Ernest Poole: Apply for death certificates here. War’s house of death.
From Blind (1920)
“But for every atrocity there are probably fifty such stories that start.”
“But even if most of them are lies,” my cousin answered passionately, “don’t you see the hideous harm they do? This boy, for example, he tells them – tells them everywhere he goes! And thousands of others do the same – in Germany, France and England, too! In every village, every hut, such hideous things are being told – and being told to children – making their small hands grow cold and icy as they feel that the world is full of monsters – fiends – called Cossacks, Frenchmen, Germans, Bodies – enemies – to be stamped under foot! That’s the hideous part of this war!” she breathed.
I noticed how tired and strained she was. I proposed that we go to a concert that night, and she shot a grateful look of relief.
“Oh, Larry dear, let’s go !” she exclaimed. We got a paper and looked up the evening’s list of entertainments. “Here it is – a symphony concert in Beethoven Hall.” We took a taxi and set out. It was still raining. As we passed along Unter den Linden, we heard the cry, “Ein Luffschiff!” And looking up we saw a dark phantom with spectral eyes of red and green drift by under the stars above. On a dark side street we stopped to make way for two or three hundred recruits, in citizens’ clothes with satchels and boxes, heavy boots strung over their shoulders. They made me think of the little crowd of volunteers in London. But Dorothy was not thinking of that. The street was empty except for a girl. Holding an umbrella over the baby in her arms, she hurried along beside one of the men. I caught a glimpse of her face as she passed, and she looked terribly alone. Then I felt Dorothy’s clutch on my arm, and it was as though she were saying sharply:
“That is why I won’t have a child !”
“It’s hard for you to realize,” she said to me after a little, “how such hatred can arise. You don’t know how it feels to keep hearing every day and every night of more friends and relatives killed! You have no idea of the strain of it all!”
And to give me an idea of that, she took me the next afternoon to a large building of red brick which had once been the War Academy. As we climbed the broad stone stairs inside, a stout middle-aged woman was coming down, supported by two others. She was sobbing; her face was a fiery red. On the floor above was a lofty chamber with lead colored columns at either end and pictures of Prussian heroes upon the walls and ceiling; and though this place was crowded, all was strangely hushed and still. Upon a placard on one wall was written in heavy letters, “Walk softly and speak low.” In the center of the hall was a semi-circular counter, behind which sat many elderly clerks, most of them in black frock suits – they looked like undertakers. And facing this counter in rows of chairs, several hundred men and women, tense and silent, motionless, as though at some gripping tragedy, sat watching a great red curtain, which was restless, never still. Every few moments it leaped apart, as a messenger came quickly through. Then a name would be called out, and some man or woman would jump up and go to the counter – would stand there rigid, listening. Here Germany learned of her dead.
Forty-five hundred hospitals reported to this place each week, pouring in the details which in scores of rooms men and girls by hundreds, writing and typewriting, copying, comparing, checking, classifying, with Prussian precision were building up into neat typewritten little tales, which on post cards every day were sent out by the thousands to German towns and villages.
As we left this clearing house of death, along a dim lit hallway we found a group of motionless women sitting on chairs in front of a door. Over it I read the sign, “Apply for death certificates here.” Out of doors, a huge bright moon hung just over the end of the street. And by its light, on the wall outside, I saw a long narrow band of white made up of newspaper pages, where in thousands of columns of solid type were the names of the wounded, the missing, the dead. And almost imperceptibly moving along this band of white were dark figures, men and women – slowly searching – page by page.
A little after midnight we went into a bomb-proof tinder the barn, where a couple of old mattresses had been spread for us on the floor; and I lay for hours listening to the rifles and machine guns that sounded like steel riveters on the high buildings of New York. What was it they were building here? Half waking and half sleeping, the images of what I had seen kept rising pell mell in my dreams, and confusedly I grappled for some meaning in it all. But things looked black to me that night. If war were hell and nothing else, one might have hoped that in sheer disgust men would learn their lesson and this struggle would be the last. But I saw little hope of this disgust – for I had seen what Max had called the flashes from the soul of war, its iron grip on the souls of men. Millions of them would forget the dreariness, the weariness, the icy mud, the stinking death, and in after years would remember only the glory and the thrills. Such men would not want disarmament.
“And who are you,” a great voice asked, “to talk to these men of my ugliness? What have you in your little life ever known that can call to men as I call, pulling them out of their creeds and greeds to give up their lives by the millions, to shake the entire civilized world? There are many shams, many idols of peace, that will come down before I am through. You will have to be sure of what you believe before you can stand against me – sure as you never were before. For things are going to crash, these days, and the world is going to be reborn.”
“Before the war,” he told me, “I was a man with one idea – to stop the waste of human life. But what a ruthless world it was. It was over there in your mines and mills that I learned to know the deadly work of the gases we are using now. Your countrymen are indignant now, but then they did not seem to care how many thousands were choked to death – and for me the world of peace became a dark jungle of complications. So war was like a dazzling flash, and its stark simplicity blinded me. Here almost in a moment was a world on a higher plane – men lifted out of their selfish lives. But now I am changed. In a year I have seen too much of its horror, the ruin and havoc in humble homes, the unscrupulous scheming in the high places. There is a deep falsity in it all. It has been not food but brandy. We must get back to a world of peace – in spite of its perplexities. We must find tolerance again, and as brothers all together we must work our problems out, slow and toilsome though it be. I put my hope in Science acting through a wider and more generous education upon all the ignorant masses of humanity, upon a new generation with these hatreds left behind.
“I do not believe that the war will end in any lasting dominance by the drill-masters in Berlin, or in Paris or in London. I believe it has let loose forces which will rise against those gentlemen and throw off their despotic rule. You talk against our gas attacks – but they are only a first step in developments more startling. Let the drill-masters plan as they please. We men of science, whom they despise, are going to kill the thing they love. We shall invent such instruments for the annihilation of life, that to the blind foolish people of all countries we shall demonstrate that war is no longer possible – and so this butchery will stop….”