IN the train bound for the leave boat, just before Christmas, the Knight-Errant, who also was returning to the front, re-wrote the well-known hymn of Phillips Brooks for me, to make the time pass. It began"Oh little town of Bethlehem,
To thee we give the lie."
So you may guess, though I shan't tell you, how it continued. For the iron was in the soul of the Knight and misery was twisting it. I cannot pretend it was a pleasure trip. This was to be our third Christmas in Flanders. Is it any good trying to pass on the emotion common to men who go to that place because they must? No, it is not. Yet, throughout the journey to the boat, I was not astonished at the loud gaiety of many of our passengers. I have got used to it; for they were like that when they landed at Boulogne in August 1914; and they will be no different when they come back for good, to comfortable observers who prefer to be satisfied easily.
There was a noise of musical instruments and untractable boots on the floor-boards. While waiting in the nervous queue on the Day of Judgment one of those fellows will address a mouth organ to the responsive feet of a pal, and the others will look on with intent approval, indifferent to Gabriel. Having watched disaster experiment variously with my countrymen for three years, I begin to understand why once the French hated us, why lately they have learned to admire us and to be amused by us, why the blunders of our governing classes don't damage us vitally (which seems miraculous unless you know the reason); and, indeed, why that blessed flag has braved a thousand years the battle and the breeze.
It is because the quality of our Nobodies (about whom a great epic will get written when a poet is born good enough and big enough to receive the inspiration), it is because any average Nobody has a cool impregnability to the worst bad luck can do, which is conquering and awe-inspiring. That gives the affair something of the comic. That is what makes the humour of the front. And after the first silent pause of respect and wonder at one more story of the sort a journalist knows so well who knows but a little of railway men and miners, seamstresses and the mothers in mean streets, and ships and the sea, one cannot help chuckling. Again, the sons of Smith and Jones and Robin! The well-born, the clever, the haughty, and the greedy, in their fear, pride, and wilfulness, and the perplexity of their scheming, make a general mess of the world. Forthwith in a panic they cry, "Calamity cometh!"
Then out from their obscurity, where they dwelt because of their low worth, arise the Nobodies; because theirs is the historic job of restoring again the upset balance of affairs. They make no fuss about it. Theirs is always the hard and dirty work. They have always done it. If they don't do it, it will not be done. They fall with a will and without complaint upon the wreckage wilfully made of generations of such labour as theirs, to get the world right again, to make it habitable again, though not for themselves; for them, they must spend the rest of their lives recreating order out of chaos. A hopeless task; but they continue at it unmurmuring, giving their bodies without stint, as once they gave their labour, to the fields and the sea. And some day the planet will get back to its old place under the sun; but not for them, not for them.
A Nobody never seems to know anything, but by the grace of God he gets there just the same. I was not far from Ypres and the line of the Yser during the first battle for the Channel ports. Do you know how near we were to the edge of the precipice not long before that Christmas? We were on the verge. We were nearly over. I knew it then. So when, later still, I used to meet in France an enigmatic, clay-coloured figure with a visage seamed with humorous dolours, loaded with pioneering and warlike implements, rifles, knives, tin hats, and gas masks, I always felt I ought to get down and walk. Instead of which he used to salute me as smartly as he could. He will never know how cheap and embarrassed he used to make me feel. I wish I knew enough to do him some justice.
And here once more is the leave boat, and this is another Christmas Eve. It was a still twilight, with a calm sea and a swell on our starboard beam. We rolled. We looked back on England sinking in the night. A black smudge of a destroyer followed us over with its eye on us. The main deck was crowded with soldiers--you could not get along there--singing in their lifebelts; at times the chorus, if approved, became a unanimous roar. They didn't want to be there. They didn't want to die. They wanted to go home. But they sang with dolorous joy. The chorus died; and we heard again the deep monody of the sea, like the admonitory voice of fate. The battles of the Somme were to come before the next Christmas; though none of us on that boat knew it then. And where is the young officer who went ashore under the electric glare of the base port, singing also, and bearing a Christmas tree? Where is that wild lieutenant of the Black Watch--he had a splendid eye, and a voice for a Burns midnight--who cried rollicking answers from the back of the crowd to the peremptory megaphone of the landing officer, till the ship was loud and gay, and the authorities got really wild? And the boy of a new draft, whose face, as I passed him where he had fallen in,--the light dropped to it,--was pale and nervous, and his teeth chattering! Ah, the men we met in France, and the faces we saw briefly, but remember, that were before the Somme! Shadows, shadows.
It rained next morning. This was Christmas Day. We were going to the trenches. Christians awake, salute the happy morn. There was a prospect of straight road with an avenue of diminishing poplars going east, in an inky smear, to the Germans and infinity. The rain lashed into my northerly ear, and the A.S.C. motor-car driver, who was mad, kept missing three-ton lorries and gun-limbers by the width of the paint. One transport mule, who pretended to be frightened of us, but whose father was the devil and his mother an ass, plunged into a pond of black Flanders mud as we passed, and raked us with solvent filth. We wiped it off our mouths. God rest you, merry gentlemen. A land so inundated that it inverted the raw and alien sky was on either hand. The mud clung to the horses and mules like dangling walnuts and bunches of earthy and glistening grapes. The men humped themselves in soddened khaki. The noise of the wheels bearing guns was like the sound of doom. The rain it rained. O come, all ye faithful!
We got to a place where there was no more wheeled traffic. There was nothing moving, nothing alive. That country was apparently abandoned. To our front and left, for no apparent reason, three little dirty yellow clouds burst simultaneously over a copse, with a smash which made you feel you ought to be tolerant to men with shell shock. On our right was an empty field. Short momentary flames leaped constantly from its farthermost hedge, with a noise like the rapid slamming of a row of iron doors. Heavy eruptions, as though subterranean, were going on all the time, the Lord knew where. But not a man was in sight till we got to a village which looked like Gomorrah the day after it happened. Some smoke and red dust were just settling by one of the ruins, and a man lay there motionless with his face in the rubbish. . . .
There was a habitation where sacking kept the wind and rain from unlucky holes, with holly behind pictures tacked to its walls, and a special piece of inviting mistletoe over a saucy lady from La Vie Parisienne. There was an elderly and serious colonel, who had an ancestor at Chevy Chase, but himself held independent views on war; and a bunch of modest boys with sparkling eyes and blithe and ironic comments. They also did not discuss the war in the way it is discussed where war is but lowered street lights. We had bully beef, the right sort of pudding,--those boys must have had very nice sisters,--and frosted cake. There were noises without, as the book of the play has it, and plenty of laughter within, and I enjoyed myself with a sort of veiled, subconscious misery; for I liked those lads; and we are so transitory to-day.
Then one of them took me for a Christmas walk in his country. "Have you got your gas helmet?" he said. "That's right. It makes your eyes stream with tears, and you look such a silly ass." On we went. I began Christmas Day in the trenches by discovering the bottom of the mud too late; though you never can tell, when a noise like the collapse of an iron roof goes off behind you, where you are going to put your feet at that moment. We went through a little wood, where the trees were like broken poles with chewed ends. Over our heads were invisible things which moaned, shrieked, and roared in flight. It was astonishing that they were invisible. Sometimes the bottom of the mud of that communication trench was close, and sometimes not; you knew when you had tried. And as the parapets usually had dissolved at the more dubious places, and I was told and heard that Fritz had machine guns trained on them, I did not waste much time experimenting.
I found the firing-line, as one usually does, with surprise. There was a barrier of sandbags, oozing grey slime, and below, in a sort of little cave, with his body partly resting in a pool of water, a Tommy asleep. Just beyond was a figure 50 merged in the environment of aqueous muck and slime that I did not see him till he moved, and his boots squelched. He lifted a wet rag in the grey wall and got surprisingly rapid with a rifle which was thrust through the hole and went off; and then turned to look at us. "That fellow opposite is a nuisance," said my officer. "He's always potting at this corner." "Yes, sir," said the figure of mud, darkly louring under its tin hat, "but I know where the blighter is now, and I'll get the beggar yet." With a sudden recollection he then touched iron, and grinned.
Slithering above the ankles in well-worked paste, and leaning against a wall of slime, I tried to find "the nuisance opposite" with a periscope; but before me was only a tangle of rusty wire, a number of raw holes in shabby green grass, some objects lying about which looked like tailors' dummies discarded to the weather, and an awe-inspiring stillness.
There were some interchanges with serious men, who did not sing, but who sat about in mud, or leaned against it, and were covered with it, or who were waiting with rifles ready, or looking through periscopes, or doing things over fires which smoked till the eyes were red. "Come and see our mine crater," said my guide. "It's a topper. Fritz made it, but we've got it."
I knew where that crater would be, and I thought the less of it as a spectacle. But "out there" one must follow one's leader wherever he goes. He was going to make me crawl after him in "No Man's Land," and it was not dark yet. So I acquired that sinking sensation described in the pill advertisements. The mud got down our collars; but we arrived, though I don't know how, because I was thinking too much. It was only a deep yellow hole in the ground, too, that crater, with barbed wire spilled into it and round it; and you were warned to breathe gently in it, for Fritz might lob a bomb over. He was six yards off.
In the forlorn and dying light of that Christmas Day I then noticed a muffled youngster beside me, who might have been your son, alone, gripping a rifle with a fixed bayonet, his thoughts Heaven knows where, a box of bombs ready to hand in the filth; and his charge was to give first warning of movement in that stillness beyond. As we crawled away, leaving him there, I turned to look at that boy of yours, and his eyes met mine. . . .