CHAPTER THE FOURTH
IN THE WEB OF THE INEFFECTIVE
Hugh's letters were becoming a very important influence upon Mr.
Britling's thought. Hugh had always been something of a letter-writer,
and now what was perhaps an inherited desire to set things down was
manifest. He had been accustomed to decorate his letters from school
with absurd little sketches--sometimes his letters had been all
sketches--and now he broke from drawing to writing and back to drawing
in a way that pleased his father mightily. The father loved this queer
trick of caricature; he did not possess it himself, and so it seemed to
him the most wonderful of all Hugh's little equipment of gifts. Mr.
Britling used to carry these letters about until their edges got grimy;
he would show them to any one he felt capable of appreciating their
youthful freshness; he would quote them as final and conclusive evidence
to establish this or that. He did not dream how many thousands of
mothers and fathers were treasuring such documents. He thought other
sons were dull young men by comparison with Hugh.
The earlier letters told much of the charms of discipline and the open
air. "All the bother about what one has to do with oneself is over,"
wrote Hugh. "One has disposed of oneself. That has the effect of a great
relief. Instead of telling oneself that one ought to get up in the
morning, a bugle tells you that.... And there's no nonsense about it, no
chance of lying and arguing about it with oneself.... I begin to see the
sense of men going into monasteries and putting themselves under rules.
One is carried along in a sort of moral automobile instead of trudging
And he was also sounding new physical experiences.
"Never before," he declared, "have I known what fatigue is. It's a
miraculous thing. One drops down in one's clothes on any hard old thing
And in his early letters he was greatly exercised by the elementary
science of drill and discipline, and the discussion of whether these
things were necessary. He began by assuming that their importance was
overrated. He went on to discover that they constituted the very
essentials of all good soldiering. "In a crisis," he concluded, "there
is no telling what will get hold of a man, his higher instincts or his
lower. He may show courage of a very splendid sort--or a hasty
discretion. A habit is much more trustworthy than an instinct. So
discipline sets up a habit of steady and courageous bearing. If you keep
your head you are at liberty to be splendid. If you lose it, the habit
will carry you through."
The young man was also very profound upon the effects of the suggestion
of various exercises upon the mind.
"It is surprising how bloodthirsty one feels in a bayonet charge. We
have to shout; we are encouraged to shout. The effect is to paralyse
one's higher centres. One ceases to question--anything. One becomes a
'bayoneteer.' As I go bounding forward I imagine fat men, succulent men
ahead, and I am filled with the desire to do them in neatly. This sort
A sketch of slaughter followed, with a large and valiant Hugh leaving a
train of fallen behind him.
"Not like this. This is how I used to draw it in my innocent childhood,
but it is incorrect. More than one German on the bayonet at a time is an
incumbrance. And it would be swank--a thing we detest in the army."
The second sketch showed the same brave hero with half a dozen of the
enemy skewered like cat's-meat.
"As for the widows and children, I disregard 'em."
But presently Hugh began to be bored.
"Route marching again," he wrote. "For no earthly reason than that they
can do nothing else with us. We are getting no decent musketry training
because there are no rifles. We are wasting half our time. If you
multiply half a week by the number of men in the army you will see we
waste centuries weekly.... If most of these men here had just been
enrolled and left to go about their business while we trained officers
and instructors and got equipment for them, and if they had then been
put through their paces as rapidly as possible, it would have been
infinitely better for the country.... In a sort of way we are keeping
raw; in a sort of way we are getting stale.... I get irritated by this.
I feel we are not being properly done by.
"Half our men are educated men, reasonably educated, but we are always
being treated as though we were too stupid for words....
"No good grousing, I suppose, but after Statesminster and a glimpse of
old Cardinal's way of doing things, one gets a kind of toothache in the
mind at the sight of everything being done twice as slowly and half as
well as it need be."
He went off at a tangent to describe the men in his platoon. "The best
man in our lot is an ex-grocer's assistant, but in order to save us from
vain generalisations it happens that the worst man--a moon-faced
creature, almost incapable of lacing up his boots without help and
objurgation--is also an ex-grocer's assistant. Our most offensive member
is a little cad with a snub nose, who has read Kipling and imagines he
is the nearest thing that ever has been to Private Ortheris. He goes
about looking for the other two of the Soldiers Three; it is rather like
an unpopular politician trying to form a ministry. And he is
conscientiously foul-mouthed. He feels losing a chance of saying
'bloody' as acutely as a snob feels dropping an H. He goes back
sometimes and says the sentence over again and puts the 'bloody' in. I
used to swear a little out of the range of your parental ear, but
Ortheris has cured me. When he is about I am mincing in my speech. I
perceive now that cursing is a way of chewing one's own dirt. In a
platoon there is no elbow-room for indifference; you must either love or
hate. I have a feeling that my first taste of battle will not be with
Germans, but with Private Ortheris...."
And one letter was just a picture, a parody of the well-known picture of
the bivouac below and the soldier's dream of return to his beloved
above. But Master Hugh in the dream was embracing an enormous retort,
while a convenient galvanometer registered his emotion and little
tripods danced around him.
Then came a letter which plunged abruptly into criticism.
"My dear Parent, this is a swearing letter. I must let go to somebody.
And somehow none of the other chaps are convenient. I don't know if I
ought to be put against a wall and shot for it, but I hereby declare
that all the officers of this battalion over and above the rank of
captain are a constellation of incapables--and several of the captains
are herewith included. Some of them are men of a pleasant disposition
and carefully aborted mental powers, and some are men of an unpleasant
disposition and no mental powers at all. And I believe--a little
enlightened by your recent letter to _The Times_--that they are a fair
sample of the entire 'army' class which has got to win this war. Usually
they are indolent, but when they are thoroughly roused they are fussy.
The time they should spend in enlarging their minds and increasing their
military efficiency they devote to keeping fit. They are, roughly
speaking, fit--for nothing. They cannot move us thirty miles without
getting half of us left about, without losing touch with food and
shelter, and starving us for thirty-six hours or so in the process, and
they cannot count beyond the fingers of one hand, not having learnt to
use the nose for arithmetical operations.... I conclude this war is
going to be a sort of Battle of Inkerman on a large scale. We chaps in
the ranks will have to do the job. Leading is 'off.'...
"All of this, my dear Parent, is just a blow off. I have been needlessly
starved, and fagged to death and exasperated. We have moved
five-and-twenty miles across country--in fifty-seven hours. And without
food for about eighteen hours. I have been with my Captain, who has been
billeting us here in Cheasingholt. Oh, he is a MUFF! Oh God! oh God of
Heaven! what a MUFF! He is afraid of printed matter, but he controls
himself heroically. He prides himself upon having no 'sense of locality,
confound it!' Prides himself! He went about this village, which is a
little dispersed, at a slight trot, and wouldn't avail himself of the
one-inch map I happened to have. He judged the capacity of each room
with his eye and wouldn't let me measure, even with God's own paces. Not
with the legs I inherit. 'We'll put five fellahs hea!' he said. 'What
d'you want to measure the room for? We haven't come to lay down
carpets.' Then, having assigned men by _coup d'oeil_, so as to congest
half the village miserably, he found the other half unoccupied and had
to begin all over again. 'If you measured the floor space first, sir,' I
said, 'and made a list of the houses--' 'That isn't the way I'm going to
do it,' he said, fixing me with a pitiless eye....
"That isn't the way they are going to do it, Daddy! The sort of thing
that is done over here in the green army will be done over there in the
dry. They won't be in time; they'll lose their guns where now they lose
our kitchens. I'm a mute soldier; I've got to do what I'm told; still,
I begin to understand the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
"They say the relations of men and officers in the new army are
beautiful. Some day I may learn to love my officer--but not just yet.
Not till I've forgotten the operations leading up to the occupation of
Cheasingholt.... He muffs his real job without a blush, and yet he would
rather be shot than do his bootlaces up criss-cross. What I say about
officers applies only and solely to him really.... How well I understand
now the shooting of officers by their men.... But indeed, fatigue and
exasperation apart, this shift has been done atrociously...."
The young man returned to these criticisms in a later letter.
"You will think I am always carping, but it does seem to me that nearly
everything is being done here in the most wasteful way possible. We
waste time, we waste labour, we waste material, oh Lord! how we waste
our country's money. These aren't, I can assure you, the opinions of a
conceited young man. It's nothing to be conceited about.... We're bored
to death by standing about this infernal little village. There is
nothing to do--except trail after a small number of slatternly young
women we despise and hate. I _don't_, Daddy. And I don't drink. Why have
I inherited no vices? We had a fight here yesterday--sheer boredom.
Ortheris has a swollen lip, and another private has a bad black eye.
There is to be a return match. I perceive the chief horror of warfare is
"Our feeding here is typical of the whole system. It is a system
invented not with any idea of getting the best results--that does not
enter into the War Office philosophy--but to have a rule for everything,
and avoid arguments. There is rather too generous an allowance of bread
and stuff per man, and there is a very fierce but not very efficient
system of weighing and checking. A rather too generous allowance is, of
course, a direct incentive to waste or stealing--as any one but our
silly old duffer of a War Office would know. The checking is for
quantity, which any fool can understand, rather than for quality. The
test for the quality of army meat is the smell. If it doesn't smell bad,
it is good....
"Then the raw material is handed over to a cook. He is a common soldier
who has been made into a cook by a simple ceremony. He is told, 'You are
a cook.' He does his best to be. Usually he roasts or bakes to begin
with, guessing when the joint is done, afterwards he hacks up what is
left of his joints and makes a stew for next day. A stew is hacked meat
boiled up in a big pot. It has much fat floating on the top. After you
have eaten your fill you want to sit about quiet. The men are fed
usually in a large tent or barn. We have a barn. It is not a clean barn,
and just to make it more like a picnic there are insufficient plates,
knives and forks. (I tell you, no army people can count beyond eight or
ten.) The corporals after their morning's work have to carve. When they
have done carving they tell me they feel they have had enough dinner.
They sit about looking pale, and wander off afterwards to the village
pub. (I shall probably become a corporal soon.) In these islands before
the war began there was a surplus of women over men of about a million.
(See the publications of the Fabian Society, now so popular among the
young.) None of these women have been trusted by the government with the
difficult task of cooking and giving out food to our soldiers. No man of
the ordinary soldier class ever cooks anything until he is a soldier....
All food left over after the stew or otherwise rendered uneatable by the
cook is thrown away. We throw away pail-loads. _We bury meat_....
"Also we get three pairs of socks. We work pretty hard. We don't know
how to darn socks. When the heels wear through, come blisters. Bad
blisters disable a man. Of the million of surplus women (see above) the
government has not had the intelligence to get any to darn our socks.
So a certain percentage of us go lame. And so on. And so on.
"You will think all this is awful grousing, but the point I want to
make--I hereby to ease my feelings make it now in a fair round hand--is
that all this business could be done far better and far cheaper if it
wasn't left to these absolutely inexperienced and extremely exclusive
military gentlemen. They think they are leading England and showing us
all how; instead of which they are just keeping us back. Why in thunder
are they doing everything? Not one of them, when he is at home, is
allowed to order the dinner or poke his nose into his own kitchen or
check the household books.... The ordinary British colonel is a helpless
old gentleman; he ought to have a nurse.... This is not merely the
trivial grievance of my insulted stomach, it is a serious matter for the
country. Sooner or later the country may want the food that is being
wasted in all these capers. In the aggregate it must amount to a daily
destruction of tons of stuff of all sorts. Tons.... Suppose the war
lasts longer than we reckon!"
From this point Hugh's letter jumped to a general discussion of the
"Our officers are beastly good chaps, nearly all of them. That's where
the perplexity of the whole thing comes in. If only they weren't such
good chaps! If only they were like the Prussian officers to their men,
then we'd just take on a revolution as well as the war, and make
everything tidy at once. But they are decent, they are charming.... Only
they do not think hard, and they do not understand that doing a job
properly means doing it as directly and thought-outly as you possibly
can. They won't worry about things. If their tempers were worse perhaps
their work might be better. They won't use maps or timetables or books
of reference. When we move to a new place they pick up what they can
about it by hearsay; not one of our lot has the gumption to possess a
contoured map or a Michelin guide. They have hearsay minds. They are
fussy and petty and wasteful--and, in the way of getting things done,
pretentious. By their code they're paragons of honour. Courage--they're
all right about that; no end of it; honesty, truthfulness, and so
on--high. They have a kind of horsey standard of smartness and pluck,
too, that isn't bad, and they have a fine horror of whiskers and being
unbuttoned. But the mistake they make is to class thinking with
whiskers, as a sort of fussy sidegrowth. Instead of classing it with
unbuttonedupness. They hate economy. And preparation....
"They won't see that inefficiency is a sort of dishonesty. If a man
doesn't steal sixpence, they think it a light matter if he wastes half a
crown. Here follows wisdom! _From the point of view of a nation at war,
sixpence is just a fifth part of half a crown_....
"When I began this letter I was boiling with indignation, complicated, I
suspect, by this morning's 'stew'; now I have written thus far I feel
I'm an ungenerous grumbler.... It is remarkable, my dear Parent, that I
let off these things to you. I like writing to you. I couldn't possibly
say the things I can write. Heinrich had a confidential friend at
Breslau to whom he used to write about his Soul. I never had one of
those Teutonic friendships. And I haven't got a Soul. But I have to
write. One must write to some one--and in this place there is nothing
else to do. And now the old lady downstairs is turning down the gas; she
always does at half-past ten. She didn't ought. She gets--ninepence
each. Excuse the pencil...."
That letter ended abruptly. The next two were brief and cheerful. Then
suddenly came a new note.
"We've got rifles! We're real armed soldiers at last. Every blessed man
has got a rifle. And they come from Japan! They are of a sort of light
wood that is like new oak and art furniture, and makes one feel that
one belongs to the First Garden Suburb Regiment; but I believe much can
be done with linseed oil. And they are real rifles, they go bang. We are
a little light-headed about them. Only our training and discipline
prevent our letting fly at incautious spectators on the skyline. I saw a
man yesterday about half a mile off. I was possessed by the idea that I
could get him--right in the middle.... Ortheris, the little beast, has
got a motor-bicycle, which he calls his 'b----y oto'--no one knows
why--and only death or dishonourable conduct will save me, I gather,
from becoming a corporal in the course of the next month...."
A subsequent letter threw fresh light on the career of the young man
with the "oto." Before the rifle and the "oto," and in spite of his
fights with some person or persons unknown, Ortheris found trouble. Hugh
told the story with the unblushing _savoir-faire_ of the very young.
"By the by, Ortheris, following the indications of his creator and
succumbing to the universal boredom before the rifles came, forgot Lord
Kitchener's advice and attempted 'seduktion.' With painful results which
he insists upon confiding to the entire platoon. He has been severely
smacked and scratched by the proposed victim, and warned off the
premises (licensed premises) by her father and mother--both formidable
persons. They did more than warn him off the premises. They had
displayed neither a proper horror of Don Juan nor a proper respect for
the King's uniform. Mother, we realise, got hold of him and cuffed him
severely. 'What the 'ell's a chap to do?' cried Ortheris. 'You can't go
'itting a woman back.' Father had set a dog on him. A less ingenuous
character would be silent about such passages--I should be too
egotistical and humiliated altogether--but that is not his quality. He
tells us in tones of na�ve wonder. He talks about it and talks about
it. 'I don't care what the old woman did,' he says, 'not--reely. What
'urts me about it is that I jest made a sort of mistake 'ow _she'd_ tike
it. You see, I sort of feel I've 'urt and insulted _'er_. And reely I
didn't mean to. Swap me, I didn't mean to. Gawd 'elp me. I wouldn't 'ave
'ad it 'appened as it 'as 'appened, not for worlds. And now I can't get
round to 'er, or anyfing, not to explain.... You chaps may laugh, but
you don't know what there is _in_ it.... I tell you it worries me
something frightful. You think I'm just a little cad who took liberties
he didn't ought to. (Note of anger drowning uncharitable grunts of
assent.) 'Ow the 'ell is 'e to know _when_ 'e didn't ought to? ... I
_swear_ she liked me....'
"This kind of thing goes on for hours--in the darkness.
"'I'd got regular sort of fond of 'er.'
"And the extraordinary thing is it makes me begin to get regular fond of
"I think it is because the affair has surprised him right out of acting
Ortheris and Tommy Atkins for a bit, into his proper self. He's
frightfully like some sort of mongrel with a lot of wiry-haired terrier
and a touch of Airedale in it. A mongrel you like in spite of the
flavour of all the horrid things he's been nosing into. And he's as hard
as nails and, my dear daddy! he can't box for nuts."
Mr. Britling, with an understanding much quickened by Hugh's letters,
went about Essex in his automobile, and on one or two journeys into
Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, and marked the steady conversion of the
old pacific countryside into an armed camp. He was disposed to minimise
Hugh's criticisms. He found in them something of the harshness of youth,
which is far too keen-edged to be tolerant with half performance and
our poor human evasion of perfection's overstrain. "Our poor human
evasion of perfection's overstrain"; this phrase was Mr. Britling's. To
Mr. Britling, looking less closely and more broadly, the new army was a
pride and a marvel.
He liked to come into some quiet village and note the clusters of sturdy
khaki-clad youngsters going about their business, the tethered horses,
the air of subdued bustle, the occasional glimpses of guns and
ammunition trains. Wherever one went now there were soldiers and still
more soldiers. There was a steady flow of men into Flanders, and
presently to Gallipoli, but it seemed to have no effect upon the
multitude in training at home. He was pleasantly excited by the evident
increase in the proportion of military material upon the railways; he
liked the promise and mystery of the long lines of trucks bearing
tarpaulin-covered wagons and carts and guns that he would pass on his
way to Liverpool Street station. He could apprehend defeat in the
silence of the night, but when he saw the men, when he went about the
land, then it was impossible to believe in any end but victory....
But through the spring and summer there was no victory. The "great
offensive" of May was checked and abandoned after a series of
ineffective and very costly attacks between Ypres and Soissons. The
Germans had developed a highly scientific defensive in which
machine-guns replaced rifles and a maximum of punishment was inflicted
upon an assaulting force with a minimum of human loss. The War Office
had never thought much of machine-guns before, but now it thought a good
deal. Moreover, the energies of Britain were being turned more and more
towards the Dardanelles.
The idea of an attack upon the Dardanelles had a traditional
attractiveness for the British mind. Old men had been brought up from
childhood with "forcing the Dardanelles" as a familiar phrase; it had
none of the flighty novelty and vulgarity about it that made an "aerial
offensive" seem so unwarrantable a proceeding. Forcing the Dardanelles
was historically British. It made no break with tradition. Soon after
Turkey entered the war British submarines appeared in the Sea of
Marmora, and in February a systematic bombardment of the Dardanelles
began; this was continued intermittently for a month, the defenders
profiting by their experiences and by spells of bad weather to
strengthen their works. This first phase of the attack culminated in the
loss of the _Irresistible_, _Ocean_, and _Bouvet_, when on the 17th of
March the attacking fleet closed in upon the Narrows. After an interlude
of six weeks to allow of further preparations on the part of the
defenders, who were now thoroughly alive to what was coming, the Allied
armies gathered upon the scene, and a difficult and costly landing was
achieved at two points upon the peninsula of Gallipoli. With that began
a slow and bloody siege of the defences of the Dardanelles, clambering
up to the surprise landing of a fresh British army in Suvla Bay in
August, and its failure in the battle of Anafarta, through incompetent
commanders and a general sloppiness of leading, to cut off and capture
Maidos and the Narrows defences.... Meanwhile the Russian hosts, which
had reached their high-water mark in the capture of Przemysl, were being
forced back first in the south and then in the north. The Germans
recaptured Lemberg, entered Warsaw, and pressed on to take Brest
Litowsk. The Russian lines rolled back with an impressive effect of
defeat, and the Germans thrust towards Riga and Petrograd, reaching
Vilna about the middle of September....
Day after day Mr. Britling traced the swaying fortunes of the conflict,
with impatience, with perplexity, but with no loss of confidence in the
ultimate success of Britain. The country was still swarming with troops,
and still under summer sunshine. A second hay harvest redeemed the
scantiness of the first, the wheat crops were wonderful, and the great
fig tree at the corner of the Dower House had never borne so bountifully
nor such excellent juicy figs....
And one day in early June while those figs were still only a hope, Teddy
appeared at the Dower House with Letty, to say good-bye before going to
the front. He was going out in a draft to fill up various gaps and
losses; he did not know where. Essex was doing well but bloodily over
there. Mrs. Britling had tea set out upon the lawn under the blue cedar,
and Mr. Britling found himself at a loss for appropriate sayings, and
talked in his confusion almost as though Teddy's departure was of no
significance at all. He was still haunted by that odd sense of
responsibility for Teddy. Teddy was not nearly so animated as he had
been in his pre-khaki days; there was a quiet exaltation in his manner
rather than a lively excitement. He knew now what he was in for. He knew
now that war was not a lark, that for him it was to be the gravest
experience he had ever had or was likely to have. There were no more
jokes about Letty's pension, and a general avoidance of the topics of
high explosives and asphyxiating gas....
Mr. and Mrs. Britling took the young people to the gate.
"Good luck!" cried Mr. Britling as they receded.
Teddy replied with a wave of the hand.
Mr. Britling stood watching them for some moments as they walked towards
the little cottage which was to be the scene of their private parting.
"I don't like his going," he said. "I hope it will be all right with
him.... Teddy's so grave nowadays. It's a mean thing, I know, it has
none of the Roman touch, but I am glad that this can't happen with
Hugh--" He computed. "Not for a year and three months, even if they
march him into it upon his very birthday....
"It may all he over by then...."
In that computation he reckoned without Hugh.
Within a month Hugh was also saying "Good-bye."
"But how's this?" protested Mr. Britling, who had already guessed the
answer. "You're not nineteen."
"I'm nineteen enough for this job," said Hugh. "In fact, I enlisted as
Mr. Britling said nothing for a little while. Then he spoke with a catch
in his breath. "I don't blame you," he said. "It was--the right spirit."
Drill and responsibilities of non-commissioned rank had imposed a novel
manliness upon the bearing of Corporal Britling. "I always classified a
little above my age at Statesminster," he said as though that cleared up
He looked at a rosebud as though it interested him. Then he remarked
"I thought," he said, "that if I was to go to war I'd better do the
thing properly. It seemed--sort of half and half--not to be eligible for
the trenches.... I ought to have told you...."
"Yes," Mr. Britling decided.
"I was shy about it at first.... I thought perhaps the war would be over
before it was necessary to discuss anything.... Didn't want to go into
"Exactly," said Mr. Britling as though that was a complete explanation.
"It's been a good year for your roses," said Hugh.
Hugh was to stop the night. He spent what seemed to him and every one a
long, shy, inexpressive evening. Only the small boys were really natural
and animated. They were much impressed and excited by his departure, and
wanted to ask a hundred questions about the life in the trenches. Many
of them Hugh had to promise to answer when he got there. Then he would
see just exactly how things were. Mrs. Britling was motherly and
intelligent about his outfit. "Will you want winter things?" she
But when he was alone with his father after every one had gone to bed
they found themselves able to talk.
"This sort of thing seems more to us than it would be to a French
family," Hugh remarked, standing on the hearthrug.
"Yes," agreed Mr. Britling. "Their minds would be better prepared....
They'd have their appropriate things to say. They have been educated by
the tradition of service--and '71."
Then he spoke--almost resentfully.
"The older men ought to go before you boys. Who is to carry on if a lot
of you get killed?"
Hugh reflected. "In the stiffest battle that ever can be the odds are
against getting killed," he said.
"I suppose they are."
"One in three or four in the very hottest corners."
Mr. Britling expressed no satisfaction.
"Every one is going through something of this sort."
"All the decent people, at any rate," said Mr. Britling....
"It will be an extraordinary experience. Somehow it seems out of
"With life generally. As one has known it."
"It isn't in proportion," Mr. Britling admitted.
"Incommensurables," said Hugh.
He considered his phrasing. "It's not," he said, "as though one was
going into another part of the same world, or turning up another side of
the world one was used to. It is just as if one had been living in a
room and one had been asked to step outside.... It makes me think of a
queer little thing that happened when I was in London last winter. I
got into Queer Company. I don't think I told you. I went to have supper
with some students in Chelsea. I hadn't been to the place before, but
they seemed all right--just people like me--and everybody. And after
supper they took me on to some people _they_ didn't know very well;
people who had to do with some School of Dramatic Art. There were two or
three young actresses there and a singer and people of that sort,
sitting about smoking cigarettes, and we began talking plays and books
and picture shows and all that stuff; and suddenly there was a knocking
at the door and some one went out and found a policeman with a warrant
on the landing. They took off our host's son.... It had to do with a
Hugh paused. "It was the Bedford Mansions mystery. I don't suppose you
remember about it or read about it at the time. He'd killed a man.... It
doesn't matter about the particulars anyhow, but what I mean is the
effect. The effect of a comfortable well-lit orderly room and the sense
of harmless people--and then the door opening and the policeman and the
cold draught flowing in. _Murder!_ A girl who seemed to know the people
well explained to me in whispers what was happening. It was like the
opening of a trap-door going down into some pit you have always known
was there, but never really believed in."
"I know," said Mr. Britling. "I know."
"That's just how I feel about this war business. There's no real death
over here. It's laid out and boxed up. And accidents are all padded
about. If one got a toss from a horse here, you'd be in bed and
comfortable in no time.... And there; it's like another planet. It's
outside.... I'm going outside.... Instead of there being no death
anywhere, it is death everywhere, outside there. We shall be using our
utmost wits to kill each other. A kind of reverse to this world."
Mr. Britling nodded.
"I've never seen a dead body yet. In Dower-House land there aren't dead
"We've kept things from you--horrid things of that sort."
"I'm not complaining," said Hugh.... "But--Master Hugh--the Master Hugh
you kept things from--will never come back."
He went on quickly as his father raised distressed eyes to him. "I mean
that anyhow _this_ Hugh will never come back. Another one may. But I
shall have been outside, and it will all be different...."
He paused. Never had Mr. Britling been so little disposed to take up the
"Like a man," he said, seeking an image and doing no more than imitate
his son's; "who goes out of a busy lighted room through a trap-door into
a blizzard, to mend the roof...."
For some moments neither father nor son said anything more. They had a
queer sense of insurmountable insufficiency. Neither was saying what he
had wanted to say to the other, but it was not clear to them now what
they had to say to one another....
"It's wonderful," said Mr. Britling.
Hugh could only manage: "The world has turned right over...."
"The job has to be done," said Mr. Britling.
"The job has to be done," said Hugh.
The pause lengthened.
"You'll be getting up early to-morrow," said Mr. Britling....
When Mr. Britling was alone in his own room all the thoughts and
feelings that had been held up downstairs began to run more and more
rapidly and abundantly through his mind.
He had a feeling--every now and again in the last few years he had had
the same feeling--as though he was only just beginning to discover Hugh.
This perpetual rediscovery of one's children is the experience of every
observant parent. He had always considered Hugh as a youth, and now a
man stood over him and talked, as one man to another. And this man, this
very new man, mint new and clean and clear, filled Mr. Britling with
surprise and admiration.
It was as if he perceived the beauty of youth for the first time in
Hugh's slender, well balanced, khaki-clad body. There was infinite
delicacy in his clear complexion, his clear eyes; the delicately
pencilled eyebrow that was so exactly like his mother's. And this thing
of brightness and bravery talked as gravely and as wisely as any
weather-worn, shop-soiled, old fellow....
The boy was wise.
Hugh thought for himself; he thought round and through his position, not
egotistically but with a quality of responsibility. He wasn't just
hero-worshipping and imitating, just spinning some self-centred romance.
If he was a fair sample of his generation then it was a better
generation than Mr. Britling's had been....
At that Mr. Britling's mind went off at a tangent to the grievance of
the rejected volunteer. It was acutely shameful to him that all these
fine lads should be going off to death and wounds while the men of forty
and over lay snug at home. How stupid it was to fix things like that!
Here were the fathers, who had done their work, shot their bolts,
returned some value for the costs of their education, unable to get
training, unable to be of any service, shamefully safe, doing April fool
work as special constables; while their young innocents, untried, all
their gathering possibilities of service unbroached, went down into the
deadly trenches.... The war would leave the world a world of cripples
and old men and children....
He felt himself as a cowardly brute, fat, wheezy, out of training,
sheltering behind this dear one branch of Mary's life.
He writhed with impotent humiliation....
How stupidly the world is managed.
He began to fret and rage. He could not lie in peace in his bed; he got
up and prowled about his room, blundering against chairs and tables in
the darkness.... We were too stupid to do the most obvious things; we
were sending all these boys into hardship and pitiless danger; we were
sending them ill-equipped, insufficiently supported, we were sending our
children through the fires to Moloch, because essentially we English
were a world of indolent, pampered, sham good-humoured, old and
middle-aged men. (So he distributed the intolerable load of
self-accusation.) Why was he doing nothing to change things, to get them
better? What was the good of an assumed modesty, an effort at tolerance
for and confidence in these boozy old lawyers, these ranting platform
men, these stiff-witted officers and hide-bound officials? They were
butchering the youth of England. Old men sat out of danger contriving
death for the lads in the trenches. That was the reality of the thing.
"My son!" he cried sharply in the darkness. His sense of our national
deficiencies became tormentingly, fantastically acute. It was as if all
his cherished delusions had fallen from the scheme of things.... What
was the good of making believe that up there they were planning some
great counter-stroke that would end in victory? It was as plain as
daylight that they had neither the power of imagination nor the
collective intelligence even to conceive of a counter-stroke. Any dull
mass may resist, but only imagination can strike. Imagination! To the
end we should not strike. We might strike through the air. We might
strike across the sea. We might strike hard at Gallipoli instead of
dribbling inadequate armies thither as our fathers dribbled men at the
Redan.... But the old men would sit at their tables, replete and sleepy,
and shake their cunning old heads. The press would chatter and make odd
ambiguous sounds like a shipload of monkeys in a storm. The political
harridans would get the wrong men appointed, would attack every possible
leader with scandal and abuse and falsehood....
The spirit and honour and drama had gone out of this war.
Our only hope now was exhaustion. Our only strategy was to barter blood
for blood--trusting that our tank would prove the deeper....
While into this tank stepped Hugh, young and smiling....
The war became a nightmare vision....
In the morning Mr. Britling's face was white from his overnight brain
storm, and Hugh's was fresh from wholesome sleep. They walked about the
lawn, and Mr. Britling talked hopefully of the general outlook until it
was time for them to start to the station....
The little old station-master grasped the situation at once, and
presided over their last hand-clasp.
"Good luck, Hugh!" cried Mr. Britling.
"Good luck!" cried the little old station-master.
"It's not easy a-parting," he said to Mr. Britling as the train slipped
down the line. "There's been many a parting hea' since this here old war
began. Many. And some as won't come back again neether."
For some days Mr. Britling could think of nothing but Hugh, and always
with a dull pain at his heart. He felt as he had felt long ago while he
had waited downstairs and Hugh upstairs had been under the knife of a
surgeon. But this time the operation went on and still went on. At the
worst his boy had but one chance in five of death or serious injury, but
for a time he could think of nothing but that one chance. He felt it
pressing upon his mind, pressing him down....
Then instead of breaking under that pressure, he was released by the
trick of the sanguine temperament. His mind turned over, abruptly, to
the four chances out of five. It was like a dislocated joint slipping
back into place. It was as sudden as that. He found he had adapted
himself to the prospect of Hugh in mortal danger. It had become a fact
established, a usual thing. He could bear with it and go about his
He went up to London, and met other men at the club in the same
emotional predicament. He realised that it was neither very wonderful
nor exceptionally tragic now to have a son at the front.
"My boy is in Gallipoli," said one. "It's tough work there."
"My lad's in Flanders," said Mr. Britling. "Nothing would satisfy him
but the front. He's three months short of eighteen. He misstated his
And they went on to talk newspaper just as if the world was where it had
But until a post card came from Hugh Mr. Britling watched the postman
like a lovesick girl.
Hugh wrote more frequently than his father had dared to hope, pencilled
letters for the most part. It was as if he was beginning to feel an
inherited need for talk, and was a little at a loss for a sympathetic
ear. Park, his schoolmate, who had enlisted with him, wasn't, it seemed,
a theoriser. "Park becomes a martinet," Hugh wrote. "Also he is a
sergeant now, and this makes rather a gulf between us." Mr. Britling had
the greatest difficulty in writing back. There were many grave deep
things he wanted to say, and never did. Instead he gave elaborate
details of the small affairs of the Dower House. Once or twice, with a
half-unconscious imitation of his boy's style, he took a shot at the
theological and philosophical hares that Hugh had started. But the
exemplary letters that he composed of nights from a Father to a Son at
War were never written down. It was just as well, for there are many
things of that sort that are good to think and bad to say....
Hugh was not very explicit about his position or daily duties. What he
wrote now had to pass through the hands of a Censor, and any sort of
definite information might cause the suppression of his letter. Mr.
Britling conceived him for the most part as quartered some way behind
the front, but in a flat, desolated country and within hearing of great
guns. He assisted his imagination with the illustrated papers. Sometimes
he put him farther back into pleasant old towns after the fashion of
Beauvais, and imagined loitering groups in the front of caf�s; sometimes
he filled in the obvious suggestions of the phrase that all the Pas de
Calais was now one vast British camp. Then he crowded the picture with
tethered horses and tents and grey-painted wagons, and Hugh in the
foreground--bare-armed, with a bucket....
Hugh's letters divided themselves pretty fairly between two main topics;
the first was the interest of the art of war, the second the reaction
against warfare. "After one has got over the emotion of it," he wrote,
"and when one's mind has just accepted and forgotten (as it does) the
horrors and waste of it all, then I begin to perceive that war is
absolutely the best game in the world. That is the real strength of war,
I submit. Not as you put it in that early pamphlet of yours; ambition,
cruelty, and all those things. Those things give an excuse for war, they
rush timid and base people into war, but the essential matter is the
hold of the thing itself upon an active imagination. It's such a big
game. Instead of being fenced into a field and tied down to one set of
tools as you are in almost every other game, you have all the world to
play and you may use whatever you can use. You can use every scrap of
imagination and invention that is in you. And it's wonderful.... But
real soldiers aren't cruel. And war isn't cruel in its essence. Only in
its consequences. Over here one gets hold of scraps of talk that light
up things. Most of the barbarities were done--it is quite clear--by an
excited civilian sort of men, men in a kind of inflamed state. The great
part of the German army in the early stage of the war was really an army
of demented civilians. Trained civilians no doubt, but civilians in
soul. They were nice orderly clean law-abiding men suddenly torn up by
the roots and flung into quite shocking conditions. They felt they were
rushing at death, and that decency was at an end. They thought every
Belgian had a gun behind the hedge and a knife in his trouser leg. They
saw villages burning and dead people, and men smashed to bits. They
lived in a kind of nightmare. They didn't know what they were doing.
They did horrible things just as one does them sometimes in dreams...."
He flung out his conclusion with just his mother's leaping
consecutiveness. "Conscript soldiers are the ruin of war.... Half the
Germans and a lot of the French ought never to have been brought within
ten miles of a battlefield.
"What makes all this so plain are the diaries the French and English
have been finding on the dead. You know at the early state of the war
every German soldier was expected to keep a diary. He was ordered to do
it. The idea was to keep him interested in the war. Consequently, from
the dead and wounded our people have got thousands.... It helps one to
realise that the Germans aren't really soldiers at all. Not as our men
are. They are obedient, law-abiding, intelligent people, who have been
shoved into this. They have to see the war as something romantic and
melodramatic, or as something moral, or as tragic fate. They have to
bellow songs about 'Deutschland,' or drag in 'Gott.' They don't take to
the game as our men take to the game....
"I confess I'm taking to the game. I wish at times I had gone into the
O.T.C. with Teddy, and got a better hold of it. I was too high-browed
about this war business. I dream now of getting a commission....
"That diary-hunting strategy is just the sort of thing that makes this
war intellectually fascinating. Everything is being thought out and then
tried over that can possibly make victory. The Germans go in for
psychology much more than we do, just as they go in for war more than we
do, but they don't seem to be really clever about it. So they set out to
make all their men understand the war, while our chaps are singing
'Tipperary.' But what the men put down aren't the beautiful things they
ought to put down; most of them shove down lists of their meals, some of
the diaries are all just lists of things eaten, and a lot of them have
written the most damning stuff about outrages and looting. Which the
French are translating and publishing. The Germans would give anything
now to get back these silly diaries. And now they have made an order
that no one shall go into battle with any written papers at all.... Our
people got so keen on documenting and the value of chance writings that
one of the principal things to do after a German attack had failed had
been to hook in the documentary dead, and find out what they had on
them.... It's a curious sport, this body fishing. You have a sort of
triple hook on a rope, and you throw it and drag. They do the same. The
other day one body near Hooghe was hooked by both sides, and they had a
tug-of-war. With a sharpshooter or so cutting in whenever our men got
too excited. Several men were hit. The Irish--it was an Irish
regiment--got him--or at least they got the better part of him....
"Now that I am a sergeant, Park talks to me again about all these
things, and we have a first lieutenant too keen to resist such technical
details. They are purely technical details. You must take them as that.
One does not think of the dead body as a man recently deceased, who had
perhaps a wife and business connections and a weakness for oysters or
pale brandy. Or as something that laughed and cried and didn't like
getting hurt. That would spoil everything. One thinks of him merely as a
uniform with marks upon it that will tell us what kind of stuff we have
against us, and possibly with papers that will give us a hint of how far
he and his lot are getting sick of the whole affair....
"There's a kind of hardening not only of the body but of the mind
through all this life out here. One is living on a different level. You
know--just before I came away--you talked of Dower-House-land--and
outside. This is outside. It's different. Our men here are kind enough
still to little things--kittens or birds or flowers. Behind the front,
for example, everywhere there are Tommy gardens. Some are quite bright
little patches. But it's just nonsense to suppose we are tender to the
wounded up here--and, putting it plainly, there isn't a scrap of pity
left for the enemy. Not a scrap. Not a trace of such feeling. They were
tender about the wounded in the early days--men tell me--and reverent
about the dead. It's all gone now. There have been atrocities, gas,
unforgettable things. Everything is harder. Our people are inclined now
to laugh at a man who gets hit, and to be annoyed at a man with a
troublesome wound. The other day, they say, there was a big dead German
outside the Essex trenches. He became a nuisance, and he was dragged in
and taken behind the line and buried. After he was buried, a kindly soul
was putting a board over him with 'Somebody's Fritz' on it, when a shell
burst close by. It blew the man with the board a dozen yards and wounded
him, and it restored Fritz to the open air. He was lifted clean out. He
flew head over heels like a windmill. This was regarded as a tremendous
joke against the men who had been at the pains of burying him. For a
time nobody else would touch Fritz, who was now some yards behind his
original grave. Then as he got worse and worse he was buried again by
some devoted sanitarians, and this time the inscription was 'Somebody's
Fritz. R.I.P.' And as luck would have it, he was spun up again. In
pieces. The trench howled with laughter and cries of 'Good old Fritz!'
'This isn't the Resurrection, Fritz.'...
"Another thing that appeals to the sunny humour of the trenches as a
really delicious practical joke is the trick of the fuses. We have two
kinds of fuse, a slow-burning fuse such as is used for hand-grenades and
such-like things, a sort of yard-a-minute fuse, and a rapid fuse that
goes a hundred yards a second--for firing mines and so on. The latter is
carefully distinguished from the former by a conspicuous red thread.
Also, as you know, it is the habit of the enemy and ourselves when the
trenches are near enough, to enliven each other by the casting of homely
but effective hand-grenades made out of tins. When a grenade drops in a
British trench somebody seizes it instantly and throws it back. To hoist
the German with his own petard is particularly sweet to the British
mind. When a grenade drops into a German trench everybody runs. (At
least that is what I am told happens by the men from our trenches;
though possibly each side has its exceptions.) If the bomb explodes, it
explodes. If it doesn't, Hans and Fritz presently come creeping back to
see what has happened. Sometimes the fuse hasn't caught properly, it has
been thrown by a nervous man; or it hasn't burnt properly. Then Hans or
Fritz puts in a new fuse and sends it back with loving care. To hoist
the Briton with his own petard is particularly sweet to the German
mind.... But here it is that military genius comes in. Some gifted
spirit on our side procured (probably by larceny) a length of mine fuse,
the rapid sort, and spent a laborious day removing the red thread and
making it into the likeness of its slow brother. Then bits of it were
attached to tin-bombs and shied--unlit of course--into the German
trenches. A long but happy pause followed. I can see the chaps holding
themselves in. Hans and Fritz were understood to be creeping back, to be
examining the unlit fuse, to be applying a light thereunto, in order to
restore it to its maker after their custom....
"A loud bang in the German trenches indicated the moment of lighting,
and the exit of Hans and Fritz to worlds less humorous.
"The genius in the British trenches went on with the preparation of the
next surprise bomb--against the arrival of Kurt and Karl....
"Hans, Fritz, Kurt, Karl, Michael and Wilhelm; it went for quite a long
time before they grew suspicious....
"You once wrote that all fighting ought to be done nowadays by metal
soldiers. I perceive, my dear Daddy, that all real fighting is...."
Not all Hugh's letters were concerned with these grim technicalities. It
was not always that news and gossip came along; it was rare that a young
man with a commission would condescend to talk shop to two young men
without one; there were few newspapers and fewer maps, and even in
France and within sound of guns, Hugh could presently find warfare
almost as much a bore as it had been at times in England. But his
criticism of military methods died away. "Things are done better out
here," he remarked, and "We're nearer reality here. I begin to respect
my Captain. Who is developing a sense of locality. Happily for our
prospects." And in another place he speculated in an oddly
characteristic manner whether he was getting used to the army way,
whether he was beginning to see the sense of the army way, or whether
it really was that the army way braced up nearer and nearer to
efficiency as it got nearer to the enemy. "And here one hasn't the
haunting feeling that war is after all an hallucination. It's already
common sense and the business of life....
"In England I always had a sneaking idea that I had 'dressed up' in my
"I never dreamt before I came here how much war is a business of waiting
about and going through duties and exercises that were only too
obviously a means of preventing our discovering just how much waiting
about we were doing. I suppose there is no great harm in describing the
place I am in here; it's a kind of scenery that is somehow all of a
piece with the life we lead day by day. It is a village that has been
only partly smashed up; it has never been fought through, indeed the
Germans were never within two miles of it, but it was shelled
intermittently for months before we made our advance. Almost all the
houses are still standing, but there is not a window left with a square
foot of glass in the place. One or two houses have been burnt out, and
one or two are just as though they had been kicked to pieces by a
lunatic giant. We sleep in batches of four or five on the floors of the
rooms; there are very few inhabitants about, but the village inn still
goes on. It has one poor weary billiard-table, very small with very big
balls, and the cues are without tops; it is The Amusement of the place.
Ortheris does miracles at it. When he leaves the army he says he's going
to be a marker, 'a b----y marker.' The country about us is
flat--featureless--desolate. How I long for hills, even for Essex mud
hills. Then the road runs on towards the front, a brick road frightfully
worn, lined with poplars. Just at the end of the village mechanical
transport ends and there is a kind of depot from which all the stuff
goes up by mules or men or bicycles to the trenches. It is the only
movement in the place, and I have spent hours watching men shift grub or
ammunition or lending them a hand. All day one hears guns, a kind of
thud at the stomach, and now and then one sees an aeroplane, very high
and small. Just beyond this point there is a group of poplars which have
been punished by a German shell. They are broken off and splintered in
the most astonishing way; all split and ravelled out like the end of a
cane that has been broken and twisted to get the ends apart. The choice
of one's leisure is to watch the A.S.C. or play football, twenty a side,
or sit about indoors, or stand in the doorway, or walk down to the
Estaminet and wait five or six deep for the billiard-table. Ultimately
one sits. And so you get these unconscionable letters."
"Unconscionable," said Mr. Britling. "Of course--he will grow out of
that sort of thing.
"And he'll write some day, sure enough. He'll write."
He went on reading the letter.
"We read, of course. But there never could be a library here big enough
to keep us going. We can do with all sorts of books, but I don't think
the ordinary sensational novel is quite the catch it was for a lot of
them in peace time. Some break towards serious reading in the oddest
fashion. Old Park, for example, says he wants books you can chew; he is
reading a cheap edition of 'The Origin of Species.' He used to regard
Florence Warden and William le Queux as the supreme delights of print. I
wish you could send him Metchnikoff's 'Nature of Man' or Pearson's
'Ethics of Freethought.' I feel I am building up his tender mind. Not
for me though, Daddy. Nothing of that sort for me. These things take
people differently. What I want here is literary opium. I want something
about fauns and nymphs in broad low glades. I would like to read
Spenser's 'Faerie Queen.' I don't think I have read it, and yet I have a
very distinct impression of knights and dragons and sorcerers and wicked
magic ladies moving through a sort of Pre-Raphaelite tapestry
scenery--only with a light on them. I could do with some Hewlett of the
'Forest Lovers' kind. Or with Joseph Conrad in his Kew Palm-house mood.
And there is a book, I once looked into it at a man's room in London; I
don't know the title, but it was by Richard Garnett, and it was all
about gods who were in reduced circumstances but amidst sunny
picturesque scenery. Scenery without steel or poles or wire. A thing
after the manner of Heine's 'Florentine Nights.' Any book about Greek
gods would be welcome, anything about temples of ivory-coloured stone
and purple seas, red caps, chests of jewels, and lizards in the sun. I
wish there was another 'Thais.' The men here are getting a kind of
newspaper sheet of literature scraps called _The Times_ Broadsheets.
Snippets, but mostly from good stuff. They're small enough to stir the
appetite, but not to satisfy it. Rather an irritant--and one wants no
irritant.... I used to imagine reading was meant to be a stimulant. Out
here it has to be an anodyne....
"Have you heard of a book called 'Tom Cringle's Log'?
"War is an exciting game--that I never wanted to play. It excites once
in a couple of months. And the rest of it is dirt and muddle and
boredom, and smashed houses and spoilt roads and muddy scenery and
boredom, and the lumbering along of supplies and the lumbering back of
the wounded and weary--and boredom, and continual vague guessing of how
it will end and boredom and boredom and boredom, and thinking of the
work you were going to do and the travel you were going to have, and the
waste of life and the waste of days and boredom, and splintered poplars
and stink, everywhere stink and dirt and boredom.... And all because
these accursed Prussians were too stupid to understand what a boredom
they were getting ready when they pranced and stuck their chests out and
earnt the praises of Mr. Thomas Carlyle.... _Gott strafe
Deutschland_.... So send me some books, books of dreams, books about
China and the willow-pattern plate and the golden age and fairyland. And
send them soon and address them very carefully...."
Teddy's misadventure happened while figs were still ripening on Mr.
Britling's big tree. It was Cissie brought the news to Mr. Britling. She
came up to the Dower House with a white, scared face.
"I've come up for the letters," she said. "There's bad news of Teddy,
and Letty's rather in a state."
"He's not--?" Mr. Britling left the word unsaid.
"He's wounded and missing," said Cissie.
"A prisoner!" said Mr. Britling.
"And wounded. _How_, we don't know."
She added: "Letty has gone to telegraph."
"Telegraph to whom?"
"To the War Office, to know what sort of wound he has. They tell
nothing. It's disgraceful."
"It doesn't say _severely_?"
"It says just nothing. Wounded and missing! Surely they ought to give us
Mr. Britling thought. His first thought was that now news might come at
any time that Hugh was wounded and missing. Then he set himself to
persuade Cissie that the absence of "seriously" meant that Teddy was
only quite bearably wounded, and that if he was also "missing" it might
be difficult for the War Office to ascertain at once just exactly what
she wanted to know. But Cissie said merely that "Letty was in an awful
state," and after Mr. Britling had given her a few instructions for his
typing, he went down to the cottage to repeat these mitigatory
considerations to Letty. He found her much whiter than her sister, and
in a state of cold indignation with the War Office. It was clear she
thought that organisation ought to have taken better care of Teddy. She
had a curious effect of feeling that something was being kept back from
her. It was manifest too that she was disposed to regard Mr. Britling as
biased in favour of the authorities.
"At any rate," she said, "they could have answered my telegram
promptly. I sent it at eight. Two hours of scornful silence."
This fierce, strained, unjust Letty was a new aspect to Mr. Britling.
Her treatment of his proffered consolations made him feel slightly
"And just fancy!" she said. "They have no means of knowing if he has
arrived safely on the German side. How can they know he is a prisoner
without knowing that?"
"But the word is 'missing.'"
"That _means_ a prisoner," said Letty uncivilly....
Mr. Britling returned to the Dower House perplexed and profoundly
disturbed. He had a distressful sense that things were far more serious
with Teddy than he had tried to persuade Letty they were; that "wounded
and missing" meant indeed a man abandoned to very sinister
probabilities. He was distressed for Teddy, and still more acutely
distressed for Mrs. Teddy, whose every note and gesture betrayed
suppositions even more sinister than his own. And that preposterous
sense of liability, because he had helped Teddy to get his commission,
was more distressful than it had ever been. He was surprised that Letty
had not assailed him with railing accusations.
And this event had wiped off at one sweep all the protective scab of
habituation that had gathered over the wound of Hugh's departure. He was
back face to face with the one evil chance in five....
In the hall there was lying a letter from Hugh that had come by the
second post. It was a relief even to see it....
Hugh had had his first spell in the trenches.
Before his departure he had promised his half brothers a long and
circumstantial account of what the trenches were really like. Here he
redeemed his promise. He had evidently written with the idea that the
letter would be handed over to them.
"Tell the bruddykinses I'm glad they're going to Brinsmead school. Later
on, I suppose, they will go on to Statesminster. I suppose that you
don't care to send them so far in these troubled times....
"And now about those trenches--as I promised. The great thing to grasp
is that they are narrow. They are a sort of negative wall. They are more
like giant cracks in the ground than anything else.... But perhaps I had
better begin by telling how we got there. We started about one in the
morning ladened up with everything you can possibly imagine on a
soldier, and in addition I had a kettle--filled with water--most of the
chaps had bundles of firewood, and some had extra bread. We marched out
of our quarters along the road for a mile or more, and then we took the
fields, and presently came to a crest and dropped into a sort of maze of
zigzag trenches going up to the front trench. These trenches, you know,
are much deeper than one's height; you don't see anything. It's like
walking along a mud-walled passage. You just trudge along them in single
file. Every now and then some one stumbles into a soakaway for rainwater
or swears at a soft place, or somebody blunders into the man in front of
him. This seems to go on for hours and hours. It certainly went on for
an hour; so I suppose we did two or three miles of it. At one place we
crossed a dip in the ground and a ditch, and the trench was built up
with sandbags up to the ditch and there was a plank. Overhead there were
stars, and now and then a sort of blaze thing they send up lit up the
edges of the trench and gave one a glimpse of a treetop or a factory
roof far away. Then for a time it was more difficult to go on because
you were blinded. Suddenly just when you were believing that this sort
of trudge was going on forever, we were in the support trenches behind
the firing line, and found the men we were relieving ready to come
"And the firing line itself? Just the same sort of ditch with a parapet
of sandbags, but with dug-outs, queer big holes helped out with sleepers
from a nearby railway track, opening into it from behind. Dug-outs vary
a good deal. Many are rather like the cubby-house we made at the end of
the orchard last summer; only the walls are thick enough to stand a high
explosive shell. The best dug-out in our company's bit of front was
quite a dressy affair with some woodwork and a door got from the ruins
of a house twenty or thirty yards behind us. It had a stove in it too,
and a chimbley, and pans to keep water in. It was the best dug-out for
miles. This house had a well, and there was a special trench ran back to
that, and all day long there was a coming and going for water. There had
once been a pump over the well, but a shell had smashed that....
"And now you expect me to tell of Germans and the fight and shelling and
all sorts of things. _I haven't seen a live German_; I haven't been
within two hundred yards of a shell burst, there has been no attack and
I haven't got the V.C. I have made myself muddy beyond describing; I've
been working all the time, but I've not fired a shot or fought a
ha'porth. We were busy all the time--just at work, repairing the
parapet, which had to be done gingerly because of snipers, bringing our
food in from the rear in big carriers, getting water, pushing our trench
out from an angle slantingways forward. Getting meals, clearing up and
so on takes a lot of time. We make tea in big kettles in the big
dug-out, which two whole companies use for their cooking, and carry them
with a pole through the handles to our platoons. We wash up and wash and
shave. Dinner preparation (and consumption) takes two or three hours.
Tea too uses up time. It's like camping out and picnicking in the park.
This first time (and next too) we have been mixed with some Sussex men
who have been here longer and know the business.... It works out that we
do most of the fatigue. Afterwards we shall go up alone to a pitch of
"But all the time you want to know about the Germans. They are a quarter
of a mile away at this part, or nearly a quarter of a mile. When you
snatch a peep at them it is like a low parti-coloured stone wall--only
the stones are sandbags. The Germans have them black and white, so that
you cannot tell which are loopholes and which are black bags. Our people
haven't been so clever--and the War Office love of uniformity has given
us only white bags. No doubt it looks neater. But it makes our loopholes
plain. For a time black sandbags were refused. The Germans sniped at us,
but not very much. Only one of our lot was hit, by a chance shot that
came through the sandbag at the top of the parapet. He just had a cut in
the neck which didn't prevent his walking back. They shelled the
trenches half a mile to the left of us though, and it looked pretty hot.
The sandbags flew about. But the men lie low, and it looks worse than it
is. The weather was fine and pleasant, as General French always says.
And after three days and nights of cramped existence and petty chores,
one in the foremost trench and two a little way back, and then two days
in support, we came back--and here we are again waiting for our second
"The night time is perhaps a little more nervy than the day. You get
your head up and look about, and see the flat dim country with its
ruined houses and its lumps of stuff that are dead bodies and its long
vague lines of sandbags, and the searchlights going like white windmill
arms and an occasional flare or star shell. And you have a nasty feeling
of people creeping and creeping all night between the trenches....
"Some of us went out to strengthen a place in the parapet that was only
one sandbag thick, where a man had been hit during the day. We made it
four bags thick right up to the top. All the while you were doing it,
you dreaded to find yourself in the white glare of a searchlight, and
you had a feeling that something would hit you suddenly from behind. I
had to make up my mind not to look round, or I should have kept on
looking round.... Also our chaps kept shooting over us, within a foot of
one's head. Just to persuade the Germans that we were not out of the
"Nothing happened to us. We got back all right. It was silly to have
left that parapet only one bag thick. There's the truth, and all of my
first time in the trenches.
"And the Germans?
"I tell you there was no actual fighting at all. I never saw the head of
"But now see what a good bruddykins I am. I have seen a fight, a real
exciting fight, and I have kept it to the last to tell you about.... It
was a fight in the air. And the British won. It began with a German
machine appearing, very minute and high, sailing towards our lines a
long way to the left. We could tell it was a German because of the black
cross; they decorate every aeroplane with a black Iron Cross on its
wings and tail; that our officer could see with his glasses. (He let me
look.) Suddenly whack, whack, whack, came a line of little puffs of
smoke behind it, and then one in front of it, which meant that our
anti-aircraft guns were having a go at it. Then, as suddenly, Archibald
stopped, and we could see the British machine buzzing across the path of
the German. It was just like two birds circling in the air. Or wasps.
They buzzed like wasps. There was a little crackling--like brushing your
hair in frosty weather. They were shooting at each other. Then our
lieutenant called out, 'Hit, by Jove!' and handed the glasses to Park
and instantly wanted them back. He says he saw bits of the machine
"When he said that you could fancy you saw it too, up there in the blue.
"Anyhow the little machine cocked itself up on end. Rather slowly....
Then down it came like dropping a knife....
"It made you say 'Ooooo!' to see that dive. It came down, seemed to get
a little bit under control, and then dive down again. You could hear the
engine roar louder and louder as it came down. I never saw anything fall
so fast. We saw it hit the ground among a lot of smashed-up buildings on
the crest behind us. It went right over and flew to pieces, all to
"It hurt your nose to see it hit the ground....
"Somehow--I was sort of overcome by the thought of the men in that dive.
I was trying to imagine how they felt it. From the moment when they
realised they were going.
"What on earth must it have seemed like at last?
"They fell seven thousand feet, the men say; some say nine thousand
feet. A mile and a half!
"But all the chaps were cheering.... And there was our machine hanging
in the sky. You wanted to reach up and pat it on the back. It went up
higher and away towards the German lines, as though it was looking for
another German. It seemed to go now quite slowly. It was an English
machine, though for a time we weren't sure; our machines are done in
tri-colour just as though they were French. But everybody says it was
English. It was one of our crack fighting machines, and from first to
last it has put down seven Germans.... And that's really all the
fighting there was. There has been fighting here; a month ago. There are
perhaps a dozen dead Germans lying out still in front of the lines.
Little twisted figures, like overthrown scarecrows, about a hundred
yards away. But that is all.
"No, the trenches have disappointed me. They are a scene of tiresome
domesticity. They aren't a patch on our quarters in the rear. There
isn't the traffic. I've not found a single excuse for firing my rifle. I
don't believe I shall ever fire my rifle at an enemy--ever....
"You've seen Rendezvous' fresh promotion, I suppose? He's one of the men
the young officers talk about. Everybody believes in him. Do you
remember how Manning used to hide from him?..."
Mr. Britling read this through, and then his thoughts went back to
Teddy's disappearance and then returned to Hugh. The youngster was right
in the front now, and one had to steel oneself to the possibilities of
the case. Somehow Mr. Britling had not expected to find Hugh so speedily
in the firing line, though he would have been puzzled to find a reason
why this should not have happened. But he found he had to begin the
lesson of stoicism all over again.
He read the letter twice, and then he searched for some indication of
its date. He suspected that letters were sometimes held back....
Four days later this suspicion was confirmed by the arrival of another
letter from Hugh in which he told of his second spell in the trenches.
This time things had been much more lively. They had been heavily
shelled and there had been a German attack. And this time he was writing
to his father, and wrote more freely. He had scribbled in pencil.
"Things are much livelier here than they were. Our guns are getting to
work. They are firing in spells of an hour or so, three or four times a
day, and just when they seem to be leaving off they begin again. The
Germans suddenly got the range of our trenches the day before yesterday,
and begun to pound us with high explosive.... Well, it's trying. You
never seem quite to know when the next bang is coming, and that keeps
your nerves hung up; it seems to tighten your muscles and tire you.
We've done nothing but lie low all day, and I feel as weary as if I had
marched twenty miles. Then 'whop,' one's near you, and there is a flash
and everything flies. It's a mad sort of smash-about. One came much too
close to be pleasant; as near as the old oil jars are from the barn
court door. It bowled me clean over and sent a lot of gravel over me.
When I got up there was twenty yards of trench smashed into a mere hole,
and men lying about, and some of them groaning and one three-quarters
buried. We had to turn to and get them out as well as we could....
"I felt stunned and insensitive; it was well to have something to do....
"Our guns behind felt for the German guns. It was the damnest racket.
Like giant lunatics smashing about amidst colossal pots and pans. They
fired different sorts of shells; stink shells as well as Jack Johnsons,
and though we didn't get much of that at our corner there was a sting of
chlorine in the air all through the afternoon. Most of the stink shells
fell short. We hadn't masks, but we rigged up a sort of protection with
our handkerchiefs. And it didn't amount to very much. It was rather like
the chemistry room after Heinrich and the kids had been mixing things.
Most of the time I was busy helping with the men who had got hurt.
Suddenly there came a lull. Then some one said the Germans were coming,
and I had a glimpse of them.
"You don't look at anything steadily while the guns are going. When a
big gun goes off or a shell bursts anywhere near you, you seem neither
to see nor hear for a moment. You keep on being intermittently stunned.
One sees in a kind of flicker in between the impacts....
"Well, there they were. This time I saw them. They were coming out and
running a little way and dropping, and our shell was bursting among them
and behind them. A lot of it was going too far. I watched what our men
were doing, and poured out a lot of cartridges ready to my hand and
began to blaze away. Half the German attack never came out of their
trench. If they really intended business against us, which I doubt, they
were half-hearted in carrying it out. They didn't show for five
minutes, and they left two or three score men on the ground. Whenever we
saw a man wriggle we were told to fire at him; it might be an unwounded
man trying to crawl back. For a time our guns gave them beans. Then it
was practically over, but about sunset their guns got back at us again,
and the artillery fight went on until it was moonlight. The chaps in our
third company caught it rather badly, and then our guns seemed to find
something and get the upper hand....
"In the night some of our men went out to repair the wire entanglements,
and one man crawled halfway to the enemy trenches to listen. But I had
done my bit for the day, and I was supposed to sleep in the dug-out. I
was far too excited to sleep. All my nerves were jumping about, and my
mind was like a lot of flying fragments flying about very fast....
"They shelled us again next day and our tea dixy was hit; so that we
didn't get any tea....
"I slept thirty hours after I got back here. And now I am slowly
digesting these experiences. Most of our fellows are. My mind and nerves
have been rather bumped and bruised by the shelling, but not so much as
you might think. I feel as though I'd presently not think very much of
it. Some of our men have got the stun of it a lot more than I have. It
gets at the older men more. Everybody says that. The men of over
thirty-five don't recover from a shelling for weeks. They go about--sort
"Life is very primitive here--which doesn't mean that one is getting
down to anything fundamental, but only going back to something immediate
and simple. It's fetching and carrying and getting water and getting
food and going up to the firing line and coming back. One goes on for
weeks, and then one day one finds oneself crying out, 'What is all this
for? When is it to end?' I seemed to have something ahead of me before
this war began, education, science, work, discoveries; all sorts of
things; but it is hard to feel that there is anything ahead of us
"Somehow the last spell in the fire trench has shaken up my mind a lot.
I was getting used to the war before, but now I've got back to my
original amazement at the whole business. I find myself wondering what
we are really up to, why the war began, why we were caught into this
amazing routine. It looks, it feels orderly, methodical, purposeful. Our
officers give us orders and get their orders, and the men back there get
their orders. Everybody is getting orders. Back, I suppose, to Lord
Kitchener. It goes on for weeks with the effect of being quite sane and
intended and the right thing, and then, then suddenly it comes whacking
into one's head, 'But this--this is utterly _mad_!' This going to and
fro and to and fro and to and fro; this monotony which breaks ever and
again into violence--violence that never gets anywhere--is exactly the
life that a lunatic leads. Melancholia and mania.... It's just a
collective obsession--by war. The world is really quite mad. I happen to
be having just one gleam of sanity, that won't last after I have
finished this letter. I suppose when an individual man goes mad and gets
out of the window because he imagines the door is magically impossible,
and dances about in the street without his trousers jabbing at
passers-by with a toasting-fork, he has just the same sombre sense of
unavoidable necessity that we have, all of us, when we go off with our
packs into the trenches....
"It's only by an effort that I can recall how life felt in the spring of
1914. Do you remember Heinrich and his attempt to make a table chart of
the roses, so that we could sit outside the barn and read the names of
all the roses in the barn court? Like the mountain charts they have on
tables in Switzerland. What an inconceivable thing that is now! For all
I know I shot Heinrich the other night. For all I know he is one of the
lumps that we counted after the attack went back.
"It's a queer thing, Daddy, but I have a sort of _seditious_ feeling in
writing things like this. One gets to feel that it is wrong to think.
It's the effect of discipline. Of being part of a machine. Still, I
doubt if I ought to think. If one really looks into things in this
spirit, where is it going to take us? Ortheris--his real name by the by
is Arthur Jewell--hasn't any of these troubles. 'The b----y Germans
butted into Belgium,' he says. 'We've got to 'oof 'em out again. That's
all abart it. Leastways it's all _I_ know.... I don't know nothing about
Serbia, I don't know nothing about anything, except that the Germans got
to stop this sort of gime for Everlasting, Amen.'...
"Sometimes I think he's righter than I am. Sometimes I think he is only
These letters weighed heavily upon Mr. Britling's mind. He perceived
that this precociously wise, subtle youngster of his was now close up to
the line of injury and death, going to and fro from it, in a perpetual,
fluctuating danger. At any time now in the day or night the evil thing
might wing its way to him. If Mr. Britling could have prayed, he would
have prayed for Hugh. He began and never finished some ineffectual
He tried to persuade himself of a Roman stoicism; that he would be
sternly proud, sternly satisfied, if this last sacrifice for his country
was demanded from him. He perceived he was merely humbugging himself....
This war had no longer the simple greatness that would make any such
stern happiness possible....
The disaster to Teddy and Mrs. Teddy hit him hard. He winced at the
thought of Mrs. Teddy's white face; the unspoken accusation in her eyes.
He felt he could never bring himself to say his one excuse to her: "I
did not keep Hugh back. If I had done that, then you might have the
right to blame."
If he had overcome every other difficulty in the way to an heroic pose
there was still Hugh's unconquerable lucidity of outlook. War _was_ a
But what else was to be done? What else could be done? We could not give
in to Germany. If a lunatic struggles, sane men must struggle too....
Mr. Britling had ceased to write about the war at all. All his later
writings about it had been abandoned unfinished. He could not imagine
them counting, affecting any one, producing any effect. Indeed he was
writing now very intermittently. His contributions to _The Times_ had
fallen away. He was perpetually thinking now about the war, about life
and death, about the religious problems that had seemed so remote in the
days of the peace; but none of his thinking would become clear and
definite enough for writing. All the clear stars of his mind were hidden
by the stormy clouds of excitement that the daily newspaper perpetually
renewed and by the daily developments of life. And just as his
professional income shrank before his mental confusion and impotence,
the private income that came from his and his wife's investments became
uncertain. She had had two thousand pounds in the Constantinople loan,
seven hundred in debentures of the Ottoman railway; he had held similar
sums in two Hungarian and one Bulgarian loan, in a linoleum factory at
Rouen and in a Swiss Hotel company. All these stopped payments, and the
dividends from their other investments shrank. There seemed no limit set
to the possibilities of shrinkage of capital and income. Income tax had
leapt to colossal dimensions, the cost of most things had risen, and the
tangle of life was now increased by the need for retrenchments and
economies. He decided that Gladys, the facetiously named automobile, was
a luxury, and sold her for a couple of hundred pounds. He lost his
gardener, who had gone to higher priced work with a miller, and he had
great trouble to replace him, so that the garden became disagreeably
unkempt and unsatisfactory. He had to give up his frequent trips to
London. He was obliged to defer Statesminster for the boys. For a time
at any rate they must go as day boys to Brinsmead. At every point he met
this uncongenial consideration of ways and means. For years now he had
gone easy, lived with a certain self-indulgence. It was extraordinarily
vexatious to have one's greater troubles for one's country and one's son
and one's faith crossed and complicated by these little troubles of the
extra sixpence and the untimely bill.
What worried his mind perhaps more than anything else was his gradual
loss of touch with the essential issues of the war. At first the
militarism, the aggression of Germany, had seemed so bad that he could
not see the action of Britain and her allies as anything but entirely
righteous. He had seen the war plainly and simply in the phrase, "Now
this militarism must end." He had seen Germany as a system, as
imperialism and junkerism, as a callous materialist aggression, as the
spirit that makes war, and the Allies as the protest of humanity against
all these evil things.
Insensibly, in spite of himself, this first version of the war was
giving place to another. The tawdry, rhetorical German Emperor, who had
been the great antagonist at the outset, the last upholder of C�sarism,
God's anointed with the withered arm and the mailed fist, had receded
from the foreground of the picture; that truer Germany which is thought
and system, which is the will to do things thoroughly, the Germany of
Ostwald and the once rejected Hindenburg, was coming to the fore. It
made no apology for the errors and crimes that had been imposed upon it
by its Hohenzollern leadership, but it fought now to save itself from
the destruction and division that would be its inevitable lot if it
accepted defeat too easily; fought to hold out, fought for a second
chance, with discipline, with skill and patience, with a steadfast
will. It fought with science, it fought with economy, with machines and
thought against all too human antagonists. It necessitated an implacable
resistance, but also it commanded respect. Against it fought three great
peoples with as fine a will; but they had neither the unity, the
habitual discipline, nor the science of Germany, and it was the latter
defect that became more and more the distressful matter of Mr.
Britling's thoughts. France after her initial experiences, after her
first reeling month, had risen from the very verge of defeat to a steely
splendour of resolution, but England and Russia, those twin slack
giants, still wasted force, were careless, negligent, uncertain.
Everywhere up and down the scale, from the stupidity of the uniform
sandbags and Hugh's young officer who would not use a map, to the
general conception and direction of the war, Mr. Britling's inflamed and
oversensitised intelligence perceived the same bad qualities for which
he had so often railed upon his countrymen in the days of the peace,
that impatience, that indolence, that wastefulness and inconclusiveness,
that failure to grip issues and do obviously necessary things. The same
lax qualities that had brought England so close to the supreme
imbecility of a civil war in Ireland in July, 1914, were now muddling
and prolonging the war, and postponing, it might be for ever, the
victory that had seemed so certain only a year ago. The politician still
intrigued, the ineffectives still directed. Against brains used to the
utmost their fight was a stupid thrusting forth of men and men and yet
more men, men badly trained, under-equipped, stupidly led. A press
clamour for invention and scientific initiative was stifled under a
committee of elderly celebrities and eminent dufferdom; from the outset,
the Ministry of Munitions seemed under the influence of the "business
It is true that righteousness should triumph over the tyrant and the
robber, but have carelessness and incapacity any right to triumph over
capacity and foresight? Men were coming now to dark questionings
between this intricate choice. And, indeed, was our cause all
There surely is the worst doubt of all for a man whose son is facing
Were we indeed standing against tyranny for freedom?
There came drifting to Mr. Britling's ears a confusion of voices, voices
that told of reaction, of the schemes of employers to best the trade
unions, of greedy shippers and greedy house landlords reaping their
harvest, of waste and treason in the very households of the Ministry, of
religious cant and intolerance at large, of self-advertisement written
in letters of blood, of forestalling and jobbery, of irrational and
exasperating oppressions in India and Egypt.... It came with a shock to
him, too, that Hugh should see so little else than madness in the war,
and have so pitiless a realisation of its essential futility. The boy
forced his father to see--what indeed all along he had been seeing more
and more clearly. The war, even by the standards of adventure and
conquest, had long since become a monstrous absurdity. Some way there
must be out of this bloody entanglement that was yielding victory to
neither side, that was yielding nothing but waste and death beyond all
precedent. The vast majority of people everywhere must be desiring
peace, willing to buy peace at any reasonable price, and in all the
world it seemed there was insufficient capacity to end the daily
butchery and achieve the peace that was so universally desired, the
peace that would be anything better than a breathing space for further
warfare.... Every day came the papers with the balanced story of
battles, losses, destructions, ships sunk, towns smashed. And never a
decision, never a sign of decision.
One Saturday afternoon Mr. Britling found himself with Mrs. Britling at
Claverings. Lady Homartyn was in mourning for her two nephews, the
Glassington boys, who had both been killed, one in Flanders, the other
in Gallipoli. Raeburn was there too, despondent and tired-looking.
There were three young men in khaki, one with the red of a staff
officer; there were two or three women whom Mr. Britling had not met
before, and Miss Sharsper the novelist, fresh from nursing experience
among the convalescents in the south of France. But he was disgusted to
find that the gathering was dominated by his old antagonist, Lady
Frensham, unsubdued, unaltered, rampant over them all, arrogant,
impudent, insulting. She was in mourning, she had the most splendid
black furs Mr. Britling had ever seen; her large triumphant profile came
out of them like the head of a vulture out of its ruff; her elder
brother was a wounded prisoner in Germany, her second was dead; it would
seem that hers were the only sacrifices the war had yet extorted from
any one. She spoke as though it gave her the sole right to criticise the
war or claim compensation for the war.
Her incurable propensity to split the country, to make mischievous
accusations against classes and districts and public servants, was
having full play. She did her best to provoke Mr. Britling into a
dispute, and throw some sort of imputation upon his patriotism as
distinguished from her own noisy and intolerant conceptions of
She tried him first with conscription. She threw out insults at the
shirkers and the "funk classes." All the middle-class people clung on to
their wretched little businesses, made any sort of excuse....
Mr. Britling was stung to defend them. "A business," he said acidly,
"isn't like land, which waits and grows rich for its owner. And these
people can't leave ferrety little agents behind them when they go off to
serve. Tens of thousands of middle-class men have ruined themselves and
flung away every prospect they had in the world to go to this war."
"And scores of thousands haven't!" said Lady Frensham. "They are the men
I'm thinking of."...
Mr. Britling ran through a little list of aristocratic stay-at-homes
that began with a duke.
"And not a soul speaks to them in consequence," she said.
She shifted her attack to the Labour people. They would rather see the
country defeated than submit to a little discipline.
"Because they have no faith in the house of lawyers or the house of
landlords," said Mr. Britling. "Who can blame them?"
She proceeded to tell everybody what she would do with strikers. She
would give them "short shrift." She would give them a taste of the
Prussian way--homoeopathic treatment. "But of course old vote-catching
Asquith daren't--he daren't!" Mr. Britling opened his mouth and said
nothing; he was silenced. The men in khaki listened respectfully but
ambiguously; one of the younger ladies it seemed was entirely of Lady
Frensham's way of thinking, and anxious to show it. The good lady having
now got her hands upon the Cabinet proceeded to deal faithfully with its
two-and-twenty members. Winston Churchill had overridden Lord Fisher
upon the question of Gallipoli, and incurred terrible responsibilities.
Lord Haldane--she called him "Tubby Haldane"--was a convicted traitor.
"The man's a German out and out. Oh! what if he hasn't a drop of German
blood in his veins? He's a German by choice--which is worse."
"I thought he had a certain capacity for organisation," said Mr.
"We don't want his organisation, and we don't want _him_," said Lady
Mr. Britling pleaded for particulars of the late Lord Chancellor's
treasons. There were no particulars. It was just an idea the good lady
had got into her head, that had got into a number of accessible heads.
There was only one strong man in all the country now, Lady Frensham
insisted. That was Sir Edward Carson.
Mr. Britling jumped in his chair.
"But has he ever done anything?" he cried, "except embitter Ireland?"
Lady Frensham did not hear that question. She pursued her glorious
theme. Lloyd George, who had once been worthy only of the gallows, was
now the sole minister fit to put beside her hero. He had won her heart
by his condemnation of the working man. He was the one man who was not
afraid to speak out, to tell them they drank, to tell them they shirked
and loafed, to tell them plainly that if defeat came to this country the
blame would fall upon _them_!
"_No!_" cried Mr. Britling.
"Yes," said Lady Frensham. "Upon them and those who have flattered and
And so on....
It presently became necessary for Lady Homartyn to rescue Mr. Britling
from the great lady's patriotic tramplings. He found himself drifting
into the autumnal garden--the show of dahlias had never been so
wonderful--in the company of Raeburn and the staff officer and a small
woman who was presently discovered to be remarkably well-informed. They
were all despondent. "I think all this promiscuous blaming of people is
quite the worst--and most ominous--thing about us just now," said Mr.
Britling after the restful pause that followed the departure from the
presence of Lady Frensham.
"It goes on everywhere," said the staff officer.
"Is it really--honest?" said Mr. Britling.
Raeburn, after reflection, decided to answer. "As far as it is stupid,
yes. There's a lot of blame coming; there's bound to be a day of
reckoning, and I suppose we've all got an instinctive disposition to
find a scapegoat for our common sins. The Tory press is pretty rotten,
and there's a strong element of mere personal spite--in the Churchill
attacks for example. Personal jealousy probably. Our 'old families'
seem to have got vulgar-spirited imperceptibly--in a generation or so.
They quarrel and shirk and lay blame exactly as bad servants do--and
things are still far too much in their hands. Things are getting muffed,
there can be no doubt about that--not fatally, but still rather
seriously. And the government--it was human before the war, and we've
added no archangels. There's muddle. There's mutual suspicion. You never
know what newspaper office Lloyd George won't be in touch with next.
He's honest and patriotic and energetic, but he's mortally afraid of old
women and class intrigues. He doesn't know where to get his backing.
He's got all a labour member's terror of the dagger at his back. There's
a lack of nerve, too, in getting rid of prominent officers--who have
The staff officer nodded.
"Northcliffe seems to me to have a case," said Mr. Britling. "Every one
"I'd stop his _Daily Mail_," said Raeburn. "I'd leave _The Times_, but
I'd stop the _Daily Mail_ on the score of its placards alone. It
overdoes Northcliffe. It translates him into the shrieks and yells of
underlings. The plain fact is that Northcliffe is scared out of his wits
by German efficiency--and in war time when a man is scared out of his
wits, whether he is honest or not, you put his head in a bag or hold a
pistol to it to calm him.... What is the good of all this clamouring for
a change of government? We haven't a change of government. It's like
telling a tramp to get a change of linen. Our men, all our public men,
are second-rate men, with the habits of advocates. There is nothing
masterful in their minds. How can you expect the system to produce
anything else? But they are doing as well as they can, and there is no
way of putting in any one else now, and there you are."
"Meanwhile," said Mr. Britling, "our boys--get killed."
"They'd get killed all the more if you had--let us say--Carson and
Lloyd George and Northcliffe and Lady Frensham, with, I suppose, Austin
Harrison and Horatio Bottomley thrown in--as a Strong Silent
Government.... I'd rather have Northcliffe as dictator than that.... We
can't suddenly go back on the past and alter our type. We didn't listen
to Matthew Arnold. We've never thoroughly turned out and cleaned up our
higher schools. We've resisted instruction. We've preferred to maintain
our national luxuries of a bench of bishops and party politics. And
compulsory Greek and the university sneer. And Lady Frensham. And all
that sort of thing. And here we are!... Well, damn it, we're in for it
now; we've got to plough through with it--with what we have--as what we
The young staff officer nodded. He thought that was "about it."
"You've got no sons," said Mr. Britling.
"I'm not even married," said Raeburn, as though he thanked God.
The little well-informed lady remarked abruptly that she had two sons;
one was just home wounded from Suvla Bay. What her son told her made her
feel very grave. She said that the public was still quite in the dark
about the battle of Anafarta. It had been a hideous muddle, and we had
been badly beaten. The staff work had been awful. Nothing joined up,
nothing was on the spot and in time. The water supply, for example, had
gone wrong; the men had been mad with thirst. One regiment which she
named had not been supported by another; when at last the first came
back the two battalions fought in the trenches regardless of the enemy.
There had been no leading, no correlation, no plan. Some of the guns,
she declared, had been left behind in Egypt. Some of the train was
untraceable to this day. It was mislaid somewhere in the Levant. At the
beginning Sir Ian Hamilton had not even been present. He had failed to
get there in time. It had been the reckless throwing away of an army.
And so hopeful an army! Her son declared it meant the complete failure
of the Dardanelles project....
"And when one hears how near we came to victory!" she cried, and left it
"Three times this year," said Raeburn, "we have missed victories because
of the badness of our staff work. It's no good picking out scapegoats.
It's a question of national habit. It's because the sort of man we turn
out from our public schools has never learnt how to catch trains, get to
an office on the minute, pack a knapsack properly, or do anything
smartly and quickly--anything whatever that he can possibly get done for
him. You can't expect men who are habitually easy-going to keep bucked
up to a high pitch of efficiency for any length of time. All their
training is against it. All their tradition. They hate being prigs. An
Englishman will be any sort of stupid failure rather than appear a prig.
That's why we've lost three good fights that we ought to have won--and
thousands and thousands of men--and material and time, precious beyond
reckoning. We've lost a year. We've dashed the spirit of our people."
"My boy in Flanders," said Mr. Britling, "says about the same thing. He
says our officers have never learnt to count beyond ten, and that they
are scared at the sight of a map...."
"And the war goes on," said the little woman.
"How long, oh Lord! how long?" cried Mr. Britling.
"I'd give them another year," said the staff officer. "Just going as we
are going. Then something _must_ give way. There will be no money
anywhere. There'll be no more men.... I suppose they'll feel that
shortage first anyhow. Russia alone has over twenty millions."
"That's about the size of it," said Raeburn....
"Do you think, sir, there'll be civil war?" asked the young staff
officer abruptly after a pause.
There was a little interval before any one answered this surprising
"After the peace, I mean," said the young officer.
"There'll be just the devil to pay," said Raeburn.
"One thing after another in the country is being pulled up by its
roots," reflected Mr. Britling.
"We've never produced a plan for the war, and it isn't likely we shall
have one for the peace," said Raeburn, and added: "and Lady Frensham's
little lot will be doing their level best to sit on the safety-valve....
They'll rake up Ireland and Ulster from the very start. But I doubt if
Ulster will save 'em."
"We shall squabble. What else do we ever do?"
No one seemed able to see more than that. A silence fell on the little
"Well, thank heaven for these dahlias," said Raeburn, affecting the
The young staff officer regarded the dahlias without enthusiasm....
Mr. Britling sat one September afternoon with Captain Lawrence Carmine
in the sunshine of the barn court, and smoked with him and sometimes
talked and sometimes sat still.
"When it began I did not believe that this war could be like other
wars," he said. "I did not dream it. I thought that we had grown wiser
at last. It seemed to me like the dawn of a great clearing up. I thought
the common sense of mankind would break out like a flame, an indignant
flame, and consume all this obsolete foolery of empires and banners and
militarism directly it made its attack upon human happiness. A score of
things that I see now were preposterous, I thought must
happen--naturally. I thought America would declare herself against the
Belgian outrage; that she would not tolerate the smashing of the great
sister republic--if only for the memory of Lafayette. Well--I gather
America is chiefly concerned about our making cotton contraband. I
thought the Balkan States were capable of a reasonable give and take; of
a common care for their common freedom. I see now three German royalties
trading in peasants, and no men in their lands to gainsay them. I saw
this war, as so many Frenchmen have seen it, as something that might
legitimately command a splendid enthusiasm of indignation.... It was all
a dream, the dream of a prosperous comfortable man who had never come to
the cutting edge of life. Everywhere cunning, everywhere small feuds and
hatreds, distrusts, dishonesties, timidities, feebleness of purpose,
dwarfish imaginations, swarm over the great and simple issues.... It is
a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have
shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a
war that has lost its soul, it has become mere incoherent fighting and
destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity
and ineffectiveness of our species...."
He stopped, and there was a little interval of silence.
Captain Carmine tossed the fag end of his cigar very neatly into a tub
of hydrangeas. "Three thousand years ago in China," he said, "there were
men as sad as we are, for the same cause."
"Three thousand years ahead perhaps," said Mr. Britling, "there will
still be men with the same sadness.... And yet--and yet.... No. Just now
I have no elasticity. It is not in my nature to despair, but things are
pressing me down. I don't recover as I used to recover. I tell myself
still that though the way is long and hard the spirit of hope, the
spirit of creation, the generosities and gallantries in the heart of
man, must end in victory. But I say that over as one repeats a worn-out
prayer. The light is out of the sky for me. Sometimes I doubt if it will
ever come back. Let younger men take heart and go on with the world. If
I could die for the right thing now--instead of just having to live on
in this world of ineffective struggle--I would be glad to die now,
In these days also Mr. Direck was very unhappy.
For Cissie, at any rate, had not lost touch with the essential issues of
the war. She was as clear as ever that German militarism and the German
attack on Belgium and France was the primary subject of the war. And she
dismissed all secondary issues. She continued to demand why America did
not fight. "We fight for Belgium. Won't you fight for the Dutch and
Norwegian ships? Won't you even fight for your own ships that the
Germans are sinking?"
Mr. Direck attempted explanations that were ill received.
"You were ready enough to fight the Spaniards when they blew up the
_Maine_. But the Germans can sink the _Lusitania_! That's--as you say--a
His mind was shot by an extraordinary suspicion that she thought the
_Lusitania_ an American vessel. But Mr. Direck was learning his Cissie,
and he did not dare to challenge her on this score.
"You haven't got hold of the American proposition," he said. "We're
thinking beyond wars."
"That's what we have been trying to do," said Cissie. "Do you think we
came into it for the fun of the thing?"
"Haven't I shown in a hundred ways that I sympathise?"
He fared little better at Mr. Britling's hands. Mr. Britling talked
darkly, but pointed all the time only too plainly at America. "There's
two sorts of liberalism," said Mr. Britling, "that pretend to be the
same thing; there's the liberalism of great aims and the liberalism of
defective moral energy...."
It was not until Teddy had been missing for three weeks that Hugh wrote
about him. The two Essex battalions on the Flanders front were
apparently wide apart, and it was only from home that Hugh learnt what
"You can't imagine how things narrow down when one is close up against
them. One does not know what is happening even within a few miles of us,
until we get the newspapers. Then, with a little reading between the
lines and some bold guessing, we fit our little bit of experience with a
general shape. Of course I've wondered at times about Teddy. But oddly
enough I've never thought of him very much as being out here. It's
queer, I know, but I haven't. I can't imagine why....
"I don't know about 'missing.' We've had nothing going on here that has
led to any missing. All our men have been accounted for. But every few
miles along the front conditions alter. His lot may have been closer up
to the enemy, and there may have been a rush and a fight for a bit of
trench either way. In some parts the German trenches are not thirty
yards away, and there is mining, bomb throwing, and perpetual creeping
up and give and take. Here we've been getting a bit forward. But I'll
tell you about that presently. And, anyhow, I don't understand about
'missing.' There's very few prisoners taken now. But don't tell Letty
that. I try to imagine old Teddy in it....
"Missing's a queer thing. It isn't tragic--or pitiful. Or partly
reassuring like 'prisoner.' It just sends one speculating and
speculating. I can't find any one who knows where the 14th Essex are.
Things move about here so mysteriously that for all I know we may find
them in the next trench next time we go up. But there _is_ a chance for
Teddy. It's worth while bucking Letty all you can. And at the same time
there's odds against him. There plainly and unfeelingly is how things
stand in my mind. I think chiefly of Letty. I'm glad Cissie is with her,
and I'm glad she's got the boy. Keep her busy. She was frightfully fond
of him. I've seen all sorts of things between them, and I know that....
I'll try and write to her soon, and I'll find something hopeful to tell
"Meanwhile I've got something to tell you. I've been through a fight, a
big fight, and I haven't got a scratch. I've taken two prisoners with my
lily hand. Men were shot close to me. I didn't mind that a bit. It was
as exciting as one of those bitter fights we used to have round the
hockey goal. I didn't mind anything till afterwards. Then when I was in
the trench in the evening I trod on something slippery--pah! And after
it was all over one of my chums got it--sort of unfairly. And I keep on
thinking of those two things so much that all the early part is just
dreamlike. It's more like something I've read in a book, or seen in the
_Illustrated London News_ than actually been through. One had been
thinking so often, how will it feel? how shall I behave? that when it
came it had an effect of being flat and ordinary.
"They say we hadn't got enough guns in the spring or enough ammunition.
That's all right now--anyhow. They started in plastering the Germans
overnight, and right on until it was just daylight. I never heard such a
row, and their trenches--we could stand up and look at them without
getting a single shot at us--were flying about like the crater of a
volcano. We were not in our firing trench. We had gone back into some
new trenches, at the rear--I think to get out of the way of the counter
fire. But this morning they weren't doing very much. For once our guns
were on top. There was a feeling of anticipation--very like waiting for
an examination paper to be given out; then we were at it. Getting out of
a trench to attack gives you an odd feeling of being just hatched.
Suddenly the world is big. I don't remember our gun fire stopping. And
then you rush. 'Come on! Come on!' say the officers. Everybody gives a
sort of howl and rushes. When you see men dropping, you rush the faster.
The only thing that checks you at all is the wire twisted about
everywhere. You don't want to trip over that. The frightening thing is
the exposure. After being in the trenches so long you feel naked. You
run like a scared child for the German trench ahead. I can't understand
the iron nerve of a man who can expose his back by turning to run away.
And there's a thirsty feeling with one's bayonet. But they didn't wait.
They dropped rifles and ran. But we ran so fast after them that we
caught one or two in the second trench. I got down into that, heard a
voice behind me, and found my two prisoners lying artful in a dug-out.
They held up their hands as I turned. If they hadn't I doubt if I should
have done anything to them. I didn't feel like it. I felt _friendly_.
"Not all the Germans ran. Three or four stuck to their machine-guns
until they got bayoneted. Both the trenches were frightfully smashed
about, and in the first one there were little knots and groups of dead.
We got to work at once shying the sandbags over from the old front of
the trench to the parados. Our guns had never stopped all the time; they
were now plastering the third line trenches. And almost at once the
German shells began dropping into us. Of course they had the range to an
inch. One didn't have any time to feel and think; one just set oneself
with all one's energy to turn the trench over....
"I don't remember that I helped or cared for a wounded man all the time,
or felt anything about the dead except to step over them and not on
them. I was just possessed by the idea that we had to get the trench
into a sheltering state before they tried to come back. And then stick
there. I just wanted to win, and there was nothing else in my mind....
"They did try to come back, but not very much....
"Then when I began to feel sure of having got hold of the trench for
good, I began to realise just how tired I was and how high the sun had
got. I began to look about me, and found most of the other men working
just as hard as I had been doing. 'We've done it!' I said, and that was
the first word I'd spoken since I told my two Germans to come out of it,
and stuck a man with a wounded leg to watch them. 'It's a bit of All
Right,' said Ortheris, knocking off also, and lighting a half-consumed
cigarette. He had been wearing it behind his ear, I believe, ever since
the charge. Against this occasion. He'd kept close up to me all the
time, I realised. And then old Park turned up very cheerful with a weak
bayonet jab in his forearm that he wanted me to rebandage. It was good
to see him practically all right too.
"'I took two prisoners,' I said, and everybody I spoke to I told that. I
was fearfully proud of it.
"I thought that if I could take two prisoners in my first charge I was
going to be some soldier.
"I had stood it all admirably. I didn't feel a bit shaken. I was as
tough as anything. I'd seen death and killing, and it was all just
"And then that confounded Ortheris must needs go and get killed.
"The shell knocked me over, and didn't hurt me a bit. I was a little
stunned, and some dirt was thrown over me, and when I got up on my knees
I saw Jewell lying about six yards off--and his legs were all smashed
about. Ugh! Pulped!
"He looked amazed. 'Bloody,' he said, 'bloody.' He fixed his eyes on me,
and suddenly grinned. You know we'd once had two fights about his saying
'bloody,' I think I told you at the time, a fight and a return match,
he couldn't box for nuts, but he stood up like a Briton, and it appealed
now to his sense of humour that I should be standing there too dazed to
protest at the old offence. 'I thought _you_ was done in,' he said. 'I'm
in a mess--a bloody mess, ain't I? Like a stuck pig. Bloody--right
enough. Bloody! I didn't know I 'ad it _in_ me.'
"He looked at me and grinned with a sort of pale satisfaction in keeping
up to the last--dying good Ortheris to the finish. I just stood up
helpless in front of him, still rather dazed.
"He said something about having a thundering thirst on him.
"I really don't believe he felt any pain. He would have done if he had
"And then while I was fumbling with my water-bottle, he collapsed. He
forgot all about Ortheris. Suddenly he said something that cut me all to
ribbons. His face puckered up just like the face of a fretful child
which refuses to go to bed. 'I didn't want to be aut of it,' he said
petulantly. 'And I'm done!' And then--then he just looked discontented
and miserable and died--right off. Turned his head a little way over. As
if he was impatient at everything. Fainted--and fluttered out.
"For a time I kept trying to get him to drink....
"I couldn't believe he was dead....
"And suddenly it was all different. I began to cry. Like a baby. I kept
on with the water-bottle at his teeth long after I was convinced he was
dead. I didn't want him to be aut of it! God knows how I didn't. I
wanted my dear little Cockney cad back. Oh! most frightfully I wanted
"I shook him. I was like a scared child. I blubbered and howled
things.... It's all different since he died.
"My dear, dear Father, I am grieving and grieving--and it's altogether
nonsense. And it's all mixed up in my mind with the mess I trod on. And
it gets worse and worse. So that I don't seem to feel anything really,
even for Teddy.
"It's been just the last straw of all this hellish foolery....
"If ever there was a bigger lie, my dear Daddy, than any other, it is
that man is a reasonable creature....
"War is just foolery--lunatic foolery--hell's foolery....
"But, anyhow, your son is sound and well--if sorrowful and angry. We
were relieved that night. And there are rumours that very soon we are to
have a holiday and a refit. We lost rather heavily. We have been
praised. But all along, Essex has done well. I can't reckon to get back
yet, but there are such things as leave for eight-and-forty hours or so
"I shall be glad of that sort of turning round....
"I'm tired. Oh! I'm tired....
"I wanted to write all about Jewell to his mother or his sweetheart or
some one; I wanted to wallow in his praises, to say all the things I
really find now that I thought about him, but I haven't even had that
satisfaction. He was a Poor Law child; he was raised in one of those
awful places between Sutton and Banstead in Surrey. I've told you of all
the sweethearting he had. 'Soldiers Three' was his Bible; he was always
singing 'Tipperary,' and he never got the tune right nor learnt more
than three lines of it. He laced all his talk with 'b----y'; it was his
jewel, his ruby. But he had the pluck of a robin or a squirrel; I never
knew him scared or anything but cheerful. Misfortunes, humiliations,
only made him chatty. And he'd starve to have something to give away.
"Well, well, this is the way of war, Daddy. This is what war is. Damn
the Kaiser! Damn all fools.... Give my love to the Mother and the
bruddykins and every one...."
It was just a day or so over three weeks after this last letter from
Hugh that Mr. Direck reappeared at Matching's Easy. He had had a trip to
Holland--a trip that was as much a flight from Cissie's reproaches as a
mission of inquiry. He had intended to go on into Belgium, where he had
already been doing useful relief work under Mr. Hoover, but the
confusion of his own feelings had checked him and brought him back.
Mr. Direck's mind was in a perplexity only too common during the
stresses of that tragic year. He was entangled in a paradox; like a
large majority of Americans at that time his feelings were quite
definitely pro-Ally, and like so many in that majority he had a very
clear conviction that it would be wrong and impossible for the United
States to take part in the war. His sympathies were intensely with the
Dower House and its dependent cottage; he would have wept with generous
emotion to see the Stars and Stripes interwoven with the three other
great banners of red, white and blue that led the world against German
imperialism and militarism, but for all that his mind would not march to
that tune. Against all these impulses fought something very fundamental
in Mr. Direck's composition, a preconception of America that had grown
almost insensibly in his mind, the idea of America as a polity aloof
from the Old World system, as a fresh start for humanity, as something
altogether too fine and precious to be dragged into even the noblest of
European conflicts. America was to be the beginning of the fusion of
mankind, neither German nor British nor French nor in any way national.
She was to be the great experiment in peace and reasonableness. She had
to hold civilisation and social order out of this fray, to be a refuge
for all those finer things that die under stress and turmoil; it was her
task to maintain the standards of life and the claims of humanitarianism
in the conquered province and the prisoners' compound, she had to be
the healer and arbitrator, the remonstrance and not the smiting hand.
Surely there were enough smiting hands.
But this idea of an America judicial, remonstrating, and aloof, led him
to a conclusion that scandalised him. If America will not, and should
not use force in the ends of justice, he argued, then America has no
right to make and export munitions of war. She must not trade in what
she disavows. He had a quite exaggerated idea of the amount of munitions
that America was sending to the Allies, he was inclined to believe that
they were entirely dependent upon their transatlantic supplies, and so
he found himself persuaded that the victory of the Allies and the honour
of America were incompatible things. And--in spite of his ethical
aloofness--he loved the Allies. He wanted them to win, and he wanted
America to abandon a course that he believed was vitally necessary to
their victory. It was an intellectual dilemma. He hid this
self-contradiction from Matching's Easy with much the same feelings that
a curate might hide a poisoned dagger at a tea-party....
It was entirely against his habits of mind to hide anything--more
particularly an entanglement with a difficult proposition--but he
perceived quite clearly that neither Cecily nor Mr. Britling were really
to be trusted to listen calmly to what, under happier circumstances,
might be a profoundly interesting moral complication. Yet it was not in
his nature to conceal; it was in his nature to state.
And Cecily made things much more difficult. She was pitiless with him.
She kept him aloof. "How can I let you make love to me," she said, "when
our English men are all going to the war, when Teddy is a prisoner and
Hugh is in the trenches. If I were a man--!"
She couldn't be induced to see any case for America. England was
fighting for freedom, and America ought to be beside her. "All the
world ought to unite against this German wickedness," she said.
"I'm doing all I can to help in Belgium," he protested. "Aren't I
working? We've fed four million people."
He had backbone, and he would not let her, he was resolved, bully him
into a falsehood about his country. America was aloof. She was right to
be aloof.... At the same time, Cecily's reproaches were unendurable. And
he could feel he was drifting apart from her....
_He_ couldn't make America go to war.
In the quiet of his London hotel he thought it all out. He sat at a
writing-table making notes of a perfectly lucid statement of the
reasonable, balanced liberal American opinion. An instinct of caution
determined him to test it first on Mr. Britling.
But Mr. Britling realised his worst expectations. He was beyond
"I've not heard from my boy for more than three weeks," said Mr.
Britling in the place of any salutation. "This morning makes
three-and-twenty days without a letter."
It seemed to Mr. Direck that Mr. Britling had suddenly grown ten years
older. His face was more deeply lined; the colour and texture of his
complexion had gone grey. He moved restlessly and badly; his nerves were
"It's intolerable that one should be subjected to this ghastly suspense.
The boy isn't three hundred miles away."
Mr. Direck made obvious inquiries.
"Always before he's written--generally once a fortnight."
They talked of Hugh for a time, but Mr. Britling was fitful and
irritable and quite prepared to hold Mr. Direck accountable for the
laxity of the War Office, the treachery of Bulgaria, the ambiguity of
Roumania or any other barb that chanced to be sticking into his
sensibilities. They lunched precariously. Then they went into the study
There Mr. Direck was unfortunate enough to notice a copy of that
innocent American publication _The New Republic_, lying close to two or
three numbers of _The Fatherland_, a pro-German periodical which at that
time inflicted itself upon English writers with the utmost
determination. Mr. Direck remarked that _The New Republic_ was an
interesting effort on the part of "_la Jeunesse Am�ricaine_." Mr.
Britling regarded the interesting effort with a jaded, unloving eye.
"You Americans," he said, "are the most extraordinary people in the
"Our conditions are exceptional," said Mr. Direck.
"You think they are," said Mr. Britling, and paused, and then began to
deliver his soul about America in a discourse of accumulating
bitterness. At first he reasoned and explained, but as he went on he
lost self-control; he became dogmatic, he became denunciatory, he became
abusive. He identified Mr. Direck more and more with his subject; he
thrust the uncivil "You" more and more directly at him. He let his cigar
go out, and flung it impatiently into the fire. As though America was
responsible for its going out....
Like many Britons Mr. Britling had that touch of patriotic feeling
towards America which takes the form of impatient criticism. No one in
Britain ever calls an American a foreigner. To see faults in Germany or
Spain is to tap boundless fountains of charity; but the faults of
America rankle in an English mind almost as much as the faults of
England. Mr. Britling could explain away the faults of England readily
enough; our Hanoverian monarchy, our Established Church and its
deadening effect on education, our imperial obligations and the strain
they made upon our supplies of administrative talent were all very
serviceable for that purpose. But there in America was the old race,
without Crown or Church or international embarrassment, and it was
still falling short of splendid. His speech to Mr. Direck had the
rancour of a family quarrel. Let me only give a few sentences that were
to stick in Mr. Direck's memory.
"You think you are out of it for good and all. So did we think. We were
as smug as you are when France went down in '71.... Yours is only one
further degree of insularity. You think this vacuous aloofness of yours
is some sort of moral superiority. So did we, so did we....
"It won't last you ten years if we go down....
"Do you think that our disaster will leave the Atlantic for you? Do you
fancy there is any Freedom of the Seas possible beyond such freedom as
we maintain, except the freedom to attack you? For forty years the
British fleet has guarded all America from European attack. Your Monroe
doctrine skulks behind it now....
"I'm sick of this high thin talk of yours about the war.... You are a
nation of ungenerous onlookers--watching us throttle or be throttled.
You gamble on our winning. And we shall win; we shall win. And you will
profit. And when we have won a victory only one shade less terrible than
defeat, then you think you will come in and tinker with our peace. Bleed
us a little more to please your hyphenated patriots...."
He came to his last shaft. "You talk of your New Ideals of Peace. You
say that you are too proud to fight. But your business men in New York
give the show away. There's a little printed card now in half the
offices in New York that tells of the real pacificism of America.
They're busy, you know. Trade's real good. And so as not to interrupt it
they stick up this card: 'Nix on the war!' Think of it!--'Nix on the
war!' Here is the whole fate of mankind at stake, and America's
contribution is a little grumbling when the Germans sank the
_Lusitania_, and no end of grumbling when we hold up a ship or two and
some fool of a harbour-master makes an overcharge. Otherwise--'Nix on
"Well, let it be Nix on the war! Don't come here and talk to me! You who
were searching registers a year ago to find your Essex kin. Let it be
Nix! Explanations! What do I want with explanations? And"--he mocked his
guest's accent and his guest's mode of thought--"dif'cult prap'sitions."
He got up and stood irresolute. He knew he was being preposterously
unfair to America, and outrageously uncivil to a trusting guest; he knew
he had no business now to end the talk in this violent fashion. But it
was an enormous relief. And to mend matters--_No!_ He was glad he'd said
He swung a shoulder to Mr. Direck, and walked out of the room....
Mr. Direck heard him cross the hall and slam the door of the little
Mr. Direck had been stirred deeply by the tragic indignation of this
explosion, and the ring of torment in Mr. Britling's voice. He had stood
up also, but he did not follow his host.
"It's his boy," said Mr. Direck at last, confidentially to the
writing-desk. "How can one argue with him? It's just hell for him...."
Mr. Direck took his leave of Mrs. Britling, and went very slowly towards
the little cottage. But he did not go to the cottage. He felt he would
only find another soul in torment there.
"What's the good of hanging round talking?" said Mr. Direck.
He stopped at the stile in the lane, and sat thinking deeply. "Only one
thing will convince her," he said.
He held out his fingers. "First this," he whispered, "and then that.
He went on as far as the bend from which one sees the cottage, and stood
for a little time regarding it.
He returned still more sorrowfully to the junction, and with every step
he took it seemed to him that he would rather see Cecily angry and
insulting than not see her at all.
At the post office he stopped and wrote a letter-card.
"Dear Cissie," he wrote. "I came down to-day to see you--and thought
better of it. I'm going right off to find out about Teddy. Somehow I'll
get that settled. I'll fly around and do that somehow if I have to go up
to the German front to do it. And when I've got that settled I've got
something else in my mind--well, it will wipe out all this little
trouble that's got so big between us about neutrality. And I love you
That was all the card would hold.
And then as if it were something that every one in the Dower House had
been waiting for, came the message that Hugh had been killed.
The telegram was brought up by a girl in a pinafore instead of the boy
of the old dispensation, for boys now were doing the work of youths and
youths the work of the men who had gone to the war.
Mr. Britling was standing at the front door; he had been surveying the
late October foliage, touched by the warm light of the afternoon, when
the messenger appeared. He opened the telegram, hoping as he had hoped
when he opened any telegram since Hugh had gone to the front that it
would not contain the exact words he read; that it would say wounded,
that at the worst it would say "missing," that perhaps it might even
tell of some pleasant surprise, a brief return to home such as the last
letter had foreshadowed. He read the final, unqualified statement, the
terse regrets. He stood quite still for a moment or so, staring at the
It was a mile and a quarter from the post office to the Dower House, and
it was always his custom to give telegraph messengers who came to his
house twopence, and he wanted very much to get rid of the telegraph
girl, who stood expectantly before him holding her red bicycle. He felt
now very sick and strained; he had a conviction that if he did not by an
effort maintain his bearing cool and dry he would howl aloud. He felt in
his pocket for money; there were some coppers and a shilling. He pulled
it all out together and stared at it.
He had an absurd conviction that this ought to be a sixpenny telegram.
The thing worried him. He wanted to give the brat sixpence, and he had
only threepence and a shilling, and he didn't know what to do and his
brain couldn't think. It would be a shocking thing to give her a
shilling, and he couldn't somehow give just coppers for so important a
thing as Hugh's death. Then all this problem vanished and he handed the
child the shilling. She stared at him, inquiring, incredulous. "Is there
a reply, Sir, please?"
"No," he said, "that's for you. All of it.... This is a peculiar sort of
telegram.... It's news of importance...."
As he said this he met her eyes, and had a sudden persuasion that she
knew exactly what it was the telegram had told him, and that she was
shocked at this gala-like treatment of such terrible news. He hesitated,
feeling that he had to say something else, that he was socially
inadequate, and then he decided that at any cost he must get his face
away from her staring eyes. She made no movement to turn away. She
seemed to be taking him in, recording him, for repetition, greedily,
with every fibre of her being.
He stepped past her into the garden, and instantly forgot about her
He had been thinking of this possibility for the last few weeks almost
continuously, and yet now that it had come to him he felt that he had
never thought about it before, that he must go off alone by himself to
envisage this monstrous and terrible fact, without distraction or
He saw his wife coming down the alley between the roses.
He was wrenched by emotions as odd and unaccountable as the emotions of
adolescence. He had exactly the same feeling now that he had had when in
his boyhood some unpleasant admission had to be made to his parents. He
felt he could not go through a scene with her yet, that he could not
endure the task of telling her, of being observed. He turned abruptly to
his left. He walked away as if he had not seen her, across his lawn
towards the little summer-house upon a knoll that commanded the high
road. She called to him, but he did not answer....
He would not look towards her, but for a time all his senses were alert
to hear whether she followed him. Safe in the summer-house he could
It was all right. She was going into the house.
He drew the telegram from his pocket again furtively, almost guiltily,
and re-read it. He turned it over and read it again....
Then his own voice, hoarse and strange to his ears, spoke his thought.
"My God! how unutterably silly.... Why did I let him go? Why did I let
Mrs. Britling did not learn of the blow that had struck them until after
dinner that night. She was so accustomed to ignore his incomprehensible
moods that she did not perceive that there was anything tragic about
him until they sat at table together. He seemed heavy and sulky and
disposed to avoid her, but that sort of moodiness was nothing very
strange to her. She knew that things that seemed to her utterly trivial,
the reading of political speeches in _The Times_, little comments on
life made in the most casual way, mere movements, could so avert him.
She had cultivated a certain disregard of such fitful darknesses. But at
the dinner-table she looked up, and was stabbed to the heart to see a
haggard white face and eyes of deep despair regarding her ambiguously.
"Hugh!" she said, and then with a chill intimation, "_What is it?_"
They looked at each other. His face softened and winced.
"My Hugh," he whispered, and neither spoke for some seconds.
"_Killed_," he said, and suddenly stood up whimpering, and fumbled with
It seemed he would never find what he sought. It came at last, a
crumpled telegram. He threw it down before her, and then thrust his
chair back clumsily and went hastily out of the room. She heard him sob.
She had not dared to look at his face again.
"Oh!" she cried, realising that an impossible task had been thrust upon
"But what can I _say_ to him?" she said, with the telegram in her hand.
The parlourmaid came into the room.
"Clear the dinner away!" said Mrs. Britling, standing at her place.
"Master Hugh is killed...." And then wailing: "Oh! what can I _say_?
What can I _say_?"
That night Mrs. Britling made the supreme effort of her life to burst
the prison of self-consciousness and inhibition in which she was
confined. Never before in all her life had she so desired to be
spontaneous and unrestrained; never before had she so felt herself
hampered by her timidity, her self-criticism, her deeply ingrained habit
of never letting herself go. She was rent by reflected distress. It
seemed to her that she would be ready to give her life and the whole
world to be able to comfort her husband now. And she could conceive no
gesture of comfort. She went out of the dining-room into the hall and
listened. She went very softly upstairs until she came to the door of
her husband's room. There she stood still. She could hear no sound from
within. She put out her hand and turned the handle of the door a little
way, and then she was startled by the loudness of the sound it made and
at her own boldness. She withdrew her hand, and then with a gesture of
despair, with a face of white agony, she flitted along the corridor to
her own room.
Her mind was beaten to the ground by this catastrophe, of which to this
moment she had never allowed herself to think. She had never allowed
herself to think of it. The figure of her husband, like some pitiful
beast, wounded and bleeding, filled her mind. She gave scarcely a
thought to Hugh. "Oh, what can I _do_ for him?" she asked herself,
sitting down before her unlit bedroom fire.... "What can I say or do?"
She brooded until she shivered, and then she lit her fire....
It was late that night and after an eternity of resolutions and doubts
and indecisions that Mrs. Britling went to her husband. He was sitting
close up to the fire with his chin upon his hands, waiting for her; he
felt that she would come to him, and he was thinking meanwhile of Hugh
with a slow unprogressive movement of the mind. He showed by a movement
that he heard her enter the room, but he did not turn to look at her. He
shrank a little from her approach.
She came and stood beside him. She ventured to touch him very softly,
and to stroke his head. "My dear," she said. "My poor dear!
"It is so dreadful for you," she said, "it is so dreadful for you. I
know how you loved him...."
He spread his hands over his face and became very still.
"My poor dear!" she said, still stroking his hair, "my poor dear!"
And then she went on saying "poor dear," saying it presently because
there was nothing more had come into her mind. She desired supremely to
be his comfort, and in a little while she was acting comfort so poorly
that she perceived her own failure. And that increased her failure, and
that increased her paralysing sense of failure....
And suddenly her stroking hand ceased. Suddenly the real woman cried out
"I can't _reach_ you!" she cried aloud. "I can't reach you. I would do
anything.... You! You with your heart half broken...."
She turned towards the door. She moved clumsily, she was blinded by her
Mr. Britling uncovered his face. He stood up astonished, and then pity
and pitiful understanding came storming across his grief. He made a step
and took her in his arms. "My dear," he said, "don't go from me...."
She turned to him weeping, and put her arms about his neck, and he too
"My poor wife!" he said, "my dear wife. If it were not for you--I think
I could kill myself to-night. Don't cry, my dear. Don't, don't cry. You
do not know how you comfort me. You do not know how you help me."
He drew her to him; he put her cheek against his own....
His heart was so sore and wounded that he could not endure that another
human being should go wretched. He sat down in his chair and drew her
upon his knees, and said everything he could think of to console her
and reassure her and make her feel that she was of value to him. He
spoke of every pleasant aspect of their lives, of every aspect, except
that he never named that dear pale youth who waited now.... He could
wait a little longer....
At last she went from him.
"Good night," said Mr. Britling, and took her to the door. "It was very
dear of you to come and comfort me," he said....
He closed the door softly behind her.
The door had hardly shut upon her before he forgot her. Instantly he was
alone again, utterly alone. He was alone in an empty world....
Loneliness struck him like a blow. He had dependents, he had cares. He
had never a soul to whom he might weep....
For a time he stood beside his open window. He looked at the bed--but no
sleep he knew would come that night--until the sleep of exhaustion came.
He looked at the bureau at which he had so often written. But the
writing there was a shrivelled thing....
This room was unendurable. He must go out. He turned to the window, and
outside was a troublesome noise of night-jars and a distant roaring of
stags, black trees, blacknesses, the sky clear and remote with a great
company of stars.... The stars seemed attentive. They stirred and yet
were still. It was as if they were the eyes of watchers. He would go out
Very softly he went towards the passage door, and still more softly felt
his way across the landing and down the staircase. Once or twice he
paused to listen.
He let himself out with elaborate precautions....
Across the dark he went, and suddenly his boy was all about him,
playing, climbing the cedars, twisting miraculously about the lawn on a
bicycle, discoursing gravely upon his future, lying on the grass,
breathing very hard and drawing preposterous caricatures. Once again
they walked side by side up and down--it was athwart this very
spot--talking gravely but rather shyly....
And here they had stood a little awkwardly, before the boy went in to
say good-bye to his stepmother and go off with his father to the
"I will work to-morrow again," whispered Mr. Britling, "but
to-night--to-night.... To-night is yours.... Can you hear me, can you
hear? Your father ... who had counted on you...."
He went into the far corner of the hockey paddock, and there he moved
about for a while and then stood for a long time holding the fence with
both hands and staring blankly into the darkness. At last he turned
away, and went stumbling and blundering towards the rose garden. A spray
of creeper tore his face and distressed him. He thrust it aside
fretfully, and it scratched his hand. He made his way to the seat in the
arbour, and sat down and whispered a little to himself, and then became
very still with his arm upon the back of the seat and his head upon his