Authors: H. G.; A. D.; Wells Gristwood
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by H. G. Wells
The Story of the Great War is being written from a thousand points of view. It has produced, and continues to produce, a crop of wonderfully vivid and illuminating books as unprecedented as itself. A vast quantity of weed and rubbish mingles with this literature; some of it may be for a time overgrown and unrecognized. No phase in history has ever been so copiously and penetratingly recorded. A time will come when all this vast accumulation of matter will need to be revised and condensed for the use of the ordinary reader in a new age.
No one book will stand out as the whole complete story. That would be impossible of a system of events so enormous, various and many-sided. It will be necessary to group authorities and witnesses to convey any conception of so complex a catastrophe. But I imagine that in the future, when copyrights have expired and the intelligent popular publisher gets to work for his more intelligent and abundant public, there will be for the Great War, and possibly for one or two other phases of this history we are living now, collections of books and stories, little encyclopÃ¦dias of presentation, planned to give altogether something like a living many-sided view of the immense multiplex occurrence. Such groupings of books is inevitable in the days to come. It is quite possible that for a backbone, from a Whitehall point of view, the English reading student of the future will follow the vigorous informed history Mr. Winston Churchill is unfolding. There he will have, admirably done, the geographical framework, the dates and the traditional heroic picture of the national struggle. Supplementing that he will have histories by other leading figures of this or that campaign in which they played their part. Lawrence's
Revolt in the Desert
), vivid, intense, will, for example, be an inevitable associate. But it is not for me to attempt any list of âbest books' in this field. Whatever assemblage of leaders' versions we read, the history will still have something largely hollow about it until we bring in the other less eloquent side of the affair, the feelings and experiences of the directed undistinguished multitude, unwilling either to injure or be injured, caught in the machine.
That multitude has found a voice in this war, as it has never found a voice in any preceding convulsion. It is extraordinarily important for the welfare of the world that our sons and successors should hear that testimony also. Something of the quality of the common men in the war has been preserved to us in a collection of war letters from the ranks made by Mr. James Milne, and in such a book as Enid Bagnold's
Diary Without Dates
and a number of other kindred works we get the sympathetic record of other experiences of the obscure. But the million British dead have left no books behind. What they felt as they died hour by hour in the mud, or were choked horribly with gas, or relinquished their reluctant lives on the stretchers, no witness tells. But here is a book that almost tells it, and that is why I am writing to claim a place for Mr.Â Gristwood's unheroic tale of
side by side with the high enthusiastic survey of Mr. Winston Churchill. A. D. Gristwood has some very notable qualities; he writes clearly and unaffectedly and he remembers with a courageous clearness. Most of us have the trick of strangling and making away with all our more disagreeable memories; instinctively we destroy the record of how miserable we were or how afraid we were. Mr. Gristwood has had the relentless simplicity to recall things as they were; he was as nearly dead as he could be without dying, and he has smelt the stench of his own corruption. This is the story of millions of men â of millions. This is war as the man in the street will get it if it comes again. The stories the generals and statesmen tell are the stories of a small minority. If our sons read these alone they may fall under the delusion that war is a bright eventful going to and fro in London, slightly dangerous but not uncomfortable visits to the front, an occasional stimulating air-raid, vivid news of victory or defeat, which only makes us brace ourselves up more bravely â to keep the âTommies' at it. Some of us got it that way. I did for one â as it happened. But the common man's share, our sons must understand, lacked all that bright and cheerful latitude. He felt caught, he felt driven, he was tormented, he saw his fate approach him, and in the end he was mutilated or died very wretchedly. The chances for most of those who dream of the stern resistances and triumphant advances of Armageddon, if another war occurs, are a thousand to one that it is Mr.Â Gristwood's path they will be invited to follow and not Mr. Winston Churchill's. This book is a very important book therefore, in spite of its author's modest manner. It is a living page in the true history of democracy. It is a book that every boy with a taste for soldiering should be asked to read and ponder. And it is a profoundly interesting and moving book.
H. G. WELLS
âWar is the medicine of God.'
Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel. It watered a country of simple rural beauty: for long miles the stream fed lush water-meadows, where willows and alders and rushes slumbered in the sun, and cornlands and fat orchards supported a race of canny peasants. Cosy, sleepy-seeming hamlets lay scattered over the land, and among these ancient towns and villages only Amiens styled herself a City, and admitted the noisy strife of commerce. For the rest, far from the fever of life, the banks of the stream yielded lairs for patient fishermen: punts followed the tortuous channels of the river; tall rows of sentinel poplars guarded the highways of the Republic; wide dry downlands swelled between the rivers; life seemed a matter of sowing and reaping, of harvest-home and neighbourly chat over wine and syrop in the CafÃ© Delphine.
And then came 1914 and the pestilence.
It was a gloriously hot and sunny day in September. The Loamshires were in newly won trenches outside Combles. The town, or the battered husk that represented it, had fallen that morning, but the battalion was far from feeling any flush of victory. Even the unheard-of event of the French advancing past Combles in clearly visible columns of fours failed to rouse them. Every one was languid and weary and dispirited.
The trenches had been abandoned by the Germans only yesterday, and everywhere lay scattered their arms and clothing. And not only arms! Sprawling over the parapets were things in rags of grey and khaki that had once been men. As far as the clothing went nothing extraordinary was visible, but the dead men's faces were black with a multitude of flies. These indeed were the worst horror. Everywhere they found carrion and ordure, and, disturbed by the traffic of the trench, the buzzing cloud revealed raw festering flesh where once had been a happy human countenance. Fresh from such a feast, they settled on living men and shared their rations: sluggish, bloated creatures, blue and green and iridescent. Well was Beelzebub named the Prince of Flies!
Sometimes the Germans had buried their dead in the floor of the trench, where, baking in the sun, the earth had cracked into star-shaped fissures. A foot treading unwarily here sunk suddenly downwards, disturbing hundreds of white and wriggling maggots. In one place a hand with blue and swollen fingers projected helplessly from the ground. âO death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'
An order had been given that, in consolidating the trench, as soon as pick or shovel should disturb the dead, the hole should be filled in again and the earth beaten down. Often fragments of blanket or clothing gave warning, and sometimes the sudden gush of escaping gases. Not a hundred yards to the left lay Leuze Wood, captured by the battalion a fortnight ago. Little progress had been made since then, and, in so exposed a position, the dead could not always be buried. Moreover, fatigue and the indifference of desperation made their presence of little account, and thus there lay in the billows of tumbled earth a company of dead men half-buried, flung there like puppets thrown down by a child. Close to the trench a man of the Loamshires stood nearly upright, buried to the waist, his arms fast bound to his side, his glassy eyes wide open to the sky, his face stained livid yellow from the fumes of an explosion. Who he was no one knew: doubtless his dear ones were writing to him in hope and trust for his welfare: doubtless they had prayed that night for his safety. And all the time he stood there, glaring upwards as though mutely appealing from Earth to Heaven.
The carrion reek of putrefaction filled the wind. For twenty-four hours drum-fire had deafened all the world, and sleep had been a matter of dozes between hours of horror. Hostile shelling, occasional casualties, the dead weight of fatigue, the grim barrenness of what was called a âvictory,' the vista of months ahead â fear ever lying in wait to grow to panic â small wonder if these things had damped men's spirits! There had indeed been current that morning rumours of relief, promptly discountenanced by experienced cynics. (And every one who had been in France for a month was a cynic.) There were even tales of a Divisional Rest for a month, laughed to scorn even more readily.
Hence the glittering wonder of the event. To a party of men carrying petrol-tins on a water-fatigue appeared an immaculate being in red tabs. He seemed strangely out of place in that Golgotha â and yet not so out of place. âWho are you men?' âTenth Loamshires, sir.' âWhat are you doing?' âWater party, sir.' âYou don't want any water. You're relieved to-night. Go down to the “Cookers” and wait orders there. Don't take those things back â the less movement we have the better.' Thus the beneficent decree of the Dynast. Soulless plodding changed to eager haste; tongues were unloosed. A sergeant was heard to say: âThat ends the bloody Somme for us,' and in less than a minute every one was repeating the words like a hope of salvation.