Flanders. Part 4

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 12 September, 1917

This morning the Colonel summoned the whole battalion to the concert-hall, a ruined house with a roof of yellow tarpaulin. We knew perfectly well what was coming. A fortnight’s training in bombing, firing of rifle-grenades, shooting at disappearing targets, and practise of assault-formations going in waves over a hill, gave us an inkling of hot work in front of us. He told us of the traditions the division stood for, the high position it held in the regard of the Army Commander, appealed to the courage of an army which had triumphed at Messines, Vimy, Arras, and Ypres recalled to us the German treatment of our prisoners, and of harmless Belgian and French civilians, violation, seduction, murder, until it appeared a sacred duty to die fighting in such a cause. At the last he warned us solemnly of the penalties attached to cowardice in the field. “If the Hun shells too heavily, side-slip, but for God’s sake don’t go back. We have him by the short hairs, and it only remains for us to make a finished job. We have all had fierce time punishing him and making him pay for those desecrations of human hearths and hearts ; by the grace of God, we shall give him so much of his own hell that he will wish he had never created such misery. Do not shoot prisoners when such – that is, murder on his own lines ; do not kill wounded if they are in desperate condition and helpless. If prisoners are in your way, you are allowed to dispose of them as you please. Not otherwise!”. 

When he had finished and we went out into the clear air, into the quietly smiling sunlight, a feeling not exactly of pain or even fear overtook me:  a dim sense of exaltation, as if a definite vocation in life had been assured, a definite reward, a final gathering of all forces of soul and will to answer a great call, an obliteration of every quavering and hesitation, as if the new quest was nobler than that legendary one of Parzival. This was the real thing at last, not a mere toying with life and fate. The balance would be decided between life and death – death with no lingering and in a full glory of achievement, life after a stern battling with danger and crowned with joy in the thought of courage proved. I think the real religion must be a development of that uncertain exaltation, a strange concurrence in the unseen and perhaps inevitable, a definite view of soul across a broad world of shadow, a surrender to the great power we call God, accomplished in silence and received in silence. Nobility of presence suggested by an uplift of desire, by a stirring of the deeper conscience, not a folding of hands nor a stereotyped mouthing of conventional prayer, but a direct communion. In such a time we are all believers, cannot help it. There is need of sympathy and sustenance, of belief in a certain mission and of reward for play with death, and that is the spirit’s will and way.

The afternoon appeared in a new glory, and the white clouds, travelling in flocks across a diaper of shadow and silver gleam, held a vague promise as if they were then creations of another will smiling down, draped in a glory of life, and visualised in a mood of kindness. They were as truly alive as we, and in them, in the tall pillared trees, in the flower-covered gardens and ruined houses, in the distant plains, and in the immense depth of shimmering air overhead, the vague longings were quieted and the spirit felt at one with a great spirit, junction of soul to soul.

“And perhaps a very great and painful effort which you are not disposed to make but this is a world of effort, you know”.  I have a vague idea Dickens wrote this:  I can only hope this effort we must make will be successful, and that its fruit will be lasting and our period of struggle shortened. Even we, even so!