For Veterans Day, nothing fortean, just an account from the Great War by a woman first aid worker and writer.
Behind everyone I suppose at this time lurks the horror of war, the deadly fear for one’s dearest; and, above all, one feels–at least I do–that one is always, and quite palpably, in the shadow of the death of youth–beautiful youth, happy and healthy and free. Always I seem to see the white faces of boys turned up to the sky, and I hear their cries and see the agony which joyous youth was never meant to bear. They are too young for it, far too young; but they lie out on the field between the trenches, and bite the mud in their frenzy of pain; and they call for their mothers, and no one comes, and they call to their friends, but no one hears. There is a roar of battle and of bursting shells, and who can listen to a boy’s groans and his shrieks of pain? This is war.
A nation or a people want more sea-board or more trade, so they begin to kill youth, and to torture and to burn, and God himself may ask, “Where is my beautiful flock?” No one answers. It is war. We must expect a “list of casualties.” “The Germans have lost more than we have done;” “We must go on, even if the war lasts ten years;” “A million more men are needed”–thus the fools called men talk! But Youth looks up with haggard eyes, and Youth, grown old, learns that Death alone is merciful.
One sees even in soldiers’ jokes that the thought of death is not far off. I said to one man, “You have had a narrow squeak,” and he replied,”I don’t mind if I get there first so long as I can stoke up for those Germans.” Another, clasping the hand of his dead Captain, said, “Put plenty of sandbags round heaven, sir, and don’t let a German through.”
The other day, when the forward movement was made in France and Belgium, Charles’s Regiment, the 9th Welsh, was told to attack at a certain point, which could only be reached across an open space raked by machine-gun fire. They were not given the order to move for twelve days, during which time the men hardly slept. When the charge had to be made the roar of guns made speaking quite impossible, so directions were given by sending up rockets. When the rockets appeared, not a single man delayed an instant in making the attack. One young officer, in the trench where Charles was, had a football, and this he flung over the parapet, and shouting, “Come on, boys!” he and the men of the regiment played football in the open and in front of the guns. Right across the gun-raked level they kicked the ball, and when they reached the enemy’s lines only a few of them were left.
Charles wrote, “I am too old to see boys killed.”
Colonel Walton, with a handful of his regiment, was the only officer to get through the three lines of the enemy’s trenches, and he and his men dug themselves in. Just in front of them where they paused, he saw a fine young officer come along the road on a motor bicycle, carrying despatches. The next minute a high-explosive shell burst, and, to use his own words, “There was not enough of the young officer to put on a threepenny bit.” Always men tell me there is nothing left to bury. One minute there is a splendid piece of upstanding, vigorous manhood, andthe next there is no finding one piece of him to lay in the sod.
My War Experiences in Two Continents, Sarah Macnaughtan, 1919
“Charles” was Macnaughtan’s brother.