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

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

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

British writers on peace and war

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

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

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H. M. Tomlinson
From A Division on the March

I often doubt here the existence of a man who is talking to me. He seems altogether incredible. He might be talking across the Styx; and I am not sure at the moment on which side of that river I stand. Is he on the right side or am I? Which of us has got the place where a daily sun still rises? Yes, it is the living men here who are the uncanny spectres.

I have come in a lonely spot upon a little cross by the wayside, and have been stopped by a familiar name on it. Dead? No. There, right enough, is my veritable friend, as I knew and admired him. He cannot be dead. But those men in muddy clothes who sometimes consort with me round the burning logs on the hearth of an old château at night, I look across the floor at them as across countless ages, and listen to their voices till they sound unintelligibly from a remote and alien past. I do not know what they say to me. I am encompassed by dark and insoluble magic, and have forgotten the Open Sesame, though I try hard to remember it; for these present circumstances and the beings who move in them are of a world unreal and unreasonable.

I listen, and hear it again, the darkness throbbing; the badly adjusted horizon of outer night thudding on the earth–the incessant guns of the great war.

Winter 1917

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From Holly-Ho!

In the train bound for the leave boat, just before Christmas, the Knight-Errant, who also was returning to the front, re-wrote the well-known hymn of Phillips Brooks for me, to make the time pass. It began:

“Oh little town of Bethlehem,
To thee we give the lie.”

A black smudge of a destroyer followed us over with its eye on us. The main deck was crowded with soldiers – you could not get along there – singing in their lifebelts; at times the chorus, if approved, became a unanimous roar. They didn’t want to be there. They didn’t want to die. They wanted to go home. But they sang with dolorous joy. The chorus died; and we heard again the deep monody of the sea, like the admonitory voice of fate. The battles of the Somme were to come before the next Christmas; though none of us on that boat knew it then. And where is the young officer who went ashore under the electric glare of the base port, singing also, and bearing a Christmas tree?

December, 1916

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From Lent, 1918

But there was no escape. For I freely own that I am one of those who refused to believe there would be “a great offensive.” (Curse such trite and sounding words, which put measureless misery through the mind as unconsciously as a boy repeats something of Euclid.) I believe that no man would now dare to order it. The soldiers, I knew, with all the signs before them, still could not credit that it would be done. The futile wickedness of these slaughters had been proved too often. They get nowhere. They settle nothing. This last, if it came, would be worse than all the rest in its magnitude and horror; it would deprive Europe of a multitude more of our diminishing youth, and end, in the exhaustion of its impetus, with peace no nearer than before. The old and indurated Importances in authority, safe far behind the lines, would shrink from squandering humanity’s remaining gold of its life, even though their ignoble ends were yet unachieved. But it had been ordered. Age, its blind jealousy for control now stark mad, impotent in all but the will and the power to command and punish, ignoring every obvious lesson of the past, the appeal of the tortured for the sun again and leisure even to weep, and the untimely bones of the young as usual now as flints in the earth of Europe, had deliberately put out the glimmer of dawn.

Well for those who may read the papers without personal knowledge of what happens when such a combat has begun; but to know, and to be useless….There are occasions, though luckily they come but once or twice in life, when the mind is shocked by the basal verities apparently moving as though they were fugitive; thought becomes dizzy at the daylight earth suddenly falling away at one’s feet to the vacuity of the night. Some choice had to be made.

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The fire is dying. It is grey, fallen, and cold. The house is late and silent. There is no sound but the ghostly creaking of a stair; our thoughts are stealing away again. We creep out after them to the outer gate. What are books and opinions? The creakings of an old house uneasy with the heavy remembrances and the melancholy of antiquity, and with some midnight presage of its finality.

The wind and rain have passed. There is now but the icy stillness and quiet of outer space. The earth is Limbo, the penumbra of a dark and partial recollection; the shadow, vague and dawnless, over a vast stage from which the consequential pageant has gone, and is almost forgotten, the memory of many events merged now into formless night itself, and foundered profoundly beneath the glacial brilliance of a clear heaven alive with stars. Only the stars live, and only the stars overlook the place that was ours. The war – was there a war? It must have been long ago. Perhaps the shades are troubled with vestiges of an old and dreadful sin. If once there were men who heard certain words and became spellbound, and in the impulse of that madness forgot that their earth was good, but very brief, and turned from their children and women and the cherished work of their hands to slay each other and destroy their communities, it all happened just as the leaves of an autumn that is gone once fell before the sudden mania of a wind, and are resolved. What year was that? The leaves of an autumn that is long past are beyond time. The night is their place, and only the unknowing stars look down to the little blot of midnight which was us, and our pride, and our wisdom, and our heroics.

April 1918

 

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