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G B Manwaring.

If we return; letters of a soldier of Kitchener's army online

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IF WE RETURN



IF WE RETURN

LETTERS OF A SOLDIER
OF KITCHENER'S ARMY
By G. B. MANWARING



London : JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEAD
. New York : JOHN LANE COMPANY MCMXVIII



PREFATORY NOTE

^T^HE letters of which this volume con-
■^ sists were written by a young officer of
Kitchener's Army, without any thought or
intention of their publication. No attempt
has been made to edit, alter or revise them,
and except for the omission of a few sen-
tences, mainly of purely personal interest,
they are printed in the form in which they
were received.

Such merit as they may possess lies in
the fact that they are, what they appear
to be, hurriedly noted records of thoughts
and impressions written from various parts
of France — from the Base, Rest Billets,
Reserve Line, Front Line, Casualty Clearing
Station and Hospital.

The period extends over the summer and ;
autumn of 1917. The precise dates of the^
letters are omitted.

The title of the book is taken from a
rondeau by Lieut. F. W. Harvey of the
Gloucestershire Regiment.

At the date of publication the author was
still on active service abroad, and had no
opportunity of revising the proofs.



IF WE RETURN



I

A S far as possible, in my letters, I will
try to give you my impressions of
the War as they strike me.

My great impression of to-day is the
casual way, or apparently casual way, in
which men set out to the great game of
war — amused and slightly bored — that,
and the smiling faces of the few English
girls who saw them off. My train went
second, and as they turned away, tears
sprang to their eyes, which they were too
proud to wipe away, and with heads high
they walked away. England is a good
country to live for, and a good country to
die for.

As England vanished in the mists and
smoke one realised how dear it all is, and
the utter longing for peace flooded one's
soul. How we shall appreciate it all when
we get back !



IF WE RETURN



And the contrast from last night to this ;
from a well-cooked dinner to some beans
and half-cold meat, eaten with a tin knife
and fork at the oilcloth-covered table of
a Salvation Army Hut ! From the com-
forts of civilisation to the rough life here !
And yet somehow though one loses the
comforts, one also loses the disadvantages,
the pettiness and crudeness of a mammon-
loving people. Though I've only been
here a few hours I see the change (more
marked perhaps since I am among colonials ;
Australians lunched with me and Canadians
share my tent). Here one gets a wider
outlook with vast spaces around one, and
equality. Here one has a taste of what
Empire means. In the next enclosures
Indians of varied Castes look with strange
wonder on English, Colonial, Scotch, Irish,
Belgian, American, French. Truly a
brotherhood of nations, and one wonders
if Tennyson's dream is at hand, and we
shall see '' in the Parliament of man, the
Federation of the world."

Speaking of Locksley Hall puts me in



IF WE RETURN



mind of this morning's raid. I hope you
escaped all right.

Evening is drawing in, and as we have
no lights I must close. Fll write when I
can, but not regularly at stated times, for
then should a pause come you might think
that something was wrong.

It isn't easy to go away from all one
loves, but I go gladly, for here is a chance
to answer Browning's question, '' How
can I help England? "



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*II

TX7ELL, here I am at the Base ; you'd
hardly beUeve it, but it took seven
hours to get here, about twenty-five miles.
There's not much news, but I thought
you'd like a letter. This is not a wildly

exciting place. K is stationed here,

also D who was at Haileybury with

me, one or two familiar faces about, but
otherwise nothing of interest. The thing
that strikes one most in France is the
quantity of black. I know that it is worn
much more than in England, but it is a
depressing sight. Why do people, especi-
ally widows, parade their grief and depress
others in this way ? — to grieve, I suppose, is
human, but not this show. And the little
children, too — it's too bad. The weather,
too, is rotten, cold and damp — ^more like
November than July. No more now.



IF WE RETURN



I



III



HAVE been posted to the



- Batt.,
I shall



so look out in the Gazette,
stay here probably till the end of next
week.

The life here is distinctly good, in its
own strange way, enough work to fill your
day, 7.30 a.m. to 5 p.m., though some-
times, such as to-night for example, one
is at it from 5.45 p.m. to 12 noon; but in
those cases the rest of the afternoons both
before and after is one's own. This after-
noon I am going into , about four miles

away, where I dined last night. There's
a splendid spirit of comradeship and opti-
mism. The general feeling here puts the
end of hostilities much earlier than I do,



8 IF WE RETURN

but then one never knows, one can only
pray for the best. I have a strange feeUng
that I shall see you much sooner than any
of us think.

My love to you all.



IF WE RETURN



IV

TI7ITH all its privations and little
hardships, which, after all, are
nothing to speak of, I like this life. I am
getting fitter and browner day by day.
What are the privations? To live in the
open? Surely not in the semi-tropical
sunshine — just to march about under a
broiling sun, carrying more weight than
is comfortable and to wear always a tin
hat ! That, and the chafe of having rules
and regulations. Here one takes life at
its true value; wealth loses its significance
and health becomes one's primary asset.
A corn, a touch of pain, count as a loss of
money. Behind is the wealth of civilisa-
tion, in front the nameless quality of war.
Surely we who come back will do so with
new standards and new ideals, and so the
countless sacrifice will not have been in



10 IF WE RETURN

vain. And to those who don't return,
what after all are ten, twenty, thirty, even
forty years off a man's life viewed in the
light of all eternity? Just one drop in
the ocean, just the loss of so much pleasure,
so much pain, just the chance to atone,
'' Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad
life's arrears of pain, darkness and cold."
How strange it is to think that after all one
is fighting for the freedom of one's enemies.
All night long the guns boom out up the
line not many miles away, and all night
long train after train takes its load to the
railheads. Death and destruction for the
freedom of those to whom we are dealing
it out !

'' To-day's needs," as they say in St.
James's Street, a portable drinking cup,
a tin of Eno's, oil to keep flies off, and a
fly strafer.

The work here is naturally hard, gener-
ally 7.30 to 4 p.m., but one gets whole
afternoons and even days off, and then to
the coast to bathe, and imagine that one
is just here for a summer holiday. The



I



IF WE RETURN ii

other afternoon I spent on the dock side;
it was a revelation and an education. Men
from Fiji, China, Japan, Soudan, India,
Burmah, New Zealand, Australia, Canada,
Belgium, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales,
U.S.A., Portugal, and prisoners from
Germany and Austria, French Colonials
from Algiers — all working away as units
in the mighty mechanism that can take
a heavy gun from a ship and have it
pouring shells into the German lines just
a few hours after. Truly the British
Nation is one of the wonders of the world.
Another thing, fancy cakes and tarts
for tea ; excuse the bathos, but these letters
are just impressions to serve me as re-
minders when Peace comes. One learns
instinctively to use the capital P. It
seems so distant and so sacred, the idea of
Peace again.



12 IF WE RETURN



V

npO be in the Army in France in 1917
is a privilege that one ought to be
very thankful for, not the patriotic privi-
lege of being allowed to pay back a little
of one's debt to civilisation, nor that of the
gift of perfect health which is our lot out
here, but an intellectual privilege of an
education, a broadening of outlook for
those who care to use it. Yesterday, I
spent the day at a French Watering Place,
and saw the reality of the Entente Cordiale.
Take one example; there was a party of
two ladies in deep black — the tragically
predominant colour out here — two girls
of about twenty, children and two ser-



IF WE RETURN 13

geants of England, all at play together;
and this was typical all over the beach.
Tommies of all nationalities, but especially
English, mixed freely with the native
pleasure-seekers, speaking that strange
language of French and English and uni-
versal international slang which is current
out here. Coinage of any nation and any
value is current in this cosmopolitan place.
What a change war has made, apart from
the international upheaval and the ming-
ling of races of which I wrote before : one
sees these English Tommies who probably
never left their native village and to whom
life was bounded by the village pastures, and
thought by the chatter of the village pub ;
one can see these same men swaggering
about perfectly at home in Continental
towns; talking of London and Paris; sit-
ting in Cafes or Estaminets hearing stories
of the world from those who have been
pioneers in strange lands, citizens of strange
cities, and one wonders what will be the
end, the great result ! When Peace comes
how will these men, steeled by the horror



14 IF WE RETURN

of war, tempered by the close familiarity
of death in its most gruesome form, whose
minds have been broadened to an extent
unrealised before, how will these men
treat life in the village pub again? How
many of those who have tasted the joys
of free life and fresh air, who have dabbled
in the great passions of the world, in love
and lust, in hunger, thirst and war, '' where
life means strife and strife means knife,''
how will they take it all again ? Must not
the very foundations of our social life be
uprooted — our ideas shattered and rebuilt
— I wonder !

Another side of the pathos of war came
home to me last night, as I lay in my blan-
kets on the tent floor. Two men were
talking outside, one due for dear old
England to-day, being asked by the other
to go to Tottenham Court Road to find a
certain squalid court and ask for his mother
as he had not heard from her for three
months, and although the other knew that
it meant a day wasted, he promised gladly.
Thank God for comradeship ! Letters mean



IF WE RETURN



15



a lot out here, the coming of the EngUsh
mail is a great event. Well, no more now ;
I am too busy to read this through or make
corrections.
My love to all.



i6 IF WE RETURN



VI

TX7HAT a waste of opportunity ! Were
the men only here who have the
gift of letters what a wealth of literature
might result ! But we, whose aim in life
is training, and to whom other things are
secondary, have no time to hunt for words
and phrases, no time to balance sentences
or polish off our prose; at most we can
but hastily jot down a few of the thoughts
and impressions that remain with us till
the evening brings us an hour or two of
ease.

It would seem as though most of those
who come over here have a dual person-
ality, a dream-life and a real one. To
some the life of England is the dim and
half-remembered dream; now lost, now
flashing with startling vividness on the
'' inner eye '' ; to them the war is the real



IF WE RETURN 17

life, and on the whole they are the happier,
I think. To others, the life that lies
behind is the real, while that of to-day is
a dream, often a nightmare, but a dream
from which we shall awake some day.
Many a time here I have found myself
wondering if this or that is really happen-
ing, and if I were real. I feel as though
my real self were sleeping in that England
I love so much. Were it not for this
should we be as contented, I wonder?
There is an extraordinary freemasonry of
districts here, men claiming each other as
comrades from the same districts, either
by their badges, or more often by their
speech. But the greatest brotherhood I
have found is that of Lancashire. In the

Regiment, any private may speak to

any officer of any of its battalions, and yet
with it aU there's no lack of discipline.
I've found the stiff est unbend and the most
stand-offish thaw because they and I claim
the same home county. That is a great
step onward, for others now are following
the lead.




i8 IF WE RETURN

Men say that Religion has failed. I
think not, but rather just as life has been
shorn of its falseness, its petty tyrannies
— so religion is being stripped of its creeds
and dogmas, and man is learning in all
things to grasp essentials. Here one sees
men up against the big things of life, and
yet touched by a simple faith that would
put many a so-called Christian to shame.
One sees half-shy soldiers quietly slip into
some church as though to look round, and
yet if one watches them one finds more
than that. I am not saying that this is
universal, but probe deep enough below
the surface of everyday life and it is there.
The age of chivalry is not dead nor nearly
so. Some day I may tell you of the great
unselfishness of life.

What a pathetic picture a war cemetery
is — just its rows of little crosses, some of
stone, some of wood — most just bearing
a name, and some that best epitaph of all,
'' Here lies an English Soldier." One won-
ders what motives moved the minds of
those who lie so peacefully in this '^ Norman



I



IF WE RETURN 19

country-side '' to come here. To some
perhaps death came as the great release,
to others as the greatest sacrifice. Many
came seeking glory and found it. And
surely these must have found atonement,
whatever their lives may have been. And
on the last great Judgment Day, surely
the testimony of the cross of sacrifice shall
outweigh the damning chain of evidence
against them, and in a new kingdom
they shall be as little children once
again.

Many of those who survive will not go
back again, for I have found many who
mean to make this new land of France
their home. Some starting afresh, others
marrying French girls, and all cementing
this bond of union to which each day adds
a link in the chain that binds England and
France together.

There is another side of the war, how-
ever, a side of which no one thinks or speaks
save under pressure, a side that needs
no notes nor letters to recall it to one's
memory.



20 IF WE RETURN

" And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of man
Ever should look upon."

And in case I, too, cannot speak of it when
I face it, let me write just a little of it now,
not with any idea of shocking you, but so
that this record may be as complete as
possible. I could write for hours on the
stories that I have gleaned, stories I know
to be true, for men who remember and
speak do not exaggerate. But one will
suffice

One of the best characteristics of the
British soldier is his unfailing love of
children, and it does one's heart good to
watch them at play on the beach, or in
the gardens of French cottages. A man
who loves children can't go far wrong.

Love to you all.



IF WE RETURN 21




I

■ bu



VII



T JOIN the Front Line within the next
forty-eight hours. I have often won-
dered what one's feehngs would be when
ordered to take one's place at the front, but
orders last night left me cold. Beyond a
vague curiosity regarding new experiences
which lie in front of me, I seem to Have
fallen into that state of semi-coma that is
typical out here. Curiosity, expectation
and hope, these in a mild form are there,
but little else.

What an insight into human nature a
y in the Censor's office gives one. Here
one touches as it were upon the fringe of
human emotion, one reads the thoughts of
those with whom one would never come
in contact. One sees the crude philosophy
of lives removed by social barriers from
one's own — one sees and one marvels.



22 IF WE RETURN

Naturally such revelations are confidential
and must be treated as such, but the
educational value remains just the same.
Just as the Cinema has, in a way, revealed
the dramatic ' powers of the race, so such
letters reveal in a startling way its litera-
ture. Naturally such are but as embryos,
but they lie dormant there all the same,
only waiting for the chance of a training,
to find expression. The golden age of
literature and drama is not past — for it
has yet to come.

To-day I have seen the social side of
war — at a Fete, which comprised sports,
a horse-show and an aviation meeting.
I saw people of all classes and many races
mingling. My one regret is that so few real
impressions stand out from the throng, but
perhaps in the future these may sort them-
selves out. Above all, I saw the soul of the
people rise triumphant above the horrors
of war. I saw those who had faced it,
and those who were yet to do so, mingling
with women who had given their all, and
yet cheerfulness was the predominant



IF WE RETURN 23

note. And now I know what Tennyson
means —

'' A people's voice ! We are a people yet. . . .
We have a voice with which to pay the debt
Of boundless love, and reverence and regret,
To those great men who fought and kept it ours,
And keep it ours, O God, from brute control.
O Statesmen, guard us, guard the eye, the soul
Of Europe."

There can be no peace till that is assured.
I saw, too, how in physique the people of
that island race of ours stand out above
the other races, and I realised once again
our gifts and our responsibility. . There,
too, I saw men masters of the animal
world, and, if one may say so, of the air,
for I saw horses mastered by men, and
machines that copied each detail of the
tumbler pigeon's art. Never shall I cease
to be thankful for that chain of circum-
stances which made me a spectator and
will make me an actor in the greatest drama
of the human race. For we stand on the
eve of great events, and more than we
dream of may hang on what the next
few months may bring forth. A strange



r



24 IF WE RETURN

picture — outside the gaudy, happy throng
with bands playing and all the pageantry
of a martial peace — inside music and laugh-
ter, and yet one knows that were all these
suddenly stilled, out of the eastern distance
would come the boom of guns.

At times such as last night war comes
nearer, for every now and then an enemy
machine finds its way here, and I lay in
my tent watching the flashes of guns and
listening to the patter of shrapnel as it
fell around.

Send me, please, a small Browning and
a small Tennyson, for literature will be
a great help in the life that lies ahead.



IF WE RETURN 25



VIII

npRAVELLING in France these days is
slow, and not always sure; that is,
one is not sure of anything. We set out
yesterday at noon, armed with three and
a half days' rations, to reach a destination
known as '' The Front/' We were very
lucky at first, our train being only two
hours late — this would never do, so they
managed to put in another three-quarters
of an hour before starting, only to stop
again in fifty yards. We then rather
created a record by going seventeen miles
without a stop (when it did come they
chose a tunnel for the purpose). Off again
till we came to a place where many lines
run side by side. We were then only
four hours behind time, so we put in an



26 IF WE RETURN

hour and three-quarter's stop where we
had '' tea '' ! Do you know how to make
tea, I wonder? Take enough of the tea
mixture (suppUed by the Army, consisting
roughly of five parts of moist sugar to two
of inferior tea) to cover the bottom of a
mess tin, then walk to the front of the
train; this is generally about 700 yards
away, since one is sure to be in the last
carriage (that is an advantage when the
engine falls off the line, for one can't be
expected to help to put it on — ^but as a
rule this only happens about twice a week),
then in your best French ask the driver
for some hot water. If successful in your
request, a blast of steam suddenly issues
from an unexpected quarter in the side of
the engine, shortly followed by a fountain
of hot, if slightly brackish water. Suspend
the tin by a handkerchief under this, and
after leaving it for a few minutes to '' draw,''
one's tea is ready. The more fortunate
ones soak an old condensed milk tin in the
stew to obtain cream, If one doesn't take
sugar one is done.



IF WE RETURN 27

Notes for beginners — Engines of other
trains though nearer should be avoided,
as although not fast, even troop trains
require catching and a tin of hot '' tea " is
a handicap.

In travelling, unless one knows the line,
avoid travelling on the roof or footboard,
for the roof of a tunnel is often low, and
the signals give little clearance.

About eight o'clock, having travelled
nearly forty miles, we arrived at our rest
camp, and stored our baggage. There was
nearly a casualty from gassing, as our kit
had come in a manure truck. Hot baths,
dentists, and chiropodists have filled my
day — for civilisation has been reached and
I look forward to a five-course dinner !
I've been here before.



28 IF WE RETURN



IX

npO-DAY IVe been exploring. There is
a tram here not unhke the Laxey
trams, and in this I set out. We soon left
the squalid outskirts of the town behind,
and travelled along one of those long,
uninterestingly straight roads that are
characteristic of France. Soon, however,
we left this and swung into the cool depths
of the forest that lies between us and a
watering-place that nestles amid the sand
dunes on this northern coast of France.
Here the track left the road and ran in
one of those sunken weed-grown tracks
side by side with it and yet apart. Here,
too, the road twists and turns and one can
picture oneself back in England once again.
The forest keeps alternating in character,
now a tangle of dense undergrowth, now



IF WE RETURN 29

pines rising from a carpet of pine needles,
and beyond, the blue and silver flash of
the distant sea. As we swung round the
last bend a wave of home-love rushed
through me, so home-like was the picture.
The same sand-dunes with the same coarse
grass and shrubs and in the distance the
red and blue of the sea-side town, and the
sweet, fresh smell of the sea. It might

have been from the golf-links, or

as one sees it first from the train, only the
buildings are more picturesque, the roads
narrower and half paved, but one looks in
vain for gardens and for lawns. From
here one sees straight up the Channel, and
the smoke of unseen steamers hangs heavy
in the air — steamers plying to and fro in
that marvellous service, that all the in-
genuity of Germany as yet has failed to
stir. From this I came back to the
dentist, and here again I was moved to
wonder at the thoroughness of the organ-
isation as our wonderful army goes to
war.

Last evening I walked up the hills to



30 IF WE RETURN

one of those gigantic hospitals that are
springing up all over France. It was a
wonderful sight, a mass of laid-out gardens
and comfort for the broken soldiers, here
amid the pine-clad dunes. A perfect
evening with the afterglow of sunset still
in the western sky reflected in a hundred
pools of colour in the sea below. Here as
one looked down, the lights of the vast
camp began to twinkle, and one could
catch, now the sound of some band, now
the shrill notes of the bagpipes or the
softened notes of a bugle call. A sight
to move one to pity when one thought of
the reason for it all.

I have nothing to do these days, save
just to wait and wait for orders, which
never seem to come, and of all the war,
waiting is the most trying game. Give
me the release of action rather than the
vegetation of expectancy. Do my letters
change much? I suppose they vary with
my moods, for I write just what comes
into my head, and sometimes I find my
pen rambling on and on, trying to keep



IF WE RETURN 31

pace with thoughts that flash across my
brain, and yet I am not conscious of any
action, any impulse — thoughts seem to
come uncalled for, and a few of them find
their way somehow on to paper. Truly
this is a dream life.

I have learnt to look forward to dreams,
for nearly every night they carry me back
to the land of yesterday, or to the kingdom
of the future. Here I meet old friends in
strange surroundings, and yet vividly real.
Here, too, from time to time, I seem to
meet friends I have never made — shall I
meet them and know them somewhere?
I wonder.

You see I get no letters now, as no one
knows where I am — here to-day — gone


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