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Hugh Walpole: The dark, crippling advent of war


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

British writers on peace and war

Hugh Walpole: Selections on war


Hugh Walpole
From The Duchess of Wrexe

At four o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 11th, in this year 1899 war between England and South Africa was declared…

They flowed forward, they retreated. About them, around them, behind and in front of them hovered this War…

And beyond, away from that house, a war that that old woman and those self-important people saw only as a means of increasing their own self-importance.

It was all as a box of tin soldiers and a parcel of stiff china-faced dolls –

What were they all about? What did they think they were all doing? What, after all, was she, Rachel? Had they no conception of the sawdust that they all were beside this real, swiftly moving, death-dealing War that was suddenly amongst them?


The War had the City in its grip. There was now, during these early weeks of November, no other thought, no other anxiety, no other interest. The shock of its reality came most severely upon those whose lives had been most unreal. Here, in the midst of their dining and their dancing, was the sure fact that many whom they knew and with whom they had been in the habit of playing might now, at any moment, find death –

Here was a reality against which there was no argument, and against the harshness of it music screamed and food was uninteresting.

During that first month of that war, so new a thing was the horrid grimness of it, that hysteria was abroad, life was twopence coloured. For everyone now it was the question – “What might they do?”

Something to help, something to ease that biting truth – “Your life has been the most utterly useless business – no purpose, no strength, no unselfishness from first to last – what now?”


“I’m not so well,” she said; “I’ve slept badly.”

“I’m sorry for that,” he said; “what’s the trouble?”

“It’s this war,” she said, taking her eyes away from his face. “This war – I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything before, but this – ah! I’m old, old at last,” she said almost savagely.

“Everybody’s feeling it just now,” Christopher answered her quietly. “I suppose I’m as level-headed as most people, but even I have been imagining things to-day – Nerves, simply nerves -”

“Nonsense,” she answered him – “Don’t tell me, Christopher. What have I ever had to do with nerves?”

“Wait a little. All we want is to get used to War: it’s a new experience for all of us -”

Her voice was trembling.

She went on again, more quietly. “Every hour now one hears some horrible thing. This morning that young Dick Staveling dead, shot in some skirmish or another – Fine boy he was. They’re all going out, one after the other – Not useless idiots who aren’t wanted here like John or Vincent – but boys, boys like – like Roddy.”


During that terrible December week in 1899, England suffered more defeats to her arms than during any other week of the century. Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso, their names leapt one after another on to the screen.

London was dismayed; London was impatient. Easy enough to declare that the most criminal blunders had been perpetrated, easy enough to explain how one would oneself have conducted this or that, maneuvred hither or thither some pawn in the game.

Dismay remained – a wide active alarm at the things that Life, so suddenly real and dominating and destructive, might in the future be preparing.

To Lord John this terrible week was simply the climax to a succession of disturbing revelations of reality. All his days had he been denying Life, wrapping it up in one covering after another, calling it finally a box of chocolates or a racing card, a good cigar or a pretty woman, knowing, at his heart, that somewhere in the dark forest the wild beast was waiting for him, hoping that he might survive to the end without facing it.

Now it was before him and its glittering eyes were upon him.

He had gone on the Friday of this week, to pay a week-end visit at a country house near Newmarket. Many jolly, happy week-ends he had spent at this same house on other occasions, now, from first to last, it was nightmare.

On the Monday morning at breakfast a sudden conviction of the impossible horror of this world struck at his heart. It came as a revelation, life was for him never to be the same again. His hostess, a large-bosomed white-haired lady, planted at the end of the table like an enormous artificial toy in the middle of whose back some key must be turned if the affair is to amuse the crowd, suddenly horrified him; the women of the party, their noses a little blue, their cheeks a touch too white, their voices hard and sharp, the men, red and brown, boisterously hearty about the animals they hoped to kill before the day was done, the cold food in a glazed and greedy row, the hot food – kidneys, fish, bacon, sausages, sizzling and scenting the air – : the table itself with its racks of toast and marmalade and silver and fruit: the conversation that sounded as though the speakers were afraid that the food would all disappear were they spontaneous or natural – all these things suddenly appeared to Lord John in a very horrible light, so that, in an instant, racing and women and clothes and food were banished from a naked biting world in which he was a naked solitary figure.

He caught a train as one flies from some horrible plague: he arrived in London, breathless, confused, miserable, the foundations of Life broken from beneath him.

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