A New Year’s Eve in War TimeIPhantasmal fears,And the flap of the flame,And the throb of the clock,And a loosened slate,And the blind night’s drone,Which tiredly the spectral pines intone!IIAnd the blood in my earsStrumming always the same,And the gable-cockWith its fitful grate,And myself, alone.IIIThe twelfth hour nearsHand-hid, as in shame;I undo the lock,And listen, and waitFor the Young Unknown.IVIn the dark there careers —As if Death astride cameTo numb all with his knock —A horse at mad rateOver rut and stone.VNo figure appears,No call of my name,No sound but ‘Tic-toc’Without check. Past the gateIt clatters — is gone.VIWhat rider it bearsThere is none to proclaim;And the Old Year has struck,And, scarce animate,The New makes moan.VIIMaybe that ‘More Tears! —More Famine and Flame —More Severance and Shock!’Is the order from FateThat the Rider speeds onTo pale Europe; and tiredly the pines intone.
For those familiar with Hardy’s novels but not his poetry… well, actually, this doesn’t give a very good idea of the sharpness of his bitterly ironic later verses. Other than the sharp–and sharp-edged–trimeter, it’s more like Hardy in Dynasts mode, when he could stuff a room full of enormous old-fashioned dramatic furniture and still have room for a thundering pantomime of world-historical significance.
From this gloomy and correct prognostication, we move to a very different contribution from our other representative Great Late Victorian Writer. Rudyard Kipling has had a bad year. Where Hardy grieved at length over the loss of a promising young cousin, Kipling lost his only son–after having used his influence to win the boy a commission despite his disabling myopia. Kipling has not written much since Jack’s death, but he shows much less inclination than Hardy, so far, to modify the tone or content of his war writing.
Yet a strange letter today, a century back. Some of the awkwardness is explained by the fact that we’re reading a re-translation of something Kipling wrote in French, and yet this still seems like important work done in a fairly casual vain. After all, the allies must hang together! And here we have a “heart of England” piece presented for French consumption–it will be published in February in La Revue de Paris
31 December 1915
…There are days when I look at, or rather listen to, these people and say to myself: “If you people aren’t mad, then I’ve gone crazy.” But on looking closer at what they are accomplishing I find that they are saner than I had imagined.
Yesterday, for example, I met in one of my fields, where I have just had some dead trees cut down, the wife of one of my tenants who was gathering up rather heavy bundles of firewood: I helped her load them in her cart. I knew that she had lost a son, a soldier, this summer. Her indifference about the war was monumental. It was because she loved fish. She had written to her two other sons to send her some fish: they answered that it would not be worth the cost of shipping (all this, as you will imagine, slowly developed with infinite repetitions, while she collected her dead wood).
“So, you have sons who are fishermen?” I said to her. “Yes, fisherman, all their lives.” Finally, at the end of ten minutes, I find that she has two sons who serve on minesweepers, somewhere, between Ramsgate and Torquay–she doesn’t know exactly. One of her sons was on two boats that sank: one time the boat was able to be beached; the other time–I repeat her own words–“it was stopped in its course by something that I don’t understand.” The other son, with his captain and three other members of the crew, “was called to see the king and to receive a medal for something. I don’t know what, but it is supposed to be a medal for having saved lives from a boat that hit a mine some weeks ago.” But her main worry is about the fish that she wants in order to “change her diet” and the high price of shipment. She also has two sons in the army (she had three but I have said that one was killed last summer). She does not seem to be much upset: but she wondered about her fishermen: “They have all the time they need for fishing.”
Is this a parable, or an allegory? I don’t know at all: I tell you this so that you can understand from what a strange angle we approach things.
Now Kipling turns to discuss the political question of the moment:
There are at the moment in our village about six young men who haven’t enlisted. Our village does not talk about the 150 who have gone off, and whose names have been duly posted at the churchdoor–those of the dead enclosed in a neat little black border. All the talk turns on the shame and the sin of the six black sheep and on the punishments they’ll get when their comrades come back. Our ministry is undecided and unhappy over the question of compulsory service: it is still very political. Besides, it won’t accept the principle until every Englishman has been convinced that the government has said and done everything one could ask against the principle. Meantime, volunteers continue at the rate of 30,000 a week: people fear the dishonour of compulsion. People don’t make any noise on that little matter. For my part, I think they are wrong, but that’s not at all my affair. I share actively in the disapproval that falls on the six black sheep in our village…
And with that grim foretaste of the less-thrillingly war-bound levée-en-masse–the 1916 law which will shape the armies of 1917 just as Kitchener’s appeal of 1914 was felt in 1915–let’s take a double change of pace to Ralph Mottram, a man who has not yet made his mark. A middle class provincial New Army man, he gave up his job at a bank and joined up in 1914, soon taking the appropriate commission. Mottram is decades younger than Kipling (not to mention Hardy) yet he seems decades older than our jaunty young subalterns–he is, in fact, thirty-two.
His story will be a calmer one, with all the more scope for calm assessment of the way a man moves only through the unfolding present and yet may still make some sense of history. I will get to his great, dateless novel whenever I can, but today I want him to some up 1915, the year of the Rise of the New Armies:
So let us sum up my memories of 1915:
In any completely strange environment, the moderately intelligent human being seeks to examine it by his senses. Mine record this. Semi-darkness. (We could seldom raise our heads from our shelters in daylight.) Illumination by green star shells, which the enemy fired unceasingly and by the sparks struck from every hard object by the rain of bullets fired at us on set lines. Noise. Explosions of all dimension and relative nearness, hissing and whispering; the whiplash crack and shrieking ricochet, stutter of machine gun and ponderous grating of heavy objects moved with difficulty. Odour; carrion and disinfectant, sewerage and chemicals. A sudden wicked sweetness. Gas! A soothing homely whiff of upturned earth. Touch: Wet, sticky, hard, cold, the desperate grip of numbed fingers on bolts and triggers. Wet feet, aching head.
A burdened procession of figures staggering through it all. One crashes to the ground and there arises the cry “stretcher-bearer!” But a little further on, in some improbable shelter, there is singing. Some blatant music-hall tune, and a crackle of laughter. It is so real that I can hardly believe that it is over, these forty years. But it did exist, and we withstood it.
And just two more type-scenes before we close the second year–which was easily the least bloody, I believe. First, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch:
December 31st.–At 11 p.m.–midnight in Germany–for five minutes, and again at midnight for two minutes, the German artillery fired a New Year Greeting: we had one man wounded. On our left the second shoot was preceded by a shout from a German, “Keep down, you bastards, we’re going to strafe you.” We retaliated on their front line with rifles and Lewis guns…
Lastly, loss. Vera Brittain will close the terrible year writing, as best she can:
New Year’s Eve 11.55
This time last year He was seeing me off on Charing Cross Station after David Copperfield–and I had just begun to realise I loved Him. To-day He is lying in the military cemetery at Louvencourt–because a week ago He was wounded in action, and had just 24 hours of consciousness more and then went “to sleep in France”. And I, who in impatience felt a fortnight ago that I could not wait another minute to see Him, must wait till all Eternity. All has been given me, and all taken away again–in one year.
So I wonder where we shall be–what we shall all be doing–if we all still shall be–this time next year.