Ernest Poole: War was the fashion. War was a pageant, a thing of romance.
From Blind (1920)
A small fortune had been spent on her dress, her health, her complexion, her “breeding,” her “simplicity.” She had “come out” the year before. But how different from the debutantes with whom I had danced ten years ago! For Louise like her mother was “in the war” and could talk or think of nothing else. Enthusiastic workers for various ultra-fashionable pro-Ally organizations, they had taken the war ardently into their small glittering world and there had made it glitter, too. War was the fashion. War was a pageant, a thing of romance, of titles, decorations, uniforms of many kinds and national costumes for bazaars. What had they to do with the poor dirty devils I had seen in the mud of the trenches, or gasping their lives away on rough cots? What did these women really know? They loved to hear of atrocities, if committed by “the Bodies”; but when in reaction against their talk I started in to tell them of the Galician peasant whose feet had been frozen and cut off, Aunt Fanny interrupted.
“I hope you are not planning to publish such stories, Larry,” she said. “They may do a great deal of harm – refuse sympathy for the German side. It’s perfectly senseless to attempt to make any distinction whatever between the German government and the German people,” she went on decisively. “It’s the German people – every single one of them – who are killing those poor boys in France!”
“For my part,” cried young Louise, “I’ll never speak to a German again! I wish they were all wiped off the earth – every man and woman and child!” I said I did not feel that way. “Why not?” Louise demanded. Then they tried to make me confirm the hideous things they knew to be true about the people in Germany. And when in my answers I refused fully to satisfy their demands, and in my obstinate mood that night I even went on to mention all the good points I could think of in the German nation, I could see them give me up. Obviously I was a “pro-German” – another disgrace to the family name.
“I was wrong in what I said before. War is sheer murder,” he declared. “And the very worst of it is its disguise, its camouflage – all the splendid elements that hide what it really is! You draw far away and you look back and you can see it is only blood – but when you are there, your very mind is blinded by the flashes – flashes from the souls of men – flashes from the soul of war! And yet it is false and it is wrong!”
The beds looked like so many gray ghosts. Out of them, with uncanny effect, the legs and arms that were in slings pointed up into the dark. The place was motionless and still, except for deep rough breathings and occasional moaning cries. From a bed back under the gallery came a monotonous pleading voice. “Schwester,” it kept saying. “Schwester, Schwester, Schwester.” Suddenly out of the shadows burst a savage beast-like scream. I saw the dim white figure of the nurse as she went to the bed. Then morphine and then silence. A lung-shot case began to cough blood. It was a long bubbling horrible cough, and he kept it up at intervals. From another corner presently came a sudden shout of “Charge!” Then came another: “Die Lazaret!” And in a moment the place was bedlam. I heard the most infernal shrieks. Men suddenly jumped up in bed crying, “Die Russlander !” Others yelled, “Hurrah! Hurrah!” This lasted for some minutes. By degrees they quieted down; but out of the silence came a sound that made me lean out of the box. On a bed directly under me lay a sleeper tensely whispering. Abruptly it stopped and in his dream he gave a quick delighted laugh. Again the whispering went on.
And listening there, I got startling hints of the vast and dazzling feverish universe of dreamland that was hovering every night over thirty million fighting men – not only dreams of horror but human, comic, intimate dreams, compounded of the memories, the inner thoughts, desires, passions, hopes and schemes of these tiny atoms caught into the storm. I thought of four thousand hospitals like this scattered over Germany, and of other hospitals in Austria, Russia, England and France, and of the men by millions who lay on their backs and silently stared at bare ceilings and at walls, at flags and wreaths and garlands, and at the huge red cross of Christ. And I wondered what they thought about war. What would they say to their wives at home and what would they teach to their children? Would they say, like that tall smiling boy who had run away from school, “War is very good for us” – or would they, like the silent man who had lain for ten weeks dying, shake their fists at the powers that be, and cry, “We are tired! Leave us alone!”