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Charles Edward Montague: Post-war prescription for peace


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

British writers on peace and war

Charles Edward Montague: Selections on war and its aftermath


Charles Edward Montague
From Disenchantment

Most of us, on the whole, find that effort is less fun than it was, and many things somewhat dull that used to sparkle with interest; the salt has lost, not all, but some of its savour; the grasshopper is a bit of a burden; old hobbies of politics, social causes, liberal comradeships, the loves and wars of letters and art, which used to excite, look at times as if they might only have been, at the best, rather a much ado about nothing; buzzing about our heads there come importunate suspicions that much of what we used to do so keenly was hardly worth doing, and that the dim, far goals we used to struggle towards were only possibly worth trying for and are, anyhow, out of reach now. That is the somewhat sick spirit’s condition. The limp apathy that we see at elections, the curious indifference in presence of public wrongs and horrors, the epidemic of sneaking pilferage, the slackening of sexual self-control – all these are symptomatic like the furred tongue, subnormal heat, and muddy eye.


Like the hard drinker next morning, we suffer a touch of Hamlet’s complaint, the malady of the dyspeptic soul, of indolent kings and of pampered youth before it has found any man’s work to try itself on –

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of the world!


The moral beauty of perfect contrition is preached to a beaten enemy by our Press while the vitals of England are rotting with unprecedented growths of venereal disease: an England of boundlessly advertised heroes and saints has ousted the England in which you would never, wherever you travelled, be given wrong change on a bus.


Working apart from the whole overblown world of war valuations, the scramble for honours earned and unearned, the plotting and jostling for front places on the stage and larger letters on the bill, the whole life that is commonly held up to admiration as great and enviable, they will live in a kind of retreat almost cloistral; plenty of work for the faculties, plenty of rest for the nerves, control for desire and atrophy for conceit.


We must remember that, in the course of nature, the proportion of former combatants among us must steadily decline. And war hath no fury like a non-combatant. Can you not already forehear, in the far distance, beyond the peace period now likely to come, the still, small voice…beginning to pipe up again with Ancient Pistol’s ancient suggestion: “What? Shall we have incision? Shall we imbrue?” And then a sudden furore, a war-dance, a beating of tom-toms. And so the whole cycle revolving again. “Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? How giddily a’ turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty? Sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the reechy painting, sometimes like god Bel’s priests in the old church window; sometimes like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry?” Anything to be in the fashion.

There is only one thing for it. There must still be five or six million ex-soldiers. They are the most determined peace party that ever existed in Britain.


[From the Manchester Guardian under the title of The Church and the War – A Satire in 1900, signed A Patriot]

“Still, man’s moral nature cannot, I admit, live by war alone. Nor do I say, with some, that peace is wholly bad. Even amid the horrors of peace you will find little shoots of character fed by the gentle and timely rains of plague and famine, tempest and fire; simple lessons of patience and courage conned in the schools of typhus, gout, and stone; not oratorios, perhaps, but homely anthems and rude hymns played on knife and gun, in the long winter nights. Far from me to ‘sin our mercies’ or to call mere twilight dark. Yet dark it may become. For remember that even these poor makeshift schools of character, these second-bests, these halting substitutes for war -remember that the efficiency of every one of them, be it hunger, accident, ignorance, sickness or pain, is menaced by the intolerable strain of its struggle with secular doctors, plumbers, inventors, school-masters, and policemen. Every year thousands who would in nobler days have been braced and steeled by manly tussles with smallpox or diphtheria are robbed of that blessing by the great changes made in our drains. Every year thousands of women and children must go their way bereft of the rich spiritual experience of the widow and the orphan. I try not to despond, but when I think of all that Latimer owed to the fire, Regulus to a spiked barrel, Socrates to prison, and Job to destitution and disease – when I think of these things and then think of how many of my poor fellow creatures in our modern world are robbed daily of the priceless discipline of danger, want, and torture, then I ask myself – I cannot help asking myself – whether we are not walking into a very slough of moral and spiritual squalor.

“Once more, I am no alarmist. As long as we have wars to stay our souls upon, the moral evil will not be grave; and, to do the Ministry justice, I see no risk of their drifting into any long or serious peace. But weak or vicious men may come after them, and it is now, in the time of our strength, of quickened insight and deepened devotion, that we must take thought for the leaner years when there may be no killing of multitudes of Englishmen, no breaking up of English homes, no chastening blows to English trade, no making, by thousands, of English widows, orphans, and cripples – when the school may be shut and the rain a drought and the oratorio dumb.”

But what did a few unfashionable curmudgeons count for, against so many gifted divines?

So now the pre-war virilists, the literary braves who felt that they had supped too full of peace, have died in their beds, or lost voice, like the cuckoos in June, and a different breed find voice and pipe up. These are the kind, the numerous kind, whose youth has supped quite full enough of war. For them Bellona has not the mystical charm, as of grapes out of reach, that she had for the Henleys and Stevensons. All the veiled-mistress business is off. Battles have no aureoles now in the sight of young men as they had for the British prelate who wrote that old poem about the “red rain.” The men of the counter-reaction have gone to the school and sat the oratorio out and taken a course of the waters, after the worthy prelate’s prescription. They have seen trenches full of gassed men, and the queue of their friends at the brothel-door in Bethune. At the heart of the magical rose was seated an earwig.

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