From A Martial Medley, Fact and Fiction, various authors, London: Eric Partridge at the Scholartis Press, 1931; pp. 357-361.
NOT in my lifetime are my children likely to feel enough interest in the Great War to ask what I did in it. And it is well; for I should have to answer that I did nothing, being merely done by. And after one experiment overseas, I had not the heart to record even the rebuffs I suffered in my efforts to do something; so it is all a little vague to me now.
But the whole imbecility is epitomised for me by the memory of a Sunday morning when a youngish policeman came to arrest me for not joining the army. I brought him in and talked to him like a father, and as he had just lost another conscript who had escaped through getting killed at the Battle of Mons a couple of years before, he was open to reason. I told him that I should be charmed to accompany him to the army on condition that he marched me handcuffed through the streets, like Eugene Aram with the gyves upon his wrist.
This offer he had not the moral courage to accept, but decided to report that I was evanished and no more apprehensible than the untimely warrior of Mons. To report the simple truth that I was, because of my age, not liable to compulsory service and that my voluntary services had been rejected, was a course that did not comment itself to him; for the local recruiting authority had decided from my name that I was a dangerously sturdy rebel, and my policeman was too discreet a constable to contradict his superiors. Else perhaps he, too, had been sent to join the army. For although he was of literary taste and had read deeply — as he boasted (I did not check his statement) — in the works of Miss 358 Marie Corelli, he had not enough influence to force his way into the ranks of able-bodied young men of genius fighting their country’s battles with that weapon proved to be mightier than the sword, which latter is now but a cryptic symbol of authority in the Air Force and the Indian Medical Service.
When eventually the craven desire of the dotards to fill England with ineffective soldiers while half the number used rationally on the Western Front might have saved the shameful debacle in the spring of 1918, led to the extension of the age of military service to cover the downright elderly, my recruiting authority summoned me again — to find the bird already flown aux zones des armées..
Not that even now I could claim a share in stiffening the line to whose ever-approaching thunder I listened as I helped ladies young and less young — but all better men than myself — to cut bread and plaster it with margarine to support the valour of the troops, or swabbed out a French latrine lest the just should perish with the unjust, or, tin hat on head, crawled over the corpses of slain dwelling houses in search of the human corpses beneath, while Mercedes engines bumbled overhead, bombs plumped with jaw-stunning concussion, and archies spat yellow gobs over the moon.
At the major horrors of war and its emotions I can only guess with hearsay for a spring board — but, for a mere pêkin, I can claim to somewhat intensive experience of aerial bombardment and its demoralising effect even on the proven brave. It was a grizzly sight to mark the rush for the dug-outs when a bomb or two came walloping about my railway station, where from August 6th, 1918, two days before the opening of the last advance, until November 13th, two days after the order “Fire” had snapped out for the last time on the Western Front, I kept unbroken watch and ward over the slumbers of thousands of young men of all ranks; hundreds of 359 whom were called by me at darkling dawn to fill their graves in this or that sector of the line.
Yet the figure I see most clearly in that environment is not of one who ever passed a night under my roof, and I am spared the remembrance of summoning him to death. It is even an odd thing that we bade each other no formal grave farewell, meaning, perhaps, to do so on the morrow, and that morrow kept us both busy and forbade sentiment. And though now, thirteen years after his death, I cannot think of him without tears, living our conversation was wholly lively to the verge of merriment, and I cannot visualise him but with a smiling schoolboy face: such a face as must have gone to the writing of the only message he ever sent me, with his lovely young life within a few pulse beats of the ultimate zero.
Perhaps a too scrupulous conscience forbade me to make any record of the doings in my rest hut beyond the official report for the authorities, so I cannot tell the dates on which I saw Wilfred Owen first or last. But I know that he paid me his first visit about tea-time on a sunny day in early September, 1918, and he was gone again up the line before the month was out. But while he was at the base, he must have come to see me almost every day. So it is that I see so clearly his charming face; a child’s, despite the tiny moustache, smiling at me in the sunlight or under the rays of the swinging lamp he would light for me when I drew the curtains at evenfall. Although he must have been in his twenty-sixth year (the age of Major Bonaparte at Toulon), he seemed quite the youngest officer who came my way — save only certain infants of the Air Force, who prattled in all innocence of abominable havoc they had wrought, as if German men and women were not human beings, but rather comical Aunt Sallies.
Very different was Wilfred Owen’s view, and he confessed himself to me deeply bitten by the heresy that 360 the Germans, however grievously to blame, were no more so than ourselves and our allies, if even so much could be claimed. I like to think that I helped to clear his mind of this perilous matter, pointing out that if I, who had so little reason to sympathise with the English Government (which had fatuously done to death certain of my most admired friends), yet felt it morally incumbent on me to throw my groat’s worth of force against the crazy beast Hohenzollernism then mangling civilisation (though I agreed the main German fault was their worship of this beast), he, as an Englishman, directly concerned in the defence of his country, need have no scruples whatsoever. At the same time I entered fully into his hatred of killing, and horror of the glorification of it in the English Press. Withal, I reminded him that man-killing was not normally considered in England, as in Germany under the Hohenzollerns, the most essential part of a gentleman’s education. Even the Irish tragedy I attributed rather to conceited incompetence than bloodlust, maintaining that the deadliest sin of the English was their hatred of the trouble of thinking.
In Mr. Edmund Blunden’s introduction to the new edition of Owen’s poems, published by Chatto & Windus the other day, I find this quotation from a letter of his dated October 10th, 1918, to Siegfried Sassoon: “At the base I met O’Riordan. . . . A troll of a man. . . . It was easy, and, as I reflect, inevitable, to tell him everything about oneself.”
As a matter of fact Owen told me much of Siegfried Sassoon’s achievements in poetry, but said never a word of his own. In that way he was a little like Edward Thomas, who assured me, in the course of a long and intimate talk, so late as the autumn of 1914, that he had never written a line of verse and never would. Owen did not foreswear the will to verse, but insisted that he had so far done nothing worthy my consideration. The impression made upon me was, not that he really dreaded 361 my criticism, but feared I might be embarrassed by his choice of themes. But, indeed, there was no reason why he should not have shown them to me, and I blame myself now for my stupidity in not urging him to produce them. I can only plead that I was a very tired man and may have shrunk from the risk of finding his writing less lively and memorable than his conversation. That ranged from the most beauteous and humane wisdom to what I warned him was, in my quite unprejudiced view, comprehensible but not the less unbalanced, and intellectually indefensible folly. Folly which, I told him, I was convinced he would outgrow. And there is no doubt in my mind that he would have outgrown it had he lived. . . . Had he lived! . . . What nonsense am I writing?
Had Wilfred Owen lived, there had been no World War. Things are as they are, were as they were, and will be as they will be. But had there been no World War, Wilfred Owen could never have been alive for me. Perhaps he might not have been alive for any one beyond his family and familiars. The emotions of war lent his poetry a quality that it must otherwise have lacked. Bellona gave him not only a grave, but a gravestone which time may swell to a monument. And I, for one, would sooner die of the kiss of a bullet with Owen on a French battlefield than be gnawed to dust by bacilli with Keats in Rome. I pity not Owen, but the hundreds of thousands the pleading of whose miseries gave him and a few others fame. Perhaps the muses worked with peevish Ares to this end, and from the welter of bloody corruption called forth beauty. That seems the least deplorable reason for the Great War. . . . And what was Troy but the fulcrum of a lever for Homer’s voice to lift his unfalling song?