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Charles Edward Montague: War must first slay natural sentiment of brotherhood

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

British writers on peace and war

Charles Edward Montague: Selections on war and its aftermath

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Charles Edward Montague
From Disenchantment

Even on the dull earth it takes time and pains to get a clean-run boy or young man into a mean frame of mind. A fine N.C.O. of the Grenadier Guards was killed near Laventie – no one knows how – while going over to shake hands with the Germans on Christmas morning. “What! not shake on Christmas Day?” He would have thought it poor, sulky fighting. Near Armentières at the Christmas of 1914 an incident happened which seemed quite the natural thing to most soldiers then. On Christmas Eve the Germans lit up their front line with Chinese lanterns. Two British officers thereupon walked some way across No Man’s Land, hailed the enemy’s sentries, and asked for an officer. The German sentries said, “Go back, or we shall have to shoot.” The Englishmen said “Not likely!” advanced to the German wire, and asked again for an officer. The sentries held their fire and sent for an officer. With him the Englishmen made a one-day truce, and on Christmas Day the two sides exchanged cigarettes and played football together. The English intended the truce to end with the day, as agreed, but decided not to shoot next day till the enemy did. Next morning the Germans were still to be seen washing and breakfasting outside their wire; so our men, too, got out of the trench and sat about in the open. One of them, cleaning his rifle, loosed a shot by accident, and an English subaltern went to tell the Germans it had not been fired to kill. The ones he spoke to understood, but as he was walking back a German somewhere wide on a flank fired and hit him in the knee, and he has walked lame ever since. Our men took it that some German sentry had misunderstood our fluke shot. They did not impute dishonour. The air in such places was strangely clean in those distant days. During one of the very few months of open warfare a cavalry private of ours brought in a captive, a gorgeous specimen of the terrific Prussian Uhlan of tradition. “But why didn’t you put your sword through him?” an officer asked, who belonged to the school of Froissart less obviously than the private. “Well, sir,” the captor replied, “the gentleman wasn’t looking.”

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There had begun the insidious change that was to send you home, on your first leave, talking unguardedly of “old Fritz” or of “the good old Boche” to the pain of your friends, as if he were a stout dog fox or a real stag of a hare….

The deadliest solvent of your exalted hatreds is laughter. And you can never wholly suppress laughter between two crowds of millions of men standing within earshot of each other along a line of hundreds of miles…..

But while Hamilcar at home was swearing Hannibal and all the other little Hamilcars to undying hatred of the foe, an enemy dog might be trotting across to the British front line to sample its rats, and its owner be losing in some British company’s eyes his proper quality as an incarnation of all the Satanism of Potsdam and becoming simply “him that lost the dog.”

If you took his trench it might be no better; perhaps Incarnate Evil had left its bit of food half-cooked, and the muddy straw, where it lay last, was pressed into a hollow by Incarnate Evil’s back as by a cat’s. Incarnate Evil should not do these things that other people in trenches do. It ought to be more strange and beastly and keep on making beaux gestes with its talons and tail, like the proper dragon slain by St. George. Perhaps Incarnate Evil was extinct and you went over its pockets. They never contained the right things – no poison to put in our wells, no practical hints for crucifying Canadians; only the usual stuffing of all soldiers’ pockets – photographs and tobacco and bits of string and the wife’s letters, all about how tramps were always stealing potatoes out of the garden, and how the baby was worse, and was his leave never coming! No good to look at such things.

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It is hopelessly bad for your grand Byronic hates if you sit through whole winter evenings in the abhorred foe’s kitchen and the abhorred foe grants you the uncovenanted mercy of hot coffee and discusses without rancour the relative daily yields of the British and the German milch cow. And then comes into play the British soldier’s incorrigible propensity, wherever he be, to form virtuous attachments. “Love, unfoiled in the war,” as Sophocles says. The broad road has a terribly easy gradient. When all the great and wise at Paris were making peace, as somebody said, with a vengeance, our command on the Rhine had to send a wire to say that unless something was done to feed the Germans starving in the slums it could not answer for discipline in its army; the men were giving their rations away, and no orders would stop them. Rank “Pro-Germanism,” you see – the heresy of Edith Cavell; “Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness in my heart.” While these men fought on, year after year, they had mostly been growing more void of mere spite all the time, feeling always more and more sure that the average German was just a decent poor devil like everyone else. One trembles to think what the really first-class haters at home would have said of our army if they had known at the time.

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