Ernest Poole: The hatred rising in all men has already butchered millions and will butcher millions more!
From Blind (1920)
In the next few years, I have no doubt, there will be Cook’s tours innumerable to European battlefields; and this will be called “Seeing the War.” But the blinding-vast tornado, with the deep changes that it wrought, will really not be seen at all till a generation or two have gone and other turbulent events have taken place upon the earth. God pity the poor devils who have to write its history now.
Aunt Amelia came over for supper that night. She wanted to get the latest news and “talk it over thoroughly.” She was deeply disturbed and indignant about it. “A perfectly awful butchery, without rhyme or reason!” she declared. She spoke of the war she had seen as a girl and recounted some of the horrors – the price. That had at least been worth the price; a great ideal had been at stake. But what this terrible struggle was for she could not for the life of her make out.
“If it does come about,” she said, “there is just one thing for us to do – keep perfectly friendly to both sides and help bring peace as soon as we can. Larry,” she demanded, “what do those socialist friends of yours mean by not putting a stop to this? I should think they would be ashamed to look each other in the face! After all they have said about brotherhood – and the rights of the common people! The common people don’t want this war ”
Together we tried to picture Dorothy living in Berlin – but all Europe to our eyes went suddenly under clouds of smoke from which was heard the roar of guns. She had been such a warm blithe lovable girl, and such an intimate part of this house. It was as though the long arm of the war were suddenly reaching down into the very foundation stones of this peaceable old building, making it quiver with alarm. Gone was Aunt Amelia’s hope of our keeping friendly to both sides – for already this news had fanned into flame the vague instinctive feelings that had been in me from the start against the German side of it. I had never been to Germany – knew very little about it, in fact – but now I began to inveigh against the entire Teuton race, their pig-headed ways, their intolerance. Then noticing the anxiety in Aunt Amelia’s restless eyes, I grew grimly practical.
“The world is a bristling jungle of ‘war-lies’ in every land, and every conceivable prejudice and distortion of the facts…”
He stopped for a moment, and then in a low voice he said,
“Last week I was at Oxford, and out in front of the library on a misty moonlit night I saw a couple of hundred chaps in mufti – undergraduates – standing at ease with their cigarettes, chatting and laughing. Then I heard the order passed back, ‘No lights – no smoking – absolute silence.’ And a few moments later they went off into the mist – so quietly. It was as though they were passing out of existence.”
I never saw this man again, for in the last year of the war he was killed in Flanders.
“Tell me really what you think,” he said, with his ironic smile. “Be frank. I am no chauvinist.”
“I have seen so little,” I began.
‘You are lucky,” he interrupted. “With me it is different – I have seen! For months I have been like a man submerged in a flood of blood and hatred. It is what no man but a paranoiac could have pictured coming over the world. But it has come! The hatred rising in all men has already butchered millions and will butcher millions more! And not only that!” he cried. “It is not even hatred well expressed! I read not only German, but Russian, English, French, Italian – and whenever I had a chance I have searched for one book, one play, one song! I find nothing but cheap drivel – the most frightful patriotic bosh!”
“Yes, I am a patriot! But all this silly nonsense about white papers and red blood – what is it? What does it decide? Shall I tell you? It decides for us all that every little lieutenant is God – not only here but in England and France! And so long as we live, this ignorant fellow will be the god to whom we bow down – excuse me, I should say, salute! Around him will be written plays that make a man sick to think about! Through him and his standards the crowd will be a hundred-fold more ignorant and brutalized even than before the war – they will cultivate prize fighters’ souls! And I who am a patriot – I am against this bloody farce! And,” he ended grimly, “my bitterness does me no good – for I must keep it all inside. I cannot speak. It is an ocean. I am drowned.”
“In England I read in the papers that they have had a hard time to get their working-men to enlist.”
“They are cowards,” said a peasant.
“Yes, but they did not start the war. I tell you it was started by a lot of fat rich people. And we are the fellows who have to get killed. And if we don’t get killed, by God, we will have to pay war taxes! And think of the widows we’ll have to help! All the fellows who are killed are leaving in every village widows and old mothers and little brats who will have to be fed! And the village will have to feed them!”
“Well, we’re in for it,” somebody sighed.
“All the same,” said the lean-faced man, “I’ll be glad when there’s peace. I’ll be glad when we jump out of the trenches and the Frenchmen do the same, and we run across and shake hands with each other.”
“That will be fine,” said the good-natured peasant. We’ll do it as soon as the war is over.”
“Some fellows have done it,” the speaker replied. What?” Instantly all were wide awake.
“Some fellow told me that where he was, our men held up spades and the French did the same – and then they ran out and all shook hands. And they did like this at the trenches.” He thumbed his nose, and at this they laughed. But the laugh soon stopped and there was a silence.
“You can’t do that to your officers,” said one man uneasily.
“It is a lie and it never happened,” said another peasant. “You are making it up.”
“Perhaps it is a lie,” said the speaker. “But that is what the fellow said.” He threw a vigilant glance along the row of faces. “And when you come to think of it,” he continued quietly, “it is not so bad, what those fellows did. You must obey your officers – because this is war. If we didn’t obey, everything would be all mixed up, and the French would charge and kill us all. But if whole regiments everywhere jumped out of the trenches, as he said, and the French and English did the same, and we met in the middle of the field – then there would be war no more – and no need of officers.”