The Nation (UK)/War
Sir – I enclose herewith an extract from a letter lately received from a young officer which I hope may interest some of your readers. I may add that the officer in question entered the Army directly from a public school, and began his service in the trenches before he was nineteen. - Yours &c.,
T. S. Eliot
18, Crawford Mansions, Crawford Street, W.1.
June 17th 1917.
- “June 8th, 1917
- “Dear –, -There is rather a good article in THE NATION this last week called ‘On Leave.’ You should read it. I have often heard it said that the curious thing about those who have been to the front is their complete indifference. They appear to be practically untouched by what they have seen and gone through, they talk about war in a callous and humorous way, they even joke about its horrors. The impression one has from them is that it is, on the whole, a dreary and unpleasant business, with its anxious moments and its bright moments, but not nearly such a hell as one really knows it to be.
- “In the case of the vast majority, however, this is an attitude, a screen – I speak of educated thinking men – and it is not granted to many who have not shared the same experiences to see behind the screen. The reason for this, as the article points out, is the practical impossibility for the uninitiated to realize or imagine even dimly the actual conditions of war. And a man who has been through it and seen and taken part in the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess.
- “It is morally impossible for him to talk seriously of these things to people who cannot even approach comprehension. It is hideously exasperating to hear people talking the glib commonplaces about the war and distributing cheap sympathy to its victims.
- “Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion, mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite and ammonal. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge – porridge that stinks in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers. They shudder and it is forgotten.
- “I need hardly say that on a great number of men war does not produce this effect; of these the old regular officer is a type – blunt, kindly, jolly good fellows – who have never stopped to think in their lives.”