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W.H. Davies: The blind hatred engendered by war

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

British writers on peace and war

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W.H. Davies
From The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp

This was at the time of the Boer War and Flanagan’s long dark beard and slouched hat gave him the exact appearance of one of those despised people. Therefore we seldom took a walk together but what we were stoned by boys in the street, and even grown up people passed insulting remarks. In fact everywhere we went we were regarded with suspicion. Our clothes not being of the best, drew the attention of attendants at museums and art galleries, and we, being swarthy and alien in appearance, never paused near a palace but what sentry and police watched our every movement. One morning we  were passing through Whitehall, what time a regiment of soldiers were being drilled and inspected by a gentleman in a silk hat. Now Flanagan was a man of great courage and never thought it necessary to whisper. Therefore a vein of savage satire broke in Flanagan’s heart when he beheld a man in a silk hat inspecting a troop of soldiers. “See!” he cried, “there’s a sight for the Boers.” A number of bystanders resented this remark, and there were loud murmurs of disapproval. On which Flanagan asked the following question: “Will the best man in the crowd step forward?” But no man seemed inclined to attempt Flanagan’s chastisement, without being assisted. Although I did not entirely approve of him on this occasion, still, seeing that the words could not be recalled, I was quite prepared to be carried with him half dead on a stretcher to the nearest hospital; for I liked the man, and he certainly seemed to like me, since he always took his walks alone when I did not accompany him.

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[My] artificial leg would certainly not stand the strain of this enforced march from town to town on the country roads, that were so often rough and uneven. For even now it was creaking, and threatened at every step to break down. On mentioning these difficulties to a fellow lodger, he at once advised me to go to the Surgical Aid Society for a wooden leg, of the common peg sort; which, he was pleased to mention, would not only be more useful for such a knockabout life, but would not deceive people as to my true condition…I again consulted my fellow lodger, who had at first referred me to the Surgical Aid Society, and his explanation was, undoubtedly, reasonable and true. He explained that not only was the time of the year unfavourable, it being summer, and most of the subscribers were away from home on their holidays – but, unfortunately, the South African war was still in progress, and numbers of soldiers were daily returning from the front in need of artificial assistance one way or another.

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In less than two hours we were at the gentleman’s lodge. Passing boldly through the gates we followed the drive until we saw before us a fine large mansion. Reaching the front door we rang the bell, which was soon answered by a servant. To our enquiries as to whether the master was in the servant replied in the negative, but intimated that the mistress was. Of course, this made not the least difference, as many a tramp knew, except that had we been old soldiers the lady not being able to test us by drill, would therefore not have given more than the civilian’s shilling. Now, almost unfortunately for us, the downrighter, knowing that the lady would not drill us, and thinking that there might be a possibility of getting the master’s double pay to old soldiers, without danger of drill or cross examination – suddenly made up his mind to say that we were two old soldiers. For, thought he, if it does no good, it cannot do any harm. Therefore, when the lady appeared smiling at the door Long John, being spokesman, told a straightforward tale of hardship, and added that we had both served our country on the battlefield as soldiers. He had scarcely mentioned the word soldiers when a loud authoritative voice behind us cried – “Shoulder Arms!” I was leaning heavily on a thick stick when this command was given, but lost my balance and almost fell to the ground. We both turned our faces towards the speaker and saw a tall military looking gentleman scrutinising us with two very sharp eyes. Giving us but very little time to compose ourselves he shouted again – “Present Arms!” This second command was no more obeyed than the first. Long John blew his nose, and I stood at ease on my staff, as though I did not care whether the dogs were set upon us or we were to be lodged in jail. After another uncomfortable pause the retired officer said, looking at us severely – “Two old soldiers, indeed! You are two imposters and scoundrels! Perhaps you understand this command” – and in a voice fiercer and louder than ever he cried, “Quick March!” Long John and I, although not old soldiers, certainly understood this command, for we started down the drive at a good pace, with the military looking gentleman following. When we reached the public road, he gave another command – “Halt!” But this was another of those commands which we did not understand. However, on its being repeated less sternly we obeyed. “Here,” said he, “you are not two old soldiers, but you may not be altogether scoundrels; and I never turn men away without giving them some assistance.” Saying which he gave us a shilling each. But what a narrow escape we had of being turned penniless away, all through Long John’s greed and folly!

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