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   Chapter 11 THE BATTLEFIELDS

Great Britain at War By Jeffery Farnol Characters: 9139

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


To all who sit immune, far removed from war and all its horrors, to those to whom when Death comes, he comes in shape as gentle as he may-to all such I dedicate these tales of the front.

How many stories of battlefields have been written of late, written to be scanned hastily over the breakfast table or comfortably lounged over in an easy-chair, stories warranted not to shock or disgust, wherein the reader may learn of the glorious achievements of our armies, of heroic deeds and noble self-sacrifice, so that frequently I have heard it said that war, since it produces heroes, is a goodly thing, a necessary thing.

Can the average reader know or even faintly imagine the other side of the picture? Surely not, for no clean human mind can compass all the horror, all the brutal, grotesque obscenity of a modern battlefield. Therefore I propose to write plainly, briefly, of that which I saw on my last visit to the British front; for since in blood-sodden France men are dying even as I pen these lines, it seems only just that those of us for whom they are giving their lives should at least know something of the manner of their dying. To this end I visited four great battlefields and I would that all such as cry up war, its necessity, its inevitability, might have gone beside me. Though I have sometimes written of war, yet I am one that hates war, one to whom the sight of suffering and bloodshed causes physical pain, yet I forced myself to tread those awful fields of death and agony, to look upon the ghastly aftermath of modern battle, that, if it be possible, I might by my testimony in some small way help those who know as little of war as I did once, to realise the horror of it, that loathing it for the hellish thing it is, they may, one and all, set their faces against war henceforth, with an unshakeable determination that never again shall it be permitted to maim, to destroy and blast out of being the noblest works of God.

What I write here I set down deliberately, with no idea of phrase-making, of literary values or rounded periods; this is and shall be a plain, trite statement of fact.

And now, one and all, come with me in spirit, lend me your mind's eyes, and see for yourselves something of what modern war really is.

Behold then a stretch of country-a sea of mud far as the eye can reach, a grim desolate expanse, its surface ploughed and churned by thousands of high-explosive shells into ugly holes and tortured heaps like muddy waves struck motionless upon this muddy sea. The guns are silent, the cheers and frenzied shouts, the screams and groans have long died away, and no sound is heard save the noise of my own going.

The sun shone palely and a fitful wind swept across the waste, a noxious wind, cold and dank, that chilled me with a sudden dread even while the sweat ran from me. I walked amid shell craters, sometimes knee-deep in mud; I stumbled over rifles half buried in the slime, on muddy knapsacks, over muddy bags half full of rusty bombs, and so upon the body of a dead German soldier. With arms wide-flung and writhen legs grotesquely twisted he lay there beneath my boot, his head half buried in the mud, even so I could see that the maggots had been busy, though the ....[1] had killed them where they clung. So there he lay, this dead Boche, skull gleaming under shrunken scalp, an awful, eyeless thing, that seemed to start, to stir and shiver as the cold wind stirred his muddy clothing. Then nausea and a deadly faintness seized me, but I shook it off, and shivering, sweating, forced myself to stoop and touch that awful thing, and, with the touch, horror and faintness passed, and in their place I felt a deep and passionate pity, for all he was a Boche, and with pity in my heart I turned and went my way.

But now, wherever I looked were other shapes, that lay in attitudes frightfully contorted, grotesque and awful. Here the battle had raged desperately. I stood in a very charnel-house of dead. From a mound of earth upflung by a bursting shell a clenched fist, weather-bleached and pallid, seemed to threaten me; from another emerged a pair of crossed legs with knees up-drawn, very like the legs of one who dozes gently on a hot day. Hard by, a pair of German knee-boots topped a shell crater, and drawing near, I saw the grey-green breeches, belt and pouches, and beyond-nothing but unspeakable corruption. I started back in horror and stepped on something that yielded underfoot-glanced down and saw a bloated, discoloured face, that, even as I looked, vanished beneath my boo

t and left a bare and grinning skull.

Once again the faintness seized me, and lifting my head I stared round about me and across the desolation of this hellish waste. Far in the distance was the road where men moved to and fro, busy with picks and shovels, and some sang and some whistled and never sound more welcome. Here and there across these innumerable shell holes, solitary figures moved, men, these, who walked heedfully and with heads down-bent. And presently I moved on, but now, like these distant figures, I kept my gaze upon that awful mud lest again I should trample heedlessly on something that had once lived and loved and laughed. And they lay everywhere, here stark and stiff, with no pitiful earth to hide their awful corruption-here again, half buried in slimy mud; more than once my nailed boot uncovered mouldering tunic or things more awful. And as I trod this grisly place my pity grew, and with pity a profound wonder that the world with its so many millions of reasoning minds should permit such things to be, until I remembered that few, even the most imaginative, could realise the true frightfulness of modern men-butchering machinery, and my wonder changed to a passionate desire that such things should be recorded and known, if only in some small measure, wherefore it is I write these things.

I wandered on past shell holes, some deep in slime, that held nameless ghastly messes, some a-brim with bloody water, until I came where three men lay side by side, their hands upon their levelled rifles. For a moment I had the foolish thought that these men were weary and slept, until, coming near, I saw that these had died by the same shell-burst. Near them lay yet another shape, a mangled heap, one muddy hand yet grasping muddy rifle, while, beneath the other lay the fragment of a sodden letter-probably the last thing those dying eyes had looked upon.

Death in horrible shape was all about me. I saw the work wrought by shrapnel, by gas, and the mangled red havoc of high explosive. I only seemed unreal, like one that walked in a nightmare. Here and there upon this sea of mud rose the twisted wreckage of aeroplanes, and from where I stood I counted five, but as I tramped on and on these five grew to nine. One of these lying upon my way I turned aside to glance at, and stared through a tangle of wires into a pallid thing that had been a face once comely and youthful; the leather jacket had been opened at the neck for the identity disc, as I suppose, and glancing lower, I saw that this leather jacket was discoloured, singed, burnt-and below this, a charred and unrecognisable mass.

Is there a man in the world to-day who, beholding such horrors, would not strive with all his strength to so order things that the hell of war should be made impossible henceforth? Therefore, I have recorded in some part what I have seen of war.

So now, all of you who read, I summon you in the name of our common humanity, let us be up and doing. Americans-Anglo-Saxons, let our common blood be a bond of brotherhood between us henceforth, a bond indissoluble. As you have now entered the war, as you are now our allies in deed as in spirit, let this alliance endure hereafter. Already there is talk of some such League, which, in its might and unity, shall secure humanity against any recurrence of the evils the world now groans under. Here is a noble purpose, and I conceive it the duty of each one of us, for the sake of those who shall come after, that we should do something to further that which was once looked upon as only an Utopian dream-the universal Brotherhood of Man.

"The flowers o' the forest are a' faded away."

Far and wide they lie, struck down in the flush of manhood, full of the joyous, unconquerable spirit of youth. Who knows what noble ambitions once were theirs, what splendid works they might not have wrought? Now they lie, each poor, shattered body a mass of loathsome corruption. Yet that diviner part, that no bullet may slay, no steel rend or mar, has surely entered into the fuller living, for Death is but the gateway into Life and infinite possibilities.

But, upon all who sit immune, upon all whom as yet this bitter war has left untouched, is the blood of these that died in the cause of humanity, the cause of Freedom for us and the generations to come, this blood is upon each one of us-consecrating us to the task they have died to achieve, and it is our solemn duty to see that the wounds they suffered, the deaths they died, have not been, and shall not be, in vain.

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