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An essay by James Runciman

Little Wars

Title:     Little Wars
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Just at this present our troops are engaged in fighting various savage tribes in various parts of the world, and the humorous journalist speaks of the affairs as "little wars." There is something rather gruesome in this airy flippancy proceeding from comfortable gentlemen who are in nice studies at home. The Burmese force fights, marches, toils in an atmosphere which would cause some of the airy critics to faint; the Thibetan force must do as much climbing as would satisfy the average Alpine performer; and all the soldiers carry their lives in their hands. What is a little war? Is any war little to a man who loses his life in it? I imagine that when a wounded fighter comes to face his last hour he regards the particular war in which he is engaged as quite the most momentous affair in the world so far as he is concerned. To me the whole spectacle of the little wars is most grave, both as regards the nation and as regards the individual Britons who must suffer and fall. Our destiny is heavy upon us; we must "dree our weirde," for we have begun walking on the road of conquest, and we must go forward or die. The man who has the wolf by the ears cannot let go his hold; we cannot slacken our grip on anything that once we have clutched. But it is terrible to see how we are bleeding at the extremities. I cannot give the figures detailing our losses in little wars during the past forty years, but they are far worse than we incurred in the world-shaking fight of Waterloo. Incessantly the drip, drip of national blood-shedding goes on, and no end seems to be gained, save the grim consciousness that we must suffer and never flinch. The graves of our best and dearest--our hardy loved ones--are scattered over the ends of the earth, and the little wars are answerable for all. England, in her blundering, half-articulate fashion, answers, "Yes, they had to die; their mother asked for their blood, and they gave it." So then from scores of punctures the life-blood of the mother of nations drops, and each new bloodshed leads to yet further bloodshed, until the deadly series looks endless. We sent Burnes to Cabul, and we betrayed him in the most dastardly way by the mouth of a Minister. England, the great mother, was not answerable for that most unholy of crimes; it was the talking men, the glib Parliament cowards. Burnes was cut to pieces and an army lost. Crime brings forth crime, and thus we had to butcher more Afghans. Every inch of India has been bought in the same way; one war wins territory which must be secured by another war, and thus the inexorable game is played on. In Africa we have fared in the same way, and thus from many veins the red stream is drained, and yet the proud heart of the mother continues to beat strongly. It is so hard for men to die; it is as hard for the Zulu and the Afghan and the Ghoorka as it is for the civilized man, and that is why I wish it were Britain's fortune to be allowed to cease from the shedding of blood. If the corpses of the barbarians whom we have destroyed within the past ten years could only be laid out in any open space and shown to our populace, there would be a shudder of horror felt through the country; yet, while the sweet bells chime to us about peace and goodwill, we go on sending myriads of men out of life, and the nation pays no more heed to that steady ruthless killing than it does to the slaughter of oxen. Alas!

Then, if we think of the lot of those who fight for us and slaughter our hapless enemies by deputy as it were, their luck seems very hard. When the steady lines moved up the Alma slope and the men were dropping so fast, the soldiers knew that they were performing their parts as in a vast theatre; their country would learn the story of their deed, and the feats of individuals would be amply recorded. But, when a man spends months in a far-off rocky country, fighting day after day, watching night after night, and knowing that at any moment the bullet of a prowling Ghilzai or Afridi may strike him, he has very little consolation indeed. When one comes to think of the matter from the humorous point of view--though there is more grim fact than fun in it--it does seem odd that we should be compelled to spend two thousand pounds on an officer's education, and then send him where he may be wiped out of the world in an instant by a savage little above the level of the Bushman. I pity the poor savages, but I certainly pity the refined and highly-trained English soldier more. The latest and most delightful of our Anglo-Indians has put the matter admirably in verse which carries a sting even amidst its pathos. He calls his verses "Arithmetic on the Frontier."

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn for seven years or so
The Lord knows what of that or this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe,
The flying bullet down the pass,
That whistles clear, "All flesh is grass."

Three hundred pounds per annum spent
On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
Comprised in villainous saltpetre!
And after--ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our 'ologies.

A scrimmage in a border station,
A canter down some dark defile--
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail!
The crammer's boast, the squadron's pride
Shot like a rabbit in a ride.

No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the text-book know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat
Or ward the tulwar's downward blow;
Strike hard who cares--shoot straight who can--
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem;
The troop-ships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The captives of our bow and spear
Are cheap, alas, as we are dear!

There is a world of meaning in those half-sad, half-smiling lines, and many an hour-long discourse might fail to throw more lurid light on one of the strangest historical problems in the world. The flower of England's manhood must needs go; and our most brilliant scholars, our boldest riders, our most perfect specimens of physical humanity drop like rabbits to the fire of half-naked savages! The bright boy, the hero of school and college, the brisk, active officer, passes away into obscurity. The mother weeps--perhaps some one nearer and dearer than all is stricken: but the dead Englishman's name vanishes from memory like a fleck of haze on the side of the valley where he sleeps. England--cold, inexorable, indifferent--has other sons to take the dead man's place and perhaps share his obscurity; and the doomed host of fair gallant youths moves forward ever in serried, fearless lines towards the shadows. That is what it costs to be a mighty nation. It is sorrowful to think of the sacrificed men--sacrificed to fulfil England's imposing destiny; it is sorrowful to think of the mourners who cannot even see their darling's grave; yet there is something grandiose and almost morbidly impressive in the attitude of Britain. She waves her imperial hand and says, "See what my place in the world is! My bravest, my most skilful, may die in a fight that is no more than a scuffling brawl; they go down to the dust of death unknown, but the others come on unflinching. It is hard that I should part with my precious sons in mean warfare, but the fates will have it so, and I am equal to the call of fate." Thus the sovereign nation. Those who have no very pompous notions are willing to recognize the savage grandeur of our advance; but I cannot help thinking of the lonely graves, the rich lives squandered, the reckless casting away of human life, which are involved in carrying out our mysterious mission in the great peninsula. Our graves are spread thickly over the deadly plains; our brightest and best toil and suffer and die, and they have hardly so much as a stone to mark their sleeping-place; our blood has watered those awful stretches from the Himalayas to Comorin, and we may call Hindostan the graveyard of Britain's noblest. People who see only the grizzled veterans who lounge away their days at Cheltenham or Brighton think that the fighting trade must be a very nice one after all. To retire at fifty with a thousand a year is very pleasant no doubt; but then every one of those war-worn gentlemen who returns to take his ease represents a score who have perished in fights as undignified as a street brawl. "More legions!" said Varus; "More legions!" says England; and our regiments depart without any man thinking of _Morituri te salittant!_ Yes; that phrase might well be in the mind of every British man who fares down the Red Sea and enters the Indian furnace. Those about to die, salute thee, O England, our mother! Is it worth while? Sometimes I have my doubts. Moreover, I never talk with one of our impassive, masterful Anglo-Indians without feeling sorry that their splendid capacities should be so often cast into darkness, and their fame confined to the gossip of a clump of bungalows. Verily our little wars use up an immense quantity of raw material in the shape of intellect and power. A man whose culture is far beyond that of the mouthing politicians at home and whose statesmanship is not to be compared to the ignorant crudities of the pigmies who strut and fret on the English party stage--this man spends great part of a lifetime in ruling and fighting; he gives every force of a great intellect and will to his labours, and he achieves definite and beneficent practical results; yet his name is never mentioned in England, and any vulgar vestryman would probably outweigh him in the eyes of the populace. Carlyle says that we should despise fame. "Do your work," observes the sage, "and never mind the rest. When your duty is done, no further concern rests with you." And then the aged thinker goes on to snarl at puny creatures who are not content to be unknown. Well, that is all very stoical and very grand, and so forth; but Carlyle forgot human nature. He himself raged and gnashed his teeth because the world neglected him, and I must with every humility ask forgiveness of his _manes_ if I express some commiseration for the unknown braves who perish in our little wars. Our callousness as individuals can hardly be called lordly, though the results are majestic; we accept supreme services, and we accept the supreme sacrifice (Skin for skin: all that a man hath will he give for his life), and we very rarely think fit to growl forth a chance word of thanks. Luckily our splendid men are not very importunate, and most of them accept with silent humour the neglect which befalls them. An old fighting general once remarked, "These fellows are in luck since the telegraph and the correspondents have been at work. We weren't so fortunate in my day. I went through the Crimea and the Mutiny, and there was yet another affair in 1863 that was hotter than either, so far as close fighting and proportional losses of troops were concerned. A force of three thousand was sent against the Afghans, and they never gave us much rest night or day. They seemed determined to give their lives away, and they wouldn't be denied. I've seen them come on and grab at the muzzles of the rifles. We did a lot of fighting behind rough breastworks, but sometimes they would rush us then. We lost thirty officers out of thirty-four before we were finished. Well, when I came home and went about among the clubs, the fellows used to say to me, 'What was this affair of yours up in the hills? We had no particulars except the fact that you were fighting.' And that expedition cost ten times as many men as your Egyptian one, besides causing six weeks of almost constant fighting; yet not a newspaper had a word to say about it! We never grumbled much--it was all in the day's work; but it shows how men's luck varies."

There spoke the old fighter, "Duty first, and take your chance of the rest." True; but could not one almost wish that those forlorn heroes who saved our frontier from savage hordes might have gained just a little of that praise so dear to the frivolous mind of man? It was not to be; the dead men's bones have long ago sunk into the kindly earth, the wind flows down the valleys, and the fighters sleep in the unknown glens and on far-distant hillsides with no record save the curt clerk's mark in the regimental list--"Dead."

When I hear the merry pressman chatting about little wars and proudly looking down on "mere skirmishes," I cannot restrain a movement of impatience. Are our few dead not to be considered because they were few? Supposing they had swarmed forward in some great battle of the West and died with thousands of others amid the hurricane music of hundreds of guns, would the magnitude of the battle make any difference?

Honour to those who risk life and limb for England; honour to them, whether they die amid loud battle or in the far-away dimness of a little war!

_September, 1888._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Little Wars