Home > Uncategorized > H. M. Tomlinson: The return of the soldier, of he who was once alive

H. M. Tomlinson: The return of the soldier, of he who was once alive


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

British writers on peace and war

H. M. Tomlinson: Great offensive. Curse such trite and sounding words

H. M. Tomlinson: Greatest evil is unconscious indifference to war’s obscene blasphemy against life


H. M. Tomlinson
From On Leave

Coming out of Victoria Station into the stir of London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know. It is a surprising and providential wakening into a world which long ago went dark. That world is strangely loud, bright, and alive. Plainly it did not stop when, somehow, it vanished once upon a time. There its vivid circulation moves, and the buses are so usual, the people so brisk and intent on their own concerns, the signs so startlingly familiar, that the man who is home again begins to doubt that he has been absent, that he has been dead. But his uniform must surely mean something, and its stains something more!

And there can be no doubt about it, as you stand there a trifle dizzy in London once more. You really have come back from another world; and you have the curious idea that you may be invisible in this old world. In a sense you know you are unseen. These people will never know what you know. There they gossip in the hall, and leisurely survey the bookstall, and they would never guess it, but you have just returned from hell. What could they say if you told them? They would be embarrassed, polite, forbearing, kindly, and smiling, and they would mention the matter afterwards as a queer adventure with a poor devil who was evidently a little over-wrought; shell shock, of course. Beastly thing, shell shock. Seems to affect the nerves.

They would not understand. They will never understand. What is the use of standing in veritable daylight, and telling the living, who have never been dead, of the other place?

I know now how Rip Van Winkle felt about it. But his was a minor trouble. All he lost was some years. He had not changed, except that his beard was longer. But the man who comes back from the line has lost more than years. He has lost his original self. People failed to recognize Rip because they did not know his beard. Our friends do recognize us when they greet us on our return from the front, but they do not know us because we are not the men they remember. They are the same as ever; but when they address us, they talk to a mind which is not there, though the eyes betray nothing of the difference. They talk to those who have come back to life to see them again, but who cannot tell them what has happened, and dare not try.

Between that old self and the man they see, there is an abyss of dread. He has passed through it. To them the war is official communiqués, the amplifying dispatches of war correspondents, the silence of absent friends in danger, the shock of a telegram, and rather interesting food-rationing. They think it is the same war which the leave-man knows. He will tell them all about it, and they will learn the truth at last.

All about it! If an apparition of the battle-line in eruption were to form over London, over Paris, over Berlin, a sinister mirage, near, unfading, and admonitory, with spectral figures moving in its reflected fires and its gloom, and the echoes of their cries were heard, and murmurs of convulsive shocks, and the wind over the roofs brought ghostly and abominable smells into our streets; and if that were to haunt us by day and night, a phantom from which there was no escape, to remain till the sins of Europe were expiated, we should soon forget politics and arguments, and be in sackcloth and ashes, positive no longer, but down on our knees before Heaven in awe at this revelation of social guilt, asking simply what we must do to be saved.


The youngster who is home on leave, though he may not have reasoned it out, knows that what he wants to say, often prompted by indignation, cannot be said. He feels intuitively that this is beyond his power to express. Besides, if he were to begin, where would he end? He cannot trust himself. What would happen if he uncovered, in a sunny and innocent breakfast-room, the horror he knows? If he spoke out? His people would not understand him. They would think he was mad. They would be sorry, dammit. Sorry for him! Why, he is not sorry for himself. He can stand it now he knows what it is like. He can stand it – if they can. And he realizes they can stand it, and are merely anxious about his welfare, the welfare which does not trouble him in the least, for he has looked into the depth of evil, and for him the earth has changed; and he rather despises it. He has seen all he wants to see of it. Let it go, dammit. If they don’t mind the change, and don’t kick, why should he? What a hell of a world to be born into; and once it did look so jolly good, too! He is shy, cheery, but inexorably silent on what he knows. Some old fool said to him once, “It must be pretty bad out there?” Pretty bad! What a lark!

Autumn 1917

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