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John Galsworthy: “The war! The cursed war!”

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

John Galsworthy: Selections on war

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John Galsworthy
From Saint’s Progress (1919)

John Galsworthy, 1867-1933

‘The war! The cursed war!’ In the unending rows of little grey houses, in huge caravanserais, and the mansions of the great, in villas, and high slum tenements; in the government offices, and factories, and railway stations where they worked all night; in the long hospitals where they lay in rows; in the camp prisons of the interned; in bar racks, work-houses, palaces – no head, sleeping or waking, would be free of that thought: ‘The cursed war!’ A spire caught his eye, rising ghostly over the roofs. Ah! churches alone, void of the human soul, would be unconscious! But for the rest, even sleep would not free them! Here a mother would be whispering the name of her boy; there a merchant would snore and dream he was drowning, weighted with gold; and a wife would be turning to stretch out her arms to – no one; and a wounded soldier wake out of a dream trench with sweat on his brow; and a newsvendor in his garret mutter hoarsely. By thousands the bereaved would be tossing, stifling their moans; by thousands the ruined would be gazing into the dark future; and housewives struggling with sums; and soldiers sleeping like logs – for to-morrow they died; and children dreaming of them; and prostitutes lying in stale wonder at the busyness of their lives; and journalists sleeping the sleep of the just. And over them all, in the moonlight that thought ‘The cursed war!’ flapped its black wings, like an old crow! “If Christ were real,” he mused, “He’d reach that moon down, and go chalking ‘Peace’ with it on every door of every house, all over Europe. But Christ’s not real, and Hindenburg and Harmsworth are!”

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‘What humbugs we are!’ he thought: ‘To read the newspapers and the speeches you’d believe everybody thought of nothing but how to get killed for the sake of the future. Drunk on verbiage! What heads and mouths we shall all have when we wake up some fine morning with Peace shining in at the window! Ah! If only we could; and enjoy ourselves again!’

***

“How long have you been at the Front, monsieur?”

“Two years, mademoiselle. Time to go home and paint, is it not? But art – !” he shrugged his heavy round shoulders, his whole bear-like body. “A little mad,” he muttered once more. “I will tell you a story. Once in winter after I had rested a fortnight, I go back to the trenches at night, and I want some earth to fill up a hole in the ground where I was sleeping; when one has slept in a bed one becomes particular. Well, I scratch it from my parapet, and I come to something funny. I strike my briquet, and there is a Boche’s face all frozen and earthy and dead and greeny-white in the flame from my briquet.”

“Oh, no!”

“Oh! but yes, mademoiselle; true as I sit here. Very useful in the parapet – dead Boche. Once a man like me. But in the morning I could not stand him; we dug him out and buried him, and filled the hole up with other things. But there I stood in the night, and my face as close to his as this” — and he held his thick hand a foot before his face. “We talked of our homes; he had a soul, that man. ‘Il me disait des choses‘, how he had suffered; and I, too, told him my sufferings. Dear God, we know all; we shall never know more than we know out there, we others, for we are mad – nothing to speak of, but just a little, little mad. When you see us, mademoiselle, walking the streets, remember that.” And he dropped his face on to his fists again.

***

“He said, a strange thing,” murmured Noel; “that they were all a little mad.”

“He is a man of queer genius – Barra; you should see some of his earlier pictures. Mad is not quite the word, but something is loosened, is rattling round in them, they have lost proportion, they are being forced in one direction. I tell you, mademoiselle, this war is one great forcing-house; every living plant is being made to grow too fast, each quality, each passion; hate and love, intolerance and lust and avarice, courage and energy; yes, and self-sacrifice – all are being forced and forced beyond their strength, beyond the natural flow of the sap, forced till there has come a great wild luxuriant crop, and then – Psum! Presto! The change comes, and these plants will wither and rot and stink. But we who see Life in forms of Art are the only ones who feel that; and we are so few. The natural shape of things is lost. There is a mist of blood before all eyes. Men are afraid of being fair. See how we all hate not only our enemies, but those who differ from us. Look at the streets too – see how men and women rush together, how Venus reigns in this forcing-house. Is it not natural that Youth about to die should yearn for pleasure, for love, for union, before death?”

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