February 1st, 1917.
Your picture of the black days when no letter comes from me sets me off scribbling to you at this late hour. All to-day I've been having a cold but amusing time at the O.P. (Forward Observation Post). It seems brutal to say it, but taking potshots at the enemy when they present themselves is rather fun. When you watch them scattering like ants before the shell whose direction you have ordered, you somehow forget to think of them as individuals, any more than the bear-hunter thinks of the cubs that will be left motherless. You watch your victims through your glasses as God might watch his mad universe. Your skill in directing fire makes you what in peace times would be called a murderer. Curious! You're glad, and yet at close quarters only in hot blood would you hurt a man.
I'd been back for a little over an hour when I had to go forward again to guide in some guns. The country was dazzlingly white in the moonlight. As far as eye could see every yard was an old battlefield; beneath the soft white fleece of snow lay countless unburied bodies. Like frantic fingers tearing at the sky, all along the horizon, Hun lights were shooting up and drifting across our front. Tap-tap-tappity went the machine-guns; whoo-oo went the heavies, and they always stamp like angry bulls. I had to come back by myself across the heroic corruption which the snow had covered. All the way I asked myself why was I not frightened. What has happened to me? Ghosts should walk here if anywhere. Moreover, I know that I shall be frightened again when the war is ended. Do you remember how you once offered me money to walk through the Forest of Dean after dark, and I wouldn't? I wouldn't if you offered it to me now. You remember Meredith's lines in "The Woods of Westermain":
"All the eyeballs under hoods
Shroud you in their glare;
Enter these enchanted woods
You who dare."
Maybe what re-creates one for the moment is the British officer's uniform, and even more the fact that you are not asked, but expected, to do your duty. So I came back quite unruffled across battered trenches and silent mounds to write this letter to you.
My dear father, I'm over thirty, and yet just as much a little boy as ever. I still feel over-whelmingly dependent on your good opinion and love. I'm glad that they are black days when you have no letters from me. I love to think of the rush to the door when the postman rings and the excited shouting up the stairs, "Quick, one from Con."
You see by the writing how tired I was when I reached this point. It's nearly twenty-four hours later and again night. The gramophone is playing an air from La Tosca to which the guns beat out a bass accompaniment. I close my eyes and picture the many times I have heard the (probably) German orchestras of Broadway Joy Palaces play that same music. How incongruous that I should be listening to it here and under these circumstances! It must have been listened to so often by gay crowds in the beauty places of the world. A romantic picture grows up in my mind of a blue night, the laughter of, youth in evening dress, lamps twinkling through trees, far off the velvety shadow of water and mountains, and as a voice to it all, that air from La Tosca. I can believe that the silent people near by raise themselves up in their snow-beds to listen, each one recalling some ecstatic moment before the dream of life was shattered.
There's a picture in the Pantheon at Paris, I remember; I believe it's called To Glory. One sees all the armies of the ages charging out of the middle distance with Death riding at their head. The only glory that I have discovered in this war is in men's hearts—it's not external. Were one to paint the spirit of this war he would depict a mud landscape, blasted trees, an iron sky; wading through the slush and shell-holes would come a file of bowed figures, more like outcasts from the Embankment than soldiers. They're loaded down like pack animals, their shoulders are rounded, they're wearied to death, but they go on and go on. There's no "To Glory" about what we're doing out here; there's no flash of swords or splendour of uniforms. There are only very tired men determined to carry on. The war will be won by tired men who could never again pass an insurance test, a mob of broken counter-jumpers, ragged ex-plumbers and quite unheroic persons. We're civilians in khaki, but because of the ideals for which we fight we've managed to acquire soldiers' hearts.
My flow of thought was interrupted by a burst of song in which I was compelled to join. We're all writing letters around one candle; suddenly the O.C. looked up and began, God Be With You Till We Meet Again. We sang it in parts. It was in Southport, when I was about nine years old, that I first heard that sung. You had gone for your first trip to America, leaving a very lonely family behind you. We children were scared to death that you'd be drowned. One evening, coming back from a walk on the sand-hills, we heard voices singing in a garden, God Be With You Till We Meet Again. The words and the soft dusk, and the vague figures in the English summer garden, seemed to typify the terror of all partings. We've said good-bye so often since, and God has been with us. I don't think any parting was more hard than our last at the prosaic dock-gates with the cold wind of duty blowing, and the sentry barring your entrance, and your path leading back to America while mine led on to France. But you three were regular soldiers—just as much soldiers as we chaps who were embarking. One talks of our armies in the field, but there are the other armies, millions strong, of mothers and fathers and sisters, who keep their eyes dry, treasure muddy letters beneath their pillows, offer up prayers and wait, wait, wait so eternally for God to open another door.
To-morrow I again go forward, which means rising early and taking a long plod through the snows; that's one reason for not writing any more, and another is that our one poor candle is literally on its last legs. Your poem, written years ago when the poor were marching in London, is often in my mind:
"Yesterday and to-day
Have been heavy with labour and sorrow;
I should faint if I did not see
The day that is after to-morrow."
And there's that last verse which prophesied utterly the spirit in which we men at the Front are fighting to-day:
"And for me, with spirit elate
The mire and the fog I press thorough,
For Heaven shines under the cloud
Of the day that is after to-morrow."
We civilians who have been taught so long to love our enemies and do good to them who hate us—much too long ever to make professional soldiers—are watching with our hearts in our eyes for that day which comes after to-morrow. Meanwhile we plod on determinedly, hoping for the hidden glory.
Yours very lovingly.