Richard Aldington: It was a war of missiles, murderous and soul-shaking explosives, like living in the graveyard of the world
From Death of a Hero (1929)
He found that the real soldiers, the front-line troops, had had no more delusions about the War than he had. They hadn’t his feelings of protest and agony over it all, they hadn’t tried to think it out. They went on with the business, hating it, because they had been told it had to be done and believed what they had been told. They wanted the War to end, they wanted to get away from it, and they had no feeling of hatred for their enemies on the other side of No Man’s Land. In fact, they were almost sympathetic to them. They also were soldiers, men segregated from the world in this immense barbaric tumult. The fighting was so impersonal as a rule that it seemed rather a conflict with dreadful hostile forces of Nature than with other men. You did not see the men who fired the ceaseless hail of shells on you, nor the machine-gunners who swept away twenty men to death in one zip of their murderous bullets, nor the hands which projected trench-mortars that shook the earth with awful detonations, nor even the invisible sniper who picked you off mysteriously with the sudden impersonal “ping!” of his bullet. Even in the perpetual trench raids, you only caught a glimpse of a few differently-shaped helmets a couple of traverses away; and either their bombs got you, or yours got them. Actual hand-to-hand fighting occurred, but it was comparatively rare. It was a war of missiles, murderous and soul-shaking explosives, not a war of hand-weapons.
But what were they really against? who were their real enemies? He saw the answer with a flood of bitterness and clarity. Their enemies – the enemies of German and English alike – were the fools who sent them to kill each other instead of help each other. Their enemies were the sneaks and the unscrupulous; the false ideals, the unintelligent ideas imposed on them, the humbug, the hypocrisy, the stupidity…Maybe he was all wrong, maybe it was “right” for men to be begotten only to murder each other in huge, senseless combats. He wondered if he were not getting a little insane through this persistent brooding over the murders, by striving so desperately and earnestly to find out why it had happened, by agonising over it all, by trying to think how it could be prevented from occurring again. After all, did it matter so much? Yes, did it matter? What were a few million human animals more or less? Why agonise about it? The most he could do was die. Well, die, then. But O God! O God! is that all? To be born against your will, to feel that life might in its passing be so lovely and so divine, and yet to have nothing but opposition and betrayal and hatred and death forced on you! To be born for the slaughter like a calf or a pig! To be violently cast back into nothing – for what? My God! for what? Is there nothing but despair and death? Is life vain, beauty vain, love vain, hope vain? “The war to end all wars!” Is anyone so asinine as to believe that? A war to breed wars, rather…
The company were billeted in the ruins of a village behind the reserve trenches, over a mile from the front line. The landscape was flat, almost treeless except for a few shell-blasted stumps, and covered with snow frozen hard. Every building in sight had been smashed, in many cases almost level with the ground. It was a mining country with great queer hills of slag and strange pit-head machinery in steel, reduced by shell-fire to huge masses of twisting rusting metal. They were in a salient, with the half-destroyed, evacuated town of M- in the elbow-crook on the extreme right. The village churchyard was filled with graves of French soldiers; there were graves inside any of the houses which had no cellars, and graves flourished over the bare landscape. In all directions were crosses, little wooden crosses, in ones and twos and threes, emerging blackly from the frozen snow. Some were already askew; one just outside the ruined village had been snapped short by a shell-burst. The dead men’s caps, mouldering and falling to pieces, were hooked on to the tops of the crosses – the German grey round cap, the French blue-and-red kepi, the English khaki. There were also two large British cemeteries in sight – rectangular plantations of wooden crosses. It was like living in the graveyard of the world – dead trees, dead houses, dead mines, dead villages, dead men…