant as their
lavender kid gloves. They were eaten alive by these vermin and
suffered the intolerable agony of itch. Strange and terrible diseases
attacked some of them, though the poisonous microbes were
checked by vigilant men in laboratories behind the front before they
could spread an epidemic. For the first time men without science
heard the name of cerebro-spinal meningitis and shuddered at it. The
war became a hopeless, dreary thing, without a thrill to it, except
when men wading in water were smashed by shell-fire and floated
about in a bloody mess which ran red through all a trench. That was a
thrill of beastliness, but gave no fire to men's hearts. Passion, if it had
ever burnt in these British soldiers' hearts, had smouldered out into
the white ash of patient misery. Certainly there was no passion of
hatred against the enemy, not far away there in the trenches. These
Germans were enduring the same hardships, and the same squalor.
There was only pity for them and a sense of comradeship, as of men
forced by the cruel gods to be tortured by fate.

This sense of comradeship reached strange lengths at Christmas,
and on other days. Truces were established and men who had been
engaged in trying to kill each other came out of opposite trenches and
fraternized. They took photographs of mixed groups of Germans and
English, arm-in-arm. They exchanged cigarettes, and patted each
other on the shoulder, and cursed the war. . . . The war had become
the most tragic farce in the world. The frightful senselessness of it
was apparent when the enemies of two nations fighting to the death
stood in the grey mist together and liked each other. They did not
want to kill each other, these Saxons of the same race and blood, so
like each other in physical appearance, and with the same human
qualities. They were both under the spell of high, distant Powers
which had decreed this warfare, and had so enslaved them that like
gladiators in the Roman amphitheatres they killed men so that they
should not be put to death by their task-masters. The monstrous
absurdity of war, this devil's jest, stood revealed nakedly by those
little groups of men standing together in the mists of Flanders. ... It
became so apparent that army orders had to be issued stopping
such truces. They were issued but not always obeyed. For months
after German and British soldiers in neighbouring trenches fixed up
secret treaties by which they fired at fixed targets at stated periods to
keep up appearances, and then strolled about in safety, sure of each
other's loyalty.

From one trench a German officer signalled to one of our own

"I have six of your men in my trench. What shall I do with them?"

The lieutenant signalled back.

"I have two of yours. This is ridiculous."

The English officer spoke to the two Germans:

"Look here, you had better clear out. Otherwise I shall have to make
you prisoners."

"We want to be prisoners," said the Germans, who spoke English
with the accent of the Tottenham Court Road.

It appears that the lieutenant would not oblige them, and begged
them to play the game.

So with occasional embarrassments like this to break the deadly
monotony of life, and to make men think about the mystery of human
nature, coerced to massacre by sovereign powers beyond their ken,
the winter passed, in one long wet agony, in one great bog of misery.


It was in March, when the roads had begun to dry up, that our troops
resumed the offensive at several points of the line. I was at General
Headquarters when the first news of the first day's attack at Neuve
Chapelle was brought in by dispatch riders.

We crowded again round a table where a staff officer had spread out
his map and showed us the general disposition of the troops engaged
in the operation. The vague tremor of distant guns gave a grim
significance to his words, and on our own journey that day we had
seen many signs of organized activity bearing upon this attack.

But we were to see a more impressive demonstration of the day's
success, the human counters which had been won by our side in this
game of life and death. Nearly a thousand German prisoners had
been taken, and were being brought down from the front by rail. If we
liked we might have a talk with these men, and see the character of
the enemy which lies hidden in the trenches opposite our lines. It was
nearly ten o'clock at night when we motored to the railway junction
through which they were passing.

Were they glad to be out of the game, away from the shriek of shells
and out of the mud? I framed the question in German as I clambered
on to the footboard at a part of the train where the trucks ended and
where German officers had been given the luxury of first-class

Two of them looked up with drowsy eyes, into which there came a
look of surprise and then of displeasure as I spoke a few words to
them. Opposite me was a fair young man, with soft blond hair and a
silky moustache. He looked like a Saxon, but told me afterwards that
he came from Cologne. Next to him was a typical young aristocrat of
the Bavarian type, in the uniform of a Jaeger regiment In the same
carriage were some other officers sleeping heavily. One of them, with
a closely-cropped bullet head and the low-browed face of, a man who
fights according to the philosophy of Bernhardi, without pity, sat up
abruptly, swore a fierce word or two, and then fell back and snored

The two younger men answered some of my questions, sullenly at
first, but afterwards with more friendliness, against which their pride
struggled. But they had not much to say. They were tired. They had
been taken by surprise. They would have time to learn English as
prisoners of war. They had plenty of food and tobacco.

When the next batch of them arrived I was able to get into a closed
truck, among the private soldiers. They were quite comfortable in
there, and were more cheery than the officers in the other train. I was
surprised by their cleanliness, by the good condition of their uniforms,
and by their good health and spirits. The life of the trenches had not
left its marks upon them, though mentally, perhaps, they had gone to
the uttermost limit of endurance. Only one man fired up savagely
when I said that they were lucky in being captured. "It is good to fight
for the Fatherland," he said. The others made no secret of their
satisfaction in being out of it all, and all of them described the attack
on Neuve Chapelle as a hellish thing which had caught them by
surprise and swept their ranks.

I went back to my billet in General Headquarters wishing that I had
seen something of that affair which had netted all these men. It had
been a "day out" for the British troops, and we had not yet heard of
the blunders or the blood that had spoilt its success. It was hard to
have seen nothing of it though so near the front. And then a promise
of seeing something of the operations on the morrow came as a
prospect for the next day. It would be good to see the real business
again and to thrill once more to the awful music of the guns.

Along the road next day it was obvious that "things" were going to
happen. As we passed through towns in our motor-cars there were
signs of increased activity. Troops were being moved up. Groups of
them in goatskin coats, so that English Tommies looked like their
Viking ancestors, halted for a spell by the side of their stacked arms,
waiting for orders. Long lines of motor-lorries, with supplies to feed
the men and guns, narrowed the highway for traffic. Officers
approached our cars at every halt, saluted our staff officer, and asked
anxious questions: "How are things going? Is there any news?"

In the open country we could see the battle front, the low-lying
marshlands with windmills waving their arms on the far horizon, the
ridges and woods in which British and German batteries were
concealed, and the lines of trenches in which our men lay very close
to their enemy. We left the cars and, slithering in sticky mud, made
our way up a hillock on which one of these innumerable windmills
stood distinct. We were among the men who were in the actual
fighting lines and who went into the trenches turn and turn about, so
that it became the normal routine of their lives.

In the early days of the war these regiments had suffered heavy
losses, so that there were new drafts in them now, but there were
lads here who had fought at Mons and Charleroi and had seen their
comrades fall in heaps round about Le Cateau. They told their tales,
with old memories of terror, which had not made cowards of them.
Their chief interest to-day was centred in a football match which was
to take place about the same time as the "other business." It was not
their day out in the firing line. We left them putting on their football
boots and hurling chaff at each other in the dim light. Out of the way
of the flying shells they forgot all about the horror of war for a little

Forcing our way through the brushwood on the slopes, we reached
the crest of the hillock. Near by stood two generals and several staff
officers--men whose names have been written many times in the
Chief's dispatches and will be written for all time in the history of this
war. They were at their post of observation, to watch the progress of
an attack which was timed to begin shortly.

Presently two other figures came up the hillside. One of them
arrested my attention. Who was that young officer, a mere boy, who
came toiling up through the slime and mud, and who at the crest
halted and gave a quick salute to the two generals? He turned, and I
saw that it was Edward, Prince of Wales, and through the afternoon,
when I glanced at him now and again as he studied his map and
gazed across the fields, I thought of another Edward, Prince of
Wales, who six centuries ago stood in another field of France. Out of
the past came old ghosts of history, who once as English princes and
knights and men-at-arms fought at St. Omer, and Ypres, Bailleul, and
Bethune, and all that very ground which lay before me now...

More than an hour before the time at which the attack was to be
concentrated upon the enemy's position--a line of trenches on a ridge
crowned by a thin wood immediately opposite my observation point--
our guns began to speak from many different places. It was a
demonstration to puzzle the enemy as to the objective of our attack.

The flashes came like the flicking of heliographs signalling messages
by a Morse code of death. After each flash came the thunderous
report and a rushing noise as though great birds were in flight behind
the veil of mist which lay on the hillsides. Puffs of woolly-white smoke
showed where the shrapnel was bursting, and these were wisped
away into the heavy clouds. Now and again one heard the high
singing note of shells travelling towards us--the German answer to
this demonstration--and one saw the puff balls resting on the hill-spur
opposite our observation post.

Presently the fire became less scattered, and as the appointed hour
approached our batteries aimed only in one direction. It was the ridge
to the left of the hill where lines of German trenches had been dug
below the fringe of wood. That place must have been a hell for half an
hour or more. Through the mist and the drowsy smoke I could see
the flashes of the bursting shells like twinkling stars. Those glittering
jewels sparkled in constellations, six or more at a time, and there was
never a minute without the glint of them. It was not hard to imagine
the terror of men crouching in pits below that storm of fire,
smashing down upon their trenches, cutting up their barbed wire
entanglements, killing any human life that could not hide below the
ground. The din of guns was unceasing, and made a great symphony
of staccato notes on a thunderous instrument. I could distinguish the
sharp crack of the field batteries and the deeper boom of the heavier
guns. When one of these spoke there was a trembling of earth, and
through the sky a great shell hurtled, with such a rush of air that it
seemed like an express train dashing through an endless tunnel. The
bursts were, like volcanoes above the German lines, vomiting
upwards a vast column of black smoke which stood solid on the sky-
line for a minute or more before being torn down by the wind.
Something within me seemed to quake at these engines of
destruction, these masses of explosive power sent for the killing of
men, invisible there on the ridge, but cowering in fear or lying in their

How queer are the battlefields of life and the minds of men! Down
below me, in a field, men were playing a game of football while all this
business of death was going on. Above and between the guns I
heard their shouts and cheers, and the shrill whistle for "half-time,"
though there was no half-time in the other game so close to them.
Nature, too, was playing, indifferent to this bloody business. All the
time, while the batteries were at work, birds were singing the spring
song in ecstatic lyrics of joyfulness, and they went on far flights
across a pale blue lake which was surrounded by black mountains of

Another bird came out, but with a man above its wings. It was an
English aeroplane on a journey of reconnaissance above the
enemy's lines. I heard the loud hum of its engine, and watched how
its white wings were made diaphanous by the glint of sun until it
passed away into the cloud wrack.

It was invisible to us now, but not to the enemy. They had sighted it,
and we saw their shrapnel searching the sky for it. The airman
continued his journey on a wide circling flight, and we saw him
coming back unscathed.

For a little while our fire slackened. It was time for our infantry attack
upon the line of trenches which had sustained such a storm of shells.
Owing to the mist and the smoke we could not see our men leave the
trenches, nor any sign of that great test of courage when each man
depends upon the strength of his own heart, and has no cover behind
which to hide any fear that may possess him. What were those
cheers? Still the football players, or our soldiers scaling the ridge?
Was it only a freak of imagination that made us see masses of dark
figures moving over that field in the mist? The guns were firing again
continuously, at longer range, to check the enemy's supports.

So the battle went on till darkness began to creep up our hillside,
when we made our way down to the valley road and took tea with
some of the officers in a house quite close to the zone of fire. Among
them were the three remaining officers of a famous regiment--all that
were left out of those who had come to France in August of 1914.
They were quite cheerful in their manner and made a joke or two
when there was any chance. One of them was cutting up a birthday
cake, highly emblazoned with sugar-plums and sent out by a pretty
sister. It was quite a pleasant little party in the battle zone, and there
was a discussion on the subject of temperance, led by an officer who
was very keen on total prohibition. The guns did not seem to matter
very much as one sat in that cosy room among those cheery men. It
was only when we were leaving that one of them took a friend of mine
on one side, and said in a kind of whisper, "This war! ... It's pretty
rough, isn't it? I'm one of the last men out of the original lot. And, of
course, I'm sure to get 'pipped' in a week or two. On the law of
averages, you know."

A few days later I saw the wounded of Neuve Chapelle, which was a
victory bought at a fearful price. They were streaming down to
Boulogne, and the hospital ships were crowded with them. Among
them were thousands of Indians who had taken a big share in that

With an Oriental endurance of pain, beyond the courage of most
Western men, these men made no moan. The Sikhs, with their finely
chiselled features and dreamy inscrutable eyes--many of them
bearded men who have served for twenty years in the Indian army--
stared about them in an endless reverie as though puzzling out the
meaning of this war among peoples who do not speak their tongue,
for some cause they do not understand, and in a climate which
makes the whole world different to them. What a strange, bewildering
mystery it must have seemed to these men, who had come here in
loyalty to the great Raj in whom they had faith and for whom they
were glad to die. They seemed to be searching out the soul of the
war, to find its secret.

The weeks have passed since then, and the war goes on, and the
wounded still stream back, and white men as well as dark men ask
God to tell them what all this means; and can find no answer to the
problem of the horror which has engulfed humanity and made a
jungle of Europe in which we fight like beasts.


In this book I have set down simply the scenes and character of this
war as they have come before my own eyes and as I have studied
them for nearly a year of history. If there is any purpose in what I
have written beyond mere record it is to reveal the soul of war so
nakedly that it cannot be glossed over by the glamour of false
sentiment and false heroics. More passionate than any other emotion
that has stirred me through life, is my conviction that any man who
has seen these things must, if he has any gift of expression, and any
human pity, dedicate his brain and heart to the sacred duty of
preventing another war like this. A man with a pen in his hand,
however feeble it may be, must use it to tell the truth about the
monstrous horror, to etch its images of cruelty into the brains of his
readers, and to tear down the veils by which the leaders of the
peoples try to conceal its obscenities. The conscience of Europe
must not be lulled to sleep again by the narcotics of old phrases
about "the ennobling influence of war" and its "purging fires." It must
be shocked by the stark reality of this crime in which all humanity is
involved, so that from all the peoples of the civilized world there will
be a great cry of rage and horror if the spirit of militarism raises its
head again and demands new sacrifices of blood and life's beauty.

The Germans have revealed the meaning of war, the devilish soul of
it, in a full and complete way, with a most ruthless logic. The chiefs of
their great soldier caste have been more honest than ourselves in the
business, with the honesty of men who, knowing that war is murder,
have adopted the methods of murderers, whole-heartedly, with all the
force of their intellect and genius, not weakened by any fear of public
opinion, by any prick of conscience, or by any sentiment of
compassion. Their logic seems to me flawless, though it is diabolical.
If it is permissible to hurl millions of men against each other with
machinery which makes a wholesale massacre of life, tearing up
trenches, blowing great bodies of men to bits with the single shot of a
great gun, strewing battlefields with death, and destroying defended
towns so that nothing may live in their ruins, then it is foolish to make
distinctions between one way of death and another, or to analyse
degrees of horror. Asphyxiating gas is no worse than a storm of
shells, or if worse then the more effective.

The lives of non-combatants are not to be respected any more than
the lives of men in uniform, for modern war is not a military game
between small bodies of professional soldiers, as in the old days, but
a struggle to the death between one people and another. The
blockading of the enemy's ports, the slow starvation of a besieged
city, which is allowed by military purists of the old and sentimental
school does not spare the non-combatant. The woman with a baby at
her breast is drained of her mother's milk. There is a massacre of
innocents by poisonous microbes. So why be illogical and pander to
false sentiment? Why not sink the Lusitania and set the waves afloat
with the little corpses of children and the beauty of dead women? It is
but one more incident of horror in a war which is all horror. Its logic is
unanswerable in the Euclid of Hell. ... It is war, and when millions of
men set out to kill each other, to strangle the enemy's industries, to
ruin, starve, and annihilate him, so that the women may not breed
more children, and so that the children shall perish of wide-spread
epidemics, then a few laws of chivalry, a little pity here and there, the
recognition of a Hague Treaty, are but foolishness, and the weak
jugglings of men who try to soothe their conscience with a few
drugged tabloids. That at least is the philosophy of the German war
lords, and granted the premises that war may be waged by one
people against another it seems to me sound and flawless in its

Germany thrust this thing upon Europe deliberately and after careful
preparation. Upon the heads of her diplomats and princes are the
blood and the guilt of it, and they stand before the world as murderers
with red hands and bloodshot eyes, and souls as black as hell. In this
war of self-defence we are justified and need no special pleading to
proclaim our cause. We did not want this war, and we went to the
extreme limit of patience to avoid it. But if there is to be any hope for
humanity we must go deeper into the truth than the mere analysis of
White Papers and Yellow Papers with diplomatic correspondence.
We must ask ourselves whether in England, France, or Russia, "the
defenders of modern civilization," there was any sincerity of belief in
the ideals and faith for which civilization stands. Did the leaders of
modern thought do anything with their genius or their knowledge to
break down old frontiers of hatred, to enlighten the ignorance
between one nation and another, or to put such power into the hands
of peoples that they might have strength to resist the tyranny of
military castes and of military ideals? Have not our politicians and our
teachers, with few exceptions, used all their influence to foster dark
old superstitions which lurk in such good words as those of patriotism
and honour, to keep the people blind so that they might not see the
shining light of liberty, and to adulterate the doctrine of Christ which
most of them profess, by a gospel of international jealousy based
upon trade interests and commercial greed?

The military castes have been supported in Europe by putting the
spell of old traditions upon simple peoples. The Christian Churches
have bolstered them up and failed utterly to preach the words of
peace because in the heart of the priest there is the patriot, so that
every Christian nation claims God as a national asset leading its
battalions. There will be no hope of peace until the peoples of the
world recognize their brotherhood and refuse to be led to the
shambles for mutual massacre. If there is no hope of that, if, as some
students of life hold, war will always happen because life itself is a
continual warfare, and one man lives only at the expense of another,
then there is no hope, and all the ideals of men striving for the
progress of mankind, all the dreams of poets and the sacrifice of
scientists, are utterly vain and foolish, and pious men should pray
God to touch this planet with a star and end the folly of it all.

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