We return with two Royal Welch Fusiliers to their home hunting grounds, today: one at ease thinking diligently of war and the other riding hard and strenuously avoiding all thought. But first, our second mention of the American Guardsman Carroll Carstairs, whose movement toward the front lines is simple physics: he goes to fill the vacuum left by the lacerations of September 15th.
We left Waterloo Station on the 21st of September, eight of us, embarked at Southampton and reaching Le Havre the next morning proceeded to the Guards Divisional Base Depot at Harfleur. Harfleur! Five hundred years ago Henry V had taken it from the French. We still seemed to have it! Here we were billeted in huts, two officers per hut. Paths with trim herbaceous borders gave to the camp, for its transient inhabitants, a final touch of home before the train that took one up to the front had jerked slowly out of the station at Le Havre.
Around the table in the officers’ mess one pondered over the lists of casualties that, occurring on the 15th, had begun to appear in the “Roll of Honour.” But not for long. We were needed to fill the gaps and remained at Harfleur scarcely more than a day or two before we received orders to join the Division…
Has Siegfried Sassoon been beating a path toward protest, toward poetic efflorescence, toward an outing of the indoor man? Is the sensitive poet ready to fling barely metaphorical bombs at the profiteers and jingoists on his own side? Perhaps. He has, after all, just spent time in Wales with Robert Graves and at Garsington Manor with the “sophisticated hospitalities” of Lady Ottoline Morell.
But he has also, during this strange prolongation of sick leave (he is healthy, and the army is shorter and shorter on officers, yet several medical boards will renew his leave), beaten a certain path of retreat into “that pre-war personality.” Today, a century back, was his first day in quite some time as a fox hunting man. Cub-hunting, rather–five times in the coming week. Cub hunting, it seems, is a way of training dogs and horses for the proper hunting season while killing off young foxes who are full-grown but not yet sexually mature. If Sassoon sees the irony in training the young to cull the weaker young this fall, he doesn’t mention it.
September 21st. Met at Orton Waterville, 6.30. Fine morning after slight frost. Found in the Long Covert and hunted one over the road and railway, through the osiers and along by the railway bridge; then back by the river and lost him beyond the ferry… they afterwards killed a brace. Scent fair. Home 11.30. Rode Westmorland.
Not every officer on medical leave was using the fine Summer weather to escape the war, however.
It was a slumbrous afternoon in September. My wound had healed up a month ago, and I was lazily convalescent at my aunt’s house in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent. The six soldiers who were also convalescent there were down in the hop-garden. For hop-picking was in full swing. I was sitting in a deck-chair with Don Quixote on my knees; but I was not reading…
I was listening to the incessant murmur that came from far away across the Medway, across the garden of England, and across the Channel and the flats of Flanders. That sound came from Picardy. All day the insistent throb had been in the air; sometimes faint bimips were clearly distinguishable, at other times it was nothing but one steady vibration. But always it was there, that distant growl, that insistent mutter. Even in this perfect peace, I could not escape the War.
So begins the end of John Bernard Adams‘ memoir, Nothing of Importance. Wounded in June, Adams has missed the Somme battle which claimed the lives of so many of his Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. But he came back to this moment to put a coda to his book–I am fudging here, for he does not give a precise date for his “slumbrous afternoon” when news of a bloody attack is in the papers, but this one fits the bill fairly well–and I wanted to observe it with him.
Like his comrade Siegfried Sassoon–another Kentish officer of the Welch–Adams finds the contrast of perfect English peace with the chaotic hell of trenches almost too much to bear. But unlike Sassoon, Adams finds himself–or writes himself–sure of his subsequent direction. Out of dissonance and irony, conviction. I will excerpt at length:
To-day I felt completely well; the lassitude and inertness of convalescence were gone — at any rate, for the moment. My mind was very clear, and I could think surely and rapidly…
I tried to imagine trenches running across the lawn, with communication trenches running back to a support line through the meadow; a few feet of brick wall would be all that would be left of the house, and this would conceal my snipers; the mulberry tree would long ago have been razed to the ground, and every scrap of it used as firewood in our dug-outs; this desk chair of mine might possibly be in use in Company Headquarters in one of the cellars. No, it was not easy to imagine war without seeing it.
I picked up the paper that had fallen at my side. There had been more terrible fighting on the Somme, and it had seemed very marvellous to a journalist as he lay on a hill some two miles back, and watched through his field-glasses: it was wonderful that the men advancing (if indeed he could really see them at all in the smoke of a heavy artillery barrage) still went on, although their comrades dropped all round them. Yet I wondered what else anyone could do but go on? Run back, with just as much likelihood of being shot in doing so? Or, even if he did get back, to certain death as a deserter? Everyone knows the safest place is in a trench; and it is a trench you are making for. Lower down on the page came a description of the wounded; he had talked to so many of them, and they were all smiling, all so cheerful; smoking cigarettes and laughing. They shook their fists, and shouted that the only thing they wanted to do was to get back into it! Pah! I threw the paper down in disgust. Surely no one wants to read such stuff, I thought. Of course the men who were not silent, in a dull stupefied agony, were smiling: what need to say that a man with a slight wound was laughing at his luck, just as I had smiled that early morning when the trolley took me down from Maple Redoubt? And who does not volunteer for an unpleasant task, when he knows he cannot possibly get it? Want to get back into it, indeed! Ask Tommy ten years hence whether he wants to be back in the middle of it again!
I wondered why people endured such cheap journalism…Are not our people able to bear the truth, that war is utterly hellish, that we do not enjoy it, that we hate it, hate it, hate it all? And then it struck me how ignorant people still were; how uncertainly they spoke, these people at home: it was as though they dared not think things out, lest what they held most dear should be an image shattered by another point of view…
Well then, let’s get shatterin’. But he has been, carefully and methodically, for a few hundred pages now. He thinks of horrible wounds on one side of the experiential gulf, of smug pro-war convictions on the other.
Oh! you men and women who did not know before the capabilities of human nature, I thought, please take note of it now; and after the war do not underestimate the quality of mankind. Did it need a war to tell you that a man can be heroic, resolute, courageous, cheerful, and capable of sacrifice?
There were those who could have told you that before this war. There was a lull in the vibration. I turned in my chair, and listened. Then it began again.
“People are afraid to think it out,” I said. “I have not seen the Somme fighting, but I know what war is. Its quality is not altered by multiplication or intensity. The colour of life-blood is a constant red. Let us look into this business; let us face all the facts. Let us not flinch from any aspect of the truth.” And my thoughts ran somewhat as follows:
First of all, War is evil—utterly evil. Let us be sure of that first. It is an evil instrument, even if it be used for motives that are good. I, who have been through war and know it, say that it is evil. I knew it before the war; instinct, reason, religion told me that war was evil; now experience has told me also.
I break in now really only for the rhythm of the thing. It should be clear by now that Adams is closing his book with what we might call a programmatic statement. And that he has our interests at heart: the knowledge that experience confers, and the ethical, historical, and literary challenges that it poses.
He is angry, but he pauses and, Hankey-like (yet pushed to a more radical position) forces himself to weigh things carefully.
It is a strange synthesis, this war: it is a synthesis of adventure, dullness, good spirits, and tragedy; but none of these things are new to human experience… I have seen and felt the adventure of war, its deadly fascination and excitement: it is the greatest game on earth: that is its terrible power : there is such a wild temptation to paint np its interest and glamour : it gives such scope to daring, to physical courage, to high spirits: it makes so many prove themselves heroic, that were it not for the fall of the arrow, men would call the drawing of the bow good. I have seen the dullness, the endless monotony, the dogged labour, the sheer power of will conquering the body and “carrying on”: there is good in that, too. In the jollity, the humour, the good-fellowship is nothing but good also. There is good in all these things; for these are qualities of human nature triumphing in spite of war. These things are not war; they are the good in man prostituted to a vile thing.
For I have seen the real face of war: I have seen men killed, mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life; I have looked in the face of madness, and I know that many have gone mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under the strain. I have seen men grow brutalized, and coarsened in this war. (God will judge justly in the end ; meanwhile, there are thousands among us—yes, and among our enemy too—brutalized through no fault of theirs). I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends with whom I have lived and suffered so long.
Who is for war now! Its adventure, its heroism! Bah!
Adams goes on–at some length–about the horrors of war. But he soon arrives at his second point: the duties of a Christian in this time of murder are not the same as those of a writer from the trenches–they are, in fact, in no way predicated on experience:
I knew that war was vile, before I went into if. I have seen it: I do not alter my opinion. I went into this war prepared to sacrifice my life to prove that right is stronger than wrong; I have stood again and again with a traverse between me and death; I have faced the possibility of madness. I foresaw all this before I went into this war. What difference does it make that I have experienced it? It makes no difference. Let no one fear that our sacrifice has been in vain. We have already won what we are fighting for. The will for war, that aggressive power, with all the cards on its side prepared, striking at its own moment, has already failed against a spirit, weaker, unprepared, taken unawares. And so I am clear on my second point. We are fighting from just motives, and we have already baulked injustice. Aggressive force, the power that took up the cruel weapon of war, has failed. No one can ever say that his countrymen have laid down their lives in vain.
And yet experience has played an important role. It hasn’t changed reality, but it has catalyzed perception:
I got up from the chair, and started walking about the garden. Everything was so clear. Before going out to the war I had thought these things; but the thoughts were fluid, they ran about in mazy patterns, they were elusive, and always I was frightened of meeting unanswerable contradictions to my theorising from men who had actually seen war. Now my conclusions seemed crystallised by irrefutable experience into solid truth.
After a while I sat down again and resumed my train of thought:
War is evil. Justice is stronger than Force. Yet, was there need of all this bloodshed to prove this? For this war is not as past wars; this is every man’s war, a war of civilians, a war of men who hate war, of men who fight for a cause, who are compelled to kill and hate it. That is another thing that people will not face. Men whisper that Tommy does not hate Fritz. Again I say, away with this whispering. Let us speak it out plain and bold. Private Davies, my orderly, formerly a shepherd of Blaenau Festiniog, has no quarrel with one Fritz Schneider of Hamburg who is sitting in the trench opposite the Matterhorn sap; yet he will bayonet him certainly if he comes over the top, or if we go over into the German trenches; ay, he will perform this action with a certain amount of brutality too, for I have watched him jabbing at rats with a bayonet through the wires of a rat trap, and I know that he has in him a savage vein of cruelty. But when peace is declared, he and Fritz will light a bonfire of trench stores in No Man’s Land, and there will be the end of their quarrel…
It is hard to trace ultimate causes. It is hard to fix absolute responsibility. There were many seeds sown, scattered, and secretly fostered before they produced this harvest of blood. The seeds of cruelty, selfishness, ambition, avarice, and indifference, are always liable to swell, grow, and bud, and blossom suddenly into the red flower of war…
And it is because they know that we, too, are not free from them, that certain men have stood out from the arena as a protest against war. These men are real heroes, who for their conscience’s sake are enduring taunts, ignominy, misunderstanding, and worse. Most men and women in the arena are cursing them, and, as they struggle in agony and anguish they beat their hands at them and cry ”You do not care.” I, too, have cursed them, when I was mad with pain. But I know them, and I know that they are true men. I would not have one less. They are witnesses against war. And I, too, am fighting war. Men do not understand them now, but one day they will.
I know that there are among us, too, the seeds of war: no cause has yet been perfect. But I look at the facts. We did not start, we did not want this war… It was the seeds of war in Germany that were responsible. And so history will judge.
But what of the future?
Adams ends his book on this September afternoon, a century back (give or take a few days), with a return to fundamentals. There is no way out of modern war, he argues, except for a way that was there from the beginning. Experience has sent him back to the central Christian story. John Bernard Adams will be neither the first nor the last to see the sufferings of the infantry prefigured in the Passion:
…I walked up and down the lawn, my eyes glowing, my brain working hard. Here around me was all the beauty of an old garden, its long borders full of phloxes, delphiniums, stocks, and all the old familiar flowers; the apples glowed red in the trees; the swallows were skimming across the lawn. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the wagon bringing up the afternoon load of hop-pokes to the oasthouse. Yet what I had seen of war was as true, had as really happened, as all this. It would be so easy to forget, after the war. And yet to forget might mean a seed of war. I must never forget Lance-Corporal Allan.
There is only one sure way, I said at last. And again a clear conviction filled me… There is only one Man whose eyes have never glittered. Look at the palms of your hands, you, who have had a bullet through the middle of it! Did they not give you morphia to ease the pain? And did you not often cry out alone in the darkness in the terrible agony, that you did not care who won the war if only the pain would cease? Yet one Man there was who held out His hand upon the wood, while they knocked, knocked, knocked in the nail, every knock bringing a jarring, excruciating pain, every bit as bad as yours…
Do you want to put an end to the arena? Here is a Man to follow. In hoc signo vinces.
Now as I stood on the lawn, I heard the long continuous vibration of the guns upon the Somme.
“You are War,” I said aloud. “This is your hour, the power of darkness. But the time will come when we shall follow the Man who has conquered your last weapon, death: and then your walls of steel will waver, cringe, and fall, melted away before the fire of LOVE.”