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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     War
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The brisk Pressmen are usually exceedingly busy in calculating the chances of a huge fight--indeed they spend a good part of each year in that pleasing employment. Smug diplomatists talk glibly about "war clearing the air;" and the crowd--the rank and file--chatter as though war were a pageant quite divorced from wounds and death, or a mere harmless hurly-burly where certain battalions receive thrashings of a trifling nature. It is saddening to notice the levity with which the most awful of topics is treated, and especially is it sad to see how completely the women and children are thrust out of mind by belligerent persons. We who have gazed on the monster of War, we who have looked in the whites--or rather the reds--of his loathsome eyes, cannot let this burst of frivolity work mischief without one temperate word of warning and protest.

Pleasant it is to watch the soldiers as they march along the streets, or form in their superb lines on parade. No man or woman of any sensibility can help feeling proudly stirred when a Cavalry regiment goes by. The clean, alert, upright men, with their sure seat; the massive war-horses champing their bits and shaking their accoutrements: the rhythmic thud of hoofs, the keen glitter of steel, and the general air of power, all combine to form a spectacle that sets the pulses beating faster. Then, again, observe the strange elastic rhythm of the march as a battalion of tall Highlanders moves past. The fifes and drums cease, there is a silence broken only by that sinuous beautiful onward movement of lines of splendid men, until the thrilling scream of the pipes shatters the air, and the mad tumult of warlike sound makes even a Southron's nerves quiver. Then, once more, watch the deadly, steady march of a regiment of Guards. The stalwart men step together, and, as the red ranks sway on, it seems as though no earthly power could stand against them. The gloomy bearskins are like a brooding dark cloud, and the glitter of the rifle-barrels carries with it certain sinister terrible suggestions. The gaiety and splendour of Cavalry and Infantry all gain increased power over the imagination since we know that each of those gaily clad fellows would march to his doom without a tremor or a murmur if he received the word. Poor Tommy Atkins is surrounded by a sort of halo in the popular imagination, simply because it is known that he may one day have to deal forth death to an enemy, or take his own doom, according to the chances of combat. I need say little about the field-days and reviews which have caused so many martially-minded young men to take the shilling. The crash of the small-arm firing, the wild galloping of hasty aides-de-camp, the measured movement of serried lines, the rapid flight of flocks of bedizened staff-officers, all make up a very exciting and confusing picture, and many a youngster has fancied that war must be a glorious game. Let us leave the picturesque and theatrical business and come to the dry prose.

So far from being an affair of glitter, excitement, fierce joy, fierce triumph, war is but a round of hideous hours which bring memories of squalor, filth, hunger, wretchedness, dull toil, unspeakable misery. Take it at its best, and consider what a modern engagement really means. Recollect, moreover, that I am about to use sentences accurate as a photograph. The sportive Pressman says, "Vernon began to find the enemy's cloud of sharp-shooters troublesome, so the 5th sought better cover on the right, leaving Brown free to develop his artillery fire." "Troublesome!" Translate that word, and it means this: Private Brown and Private Jones are lying behind the same low bank. Jones raises his head; there comes a sound like "Roo-o-osh--pht!"--then a horrible thud. Jones glares, grasps at nothing with convulsed hands, and rolls sideways with a long shudder. The ball took him in the temple. Serjeant Morrison says, "Now, men, try for that felled log! Double!" A few men make a short rush, and gain the solid cover; but one throws up his hands when half way, gives a choking yell, springs in the air, and falls down limp. The same thing is going on over a mile of country, while the shell-fire is gradually gaining power--and we may be sure that the enemy are suffering at the hands of our marksmen. And now suppose that an infantry brigade receives orders to charge. "Charge!" The word carries magnificent poetic associations, but, alas, it is a very prosaic affair nowadays! The lines move onward in short rushes, and it seems as if a swarm of ants were migrating warily. The strident voices of the officers ring here and there: the men edge their way onward: it seems as if there were no method in the advance; but somehow the loose wavy ranks are kept well in hand, and the main movement proceeds like machinery. "I feel a bit queer," says Bill Williams to a veteran friend. "Never mind--'taint every one durst say that," says the friend. "Whoo-o-sh!" a muffled thump, and the veteran falls forward, dropping his rifle. He struggles up on hands and knees, but a rush of blood chokes him, and he drops with a groan. He will lie there for a long time before his burning throat is moistened by a cup of water, and he knows only too well that the surgeon will merely shake his head when he sees him. The brigade still advances; gradually the sputtering crackle in their front grows into a low steady roar; a stream of lead whistles in the air, and the long lurid line of flame glows with the sustained glare of a fire among furze. Men fall at every yard, but the hoarse murmur of the dogged advance never ceases. At last the time comes for the rush. The ranks are trimmed up by imperceptible degrees; the men set their teeth, and a strange eager look comes over many a face. The eyes of the youngsters stare glassily; they can see the wood from which the enemy must be dislodged at any price, but they can form no definite ideas; they merely grip their rifles and go on mechanically. The word is given--the dark lines dash forward; the firing from the wood breaks out in a crash of fury--there is a long harsh rattle, then a chance crack like a thunder-clap, and then a whirring like the spinning of some demoniac mill. Curses ring out amid a low sound of hard breathing; the ranks are gapped here and there as a man wriggles away like a wounded rabbit, or another bounds upward with a frantic ejaculation. Then comes the fighting at close quarters. Perhaps kind women who are misled by the newspaper-writer's brisk babblement may like to know what that means, so I give the words of the best eyewitness that ever gazed on warfare. He took down his notes by the light of burning wood, and he had no time to think of grammar. All his words were written like mere convulsive cries, but their main effect is too vivid to be altered. Notice that he rarely concludes a sentence, for he wanted to save time, and the bullets were cutting up the ground and the trees all round him. "Patches of the wood take fire, and several of the wounded, unable to move, are consumed. Quite large spaces are swept over, burning the dead also; some of the men have their hair and beards singed, some burns on their faces and hands, others holes burnt in their clothing. The flashes of fire from the cannon, the quick glaring flames and smoke, and the immense roar--the musketry so general; the light nearly bright enough for each side to see the other; the crashing, tramping of men--the yelling--close quarters--hand-to-hand conflicts. Each side stands up to it, brave, determined as demons; and still the wood's on fire--still many are not only scorched--too many, unable to move, are burned to death. Who knows the conflict, hand-to-hand--the many conflicts in the dark--those shadowy, tangled, flashing, moon-beamed woods--the writhing groups and squads--the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols, the distant cannon--the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths, the indescribable mix, the officers' orders, persuasions, encouragements--the devils fully roused in human hearts--the strong shout, 'Charge, men--charge!'--the flash of the naked swords, and rolling flame and smoke? And still the broken, clear, and clouded heaven; and still again the moonlight pouring silvery soft its radiant patches over all."

There is a description vivid as lightning, though there is not a properly-constructed sentence in it. Gruesome, cruel, horrible! Is it not enough to make the women of our sober sensible race declare for ever against the flaunting stay-at-homes who would egg us on to war? By all means let us hold to the old-fashioned dogged ways, but let us beware of rushing into the squalid vortex of war. And now let us see what follows the brilliant charge and bayonet fight. How many ladies consider what the curt word "wounded" means? It conveys no idea to them, and they are too apt to stray off into the dashing details that tell of a great wrestle of armies. One eminent man--whom I believe to have uttered a libel--has declared that women like war, and that they are usually the means of urging men on. He is a very sedate and learned philosopher who wrote that statement, and yet I cannot believe it. Ah, no! Our ladies can give their dearest up to death when the State calls on them, but they will never be like the odious viragoes of the Roman circus. At any rate, if any woman acts according to the dictum of the philosopher after reading my bitterly true words, we shall hold that our influence is departed. Therefore with ruthless composure I follow my observer--a man whose pure and holy spirit upheld him as he ministered to sufferers for year after year.

"Then the camps of the wounded. Oh, heavens, what scene is this? Is this indeed humanity--these butchers' shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods--from two to three hundred poor fellows. The groans and screams, the odour of blood mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees--that slaughter-house! Oh, well is it their mothers, their sisters, cannot see them, cannot conceive, and never conceived such things! One man is shot by a shell both in the arm and leg; both are amputated--there lie the rejected members. Some have their legs blown off, some bullets through the breast, some indescribably horrid wounds in the head--all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out, some in the abdomen, some mere boys." Alas, I have quoted enough--and may never such a task come before me again! The picture is sharp as an etching; it is drawn with a shudder of the soul. Is that grim sedate man right when he says that women are the moving influence that drives men to such carnage? Would you wantonly advocate war? Never! I reject the solemn philosopher's saying, in spite of his logic and his sententiousness.

Who shall speak of the awful monotony of the hospital camps, where men die like flies, and where regret, sympathy, kindness are blotted from the hardened soldier's breast? People are not cruel by nature, but the vague picturesque language of historians and other general writers prevents men and women from forming just opinions. I believe that, if one hundred wounded men could be transported from a battle-field and laid down in the public square of any town or city for the population to see, then the gazers would say among themselves, "So this is war, is it? Well, for our parts, we shall be very cautious before we raise any agitation that might force our Government into any conflict. We can die if our liberties are threatened, for there are circumstances in which it would be shameful to live, but we shall never do anything which may bring about results such as those before us." That would be a fair and temperate mode of talking--far different from the airy babble of the warlike scribe.

An argumentative person may stop us here and ask, "Are you of opinion that it is possible to abolish warfare?" Unfortunately, we can cherish no such pleasing hope. I do emphatically believe that in time men will come to see the wild folly of engaging in sanguinary struggles; but the growth of their wisdom will be slow. Action and reaction are equal; the fighting instinct has been impressed on our nature by hereditary transmission for countless generations, and we cannot hope suddenly to make man a peaceful animal any more than we can hope to breed setters from South African wild dogs. But the conditions of life are gradually changing, and the very madness which has made Europe into a huge barrack may work its own cure. The burden will probably grow so intolerable that the most embruted of citizens will ask themselves why they bear it, and a rapid revolution may undo the growth of centuries. The scientific men point to the huge warfare that goes on from the summit of the Himalayas to the depths of the ocean slime, and they ask how men can be exempt from the universal struggle for existence. But it is by no means certain that the pressure of population in the case of man will always force on struggles--at any rate, struggles that can be decided only by death and agony. Little by little we are learning something of the laws that govern our hitherto mysterious existence, and we have good hopes that by and by our race may learn to be mutually helpful, so that our span of life may be passed with as much happiness as possible. Men will strive against each other, but the striving will not be carried on to an accompaniment of slaughter and torture. There are keen forms of competition which, so far from being painful, give positive pleasure to those who engage in them; there are triumphs which satisfy the victor without mortifying the vanquished; and, in spite of the indiscreet writers who have called forth this Essay, I hold that such harmless forms of competition will take the place of the brutal strife that adds senselessly to the sum of human woe. Our race has outgrown so many forms of brutality, so many deliberate changes have taken place in the course of even two thousand years, that the final change which shall abolish war is almost certain to come. We find that about one thousand nine hundred years ago a polished gentleman like Julius Caesar gravely congratulates himself on the fact that his troops destroyed in cold blood forty thousand people--men, women, and children. No man in the civilized world dare do such a deed now, even if he had the mind for the carnage. The feeling with which we read Caesar's frigid recital measures the arc of improvement through which we have passed. May the improvement go on! We can continue to progress only through knowledge; if our people--our women especially--are wantonly warlike, then our action will be wantonly warlike; knowledge alone can save us from the guilt of blood, and that knowledge I have tried to set forth briefly. By wondrous ways does our Master work out His ends. Let us pray that He may hasten the time when nation shall not rise up against nation, neither shall they draw the sword any more.

_December, 1886._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: War