For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 10
If one may say so without seeming boastful I sometimes wonder whether, just now, there are not too many apologists among us—too many well-meaning persons who paint our national past in darker colours than belong to it and write as if the war had lifted us to heights we had not trodden before? War cannot endow a nation with qualities it does not already possess; it is merely the acid which tests the metal and proves it to be either gold or a base imitation. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to emphasise that the minds and souls of the fifty-four soldier poets whose work we have been considering—and they and their many living peers have spoken for the general mind and soul of our people—were not formed on the battlefield; their opinions, ideals, aspirations were engendered in the home atmosphere during years of peace. We and our Allies, and Germany and her Allies, remained in war what racial instincts, long traditions, and peace-time training had naturally made of us all. The war did not make us or them one thing or the other; it did no more than give those who went into it opportunity to show whether they were beast or human, and I, for one, am not ashamed of the witness it has borne to the inherent character of my countrymen.
German professors, inflated with envy and a ridiculous pride in that German culture which has culminated in poison-gas, piracy, and the murder of civilians, have denounced us as land-grabbers and bloodthirsty; and no answer to that charge seems necessary beyond a comparison of the widely different ways in which the British and German empires have been built. Fifty years ago Prussia resolved to transform itself into a great empire. To this end, it picked a quarrel with its neighbour Austria and defeated her. Then it attacked its small neighbour Denmark, broke her, and stole one of her provinces. Then it brought about a war with France, crushed her and stole two provinces from her. Then, having menaced or persuaded the weaker German states into combining with it, it settled down to forty years of subtle, strenuous preparation on a gigantic scale with the avowed object of seizing Belgium, and more of France, and annexing divers other lands by murderous, irresistible might and so achieving a mammoth empire and world domination. The fruit of its labour is an empire that has sprung up like the unwholesome fungus-growth of a night, and the signs are that it will prove as transitory as any toadstool.
Never at any period of her history has Britain developed in this furtive and obscene fashion. Our empire is not the realisation of any deliberate plan; it has come into being gradually and by accident rather than by design; it has grown slowly and healthfully through the centuries as an oak grows, and its strength and its justification are in that. Our sons took their lives in their hands and went exploring on their own account into savage regions and settled down and colonised the waste places of the earth; our merchant adventurers sailed into unknown parts to do business among strange races and establish markets where none had been before. They had little enough encouragement and often the most crass discouragement from their own government, which was so far from dreaming of conquest that not infrequently it extended its protection to its wandering children with reluctance, and formally took over the control of this or that uncivilised land not to colonise it, but because its subjects had colonised it already. Germany's wise professors even sneered at our inefficiency as empire-builders, because we had gone about it so unscientifically and did not really govern our colonies; we had not efficiently riveted them to us as with iron bands; we did not rule them, but left them to rule themselves. If ever we were in danger they would not take the risk of coming to our assistance, and, inept, incompetent rulers as we are, we could not compel them to do so—they would gladly seize upon our necessity as a chance to cut themselves free of us altogether and leave us to our fate. So said the German professors, and the war has revealed the measure of their knowledge. No sooner were we threatened than our kindred overseas were by our side, ready to stand or to fall with us.
Not because of our perfections. We know that, and they know it. We have made mistakes, we have done many wrongs, we have been foolish and faulty in our time, as fallible human creatures were bound to be. Our own sons in the homeland, 'who,' as Noel Hodgson says of his fallen comrades:
Who loving as none other
The land that is their mother,
Unfalteringly renounced her
Because they loved her so—
did no more, maybe, than the sons of any land might do, but they did it with an eagerness and a joy in the self-sacrifice that could not have been possible to them had they been dying for a land that was all unworthy of them. Nor was it solely because they were more or less distantly of our blood that Canada, Australasia, South Africa, and the rest of our scattered commonwealth remained so loyal to us. It touches us with pride and yet humbles us to think we can glimpse something of Canada's thought and feeling towards 'Britain' in these glowing lines by one of Canada's poets, Wilfred Campbell, who has died since the war moved his nation to show that his were no empty words:
Great patient Titan, 'neath thy wearying load
Of modern statecraft, human helpfulness;
To whom do come earth's weak in their distress
To crave thine arm to avert the oppressor's goad:
Thou sovereignty within thine isled abode,
Hated and feared, where thou wouldst only bless,
By fools who dream thine iron mightiness
Will crumble in ruin across the world's wide road.
Though scattered thy sons o'er leagues of empire's rim,
Alien, remote, by severing wind and tide;
Yet every Briton who knows thy blood in him
In that dread hour will marshal to thy side;
And if thou crumbiest earth's whole frame will groan.
God help this world, thou wilt not sink alone!
The innermost secret of that faith in Britain and that spontaneous loyalty to her—the real reason why our kindred, who are separated from us and have shaped themselves into new, independent nations, feel that Britain is still worth fighting and dying for is enshrined again, I think, in a poem by an Australian, John , who has been dead these fourteen years. He and his countrymen know the worst of us, but they know the best of us too, and believe that the best more than atones for the worst. No enemy has indicted us more scathingly than he, in his 'Australia to England.' He does not forget that we have lapsed into evil, have been guilty of sins of greed, cruelty, hypocrisy; that
Some hands you taught to pray to Christ
Have prayed His curse to rest on you—
yet, when he has reckoned up all our grievous errors, he can find it in his heart to add:
But praise to you and more than praise
And thankfulness for some things done,
And blessedness and length of days
As long as earth shall last, or sun!
You first among the peoples spoke
Sharp words and angry questionings
Which burst the bonds and shed the yoke
That made your men the slaves of kings!
You set and showed the whole world's school
The lesson it shall surely read,
That each one ruled has right to rule—
The alphabet of Freedom's creed,
Which slowly wins its proselytes
And makes uneasy many a throne:
You taught them all to prate of Rights
In language growing like your own.
And now your holiest and best
And wisest dream of such a tie
As, holding hearts from East to West,
Shall strengthen while the years go by;
And of a time when every man
For every fellow-man will do
His kindliest, working by the plan
God set him. May the dream come true!
And greater dreams! O Englishmen,
Be sure the safest time of all
For even the mightiest State is when
Not even the least desires its fall!
Make England stand supreme for aye
Because supreme for peace and good,
Warned well by wrecks of yesterday
That strongest feet may slip in blood!
Here, then, is why the men of the free nations of Greater Britain cast in their lot with ours when the Day came—because though we have stumbled too often and lost the way, we have still struggled back into it and moved, however haltingly, through all our divagations, towards a final goal of freedom and universal brotherhood, towards the ideal of a world ruled by love and not by terror. Neither now nor at any period have we made war our national industry; we have never at any period hammered our whole people into one vast army for the subjugation and enslavement of our neighbours. Whatever sin we have committed, we have never committed that sin. Our literature for centuries past testifies that though, the world being what it is, we have put our causes to the arbitrament of the sword, we have hated war, and the wrong and misery of it, with a steadily increasing hatred.
Among the stirring and splendidly patriotic thunderings of Henry V., Shakespeare puts into the mouths of the unlettered soldiery of his day a most poignant sense of the heavy responsibility their ruler will bear if he sends them to kill and be killed in a fight that is not just. Addison's verses on the battle of Blenheim give an elegant and flattering picture of Marlborough in the hour of triumph, but you need not grudge the Duke his compliment, for, when in due season he died, Swift wrote the satirical elegy upon him that is surely the bitterest, most mordant protest ever raised against a successful war and its commander:
Behold his funeral appears:
No widows' sighs nor orphans' tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.
But what of that? his friends may say—
He had those honours in his day:
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.
And in the next century, Southey took the same theme and, in his gentler vein, satirised the Duke and his triumph in 'The Battle of Blenheim,' where old Kaspar, moralising over the skull found on the battlefield, is unable to explain why the victory was a great and a famous one, and can only reiterate, to the end, that it was that:
'But what good came of it at last?'
Quoth little Peterkin.
'Why, that I cannot tell.' said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory.'
Since then, we have come more and more, as a nation, to little Peterkin's outlook on this matter of war. We are more insistently asking why it should survive among rational Christian people, what is the good of it, with its brutalities, its waste, its suffering and heartbreak, and all the harm it does? And we grow less and less contented with the mechanical explanation of non-combatant philosophers and professors that it is a biological necessity, a natural, recurring phase in our social evolution, and its miseries the inevitable price of human progress, that it is a glorious institution and serves to preserve the breed of heroes as racing preserves that of horses. We know, or if any do not they may know it from what has been written by our soldiers themselves, that there is no glory and little romance in war except for those who can play with the thought of it from far off, or after the years have healed its wounds and hidden the hideous ruin it wrought, and the agony of it has dwindled to the glamorous sorrow of a tale that is told.
Byron on the field of Waterloo felt no exultant thrill: to him it was a 'place of skulls,' where 'the red rain hath made the harvest grow,' and it reminded him only of the
Of death, depopulation, bondage, tears
which had gone to the making of that Emperor's pride who, as utterly shorn of it all as if he had never possessed any, was then eating his heart out at St. Helena. The withering contempt for the pompous vanity of the military conqueror in Byron's 'Ode to Napoleon,' and his admiration of America's clean-handed patriot-ruler are things we should do well also to remember now, when all Europe is paying for the follies of a pettier tyrant who assumed the part of the dead lion and could not roar without betraying himself:
Where may the wearied eye repose,
When gazing on the Great,
Where neither guilty glory glows
Nor despicable state?
Yet one—the first—the last—the best—
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one.
Time has taken the sting out of that last line: there has been Lincoln; there is Wilson; to say nothing of others; and it seems likely that in the future Wilson's name will, like Abou Ben Adhem's, 'lead all the rest.'
America went into the world war with such ideals as took us into it, and her attitude towards all war is the same as our own. She has no use for its pinchbeck glory, but looks beyond all that and sees what Longfellow saw when he wrote 'Killed at the Ford':
I saw in a vision how, far and fleet,
That fatal bullet went speeding forth
Till it reached a town in the distant North,
Till it reached a house in a sunny street,
Till it reached a heart that ceased to beat
Without a murmur, without a cry.
For the blood-drops on the conqueror's laurel are not from the brow that wears it. During that war of North and South which stirred the conscience of America to its depths the Quaker Whittier sorrowed in his poems In War Time that a democratic people should have no other but the old world's barbarous way of settling its differences, saying, as we are saying at present:
The future's gain
Is certain as God's truth; but meanwhile, pain
Is bitter and tears are salt; our voices take
A sober tone; our very household songs
Are heavy with a nation's griefs and wrongs;
And innocent mirth is chastened for the sake
Of the brave hearts that never more shall beat,
The eyes that smile no more, the unreturning feet.
It was one of Washington's countrymen, too, James Russell Lowell, who raised the great rallying cry of all civilised democracies, insisted on the soldier's personal responsibility for the right or wrong that he does, and, in The Biglow Papers, spoke the nakedest truths that have ever been spoken about war and its makers:
Ez for war, I call it murder—
There you hev it plain and flat;
I don't want to go no furder
Than my Testament fer that....
Ef you take a sword and dror it
An' go stick a feller thru,
Gov'ment ain't to answer for it,
God 'll send the bill to you.
That is the essentially modern standard, and nothing but the obsolete ideas that persist in backward nationalities prevents the civilised world from living up to it. You get no conception except of the pity and barbarism of war in the realistic scenes and ironic comment of Thomas Hardy's great epic-drama, The Dynasts, and in the sombre War Poems he wrote during the struggle of Briton and Boer. He is oppressed with the needless tragedy of it all—that 'this late age of thought' can only argue in the old bloody mode, and marvels—
When shall the saner, softer polities,
Whereof we dream, have play in each proud land,
And patriotism, grown Godlike, scorn to stand
Bondslave to realms, but circle earth and seas?
a question to which thinking men of all nations that have outgrown the crudities of their childhood are striving now to find an answer. The one hope that beacons us through these dark days is that the shameful savageries of the Great War, its indescribable horrors, its devastating insanities may shock mankind into so much of practical wisdom that the peoples of every race and creed shall, in self-defence, draw together at last into some league of free nations, some bond of common fellowship that shall end the reign of the brute for ever and realise Tennyson's prevision of a time when disputes between men were no longer settled as they are between animals, but
The battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world.