April 1917 issue of the Socialist Standard
We are indebted to the Editors of "The Ploughshare" for permission to reprint the following sketches, which appeared in the March issue of the Quaker Magazine of Social Reconstruction.— Ed. Com. Socialist Standard.
We guarantee the genuineness of the two sketches which follow. They are written by. a soldier known to us, one who expresses himself as grateful for the work we are doing. Shame on us to accept thanks for this when so much more could be done!
I. GOING INTO ACTION.
The glories of war! How this great illusion has been kept up in former days! What volumes of romance have been written about it! But now war is stripped of all its glory and romance; it stands bare and hideous in the sight of thinking men, and to the soldiers it is an indescribable horror, breaking the mind and body and eating into the soul.
“Going into action" has always been a favourite theme with romantic writers; it lends itself to vivid word-painting about courage, determination, and sacrifice. Yet going into action to-day spells terror and despair to the men engaged. They know that in the awfulness of modern warfare few survive. Let me, therefore, give a brief description of an engagement as it occurs at the Front to-day.
The regiment has been at rest in billets a few miles behind the firing lines. Here we clean up, recoup, and receive fresh drafts to replace former casualties. A fairly easy time is passed until one morning the Colonel announces on parade that we are going up to the trenches again that night. Now all is activity and excitement; rifles are inspected and ammunition served out. New gas helmets replace the old ones, and “tear-shell" goggles are distributed; some of the men receive trench dubs— “daggers" ; the bombers have the latest instructions read to them. We fill our water-bottles and get the iron rations of bully beef and “dog-biscuits.”
As the day wears on, some of the men become reserved and quiet. The more thoughtful begin to ponder on what is in store for them. Some already feel they are beneath the ground. Poor wretches! perhaps the gods are kind in not giving us a glimpse of the future! But all contemplation soon ceases, for presently the bugles sound the “fall in.” We hastily put on our full equipment, line up in the ranks, and await the Colonel's instructions.
Along he comes, attended by the adjutant and officers. He looks pale and anxious. “Men," he says, “we are going up to the trenches now. I hope you will all give a good account of yourselves, and may God have us in his care.“ The band plays “Eternal Father, strong to save," and as we sing it some cry like children. Tears are in the eyes of all. We think of our dear ones at home, and many a silent prayer is offered up. Some ask themselves in thought: “Is there really a good God to allow this awful suffering and carnage?" The chaplain reads a prayer which seems like the burial service. Then the bugles sound again, hoarse orders are shouted, and away we march as night is quickly falling.
On, on we tramp, staggering beneath the heavy load of equipment, slipping in mud and slush, stumbling in holes. “How much farther is it, chum ? ” I ask the man next to me. He cannot reply, he is crying bitterly. Now we approach the danger zone. The artillery is blazing away and the noise makes talking impossible. We break step, put out our fags, and begin to march in “extended order.” Suddenly there is a roar and a crash—a shell has fallen just behind us! Happily no one is hurt. Then I see a man in front of me fall, caught by a spent bullet. He shrieks in agony, and the stretcher bearers come to his rescue.
Now we march along in silence, absolute silence, dumb men driven to the slaughter. We are nearing the communication trench. The sky is lit up with the flashes of thousands of guns, and the star shells shed a lurid glow over the field of battle. Shells are bursting near us, for the enemy is shelling the roads. Several men fall, hit by shrapnel. We quicken our pace to get the cover of the trenches. The wounded are being brought from a field dressing station and quickly put in Red Cross vans. As the stretchers pass us, the poor wretches groan in agony.
We are now in the assembly trench; it is knee-deep in mud ; we slip and stumble about, advancing in single file towards the front. My company is to be stationed in a rear trench, but the others advance to the front. We are allotted our positions by the Captain, and we stand there all night asking : “Will the dawn never come ? "
All next day we stand there; some have gone into dug-outs to try to get a few hours sleep, but this is almost impossible, for the earth shakes from the vibrations of the artillery. The lice crawl all over the body, driving one nearly frantic, and the rats are in swarms and run over us. But there are some corpses lying out on the top, with plenty of rats around them, so they won't go hungry!
The next day we are told an attack is to be made at dawn. On this I notice a weird change comes over the men; they become strangely religious as the fear of death comes near. The Catholics are telling their beads, the others reading their Testaments and Bibles. Some are crying, and all are silent—petrified with cold and horror.
As the hour for attack draws near, the officers become pale and anxious. They keep looking at their watches. They try to smile as they shake hands with the sergeants, whispering “Good-bye." in case the worst happens.
The noise of the artillery is now awful; every gun, from a trench mortar to a big naval gun, is blazing away, smashing down barbed wire entanglements and parapets. The world seems to have gone raving mad. In an hour it will be dawn, and then—?
The men in the front trench have now fixed their bayonets, and thrown off unnecessary equipment. They dare not look at each other; steel helmets are firmly fixed as they await the word. Suddenly a young officer pushes his way to a place prepared in the parapet for jumping over. In his hand he holds a whistle. He gives a shrill blast, and is over the top, the others scrambling after him, and at this moment the artillery ceases.
Through the periscopes we watch the progress. Some are falling and throw up their arms and spin round as the bullets strike them. Some are dashing madly on. The machine-guns of the enemy are spitting forth thousands of fiery bullets. The men still unhurt have passed through the German entanglements and are on their parapets. The bombs and bayonets are busy. Strong men are falling like corn before the sickle. Now the fighting is in the enemy's trenches. Both explosions and revolver shots are heard. Our men have captured the trench and are consolidating it. In “ No-man’s-land ” the stretcher-bearers are busy, dragging in the dead and wounded. The doctors in the trench dressing station are hastily bandaging wounds and injecting “anti-lockjaw” serum. The sight is indescribable. Groans and cries rend the air as the dead and wounded lie together in the dressing-station. An ashy pallor is on their faces.
And now the enemy observers see that we occupy the trench and immediately signal to their artillery. Hundreds of shells now pour upon our comrades, smashing up the position they have occupied and burying them beneath the debris. And thus the hideous game goes on and many brave lives are sacrificed. The hidden artillery has robbed them of victory; for in this trench warfare neither side conquers.
In the rear trench we shiver through the long days and night ; some of us have lost our brothers and comrades ; we curse the war and the folly of the men who make it. “Why were we born ?’’ I have heard men say.
Some get “trench feet” : others contract “trench fever’’ and scabies; some begin to develop pneumonia and consumption. We lean against the side of the trench, our teeth a-chatter, and try to sleep, when suddenly a gong rings, for a gas attack has been launched. We hastily don our gas helmets and “stand to" .
'The enemy trench mortars are throwing devilish bombs. We reply, dealing death and destruction to the unseen foe. . . .
At last we are going to be relieved, and another regiment is to take our place We begin slowly to thread our way through the communication trench. A sergeant reads the roll: to many names there is no reply. The remnants reach the road behind the trenches. It is pitch dark and the rain is falling in torrents. Most of us are limping, and some have taken off their boots. We are caked in mud from head to foot. There is no music now, no “glory of war,” no cheering crowds. We are but the human fuel that feeds the engine of Armageddon. On, on we stagger back to camp. Some relieve their emotions by weeping. The man next to me is kissing the image of Christ on his rosary, the officers are silent ; too weak and worn even to give orders. . . .
There are no cheers now when we pass other regiments going up to the trenches, as there were in the early days of the war. We look at each other and say, “Poor devils! God help them.’’
As day advances we reach the camp. Worn out and aching with rheumatism, we stagger to the tents and fall asleep. And in that sleep there are some who dream of a wiser age to come, when man will have learnt the truth about the “glory of war.”
We who are the victims of this carnage know that this “glory” does not exist. Would to God that the warring nations could know the same! — say I. Yes, the poor soldier is the victim all the time. There is no animosity between the fighting men. Wounded British, Germans, and French fraternise with each other, exchange cigarettes, and sympathise with the others’ wounds and pains. I have seen German prisoners walking arm-in-arm with our soldiers.
“Going into action”! Yes, let us go into action, but not to slay and torture, but to build up a happier and brighter world redeemed from the folly and brutality of war.
II. THE CASUALTY STATION.
We sat in our dug-out reading a fragment of an old newspaper; it contained a vivid description of a casualty station written by a well-known newspaper owner. In glowing phrases it told of the cheerfulness of the wounded and the laughter and happiness which prevailed in the “wards.” In short, from the description, one would really believe that men loved being torn and maimed, and that they were in a place of amusement instead of a human shamble-house which baffles description.
My chum tossed the paper to me and said: “Ye gods! that people should believe that! To think that those at home are so gulled! If they could only see a dressing or ambulance station for half an hour, such a demand for peace would be made that no Government could stop it.”
My chum was right. I will now try to describe a casualty station, but no words of mine can suffice; only a Zola or a Dickens could give even a faint description of the horrors which one sees —horrors that eat into the soul and make one wonder whether it is a hideous scene from Inferno or a reality.
Imagine a large field with about twenty marquees erected for the reception of the wounded. The bitter wind blows through the canvas, and a solemn air of death and suffering pervades the whole. (When I was there, nurses and doctors were nearly knee-deep in mud.) The never-ending stream of Red Cross motors is coming and going. The R.A.M.C. men swiftly and gently lift the stretchers from the care and take them to the reception marquee. Many of the wounded are groaning, and some are already dead. They are smothered with mud, while fear and pain are written on their pale faces. A doctor makes a hurried examination, then each case is taken to the “ward ” allotted to that class of injury. Here the wounded are stripped, their clothes thrown aside or sent to the destructor. Now the ward- doctor makes a minute examination.
The surgeons are busy in the operating tent; as case after case comes and goes, shattered legs and arms are quickly amputated. The bucket outside contains hands and feet, pieces of jaw, and the rest. I see an orderly hurrying along carrying a big white leg to the destructor, thinking nothing of this, for it is an hourly occurrence.
Have you ever seen a butcher after a day’s killing? Well, that is how the surgeons appear. They work day and night, clever, self sacrificing men, appalled at the awfulness of their duties. The nurses appear somewhat hysterical, the result of doing hours of arduous duty and bloody work. Their aprons are saturated with gore. In the wards are the mangled and the dying. Many cases are too awful for operation, and nothing can be done to relieve them, so the orderly injects morphia and the poor wretches pass quietly away.
A priest is in attendance; sometimes his words console the one passing hence; but I, who have seen many men die, say unhesitatingly that, instead of dying gladly (as the corrupt Press declares), they do so with appalling regret, feeling inwardly that cruel war is wrong, and that they ought not to die so young.
But the ambulance train has arrived to take the sufferers to England. The most dangerous cases are placed on the train first. What a sigh of relief is given as they know that they are going to “Blighty”—away from the infernal scenes of carnage and slaughter! Now the train is nearly full of “lying cases,” and the sitting cases come next An orderly is leading some men—they are blind; and here are some men apparently unharmed—what is the matter with them? They are deaf and dumb from shellshock. Next come the insane—they are strongly guarded and locked up in a special compartment. Some are shouting and raving—it is nothing, only war!
A blast from the whistle and the train is off. Doctors and nurses give a sigh of relief, but it is of short duration, for'“gas cases” are arriving in the hospital. The poor wretches are propped up in the open air; they are struggling and gasping for breath. Some are already turning blue as the muceous fluid slowly rises in the lungs and chokes them. Some are dead and fall over with faces distorted and hands clenched in their awful struggle. . . .
In a field at the back the dead are lying; they, are clad in their shirts with a blanket thrown over them. Let us pull aside the blanket and look! The first has no face—a big blob of wadding hides the mangled features. The next is white as marble—he has bled to death. 'The next has been shot through the brain; it took him three days to die, poor chap, and he was conscious to the end. How tenacious some are of life!
The “sanitary men” are busy tying up the corpses, whose shroud is a blanket and a bit of string. A few handfuls of chloride of lime are thrown over the naked bodies, and sometimes in the mouths. The sanitary men work in silence, they are so horrified and appalled: see! that young man’s hair is going white, and there is a strange look in his eyes.
The corpses are pulled about as the slaughter-man pulls his dead sheep. There are post-mortem examinations on some of them, and for this purpose intestines and pieces of lung are in a bucket outside a tent, so that the young surgeons may get good practice.
The dead are now ready for burying. Four old French peasants are digging graves. There is not time to dig them very deep, and they fill with water at once. Quickly the corpses are dropped in the water as the parson reads a few words from the Burial Service and the wet earth is thrown in.
As we go back to the hospital the night is made hideous with the groans and shrieks of men in agony. Sleep is often impossible, and sometimes I have been awake all night hearing the awful cries of these poor men. Many are passing away, and as dawn begins to break a silence reigns from which we know that these mud-stained, weary warriors have passed into the Great Beyond.
And so it goes on, day after day, week after week, the never-ending stream of maimed and mangled bodies. Strong, happy, smiling men are knocked into bundles of bloody rags!
Yes, the Press and politicians may talk of the “glory of war,” but the casualty stations tell the true tale. And when that wealthy newspaper owner writes about the wounded, let him tell the real truth, and not deceive the public with cruel lies, which help to lengthen the war and thus bring death and indescribable suffering to thousands.
This is what we in the trenches think!