November 15th, 1916.
I've owed you a letter for some time, but I've been getting very little leisure. You can't send steel messages to the Kaiser and love-notes to your family in the same breath.
I am amazed at the spirit you three are showing and almighty proud that you can muster such courage. I suppose none of us quite realised our strength till it came to the test. There was a time when we all doubted our own heroism. I think we were typical of our age. Every novel of the past ten years has been more or less a study in sentiment and self-distrust. We used to wonder what kind of stuff Drake's men were made of that they could jest while they died. We used to contrast ourselves with them to our own disfavour. Well, we know now that when there's a New World to be discovered we can still rise up reincarnated into spiritual pirates. It wasn't the men of our age who were at fault, but the New World that was lacking. Our New World is the Kingdom of Heroism, the doors of which are flung so wide that the meanest of us may enter. I know men out here who are the dependable daredevils of their brigades, who in peace times were nuisances and as soon as peace is declared will become nuisances again. At the moment they're fine, laughing at Death and smiling at the chance of agony. There's a man I know of who had a record sheet of crimes. When he was out of action he was always drunk and up for office. To get rid of him, they put him into the trench mortars and within a month he had won his D.C.M. He came out and went on the spree—this particular spree consisted in stripping a Highland officer of his kilts on a moonlight night. For this he was sentenced to several months in a military prison, but asked to be allowed to serve his sentence in the trenches. He came out from his punishment a King's sergeant—which means that whatever he did nobody could degrade him. He got this for lifting his trench mortar over the parapet when all the detachment were killed. Carrying it out into a shell-hole, he held back the Hun attack and saved the situation. He got drunk again, and again chose to be returned to the trenches. This time his head was blown off while he was engaged in a special feat of gallantry. What are you to say to such men? Ordinarily they'd be blackguards, but war lifts them into splendour. In the same way you see mild men, timid men, almost girlish men, carrying out duties which in other wars would have won V.C.'s. I don't think the soul of courage ever dies out of the race any more than the capacity for love. All it means is that the occasion is not present. For myself I try to analyse my emotions; am I simply numb, or do I imitate other people's coolness and shall I fear life again when the war is ended? There is no explanation save the great army phrase "Carry on." We "carry on" because, if we don't, we shall let other men down and put their lives in danger. And there's more than that—we all want to live up to the standard that prompted us to come.
One talks about splendour—but war isn't splendid except in the individual sense. A man by his own self-conquest can make it splendid for himself, but in the massed sense it's squalid. There's nothing splendid about a battlefield when the fight is ended—shreds of what once were men, tortured, levelled landscapes—the barbaric loneliness of Hell. I shall never forget my first dead man. He was a signalling officer, lying in the dawn on a muddy hill. I thought he was asleep at first, but when I looked more closely, I saw that his shoulder blade was showing white through his tunic. He was wearing black boots. It's odd, but the sight of black boots have the same effect on me now that black and white stripes had in childhood. I have the superstitious feeling that to wear them would bring me bad luck.
To-night we've been singing in parts, Back in the Dear Dead Days Beyond Recall—a mournful kind of ditty to sing under the circumstances—so mournful that we had to have a game of five hundred to cheer us up. It's now nearly 2 a.m., and I have to go out to the guns again before I go to bed. I carry your letters about in my pockets and read them at odd intervals in all kinds of places that you can't imagine.
Cheer up and remember that I'm quite happy. I wish you could be with me for just one day to understand.