Letters From War
A voice from the past speaks to our present.
A friend recently posted on Facebook that his daughter had asked him if World War III was about to start. His less than reassuring answer was that the odds were against it. We could wish for more confidence, but we hope, for the world’s sake, that the odds are in his favor.
Meanwhile, as we sit on the edge of our seats for the beginning of hopefully not-World-War-III, I’m pleased to announce the timely completion of a months-long labor of love for me related to World War I. This project was born last summer when I was writing a reflection on grief and remembrance for Memorial Day (for paid subscribers, but you can temporarily unlock it with a free trial). Like a good Anglophile, I couldn’t keep the focus on my own country, and I used the occasion to revisit the remarkable story of a Scottish Episcopalian war chaplain named Albert Ernest Laurie. I first encountered the story in a memoir by Richard Holloway, an infamous apostate bishop. I’m not a great admirer of Holloway, for obvious reasons, but I’m forever indebted to him for introducing me to Canon Laurie. Already a middle-aged man when the war began, Laurie fast-talked his way into a chaplaincy and soon found himself where he longed to be, in the thick of the fight. He became a hero to his beloved “Tommies,” tirelessly ministering to them and risking death many times over to carry the wounded to safety. He earned the Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme, then added a “bar” to it on a later field. After the war, he organized the construction of a “Warriors' Chapel” to memorialize the dead from his Edinburgh home parish of Old St. Paul’s, where he would keep many a faithful midnight vigil as the years passed. When he died, the streets had to be closed for his funeral procession, as the community’s poor and destitute lined the way in his honor.
During his time at the front, which was split into two “tours” with a gap year in 1917, Laurie captured his experiences in a series of intimately vivid letters to his home parish. These epistles, printed up as “Rector’s Letters” in the Old St. Paul’s newsletter, are all that remain of his legacy in writing. And what a legacy it is. When I wrote to the church’s current curate, Peder Aspen, asking if there was a possibility that I could see the letters, I had no conception of the treasure trove I was about to unlock. Now, having finally finished transcribing them from Mr. Aspen’s generously provided grainy photos, I feel orders of magnitude richer. Through Laurie’s impassioned Christian humanist vision, the Great War comes alive in all its horror, glory, pathos and even comedy. He writes simultaneously with a pastoral eye and a novelist’s eye, painting his scenes in such rich detail that I often felt as if I was being spoon-fed a screenplay (which might become more than a passing thought—we shall see). He’s an unabashed patriot, but not a naive one. He emerges sobered and sorrowful, but unshaken in his faith. For some, the war would make it impossible to go on believing. For Laurie, it was impossible not to.
As the transcription slowly came together, I became convinced that if I secured permission to share it with the rest of the world, I should. Happily, I did, and I am now hoping to self-publish the full set of letters with some light commentary later this year, through a UK-based military history press called Helion & Company (unless, of course, some other publisher reads this and would like to offer me a contract!) I hope it will be of interest to many of you reading. Until then, now seemed like a good moment to whet your appetite with a few apt excerpts, plucked out and arranged chronologically below. In case this needs saying, I don’t offer them by way of political commentary on the best strategic course of action in our immediate historical context. I simply hope that they move you, and I hope they pique your interest for the whole collection. Thanks for reading.
September 15, 1914
My dear People,
I cannot date my letter from any place as that is forbidden. You will, I am sure, be glad to know that all goes well with me, and also that I have found the work I set out to find, the ministering to the wounded and the dying. You will not grudge the time I spend away from you all, and from my ordinary work, when it is thus spent among those who are giving their lives for us.
I can give you very little in the way of details, as the authorities forbid all such information, though in any case, even if it were not so, it is all too terrible to be made the subject merely of an “interesting” letter. I know that for ever after this I shall feel that the soldier’s profession demands, and ought to receive, our undying honour. I have often in past days smiled at the gay uniforms and the flashing swords as at the survivals of an outworn ideal of physical force, but I know better now, and if all those who think thus lightly were to see those poor lads with their maimed bodies and useless limbs, torn by the dreadful shrapnel shell (for the rifle bullets make clean and healthy wounds in comparison), they could not but see the nobility as well as the horror of war.
The nobility!—for those men are in reality fighting for the peace of the world, and not unintelligently. One of them, from the very thickest of the fight, said to me yesterday very simply, “We could not have done it, sir, if God had not been with us,” and that as I am sure is the spirit of the whole army with very few exceptions. They are fighting for right in the face of wrong, and they realise it clearly. I know it from what many of them have said. That spirit of cruel self-assertion, which has crystallised in what for the moment we call “Germanism,” is a menace to truth and justice, to the peace and progress of the world, and to the honour of God, and, in resisting it, we may dare to claim that our brave soldiers are doing the work of God. Those lads of ours are making History. In their silent marching manner, or their long hours in the trenches, one can read Futurity itself. A sentence of death—pray God, for ever—upon the arrogant pretensions and insolent dominance of the individual ambitions that have caused this desolation. If I only had time, and space to write, how much there is that one might say about the significance of the War. Strange! that France, with her great memories of the struggle of Democracy for freedom, should be again the theatre of the deadly struggle between might and right, for that is, after all, what it comes to. Might stained, too, by such outrages as, perhaps, in part already you know from the newspapers, but much of which could not be repeated, and which will make the victory of the future all the brighter, that the past had in it so much that was obviously unutterably base. …
July 23, 1915
… Since I last wrote to you I have had many experiences, some inexpressibly sad and some equally inspiring. There has been considerable activity on our front, much more, I think, than is realised at home. For example, I noticed some days ago that the Home Press dismissed with about half a dozen lines of notice an Infantry attack on our part, which, though it gained us the ground desired, cost us about 1500 casualties. This took place immediately upon our front, and during the counter attack the Germans shelled our advanced dressing station, though fortunately our unit had no casualties. Our Division has been withdrawn to another part of the line, consequently for some days the sound of the guns was happily distant, but that is over now. The journey has been an experience I would not willingly have missed. The long brown line of marching men stretching out in front, patiently “foot-slogging” it, as their trenchant expression goes, their weariness only indicated by the alacrity with which they seize on the occasional rest as the day goes on; the curious hush that comes over every one as the evening falls, so that one is conscious of a silence even beneath the tramp, tramp of the weary feet; the cheery bustle of the camp fires for the evening meal, and then the great silence and the lying out under the starlight, lulled to sleep by the calm of the great distances of God, until the waking again in the fresh morning to the dewy grass and the birds’ incessant calling and the great Rose of Dawn. It would never have entered into my mind but for the personal experience now continual and how various are the demands made upon the men’s endurance, apart altogether from the actual hardships of the trenches and the sufferings of the wounded. It is no wonder that they long for leave. I think we are sometimes apt to think too lightly of those things at home, and to condemn too readily any suggestion of “nerves” from those who have been long in the firing line. A very little experience, however, gives one a very large respect for those who have been “in” for any time at all, and a corresponding understanding of the lack of desire to return until “duty” imperatively calls. The sights and the sounds are equally terrible to any person of even average sensitiveness. It is needless to go at length into details, but during the late action, as the wounded streamed into our advanced dressing station, with every kind of surgical operation immediately necessary, with the place like an indescribable shambles, one’s whole nature cried out against this ugly savagery which lurks beneath the thin skin of our civilization. What a monstrous outrage it is that, in our day, young, high-minded men, hundreds of them gentle, even timid souls, who would not willingly hurt a fly, should be forced into the endurance, or at any rate the immediate contact, with those horrors. And it applies equally, of course, to the enemy as to ourselves. Only a few days ago a young German soldier, who had been brought in badly wounded and evidently looking for no sympathy, when I went to him and knelt down on the earth by his stretcher to say a few words in my broken German and lay my hand in blessing on his fevered forehead, burst into tears and cried like a little child, saying between his convulsive sobs that he could bear it all but for his “Frau und kinder,” now so hopelessly far away. How unspeakably wretched it all is! …
October 3, 1915
… In the accentuated luxury of my camp-bed under the stars the night wears on—sometimes even the thunder of the guns from the battery close by can’t waken me; at other times I lie and think of you all at home, and wonder how you all are and what you do and a hundred other things. Then comes the dawn and the swallows darting and calling overhead—there is a colony of them near my bed—and then very soon the whirring of the aeroplanes and the rapid firing of the anti-aircraft guns, and possibly I lie and watch, as I did a few mornings ago, a duel between two opposing aeroplanes, the sound of the machine guns up in the sky being so quaint a contrast to the twittering of the birds.
Only last week one of the enemy aeroplanes was brought down close to where we were—so close that I thought for a moment it would fall upon me. Our plane came so swiftly and suddenly out of a cloud upon the German that the whole thing was the work of a few moments—with a sickening rush the German plane came down and fell with a crash that was worse to hear than the bursting of a shell. Fortunately, we found that the aviators had been shot and killed before they fell. One was young—and had the Iron Cross. The manly courage of these aviators is as indescribable as the risks they take. It is this manliness which is the most outstanding feature on all hands, and it is this which makes Christianity appeal so strongly to the men. My message to them always is a variation of the one great gospel, that true manliness is found in Christ alone, and that it is possible to go from earth to heaven by just that ladder of manly qualities which can be reached so easily here. It is step by step of duty—self-control—sacrifice—patriotism—leading veritably to Christ, and being transfigured by their association with Him. It is easy to climb from those heights, which are so natural here, to the supernatural—to find God through Christ—and it is wonderful to see how close the points of contact are that already exist, and only need explaining, to be immediately and enthusiastically realized as leading to God, so that “getting religion” is not the far-off, vague, and mystical thing they had supposed, but just the transformation and fulfilment of the qualities and virtues they understand better than anything else. …
October 29, 1915
… There are a hundred other discomforts that cannot be told. You try to heat your tea in the early morning at a little fire made in the trench wall or in the dugouts with little scraps of such wood as you may have picked up while on patrol duty the night before, the acrid smoke blinding you the while; you sit in the mud, perhaps on the firing platform, for your meal; you stand for hours in one position till every limb must ache; or you go out with a working party, wiring in front of the trenches, or lie for hours on the wet ground at a “listening post,” in constant danger of your life. If you are a temporary sleeper, waiting to relieve the sentry at the parapet, you lie on the firing platform in rain and mud, covered only with your overcoat, and try to sleep, until the time when, weary-eyed, you take his place, your loaded rifle over the parapet edge, waiting always more or less alert, straining at the slightest movement or suspicious shadow—if there is light enough to cast a shadow. It is impossible to tell all the discomforts of trench warfare; but you will marvel as you think of it, as I constantly do, at the unfailing cheerfulness of the men, at the readiness with which the light, easy joke comes spontaneously to their lips, at the comical side they see to every fresh discomfort, and at the unchanging resolve to “stick it,” whatever it may be. It is not of course always like that, and there are comforts as well as discomforts—comforts with an enormously enhanced value, too. You at home can’t begin to understand the keen pleasure to be got out of drinking a can of hot soup at midnight under such circumstances, or the zest of appetite with which the steaming stew is attacked at midday, brought piping-hot up to the very firing line. You don’t know what comradeship means until you have roughed it for months like this side by side, and noted the unconscious, almost girlish, tenderness shown in such crude and rough-and-ready ways, but so obviously sincere as to have often brought me near to tears—a comradeship, alas! too often rudely broken, leaving a warm-hearted lad, to keep his solitary watch, haunted with the memory of the shapeless bundle that is his last remembrance of the “chum” who was all in all to him. There are occasions, too, when to a thoughtful lad (as so many of them are) the shimmering moonlight or the glory of dawn must be intensely, even if unconsciously, impressive. I feel sure that the ready response they make to religious influence is partly due to the great ideas that are forced upon their minds during those long hours of uninterrupted thought—thought, too, at its keenest, in the simple surroundings, the healthy conditions, the clear eye and the quick brain, the life almost inevitably brings with it. I have stood with them in the early morning, leaning over the parapet, watching the rising sun turn all the glistening dew drops on the grass at the level of my eyes, and clothing the barbed wire in front, to the most glorious gems; I have seen the freshness of the opening day reflected from the tired faces of the sentries at their posts, and have seen both the horror and the nobility of another day of such life so clearly, that I have been inevitably driven to prayer. At such times religion seems so easy and so natural. …
December 6, 1915
… A day or two ago I was kneeling beside the stretcher on which lay a lad whose life was slowly ebbing away, but whose chief concern was to check the grief of his brother who knelt on the other side (so many of the lads have brothers serving side by side with them). It was only a few moments they had together, as the brother had to go back to the trenches, and when I had spoken a word or two to him he mastered himself at last and turned to go. I went down with the dying boy in the swift-going jolting ambulance, and not even his steadfast gaze as he listened to the prayers, the growing cold of the pulseless hand, the shadow of death on the mud-stained face, so clear even in the half-light of the grey-painted closed-in car—not even the pathos of the last message to his young wife, waiting for news of him in a remote Irish village in Co. Monagahan—could blot out from my mind the enduring impression of the mud-bespattered back of the brother, as, rifle on shoulder, only his bowed head telling of his locked-up grief, he trudged steadfastly back through the mud to take the vacant place in the living wall that guards us all. In such ways they are learning that even death itself is not so great as duty. …
January 31, 1916
… Where do they get the nerve from, those inexperienced boys, sent out to us from home, sometimes never having been under fire before!—going to their dangerous tasks as lightly as if they were going to a football match! It isn’t as if there were any apparent change of mood from gay to grave, but a constant cheeriness and gaiety, from the light-hearted whistling of “Tipperary” by the whole Company as it goes “in,” to the fixing up of comic pictures and humorous messages in front of the German wire, or after the fashion of a cheery little subaltern of eighteen who the other day had to be restrained from setting up his gramophone on the parapet, where he prepared to entertain the Germans with selections from the “Pirates of Penzance.” Yet you mustn’t run away with the notion that this cheerfulness only indicates an incurable levity of disposition and absence of realisation; they are ready at any time for graver work. In the midst of the last preparations for a concert the other day, just as we had the Coliseum ready—lighted up with rows of candles, a background of blankets for scenery, and a sky-larking crowd of Tommies rehearsing on the stage—came the sudden news of a gas attack, and the order to “stand to” at once. Instantly, keen and alert, officers and men were at their places, each man with his job clear, ready to face death if need be, but at any rate to carry out to the end the grim business which lies behind all this happy fooling. …
March 10, 1916
The other day I was charged with a message of encouragement from the General to a boy of twenty who was dying of shrapnel wounds in the chest. He was lying among his comrades on a little truckle bed in a high room in the old chateau, covered with the rough, brown service blankets, with the significant hectic colour and bright eyes of fever. He said nothing in response to me when I gave the message, but just grasped my hand and looked his thanks, and then struggling up on his elbow, he smiled to his comrades lying bed to bed with him and cried, “What ho!” and then sank back. Some hours later he was dead, and, with the flag he had died for on his breast, was carried out to the little French military cemetery on the hillside. It sounds little to tell, but it reveals such courage and self-forgetfulness as dignifies the Race and must surely purify the nation. I am sure the time is having that effect on France, whatever it may be with us. And little wonder, for France has suffered more than I think we realise. Only yesterday one of those bent old women, who seem to form the main part of the population left in the country villages, told me, with tears in her eyes and voice, how her only son had been killed, and how eagerly she waited day by day to get news of her husband who so far had escaped. Wherever one goes here, one sees only old people and a few children. In all, I believe some 200 men have gone from this village, and already 95 have been killed—that is nearly half the male adult population of the place. Last Sunday there was hardly a person who went to Church who was not dressed in black. It cannot be that such an experience will leave the world unchanged. …
April 20, 1916
… It is this sense of the waste of the whole war which is perhaps its most exasperating feature. Even the horror gives place to astonished wonder at the ease with which priceless resources are thrown to the four winds. It is a long time ago now, but I shall never forget as long as I live the sense of surprise with which I came suddenly upon my first experience of the effects of war in its own immediate surroundings. It was during an advance we made to relieve another Brigade, under very heavy shell fire. I had already very intimate knowledge of the effects of shell and rifle fire, through my work at the Advanced Dressing Station of the Field Ambulance, but in that work the men were brought from the field by stretcher-bearers, and though sometimes hundreds would be through in a single day, with every variety of ghastly wound, there was always an underlying sense of order and system—a kind of Hospital attitude to them; but to come suddenly upon the dead and wounded men lying in the dirt like so many dead rats! I remember most vividly the blank horror with which one stopped short and gazed stupidly at the pools of blood, like so many miry puddles on the road. I can see still the trampled ground, with great shell holes, where the dead men lay battered in blood and dirt, with that far-off look in their fixed eyes. I remember how I stood still with the first shock of it, to my own imminent danger, questioning if it could be true, and then, as the reality and the mad waste of it were borne in upon me, giving way to unreasoning anger. All the high hopes of those lives—the light of the far-away homes—smeared into bloody dirt without a moment’s warning! It is this sort of experience, and this alone, which can bring home with overwhelming force the fundamental barbarism of war—the universal cataclysm—the utter failure of all morals—the imperious need for a new view. And that, after all, was only one of those common everyday incidents of the advanced lines—never recorded—having no “military significance”—never remembered even, save here and there by some sad heart for whom it has blackened the whole horizon of life. This is going on all the time—along all the line—on all the fronts—quite apart from “attacks” or “raids” or “advances.” One grows accustomed to it more or less, and helps to lay the poor boys in their graves day after day, until the sight of a dead soldier in his muddy boots and stained uniform is so familiar as to rouse only a mild interest, unless in some way it is brought specially home, as when the other day eight of the men I know intimately were knocked out with one shell—four killed instantaneously and four wounded. It is a mercy, indeed, that for the most part one deals impersonally with them, otherwise one could not keep one’s reason or be of any use. They are, as you realise (with extreme pathos, too, sometimes!) when you see them in the mass, not men with hopeful lives, with happy homes and loving wives or sweethearts, but “soldiers”— “cannon fodder,” as Napoleon called them, and as the Kaiser apparently considers them. It is true that they are the instruments of final reform, yet it is never less than strange and horrible that the reformation should be wrought by means of this deadly steel and iron, by guns and shells and bullets. …
Never again must this barbarism be possible, and if only by its own terrifying force can it be ended, then, in God’s name—yes, even in God’s name—let us add force to force until it is finally destroyed. There is no such thing as kid-glove warfare. Once allow a man the right to smash another man, without a moment’s preparation, into formless pulp in the name of war and you shut the door upon all so-called rules. So, swift and deadly, at whatever cost, let us make an end of it for ever.
This brings me, naturally, to what I think can alone justify the war, and what ought to be the Church’s attitude as it proceeds, and in view of its (pray God!) speedy end.
I was talking some nights ago to a group of the men in “rest”; they were mainly my lately Confirmed men, who are full of high resolve “to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” when they return. We were huddled together in a squalid little out-house, grouped round a solitary candle, which lighted up their earnest faces and threw monstrous shadows of their sombre khaki-clad figures on the background. I, sitting in the midst, had been talking of the splendid destiny of man, and we had all grown more intense as we went over the great possibilities of the future, and then, when we had fallen to silence for a little, one of the men, a Sergeant, spoke up. As nearly as I can remember this is what he said; “For the last quarter of an hour, while you’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering. We’ve all been facing death for so long, that when we go back home with all those ideas you are talking of in our heads we will expect something new, and I’m so afraid that we will find things at home just the same. I know that I’ll say to myself, when I find myself forgetting, ‘I’ll just go to Church.’ Perhaps it will be a Wednesday night, and I know there will be a Service; but then I know I’ll find just the old hymns and prayers, and the old clergyman will be just the same as he used to be, and then I’ll wish myself back again in the old dark rooms in France, and what will I do?” This, spoken very simply and earnestly, is nearly word for word what he said. And what could I say? Only that I hoped he would find it all so different, so responsive, so inspiring, as to uphold and develop all his good resolves. But will it be so? Alas! some of them, even of that little group, we shall never have the chance to help.
May 6, 1918
… I think it must still be difficult for the ordinary man and woman at home to realise just how complete a change is being wrought. You have indeed a difference in food supply, a considerable alteration in industrial conditions, and, of course, the conspicuous absence of men; but still, I think it will be difficult for you to see how great the impending social changes are. It is easier here, for the country so manifestly needs rebuilding, ordinary economic and social life has almost disappeared; it is literally a civilization in ruins. How I wish I could convey that quality of ruined desolation to you! Until you realise it, you will never understand just how far and how deep the reformation must go. I sit here, in the doorway of my dug-out, and, as I look around, as far as the eyes can see there stretches interminably a flat plain of dull earth, pitted like smallpox on every inch with shell-holes, all more or less full of water and mud. It is indescribably desolate. It is broken here and there with little groups of isolated skeleton tree-trunks, a few feet only from the ground, with the shattered ends which tell where they were blasted by the shells. The eye is arrested occasionally by little heaps of bricks and bits of grotesquely twisted ironwork, which is all the remains of the farms and homestead of the past. Across this dreary plain no one dare venture, unless upon the narrow wooden tracks which are laid over the shell-riddled ground. There are little winding tracks from point to point for foot-passengers, and broader wooden roads of rough timber upon which at night the ration limbers and ammunition lorries come up. To go up one of those broader tracks towards the front line is to have the iron enter so deeply into your soul that you long to have no imagination left. Strewn in inextricable confusion on either side of the truck is every description of wreckage—pieces of limbers, wheels, dismounted guns and ammunition wagons, smashed motor-lorries, dead horses, scattered shells and charges, boxes of bombs, pieces of equipment, and, alas! torn rags of clothing and horrible stains that tell their own ghastly story, until, as you get near to the front line (which you only do in the pallor of moonlight or the ghostliness of the stars), your eye is caught by the strange and pitiful postures, here and there, of the still figures of the yet unburied dead. It is an extraordinary commentary upon twentieth-century civilization! To the left of me, as I sit, is a little bit of broken gable wall, which is all that is left of a village church. To this the remains of the Crucifix still cling, though it, too, has been broken by shell-fire, and almost the whole Figure is gone. The graves all about have been scattered every way, and their contents mingle with the ruined litter. It is quite impossible to convey the sense of utter desolation. It is only the hazards of the ground that keep one from dull, black depression. Since I commenced to write this letter, a young dispatch rider on a motorcycle, passing the corner of the gloomy road which goes off at right angles from me, was caught by a fragment of a shell and now lies not far off, fearfully mangled but, happily, dead. I shall go out presently to a cemetery which I myself opened in the summer of 1915, digging the first grave with my own hands, now swollen, alas! with such a glut of dead that I could not at first believe it was the little place I left.
And this ruined country covers not only a large part of Belgium but also the north of France. When the present German attack began on the 21st of March, the Division was farther south, and it was almost the same tale there. As we fell back from village to village during that bitter fighting, where whole Battalions were practically wiped out, we had to blow up the roads and bridges, and destroy by fire that part of the country we had spent nearly a year in re-establishing—repeating the tragic happenings of 1914 over again. It would be impossible to tell you the details of that misery. But there are two incidents I shall never forget. Once, when I had sorrowfully to refuse a little group, wheeling an old paralysed man in a wheelbarrow, their desire to put the old man in our ambulance car, which, alas! was too heavily burdened already to take the extra weight. I shall never forget the despair in the young woman’s face or the tears running down the cheeks of the old grandmother, leaning on her stick and holding a frightened child. Or another incident of a brave girl who had two wheelbarrows, one containing an old bed-ridden woman and the other containing the little all they had saved from their home. She trundled one barrow with an effort for fifty yards and then went back for the other, and having brought it, set off for another fifty yards with the first, and in this fashion was making her pilgrimage to her destination.
I tell you these things, for it is all-important that you should grasp how complete the ruin is. Those instances are typical and symbolical. The question is, What are we going to rebuild upon them?