"Solemn-Looking Blokes"

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"Solemn-Looking Blokes"  (1917) 
by Stacy Aumonier

From The Century Magazine, Dec 1917

And then they came, marching in fours, with their rifles at the slope, the vanguard of Uncle Sam's army. And we in Cockspur Street raised a mighty cheer. They were solemn, bronzed men, loose of limb, hard, and strong, with a curious set expression of purpose about them.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

And they looked neither to the right nor the left; nor did they look up or smile or apparently take any notice of the cheers we raised.

"Solemn-Looking Blokes"


Author of "The Friends," "Olga Bardel," etc.

AT midday on August 15 I stood on the pavement in Cockspur Street and watched the first contingent of American troops pass through London.

I had been attracted thither by the lure of a public "show," by the blare of a band, and by a subconscious desire to pay tribute in my small way to a great people. It was a good day for London, intermittently bright, with great scurrying masses of cumuli overhead, and a characteristic threat of rain, which fortunately held off. Cockspur Street, as you know, is a turning off Trafalgar Square, and I chose it because the crowd was less dense there than in the square itself. By getting behind a group of shortish people and by standing on tiptoe I caught a fleeting view of the faces of nearly every one of the passing soldiers.

London is schooled to shows of this kind. The people gather and wait patiently on the line of route. And then some genial policemen appear and mother the people back into some sort of line, an action performed with little fuss or trouble. Then mounted police appear, headed by some fat official in a cockade hat and with many ribbons on his chest. And some one in the crowd calls out:

"Hullo, Percy! Mind you don't fall off yer 'orse!"

Then the hearers laugh and begin to be on good terms with themselves, for they know that the "show" is coming. Then follows the inevitable band, and we begin to cheer.

It is very easy and natural for a London crowd to cheer. I have heard Kaiser William II cheered in the streets of London! We always cheer our guests, and we love a band and a "show" almost as much as our republican friends across the channel. I have seen royal funerals and weddings, processions in honor of visiting presidents and kings, the return of victorious generals, processions of Canadian, Australian, Indian, French, and Italian troops and bands. I would n't miss these things for worlds. They give color to our social life and accent to our every-day emotions. It is, moreover, peculiarly interesting to observe national traits on a march: the French, with their exuberant élan, throwing kisses to the women as they pass; our own Tommies, who have surprised the world with their gaiety, and keep up a constant ragging intercourse with the crowd and cannot cease from singing; the Indians, who pass like a splendidly carved frieze; the Canadians, who move with a free and independent swing and grin in a friendly way; the Scotch, who carry it off better than any one. But I had never seen American troops, and I was anxious to see how they behaved. I said to myself, "The American is volatile and impressionable, like a child." I had met Americans who within an hour's acquaintance had told me their life-story, given me their views on religion, politics, and art, and invited me to go out to Iowa or Wisconsin or California and spend the summer with them. Moreover, the American above all things is emotional and—may I say it?—sentimental. It would therefore be extremely interesting to see how he came through this ordeal.

The first band passed, and the people were waving flags and handkerchiefs from the windows. We could hear the cheers go up from the great throng in the square. And there at last, sure enough, was Old Glory, with its silken tassels floating in the London breeze, carried by a solemn giant, with another on each side. And then they came, marching in fours, with their rifles at the slope, the vanguard of Uncle Sam's army. And we in Cockspur Street raised a mighty cheer. They were solemn, bronzed men, loose of limb, hard, and strong, with a curious set expression of purpose about them.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

And they looked neither to the right nor the left; nor did they look up or smile or apparently take any notice of the cheers we raised. We strained forward to see their faces, and we cried out to them our welcome. Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

They were not all tall; some were short and wiry. Some of the officers were rather elderly and wore horn spectacles. But they did not look at us or raise a smile of response. They held themselves very erect, but their eyes were cast down or fixed upon the back of the man in front of them. There came an interval, and another band, and then Old Glory once more, and we cheered the flag even more than the men. Fully a thousand men passed in this solemn procession, not one of them smiling or looking up. It became almost disconcerting. It was a thing we were not used to. A fellow-cockney near me murmured:

"They 're solemn-looking blokes, ain't they?"

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

The band blared forth once more, a drum-and-fife corps with a vibrant thrill behind it. We strained forward more eagerly to see the faces of our friends from the New World. We loved it best when the sound of the band had died away and the only music was the steady throb of those friendly boots upon our London streets. And still they did not smile. I had a brief moment of some vague apprehension, as though something could not be quite right. Some such wave, I think, was passing through the crowd. What did it mean?

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

The cheers died away for a few moments in an exhausted diminuendo. Among those people, racked by three years of strain and suffering, there probably was not one who had not lost some one dear to them. Even the best nerves have their limitation of endurance. Suddenly the ready voice of a woman from the pavement called out:

"God bless you, Sammy!"

And then we cheered again in a different key, and I noticed a boy in the ranks throw back his head and look up. On his face was that expression we see only on the faces of those who know the finer sensibilities—a fierce, exultant joy that is very near akin to tears. And gradually I became aware that on the faces of these grim men was written an emotion almost too deep for expression.

As they passed it was easy to detect their ethnological heritage. There was the Anglo-Saxon type, perhaps predominant; the Celt; the Slav; the Latin; and in many cases definitely the Teuton: and yet there was not one of them that had not something else, who was not pre-eminently a good "United States-man." It was as though upon the anvil of the New World all the troubles of the Old, after being passed through a white-hot furnace, had been forged into something clear and splendid. And they were hurrying on to get this accomplished. For once and all the matter must be settled.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

There was a slight congestion, and the body of men near me halted and marked time. A diminutive officer with a pointed beard was walking alone. A woman in the crowd leaned forward and waved an American flag in his face. He saluted, made some kindly remark, and then passed on.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

The world must be made safe for democracy.

And I thought inevitably of the story of the Titan myth, of Prometheus, the first real democrat, who held out against the gods because they despised humanity. And they nailed him to a rock, and cut off his eyelids, and a vulture fed upon his entrails.

But Prometheus held on, his line of reasoning being:

"After Uranus came Cronus. After Cronus came Zeus. After Zeus will come other gods."

It is the finest epic in human life, and all the great teachers and reformers who came after told the same story—Christ, Vishnu, Confucius, Mohammed, Luther, Shakspere. The fundamental basis of their teaching was love and faith in humanity. And whenever humanity is threatened, the fires which Prometheus stole from the gods will burn more brightly in the heart of man, and they will come from all quarters of the world.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible, swift sword.

There is no quarter, no mercy, to the enemies of humanity, This is no longer a war; it is a crusade. And as I stood on the flags of Cockspur Street I think I understood the silence of those grim men. They seemed to epitomize not merely a nation, not merely a flag, but the unbreakable sanctity of human rights and human life. And I knew that whatever might happen, whatever the powers of darkness might devise, whatever cunning schemes or diabolical plans, or whatever temporary successes they might attain, they would ultimately go down into the dust before "the fateful lightning." "After Zeus will come other gods."

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

Nothing could live and endure against that steady and irresistible progression. And we know how you can do things, America. We have seen your workshops, your factories, and your engines of peace. And we have seen those young men of yours at the Olympic Games, with their loose, supple limbs, their square, strong faces. When the Spartans, lightly clad, but girt for war, ran across the hills to Athens and, finding the Persian hosts defeated, laughed, congratulated the Athenians, and ran back again—since those days there never were such runners, such athletes, as these boys of yours from Yale and Harvard, Princeton and Cornell.

And so on that day, if we cheered the flag more than we cheered the men, it was because the flag was the symbol of the men's hearts, which were too charged with the fires of Prometheus to trust themselves expression.

At least that is how it appeared to me on that forenoon in Cockspur Street, and I know that later in the day, when I met a casual friend, and he addressed me with the usual formula of the day:

"Any news?"

I was able to say:

"Yes, the best news in the world."

And when he replied:

"What news?"

I could say with all sincerity:

"I have seen a portent. The world is safe for democracy."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1928, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.