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Arnold Bennett: The miraculous lunacy of war

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

British writers on peace and war

Arnold Bennett: The Slaughterer

Arnold Bennett: War casualties and war profiteers

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Arnold Bennett
From The Pretty Lady

The story of the evacuation of Gallipoli had grown old and tedious…The Germans were discussing their war aims; and on the Verdun front they had reached Mort Homme in the usual way, that was, according to the London Press, by sacrificing more men than any place could possibly be worth; still, they had reached Mort Homme. And though our losses and the French losses were everywhere – one might assert, so to speak – negligible, nevertheless the steadfast band of thinkers and fact-facers who held a monopoly of true patriotism were extremely anxious to extend the Military Service Act, so as to rope into the Army every fit male in the island except themselves.

***

The group vanished, crestfallen, round another corner. G.J. laughed to Christine. Then the noise of guns was multiplied. That he was with Christine in the midst of an authentic air-raid could no longer be doubted. He was conscious of the wine he had drunk at the club. He had the sensation of human beings, men like himself, who ate and drank and laced their boots, being actually at that moment up there in the sky with intent to kill him and Christine. It was a marvellous sensation, terrible but exquisite. And he had the sensation of other human beings beyond the sea, giving deliberate orders in German for murder, murdering for their lives; and they, too, were like himself, and ate and drank and either laced their boots or had them laced daily. And the staggering apprehension of the miraculous lunacy of war swept through his soul.

***

He and Christine were in the air-raid, and in it they should remain. He had just the senseless, monkeyish curiosity of the staring crowd so lyrically praised by the London Press. He was afraid, but his curiosity and inertia were stronger than his fear. Then came a most tremendous explosion – the loudest sound, the most formidable physical phenomenon that G.J. had ever experienced in his life. The earth under their feet trembled. Christine gave a squeal and seemed to subside to the ground, but he pulled her up again, not in calm self-possession, but by the sheer automatism of instinct. A spasm of horrible fright shot through him. He thought, in awe and stupefaction:

“A bomb!”

He thought about death and maiming and blood. The relations between him and those everyday males aloft in the sky seemed to be appallingly close. After the explosion perfect silence – no screams, no noise of crumbling – perfect silence, and yet the explosion seemed still to dominate the air! Ears ached and sang. Something must be done. All theories of safety had been smashed to atoms in the explosion. G.J. dragged Christine along the street, he knew not why. The street was unharmed. Not the slightest trace in it, so far as G.J. could tell in the gloom, of destruction! But where the explosion had been, whether east, west, south or north, he could not guess. Except for the disturbance in his ears the explosion might have been a hallucination.

Suddenly he saw at the end of the street a wide thoroughfare, and he could not be sure what thoroughfare it was. Two motor-buses passed the end of the street at mad speed; then two taxis; then a number of people, men and women, running hard. Useless and silly to risk the perils of that wide thoroughfare! He turned back with Christine. He got her to run. In the thick gloom he looked for an open door or a porch, but there was none. The houses were like the houses of the dead. He made more than one right angle turn. Christine gave a sign that she could go no farther. He ceased trying to drag her. He was recovering himself. Once more he heard the guns – childishly feeble after the explosion of the bomb. After all, one spot was as safe as another.

The outline of a building seemed familiar. It was an abandoned chapel; he knew he was in St. Martin’s Street. He was about to pull Christine into the shelter of the front of the chapel, when something happened for which he could not find a name. True, it was an explosion. But the previous event had been an explosion, and this one was a thousandfold more intimidating. The earth swayed up and down. The sound alone of the immeasurable cataclysm annihilated the universe. The sound and the concussion transcended what had been conceivable. Both the sound and the concussion seemed to last for a long time. Then, like an afterthought, succeeded the awful noise of falling masses and the innumerable crystal tinkling of shattered glass. This noise ceased and began again…

G.J. was now in a strange condition of mild wonder. There was silence in the dark solitude of St. Martin’s Street. Then the sound of guns supervened once more, but they were distant guns. G.J. discovered that he was not holding Christine, and also that, instead of being in the middle of the street, he was leaning against the door of a house. He called faintly, “Christine!” No reply. “In a moment,” he said to himself, “I must go out and look for her. But I am not quite ready yet.” He had a slight pain in his side; it was naught; it was naught, especially in comparison with the strange conviction of weakness and confusion.

He thought:

“We’ve not won this war yet,” and he had qualms.

One poor lamp burned in the street. He started to walk slowly and uncertainly towards it. Near by he saw a hat on the ground. It was his own. He put it on. Suddenly the street lamp went out. He walked on, and stepped ankle-deep into broken glass. Then the road was clear again. He halted. Not a sign of Christine! He decided that she must have run away, and that she would run blindly and, finding herself either in Leicester Square or Lower Regent Street, would by instinct run home. At any rate, she could not be blown to atoms, for they were together at the instant of the explosion. She must exist, and she must have had the power of motion. He remembered that he had had a stick; he had it no longer. He turned back and, taking from his pocket the electric torch which had lately come into fashion, he examined the road for his stick. The sole object of interest which the torch revealed was a child’s severed arm, with a fragment of brown frock on it and a tinsel ring on one of the fingers of the dirty little hand. The blood from the other end had stained the ground. G.J. abruptly switched off the torch. Nausea overcame him, and then a feeling of the most intense pity and anger overcame the nausea. (A month elapsed before he could mention his discovery of the child’s arm to anyone at all.) The arm lay there as if it had been thrown there. Whence had it come? No doubt it had come from over the housetops…

He smelt gas, and then he felt cold water in his boots. Water was advancing in a flood along the street. “Broken mains, of course,” he said to himself, and was rather pleased with the promptness of his explanation. At the elbow of St. Martin’s Street, where a new dim vista opened up, he saw policemen, then firemen; then he heard the beat of a fire-engine, upon whose brass glinted the reflection of flames that were flickering in a gap between two buildings. A huge pile of debris encumbered the middle of the road. The vista was closed by a barricade, beyond which was a pressing crowd. “Stand clear there!” said a policeman to him roughly. “There’s a wall going to fall there any minute.” He walked off, hurrying with relief from the half-lit scene of busy, dim silhouettes. He could scarcely understand it; and he was incapable of replying to the policeman. He wanted to be alone and to ponder himself back into perfect composure. At the elbow again he halted afresh. And as he stood figures in couples, bearing stretchers, strode past him. The stretchers were covered with cloths that hung down. Not the faintest sound came from beneath the cloths.

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