Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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'I'm feeling sentimental, Mr. Hornung. I want a love-story,' he sighed one afternoon. I reminded him that he would also want Good Stuff, and succeeded in meeting all his needs with Ships that Pass in the Night.
Next day we had our Quiet Room Evening with Tom Hood; and that was the time I strayed upon delicate ground by way of 'The Bridge of Sighs,' from poem to subject before I knew where I was. The men took it beautifully, and touched my heart by impulsively applauding the very things I should have feared to say to them upon reflection. As for our Coldstreamer, he came straight up to the counter and took out Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Dying!
WAR AND THE MAN
Not a day but some winning thing was said or done by one or other of them. A man whom I hardly knew had been changing his book when he heard me talking about green envelopes.
'Do you want a green envelope?' he asked point-blank.
'As a matter of fact, I do.'
'Then I'll see if I can't get you one.'
Now, the point about the 'green envelope' is the printed declaration on the outside, that the contents 'refer to nothing but private and family matters'; this being signed by the sender, your letter is censorable only at the base, and will not be read by anybody with whom you are in daily contact. There is, I believe, a weekly issue of one of these envelopes per man. This I only remembered as the generous soul was turning away.
'Don't you go giving me anything you want yourself!' I called after him.
He just looked over his shoulder. 'Then it wouldn't be much of a gift, would it?' was all he said; but I shall never give a copper to a crossing-sweeper without trying to forget his words.
That man was a driver in the R.H.A., and beyond the fact that he had just been reading The White Company I know nothing about him. They cropped up under every cap-badge, these crisp, articulate, enlightening men; they had shaken off their marching feet the dust of every walk in civil life, and it was only here and there a tenacious speck caught the eye. I have heard a Southern in Jock's clothing work in a word about the season-ticket and the 'silk hat' of his City days; but as a rule a soldier no more thinks of trading upon his civilian past than a small boy at a Public School dreams of bragging about his people. More than in any community on earth, the man at the front has to depend upon his own personality, absolutely without any extraneous aid whatsoever; and the knowledge that he has to do so is a tremendous sharpener of individuality.
Yet your arrant individualist is the last to see it. I remember recommending The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft to a young man full of brains and sensibility – one of that Field Ambulance to which, as we saw it, the description applies in bulk. He came back enthusiastic, as I knew he would, and we discussed the book. I quarrelled with the passage in which Gissing rails at the weekly drill in his school playground: 'even after forty years' the memory brought on a 'tremor of passionate misery… The loss of individuality seemed to me sheer disgrace.' My Red Cross friend applauded the sentiments that I deplored; himself as individual as a man need be, he assured me that the Army did crush the individuality out of a man; and when, refraining from the argumentum ad hominem, I called his attention to many others present who showed no sign of such subdual, he said at any rate it happened to the weaker men.
It may: and if a man has no personality of his own, will he be so much the worse for the composite substitute to be acquired in the Army? Better an efficient machine than a mere nonentity; but an efficient machine may be many things besides, and, under the British system, nearly always is.The truth is that discipline and restriction do not 'crush' the normal personality in the least. They compress it; and compression is strength. They prevent a man from 'slopping over'; they conserve his essence. They may not 'make a man' of one who is a man already, but they do exalt and intensify the quality of manhood; they do make a good man in that sense better, and a goodish man out of many a one who has been accounted 'no good' all his life.
Often when the hut was full of magnificent young life; bodies at their very best, perfect instruments in perfect tune; minds inquisitive, receptive, experienced beyond the dreams of pre-war philosophy, and honest as minds must be on the brink of Beyond; often and often have I looked down the hut and compared the splendid fellows I saw before me with the peace-time types perceptibly represented by so many. Small tradesmen, clerks, shop assistants, grooms and gardeners, labourers in every overcrowded field, what they were losing in the softer influences of life, that one might guess, but what they were gaining all the time, in mind, body, and character, that one could see. It did not lessen the heart-break of the thought that perhaps half would never see their homes again; but it did console with the conviction that the half who survived would be twice the men they ever would or could have been without the war. Nay, they were twice their old selves already, if I am any judge of a man who talks to me. I only know I never foregathered with a couple of them without feeling that we were all three the harder and yet the tenderer men for our humble sacrifices, our aching hearts and our precarious lives. I never looked thoughtfully upon a body of these younger brothers without thinking of the race to spring from loins so tried in such a fire. Never – if only because it was the first comfort that came to mind.
But it was not the only one. Here before my eyes, day after day, were scores of young men not only 'in the pink,' but in better 'form' than perhaps they themselves suspected; not only intensely alive but manifestly enjoying life, the corporate life of constant comradeship and a common if sub-conscious excitement, to an extent impossible for them to appreciate at the time. They put me in mind of a man I know who volunteered for South Africa in his athletic youth, and has ever since been celebrated among his friends for the remark of a lifetime. Somebody had asked him how he liked the Army. 'The Army?' cried this young patriot. 'Once a soldier, always a civilian!' None the less, he was one of those I met in France, a Major in the A.S.C., which he had joined (under a false age) at the beginning of the war. And how many, now the first to adopt his watchword, would not jump at the chance to emulate his deed in another fifteen unadventurous years!
Many, we are told, will anticipate the inconceivable by making their own adventures, if not their own war on society, such are the brutalising effects of war! In this proposition there is probably as much as a grain of truth to a sandhill of imbecility; but we shall hear of that grain on all sides; the soldier-criminal will be only too certain of a copious press, the bombing burglar of his headline. The people we are not going to hear about, and have no desire to recognise as such, are the rascals reformed, the weak men strengthened, the prodigals born again in this war, and at least less likely to die a second death-in-life. With all my heart I believe that, with few exceptions, the only characters which will have suffered by the war are those of such youngish men as have managed to stand out of it to the end, and men of all ages and all conditions who have failed throughout to put their personal considerations in their pockets, and left it to other men and other men's sons to die or bleed for them. I hope they are not more numerous than the men who have been 'brutalised' by war. At all events there were no successful shirkers about our huts in France; and that may have made the atmosphere what it was. All might not have the heart for war; here and there some sapient head might wag aloof; but at least all had their lives and bodies in the cause, there were no safe skins, no cold detachment, no complacent lookers-on. It was an atmosphere of manhood the more potent for the plain fact that no man regarded himself as such in any marked degree, or for one moment in the light of a hero.
That is all I have to say about their heroism. It is an absolute, like the beauty of Venus or the goodness of God. Daily and hourly they are rising to heights that keep all the world always wondering – when, indeed, it does not kill the power of wonderment. But their dead level, the level on which I saw them every day, lies high enough for me. It is not only what discipline has done for them, not only what the habit of sacrifice has made of them, that appeals and must appeal to the older man privileged to mix with soldiers at the front. It is also the wonderful quality of his fellow-countrymen as revealed in these tremendous years. That was there all the time, but it took the war to show it up, it took the war to make us see it. I might have known that rough poor lads were reading Ruskin and Carlyle, that a Northamptonshire shoemaker was as likely as anybody else to be steeped in Charles Lamb, or a telegraph-clerk and his wife to tramp the Yorkshire dales with Wordsworth and Keats about their persons. Yet I, for one, more shame for me! would never have imagined such men if the God of battles had not put me to school in my Rest Hut for one short half-term.
Neither could I have invented, at my best or worst, a young City clerk who played the piano divinely by the hour together, or a very shy young man, a chemist's assistant from the most unhallowed suburb, for whom I had to order Beethoven and Chopin, Liszt and Brahms and Schumann, because he could play even better, but not from memory. Those two lads were the joy of the hut, of hundreds who frequented it. And how much joy had they given in their lodgings or behind the shop? Who had ever been prouder of them than their comrades, or done so much to 'bring them out'? Yet, need I say it? they both belonged to that clever, intellectual, fascinating Field Ambulance to which the Rest Hut owed so much; and I shouldn't wonder if they both agreed with that other nice fellow, their thoroughly individual comrade who declared that 'the Army crushes the individuality out of a man!'
'WE FALL TO RISE'
BEFORE THE STORM
That dramatic month would have been memorable for the weather if for nothing else. Day after day 'the March sun felt like May,' if ever it did; and though it dried no hawthorn-spray in the broken heart of our little old town, and there was neither blade nor petal to watch a-blowing and a-growing, yet Spring was in our nostrils and we savoured it the more eagerly for all we knew it must bring forth. Then the overshadowing ruins took on glorious hues in the keen sunlight, especially towards evening; the outer grey so warm and soft, like a mouse's fur; the inner lining, of aged brick, an even softer tone of its own, neither red nor pink. Day after day a clean sky threw the jagged peaks into violent relief, and high lights snowed their Matterhorn, until a sidelong sunset picked the whole chain out with shadows like falls of ink. It was a sin to spend those afternoons indoors, even in the Rest Hut, where the two stoves stood idle for days on end, and all the windows open.
Then there were the still and starry nights. Then there were the moonlight nights, not so still, but nothing very dreadful happening our way. Our big local gun might have gone on tour; at least I seem to remember many a night when it did not shake us in our beds, when indeed there was little but the want of sheets and pillow-cases to remind us that we were not in England, where after all one can hear more guns than are noticed any longer, and an aeroplane at any hour of the twenty-four. Many a night there was no more than that to remind us that we were only just behind the Line.
Sometimes, as the two of us sat last thing over a nice open fireplace that had found its way into my room from one of the skeleton houses on the opposite side of the square, one or other would fall to moralising upon the past life of the place we had made so much our own. It was a dutiful effort to remember that the H?tel de Ville had not always been a mangled pile, its palisaded courtyard once something other than the site of a Y.M.C.A. hut. But the reflection failed to haunt us as it might have done; the present and the living were too absorbing, to say nothing of the imminent future; and as for the dead past, we had our own. And yet we knew from guide-book and album what shining pools of parquet, what ceilings heavily ornate, what monumental intricacies in wood and stone, what crystal grandiosities, formed the huge rubbish-heaps between the mouse-grey walls with the reddish lining: we knew, but it was no use trying to care. The H?tel de Ville had finished its course; the Rest Hut was just getting into its stride. Another chunk off the stump of the once delicate and dizzy belfry, what did it signify unless the chunk came through our roof? That was our only anxiety in the matter, and we debated whether such a chunk would fly so far, or fall straight down as apparently the rest of the campanile had done before it. My chief mate, however, wound up every debate with the reiterated conviction that there would be no German push at all; they were 'not such fools' as to make one. But for my part I never went to bed without wondering whether that would be the last of our quiet nights, or a quiet night at all. And deadly quiet they had grown; even the rats no longer disturbed us; every one of them had departed, and for no adequate reason within our knowledge. Even the sceptic of a mate had something trite but sinister to say about 'a sinking ship.' …
One afternoon, two days before the date on which most people seemed to expect things to happen, a harbinger arrived as I sat perched behind the counter. We were not long open; most of the men present were clustered round the newspaper table; you really could have heard some pins drop. That was why, for a second or two, I did hear something I had never heard before, and have no wish to hear again. It sounded exactly like a miniature aeroplane approaching at phenomenal speed. I was just beginning to wonder what it was when there followed the most extraordinary crash. Not an explosion; not a breakage; but the loud flat smack a dining-table might make if you hauled it up to a ceiling by its castors and let it fall perfectly evenly upon a bare floor. It was the roof, however, that had been hit.
We went out to look, and one of the men picked up a fragment of shell, only about three inches long and less than an inch wide. That was my table-top. The jagged edge of it glittered as though incrusted with tiny brilliants; but the fragment was quite cold, showing that it had travelled far since the burst. 'One of our Archies,' said most of the men; but the Rest Hut orderly, who wore a Gunner badge said laconically: 'Fritz – range-finding!' He was borne out by a High Commander who honoured me with a visit some days later. I believe it was the first bit of German stuff that had found its way into the middle of the town since the previous November; and a very interesting and effective little entry it made, in the quietest hour of one of those uncannily quiet days, and in the precincts of what we flattered ourselves was the quietest hut on any front. But the funny (and rather disappointing) thing was that it had failed to leave so much as its mark upon our roof. It must have skimmed the apex and glanced off the downward slope – convex side down – as a stone glances off a pond. 'The little less,' and it would have drilled the reverse slope like a piece of paper. I have often thought of that cluster of forage caps, under the silky skylights, round the central table; but what I shall always hear, plainer than the terrific smack that left no mark, is that first little singing whirr as of a dwarf propeller of gigantic power. I think that must be the most sickening sound of all under heavy shell-fire in the open.
Next day was the eve of the expected attack, which did not in point of fact take place for another week and more; but how widespread was the expectation we learnt for ourselves by our own small signs and portents. A dozen francs were refunded on a dozen books whose borrowers were afraid they would have no more time just then to read another; but when it all blew over for that week, back they came with their deposits, and out went more books than ever. The mate was jubilant. Of course there had been no German attack; and never would be; they were not such fools! Nor was he by any means alone in his opinion; many officers – but enough! We were not, to be sure, by way of meeting many officers. And yet Wednesday, March 20th, brought two to my room whose respective deliverances are worth remembering in the light of subsequent events.
One was the Gunner who had given me steak and onions on our All Uppingham day in the dark depths of the earth. He was as cheery as if he had been making another century in the Old Boys' Match, instead of having just gone on with his heavies on a new pitch altogether. It was going to suit him. He felt like getting wickets. And the Pavilion was not a dug-out this time; it was an elephant, in which the Major and he could put me up any night I liked. Why not that night? He had come in a car; he could take me back with him.
Why not, I sometimes wonder to this day! There were good, there were even creditable, reasons; but, beyond the fact that I was now much attached to my counter, I honestly forget what they were. I only know that my hospitable friend's new wicket was one of the first to be overrun by a field-grey mob; and though the Major and he are still enjoying rude health on the right side of the Line, and it goes without saying that they left the ground with becoming dignity, I am afraid I should have been out of place in the procession. Exciting moments I must have had, but I should have been sorry to play Anchises to my friend's ?neas. And I was to have my little moments as it was.
My other visitor was, curiously, another cricketer, whom I had first seen bowling in the University match at Lord's. It is not his department of the greater game; nor do I intend to compromise this officer by means of any further clue; for he it was who informed me that the push was really coming before morning. 'So they say,' he smiled, and we passed on to matters of more immediate interest. Time enough to be interested in the push when it did come; from all reports I was likely to find myself in the stalls, and he of course would be on the stage. So that was that. In the meantime I had a great fixture arranged and billed for the Saturday evening. An old friend was coming over from the Press Ch?teau to lecture in the Rest Hut, for the first time on any platform; there were to be seats for all our other friends, officers and men, and some supper in my room for half-a-dozen of us and the lecturer. It was of this we talked, and probably of pre-war cricket, and my beloved men, over the last quiet tea I was to have there. Books went out very freely till we closed. With Our Faces to the Light, Heroes and Hero-Worship, The Supreme Test, and Our Life after Death, were among the last half-dozen titles!
ANOTHER OPENING DAY
… It did not wake me up till four or five in the morning. Then I knew it had begun. The row was incessant rather than tremendous; not nearer than it had often been, when that big local gun was at home, but indubitably different. Some supplementary sound followed most of the reports, as the receding swish of a shattered breaker follows the first crash. I guessed what it was, but I wanted to be sure. I wanted to ask the mate, on the other side of the partition behind my head; but I didn't want to wake him up on purpose. The only unnerved man I met in France, one of our workers whose railway-carriage had been blown in by a bomb on the last stage of his journey from the coast, had awakened the man in the next bed for company's sake the night after. He was brave enough to own it. I wanted company, but I had not the hardihood to sing out for it until I heard a movement through the partition.
The mate, of course, did not believe it was the push; but he confessed it sounded the sort of thing one would expect to hear if the Germans were fools enough to make a push. It sounded like rather distant thunder, with sporadic claps in the middle distance. I smoked a pipe with my Spectator before trying for some more sleep, and was just dropping off when our orderly arrived with jaunty tread.
'It's Fritz,' said he, with sardonic unconcern. 'You can hear the houses coming down.'
And there followed the tale of damage done so far.
I am afraid we were both up with the wind, if not with the sun. But we shaved without bloodshed; for it is remarkable how a shell-burst can fail to jog your elbow, or to spill your tea, when you have been educated up to that type of disturbance. We had grown so used to guns in the night that the quiet nights were the uncanny ones; and even they were generally punctuated first or last by a comfortable bang from the local heavy; the 'All's Well!' of that night-watchman, which, if it woke us up, only encouraged us to go to sleep again with an increased sense of security. A shell-burst at a decent distance sounded much the same for the first – and only startling – second. And all that morning, and generally throughout the day, they kept their distance with quite unexpected decency.
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