Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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Shells arrived in due course; death happened at the door; men grievously wounded staggered in for first aid; the lengthening days kept him fireless till evening; but the cocoa had never been so well made, or so continuous the supply. Once a big shell burst within a yard of the grassy roof, on the very edge of the high ground of which the roof was a colourable extension. It brought down all the mugs and urns and condensed-milk tins with a run; and that day we did see the Baptist at our mid-day board. 'It shook me up a bitty,' he confessed with his shy laugh; but back he went in the afternoon; and illness alone restored him to us when the month was up.
But the gem of his performance was an act of moral gallantry: and here is needed the Rough Rhyme of a Padre or of a Red Cross Man. One cold night a Sergeant-Major – Regimental, I do believe – honoured the cabin with his presence, only to fire a burst of improper language at the weather and the war. The Baptist, whom we may figure on the verge of genuflexion before the august guest, lost not a moment in standing up to him.
'You can't talk like that here, sir!' he cried with stern simplicity. 'It's not allowed!'
'Can't,' if you please, and 'not allowed'! You picture the audience settling down to the dreadful drama, hear the cold shudders of the callow, see the turkey-cock turning an appropriate purple. He very soon showed what he could do; but it was no longer a spontaneous or such a glib display. The rum that happened somehow to be in him seems to have had something to do with this; but not, it may be, as much as the Sergeant-Major pretended; and the torpor that rather suddenly supervened I diagnose as the ready resource of an expert in camouflage. Better gloriously drunk than ignominiously admonished by an unprintable hiatus of a Y.M. Padre!
So a party of muscular volunteers escorted the S.M. to his dug-out. But the next day he returned alone, crisp-footed and square-jawed, apparently to put the Baptist in his place for ever. Exactly what followed, that gentle hero was not the man to relate. Again one pictures Peeping Tommies exposing themselves on the sunken road to see the fun, perhaps the murder; but what I really believe they might have seen, before many minutes were up, was the spectacle of the two protagonists upon their knees.
Stranger things have been happening, even on that sunken road of ours. It was lost to us in those very days of the Army Rest Camp; it had not been recovered when I was busy expatiating on its Christmas charms; its recovery was one of the first loose stones in the avalanche of vast events which has caught me up… And now they say the war is over! To have seen something of it all in the last dark hour – and nothing since – is to find even more than the old war-time difficulty in believing half one hears. One has too many fixed ideas and violent impressions, not only of those four months, but of these four years: a man has to clear his own entanglements before he can begin to advance with such times.In the meantime the patter about Indemnities and Demobilisation leaves him cold. Demobilisation will have to begin nearer home than charity, in the armies of our thoughts; and some are not as highly disciplined as others, some hearts too sore to enter as they would into this Peace.
For them there is still the Y.M.C.A. That little force of camp-followers still holds the field, has nothing to say to any Armistice, may well have started its most strenuous campaign. With the Armies of Occupation its work will hardly be the romantic enterprise it was; with all the danger, most of the glamour will have departed; but the deeper attractions are the less adventitious, while the Rhine at any rate should provide some piquant novelties in place of old excitements. The grand fleet of huts will soon be anchored there – including, as I hope, the new Rest Hut that was to have been tucked up close behind the Line. Once more before each counter there will be the old press of matchless manhood and humanity; neater and sprucer, I make no doubt, but otherwise neither more nor less like conquering heroes than their old unconquerable selves; and just once more, behind the counter, the chance of a lifetime, but the last chance, for 'sinful laymen' of the milder sort!
Will it be taken? Are our courageous ministers to have the last field practically to themselves, or will a few mere men of the world even now step in, if only for the honour of the laity? They would if they knew what the work is like and what it may be made, how free a hand is given one, how generously one is met by all concerned, and the modicum of spiritual equipment essential if only that modicum be sincere. Pre-war notions about the Young Men's Christian Association still militate a little against the Y.M.C.A. for all the halo of success attaching to those capitals; but hear a soldier from the front upon the 'Y.M.' tout court, and his affectionate abbreviation of an abbreviation will in itself tell you something of the institution as it is to-day. It has meant rather more to him than 'tea and prayer in equal parts'; yet that conception still prevails in superior circles. Quite lately I heard a dignitary of the Established Church speak with pain of a brilliant young Oxford man of his acquaintance, who, rejected of the Army, must needs be 'giving out tea in some tent in France!' It seemed to him a truly shocking waste of fine material; but if that young man was not giving out a great deal more than creature comforts, and getting at least as good as he gave, then it was a still more wanton waste of an opportunity which the finest young man alive might have been proud to seize.
The truth is, of course, that no man is too good for this job. He may be a specialist, and more valuable to the community where he is than he would be (to the community) in a Y.M.C.A. or a Church Army hut. He may be a Cabinet Minister, a Bishop, or a Judge: that does not make him too good to minister to the men who have borne the brunt of this war: it only makes him too busy and perhaps too old. One must not even now be extra liable to 'die of winter,' as the Tynesider said, nor yet too dainty about bed and board. But the better the man, the better he will do this work, the more he will bring to it, the more he will find in it; the greater will be his tact, the greater his loving-kindness and humility; the readier will he be to recognise many a better man than himself in our noble rank-and-file – to learn all they have to teach him in patience and naturalness, unselfishness and simplicity – and to perceive the higher service involved in serving them, even across a counter.
It may or may not be that Mr. Kipling is thinking of the Y.M.C.A. I do not know the title of his poem, or whether it has yet appeared elsewhere, or another line of it. These lines I owe to his kindness, and as usual they crystallise all that one was trying to say. But to some of us the crumbs that fell were a feast of fine humanity, and great indeed was his reward who gathered them.
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