Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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Round each stove ran a ring of canvas and wicker arm-chairs, in which a tired man might read himself to sleep, and between the chairs stood little round tables for his tea and biscuits when he woke. They were garden tables painted for the part, with spidery black legs and bright vermilion tops, and on each a nice new ash-tray (of the least possible intrinsic value, I admit) in further imitation of the club smoking-room. That was the atmosphere I wanted for the body of the hut.
At the platform end we were ready for anything, from itinerant lecturers to the most local preacher, and from hymns to comic songs; the best piano in the area was equal to any strain; and a somewhat portentous rostrum, though not knocked together for me, was just my height, while the American cloth in which we found it was a dead match for our extensive importations of that fabric. It was at this end of the hut that our Special Artist and Decorator had excelled himself. All down the sides were his frieze of flags, his dado of red and white cotton in alternate stripes, and his own extraordinarily effective chalk drawings on sheets of brown paper between the windows. But for the angle under the roof, over the platform, he had reserved his masterpiece. One day, while we were still busy with the books, our handy man of genius had stood for an hour or two on a ladder; and descending, left behind him a complete allegorical cartoon of Literature, including many life-size figures in flowing robes busy with the primitive tools of one's trade. I am not an art critic, like my friend the war correspondent, who ruthlessly detected faults in drawing, instead of applauding all we had to show him; to me, the pride of our walls was at least a remarkable tour de force. The Official Photographer was to have come at a later date to witness if I exaggerate. He left it too long. He may have another chance this winter. 'Literature' has been preserved.
These private views too often started at the counter, because visitors had a way of entering through my room; but to see the library as I do think it deserved seeing, one had to turn one's back upon all I have described, and with a proper piety bear down upon the books. In their five long shelves, each edged and backed with the warm red cotton of the dado, and broken only by my door behind the counter, those thirty yards of good and bad reading were wholly good to see, on our opening day especially, before the first borrower had made the first gap in their serried ranks. There indeed stood they at attention, their labels at the same unwavering height as so many pairs of puttees (except the few I had not affixed myself); and I felt that I, too, had turned a mob into an army.
Immediately over the top row, on a scroll expertly lettered by our Special Illuminator (another of our talented band), its own new motto, from Thomas ? Kempis, ran right across the hut:
Without Labour there is no Rest; nor without Fighting can the Victory be Won.
I really think I was as pleased with that, on the morning I thought of it in bed (having just decided to call the hut The Rest Hut), as Thackeray is said to have been when he danced about his bedroom crying – '"Vanity Fair"! "Vanity Fair"! "Vanity Fair"!' But I only once heard a remark upon our motto from the men.'Well, that's logic anyhow!' said one when he had read it out across the counter. I could have wished for no better comment from a soldier.
Higher still, in the angle of the roof at this end, the flags of the Allies enfolded the Sign of the Rest Hut, which was an adaptation of the Red Triangle. I was having a slightly more elaborate version compressed into a rubber stamp for all literary matter connected with the hut.
The rubber stamp did not arrive in time for the opening; nor had there been time to stick our few rules into more than a few of the books. But I had a paste-pot and a pile of these labels ready on the counter. And since we are going into details, one may as well swing for the whole sheep: —
THE REST HUT LIBRARY
Frankly, we flattered ourselves on dispensing with time-limit and fine; and in practice I can commend that revolutionary plan to other amateur librarians. Obviously you are much less likely to get a book back at all if you want more money with it. You shall hear in what circumstances many of ours were to come back, and at what touching trouble to men of whom one can hardly bear to think to-day.
But all the books were not for circulation; a Poetry and Reference Shelf bestrode my end of the counter. Duplicate Poets were to be allowed out like novels; but they were not expected to have many followers. A more outstanding feature, perhaps the apple of the librarian's glasses was the New Book Table, just in front of the counter at the same end. I thought a tableful of really new books would be tremendously attractive to the real readers, that their mere appearance might convey a certain element of morale. So one long day I had spent upon fifteen begging letters to fifteen different publishers – not the same begging letter either, for some of them I knew and some knew me not wisely but too well. On the whole the fifteen played up, and the New Book Table was well and truly spread for the inaugural feast. The novelties were to grace it for a fortnight before going into the catalogue; and we started with quite a brave display. There were travels and biographies, new novels and books of verse, all spick-and-span in their presentation wrappers; and we arranged them most artistically on a gaudy table-cloth that cost thirty francs; with a large cardboard mug (by our Illuminator) warning other mugs off the course. And I think that really is the last of our preparations, unless I mention the receptacles for waste-paper, which proved quite unable to compete against the floor.
They were, I daresay, the most fatuously faddy and elaborate preparations ever made for a library which might be blown sky-high at any moment by a shell. I had not forgotten that none too remote contingency. But it was the last thing I wanted any man to remember from the moment he crossed our threshold. We were just about five miles from the Germans, and I had gone to work exactly as I should in the peaceful heart of England. But that was just where I wanted a man to think himself – until he stepped back into the War.
It really was rather like a first night; but there was this intimidating difference, that whereas the worst play in the world draws at least one good house, we were by no means certain of that measure of success. Our venture had been announced, most kindly, in Divisional Orders, as well as verbally at the Y.M. Cinema; but still we knew it was not everybody who believed in us, and that 'a wash-out' had been predicted with some confidence. Even those in authority, who had most handsomely given me my head, were some of them inclined to shake theirs over the result. It was therefore an exciting moment when we opened at two o'clock on the appointed afternoon. There was more occasion for excitement when I had to lock the door for the last time some weeks later; and the two disappointments are not to be compared; but my private cup has seldom filled more suddenly than when I unlocked it with my own hand – and beheld not one solitary man in sight! 'A wash-out' was not the word. It was my Niagara.
At least it looked like it; but after one bad quarter of an hour it turned into a steady trickle of repentant warriors. If the two of us had been holding a redoubt against the enemy, I am not sure that we should have been more delighted to see them than we were. In half an hour the big reading table was surrounded by solemn faces; each of the two stoves had its full circle in the easy chairs; the New Book Table had been discovered, was being thronged, and the best piano in the area yielding real music to the touch of a real pianist. The Rest Hut had started on its short but happy voyage.
Those there were who came demanding candles and boot-polish, and who fled before our softest answers; and there were seekers after billiards who had to be directed elsewhere for their game. I had tipped too many cues at the last hut, and stopped too many games for the further performance of that worse than thankless task, to have the essential quality of the Rest Hut subverted by a billiard-table. The readers, writers, musicians, and above all the weary men, of an Army Corps were the fish for my rod; and we had not been open an hour before I was enjoying good sport, tempered by early misgiving about my flies.
The first book that I connect with a specific inquiry was one that I had certainly failed to order. It was 'anything of Walter de la Mare's'; and I felt a Philistine for having nothing, but a fool for supposing for a moment that I had pitched my hut within the boundaries of Philistia. There might have been a conspiracy to undeceive me on the point without delay. The Poetry Shelf (despite deficiencies so promptly proven) received attention from the start. I forget if it was Mr. de la Mare's admirer who presently took out The Golden Treasury, of which we mercifully had several copies; it was certainly a Jock. I showed him the Shelf, and could have wrung his hand for the tone in which he murmured 'Keats!' It was reverential, awe-stricken and just right. Clearly his Dominie had not abused the taws.
In the meantime I had taken a deposit on three prose volumes. These were they, these the first three authors to cross my counter:
As I say, it seemed like a conspiracy – but I swear I was not one of the conspirators! They were – my benefactor already – the pianist, and his friends; three young privates in the R.A.M.C., all afterwards great friends of mine. Of course, this form was too good to be true of the mass; and the particular Field Ambulance to which they belonged was an unusually brainy unit, as I came to know it through many other representatives; but I shall always be grateful to that musical young Meredithian for the start he gave me, and may this mite of acknowledgment meet his spectacles.
On the same opening page of my first day-book, to be sure, a less rarefied level is reached by some comparatively pedestrian stuff, including a work of Mr. Charles Garvice and no fewer than two wastrels 'of my own composure' (as the village organist had it); but my place (though gratifying) was obviously due to an ulterior curiosity; and among the twenty-three books in all that went out that afternoon, there was a further burst of four that went far to restore the higher standard: they were Lorna Doone, My Novel, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. The two first fell to Jocks; the Blackmore masterpiece was read forthwith from cover to cover in the trenches, and that Jock came down by special permission for something else as good!
A happy afternoon, and of still happier omen! But I was going to need more 'good stuff'; that was the first hard fact to be faced. I had not reckoned with those eager intellectuals, the young stretcher-bearers who had borne a lantern for the nonce. They were going to bring their friends, and did; and were I to tabulate the books these youths took out between them, in the busy month to come, it would be pronounced, I think, as good a little library as a modern young man, with a sociological bias and a considered outlook, could wish to form. And then there were all the books we hadn't got for them! But these missing friends did more, perhaps, to make friends for the Rest Hut than such as were there to close the subject; for one might be able to suggest something else instead; and the man might have read that already, but his face might lighten at the recollection, and across the counter on our four elbows the pair of us forge that absent book into the first link of friendship.
But any one can gossip about the books he loves, and with a soldier at the front any fool could talk on any topic. So I had it both ways, as one seldom does, according to the saying. It may be that the men who found their pleasure in the Rest Hut were by nature responsive and enthusiastic, and not merely sensitised and refined by the generous fires of constant camaraderie and unselfish suffering. I am speaking of them now only as I found them across that narrow counter, while I deliberately pasted my label of rules inside the cover, and deliberately dabbed my rubber-stamp down on the fly-leaf opposite. I have seen clean into a noble heart between these delaying rites and a meticulous entry in my day-book. It was pain to me when three or four were waiting their turn, and a certain despatch became imperative; it always meant a corresponding period without any work or any friend-making across the counter.
At the short end, beyond the flap (never lowered in the Rest Hut), my friend and mate dispensed the cigarettes and biscuits, and tea made with devoted care by a wrinkled Frenchwoman worth all the Y.M.C.A. orderlies I ever saw, not excepting the two stalwarts at the Ark. The Rest Hut orderly was a smart soldier of the old type, a clever carpenter, and a good cook with large ideas about breakfast. He lived out, did not give us his whole time, and early struck me as a man of mystery; but he was a quick and willing worker who did his part by us. The jewel of the hut's company was my mate. I can only describe him as an Australian Jock, and of the first water on both sides. Twice or thrice rejected in Australia, he had come home to try again and yet again with no better luck; so here he was, with his fine heart and his dry cough, as near the firing-line as he could get 'for the duration.' I may lose a friend for having said so much, yet I have to add that he had taken the whole burden of the till and its attendant accounts (a hut-leader's business) off the shoulders of inexperience. Friends who predicted the worst of me in this connection, and are surprised to see me still outside a defaulter's cell, will please accept the only explanation.
It was a musical tea that opening afternoon, for another of our talented troupe brought the pick of his orchestra from the Association Cinema in the main street hard by; and for an hour it was like the Carlton, with a difference. I wonder what the Carlton could charge for that difference, even at this stage of the war!
Altogether I thought myself the luckiest civilian alive that February afternoon; but my bed of roses had its crumpled leaf. On the fine great cardboard programme for the week (next the map: our Illuminator again), with its cunning slots for moveable amusements, besides that of the Cinema Orchestra there was something about Prayers. That was where I was coming in – on the wrong side of the counter – and as the night advanced it blew a gale inside me. Five minutes before the time, I mounted the platform and made known the worst; and ever afterwards finished the evening by pursuing the same plan, so that all who wished could withdraw, losing only the last five minutes, and no man (I promised them) have anything unpalatable thrust down his throat. I am not sure that it was the most courageous method of procedure; but it was mine, and the men knew where they were. I used to read a few verses, a Vailima Prayer and but one or two more: some men went out, but there was the satisfaction of feeling that those who stayed were in the mood for Prayers.
After the first week or ten days, a third worker came to help us; and he being a minister, I persuaded him to relieve me of this nightly duty, though with a sigh that was not all relief. I always loved reading to the men, but Prayers are shy work for an old layman, and soldiers (if I know them) care less for the deathless composition of a Saint than for the unpremeditated outpouring of the man before their eyes. The minister used to give them all that, perched on a chair in their midst; and he kept a much fuller hut than I at my rostrum of American cloth.
THE HUT IN BEING
I had thought of finishing my account of our opening day with the impressions of a Corporal in the A.S.C., as recorded in his diary that very night. But though the extract reached me in a most delightful way, and though decency would have disqualified the flattering estimate of 'the Superintendent' (as 'a man of cheery temperament'), on examination none of it quite fits in. As description it covers, though with the fleeter pen of youth, ground on which I have already loitered: enough that it was all 'a big surprise' to him: 'a "home from home"' already to one soldier of a literary turn, and likely in his opinion to prove a joy to 'some of the lonely hearts of the lads in khaki.' Q.E.F.
And though it was weeks and months before the Corporal's testimony came to hand, it felt from the beginning as though we really had 'done it.' I say 'it felt,' because there was something in those few thousand cubic feet of air that one could neither see nor hear; something atmospheric, and yet far transcending any atmosphere, whether of the smoking-room or library or what-not, that we had thought to create; for it was something the men had brought with them, nothing that we had ready. Just as they say on the stage that it is the audience who do half the acting, so it was the soldiers who fought half our little battle – and the winning half.
Each of those first days the hut seemed fuller than the day before; more men came early and stayed late; more were to be counted napping round the stoves (as in my rosiest visions) at the same time; more and more books were taken out; and better books, because it was the better-educated men who came flocking in, the intellectual pick of an Army Corps who made our hut their club. If ever a dream came true, if ever a reality excelled an ideal, it was in the wonderful success of our little effort. Little enough, in all conscience; a bubble in the tide of travail; but it is only in little that these delightful flukes come off, and the bubble was soon enough to burst.
In the meantime there were elements of imperfection even in our Rest Hut: one or two things, and on both sides of the counter, to pique a passion for the impeccable.
To begin with the books, we really had not enough Good Stuff. Not nearly! Nor am I thinking only, nor yet chiefly, of Good Stuff in the shape of narrative fiction. It is true that we had not Merediths enough, nor a supply of Wessex Novels in any way equal to the demand among my Red Cross friends (who read infernally fast) and others of the elect; nor did the two complete Kipling sets, ordered long before the library was opened, ever look like coming. These authors we had only in odd volumes, and few were the nights they spent upon their shelves. But a novel-reader is a novel-reader, one can generally find him something; my difficulty was in coping with another type altogether – the real bookworm – who is far more particular about his food. Anything but novels for this gentleman as I knew him at the front; and he was often the last person one would have suspected of his particular tastes, sometimes a very young gentleman indeed. There was one such, a rugged lad with a strong Lancashire or Yorkshire accent, whom I thought I should never suit. Lamb, Emerson, Ruskin and Carlyle, he demanded in turn as glibly as Woodbines or Gold Flakes; but either I had them not, or they were out. Macaulay's Essays happened to be in. 'The literary ones?' said the boy, suspiciously, to my suggestion. 'I don't want the political!' I remember he took a Golden Treasury in the end; as already noted, I had several copies, and needed every one.
Then I found that I required a better selection of technical works of all sorts. Engineers, especially, want engineering books and journals; it is a rest to the fighting man to pursue his peace-time interests or studies at the front. Nothing, one can well imagine, takes him out of khaki quicker; and that is what his books are for, nor will he shut them a worse soldier. Of devotional works, as I may have hinted, we opened with a fair number; this was increased later by a strong consignment from Tottenham Court Road. But it was impossible to be too strong on that side – with a Division of Jocks in the sector!
'It's the only subject that interests me,' said a tight-lipped Scottish Rifleman, quite simply, on the third day. He was not a man I would have surrendered to with much confidence on a dark night, but he had brought back a book called The Fact of Christ, and he wanted something else in the same category. Just then there was nothing; but with imbecile temerity I did say we had a number of 'religious novels' by a lady of great eminence. 'I'm no a believer in her,' was his only reply. I can still see his grim ghost of a smile. Himmel help the Hun who sees it first!
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