Thoughts on This War

By John Galsworthy

[Scribner's Magazine, November 1914]

Three hundred thousand church spires raised to the glory of Christ! Three hundred million human creatures baptized into his service! And—war to the death of them all! Trust the Almighty to give the victory to my arms !" "Let your hearts beat to God, and your fists in the face of the enemy!" "In prayer we call God's blessing on our valiant troops!"

God on the lips of each potentate, and under the hundred thousand spires prayer that twenty-two million servants of Christ may receive from God the blessed strength to tear and blow each other to pieces, to ravage and burn, to wrench husbands from wives, fathers from their children, to starve the poor, and everywhere destroy the works of the spirit! Prayer under the hundred thousand spires for the blessed strength of God, to use the noblest, most loyal instincts of the human race to the ends of carnage! "God be with us to the death and dishonor of our foes" (whose God he is no less than ours)! The God who gave his only begotten Son to bring on earth peace and good will toward men!

No creed—in these days when two and two are put together—can stand against such reeling subversion of its foundation. After this monstrous mockery, beneath this grinning skull of irony, how shall there remain faith in a religion preached and practised to such ends? When this war is over and reason resumes its swab our dogmas will be found to have been scored through forever. Whatever else be the outcome of this business, let us at least realize the truth: It is the death of mystic Christianity! Let us will that it be the birth of an ethic Christianity that men really practise!


Yes! Mystic Christianity was dying before this war began. When it is over it will be dead. In France, England, Germany, in Belgium and the other small countries, dead; and only kept wonderingly alive in Russia and some parts of Austria through peasant superstition and simplicity. "Tell me, brother, what have the Japanese done to us that we should kill them?" so said the Russian peasant in the Japanese war. So they will say in this war. And at the end go back and resume praise of the God who fought for holy Russia against the God who fought for valiant Austria and the mailed fists of Germany.

This mystic Christianity will not die in the open and be buried with pomp and ceremony; it will merely be dead—a very different thing, like the nerve in a tooth that, to the outward eye, is just as it was. That which will take its place has already been a long time preparing to come forward. I know not what it will be called, or whether it will even receive a name. It will be too much in earnest to care for such a ceremony. But one thing is certain—it will be far more Christian than the Christianity which has brought us to these present ends. Its creed will be a noiseless and passionate conviction that man can be saved, not by a far-away, despotic God who can be enlisted by each combatant for the destruction of his foes, but by the divine element in man, the God within the human soul. That in proportion as man is high so will the life of man be high, safe from shames like this and devoid of his old misery. The creed will be a fervent, almost secret application of the saying: ''Love thy neighbor as thyself!'' It will be ashamed of appeals to God to put right that which man has bungled; of supplications to the deity to fight against the deity. It will have the pride of the artist and the artisan. And it will have its own mysticism, its own wonder at the mystery of the all-embracing Principle which has produced such a creature as this man, with such marvelous potentiality for the making of fine things, and the living of fine lives; such heroism, such savagery; such wisdom and such black stupidity; such a queer insuperable instinct for going on and on and ever on!


The Western world has had its lesson now—the lesson indelibly writ in death: There is no longer room in civilization for despotic governments. In Germany, in Austria, in the country where despotism most reigns supreme—our ally, Russia—they are doomed!

The Slav is not the enemy of the Teuton, the Teuton is not the enemy of the Frank. That enmity is the fostered thing of imperial and bureaucratic dreams.

What stands out from all this welter? The ambitious, unscrupulous diplomacy of the despotic powers, in pursuit of so-called "national ideals," a diplomacy begotten of fusty diplomatic tradition and the misconceptions of egomania, removed by a ring fence from the people of the nations for whom they profess to speak. An ambitious and unscrupulous diplomacy, battening on the knowledge that it can at almost any time raise for its fantastic ends a whirlwind of feeling out of the love men ever have for the land wherein they are born.

It is the divorce of executive power from popular sanction that has made possible this greatest of all the crimes in history. In democratic countries the aggressive faculty is imperceptibly yet continually weakened by the obscure but real line between ministers-elect and the people. Only in those countries where the administrative force is responsible to none save an imperial director is a ruthless and unchecked pursuit of so-called national dreams, a bullying parade of so-called national honor, possible. The German, the Austrian, the Russian peoples are as sheep led to the slaughter—poor souls hypnotized by demigods looming large through mist, lured on by a brazen melody, to the making of which they have brought no part.

If only despotisms go down in the wreckage of this war!


The superstition that unmilitarized nations suffer from fatty degeneration of the heart has perished in the forty-fourth year of its age, at the siege of Liège, blown away by the heroism of a little unmilitary nation!

Democracy and citizen armies! If this war brings that in its train its horror will not have been all hateful. But so surely as despotisms are left standing, will the accursed spirit that animates almighty bureaucracy rear a swelled head again and demand revenge. So surely will this war bring another, and yet another! In these last twenty years civilization has not even marked time; it has gone backward under the curb and pressure of professional armaments masquerading under the words: "Si vis pacem, para bellum." The principle of universal service by men not professionally soldiers, the principle that no man shall be called under any circumstances to fight one step outside his native land—these are the only principles that will in the future still the gnawings of anxiety and gradually guarantee the peace of the West. They are principles that will never obtain while these despotisms last, with their surroundings of military bureaucracy, their demigod ambitions, their "father of my people" cant, and glib usage of the name of God. No, if they are to last we are "doomed to something great" every generation—the greatness of the shambles! It is enough to make heart stand still and brain reel forever if one must believe that man is never to find better means of keeping his spirit from rust, his body from decay, than these sporadic outbursts of bloody "greatness." "War the only cleanser!" Yea—because the word patriotism has so limited a meaning. But—to believe that this must always be! When men have ceased to look on war as the proper vehicle for self-sacrifice will they not turn to a greatness that is not soaked with blood and black with the crows of death, to save their souls alive? Will there not, can there not, arise an emotion as strong as this present patriotism—a sentiment as passionate and sweeping, bearing men on to the use of every faculty and the forgetfulness self, for the salvation, instead of the destruction, of their fellow man? Or is this a dream, and are we forever doomed, each generation, to the greatness of tearing each other limb from limb?


Contemplation of the theories that obtain as to the responsibility for this war drives one more and more to a view such as Tolstoi took of the nature and course of the Napoleonic wars: there was no deliberate direction; it was all pushed on automatically by the evil nature of the existing system. The whole affair is a sort of chemical equation in the usual low and bullying terms of despotic diplomacy backed by militarism.

Servian despotism, in the belief that it could do so without punishment, because the consequences of hindrance would be too serious, worked for its so-called national aims and affronted the so-called national aims of Austria. Austrian despotism, believing that the Servian despotism must obey, because the consequences of refusal would be too serious, said: "Cease from these aims, and apologize, or I make war." Servian despotism, saying to itself, "How far need I go in apology, seeing that the consequences of driving me to go the whole way will be too serious?" refused just so far as it thought it could with impunity. Austrian despotism, believing that no one would interfere with its action, because the consequences of interference would be too serious, declared war. Russian despotism, believing that fear of the consequences of its mobilization would be so great that Austria would stop fighting, mobilized. German despotism, saying to itself, "Russia will never stand out against the consequences of refusal," said: "Stop mobilizing against my ally or I, too, mobilize." Russian despotism, having the alliance of France and not believing that Germany would go to the extreme of war, went on mobilizing. War!

Observe that this is an unbroken chain of actions, all taken with a so-called "full sense of consequences," but without in any case a real belief that the full consequences would follow. Observe that each actor in this ghastly comedy traded to the full on the others' fears, and made the mistake of not seeing that sooner or later this game when the actor has to act or confess the cowardice with which he has been credited. From start to finish a game of stupid bluff and cynicism. Such is ever the course of despotic diplomacy. Who can rationally fix responsibility in such a game? It is just a meeting of ill-conditioned creatures trying to get the utmost out of each other—as ill-conditioned creatures ever will! Just a scrimmage of the brutal elements in man. And for this game Europe pays in rivers of blood and in such anguish of souls as must never come again!


Three weeks before this war began I was in one of those East End London parishes, whose inhabitants exist from hand to mouth on casual employment and sweated labor; where the women, poor, thin, overworked souls, have neither time nor strength nor inclination for cleanliness and comeliness in person or in house; where the men are undersized and underfed, with faces of those without a future; where pale and stunted children playing in the gutters have a monopoly of any mirthless gayety there is.

In one household of two rooms they were "free of debt, thank Gawd!" having just come back from fruit-picking, and were preparing to take up family existence again on the wife's making of match-boxes at a maximum of six shillings a week, the husband not having found a job as yet. In another, of one room swarming with flies and foul with a sickly, acrid odor, a baby was half asleep on the few rags of a bed bereft of bedclothes, its lips pressed to something rubbery, and the flies about its eyes; dirty bowls of messes stood about; an offal heap lay in the empty grate; and at a table in the little window a pallid woman of forty with a running cold was desperately sewing the soles on to tiny babies' shoes. Beside her was a small dirty boy, who had just been lost and brought home by a policeman, because he knew his name and the name of the street he lived in. The woman looked up at us wistfully and said: ''I thought I'd lost 'im, too, I did, like the one that fell in the canal." Though she still had seven, though her husband was out of work, though she made only five to six shillings a week, she could not spare any of the children she had borne.

Prices have gone up. What is happening to such as these? You emperors and military bureaucracies, trustees of your peoples—phrase that would make the devil blush!—you who safeguard and pursue the "national aspirations," you who open the gates of the kennel and let loose the mad dogs of war; you who rive husbands from their wives, sons from their mothers' arms, and send them out by the hundred thousand to become lumps of bloody clay; you with your "God defend the right!" and your lust for useless territory, spare one fraction of your time, from august diplomacy, to see the peoples for "whose good" you launch this glorious murder; come out of your clouds of incense and sniff for one moment that sickly, acrid smell in the homes of the poor! And then put up prices, if you dare; then talk of national aspirations!

You emperors and militarist bureaucracies! There is only one national aspiration worth the name: to have from roof to basement a clean, healthy, happy national house. "War the cleanser! Without war no sacrifice, no nobility!" I refer you to that mother, slaving, slaving without hope and without glory, starved and ill, and slaving in a war with death that lasts all her life for the children she has borne.


Of the true Russian people we English might joyfully be brothers. In the true Russian people we might have trust. But the Russian people is not Russia, unless it should become so in this war. There is at present an almost absolute divorce between the essentially democratic nature of the Russian and the despotic methods by which Russia is governed. We English are fighting for democracy, fighting for the decent preservation of treaty rights, fighting for ideals, and a humanity that can only flourish under democratic rule. It is somewhat ironical that we have with us a despotism. And there is a profound reason why it has been and will be difficult for Russia to change its form of government. The emotional, uncalculating Russian has little sense of money, space, or time; he falls an easy prey to those sterner, more matter-of-fact, than he. Bureaucracy of itself attracts the hard and practical elements of a population; there are, too, many of Teutonic and Scandinavian origin manning Russian officialdom. And Russia is so huge; democratic rule will find it difficult to be swift enough; in decentralization there is danger of disruption. Nevertheless, we welcome the help of Russia, for, if France and we are beaten, it will be the death of democracy in Europe—perhaps in the world. The tide of democracy sets from the West. It must conquer Germany before it reaches Russia. Out of this war many things may come. If Fate grant that military despotisms fall in any country they may well fall in all, and our ally, Russia, gain at last a constitution, some real measure of democratic freedom, some real coherence between the Russian people and Russian policy.


When the conscript souls disembodied by this war meet in the upper ether how will they talk of this last madness? Perhaps one in each hundred will be able to say from his heart: "I was happy with a rifle or sword and some of you to be killed in front of me!" The remaining ninety-nine will say: "Brothers, like you I loved the sun, and a woman, and the good things of life; like you I meant well by others; I had no wish to kill any man; no wish to die. But I was told that it was necessary. I was told that unless I killed as many of you as I could my country would suffer. I know not whether in my heart I believed what I was told, but I did know that I should feel disgraced if I did not take rifle and sword and try to kill some of you; I knew, too, that unless I did they would shoot me for a deserter. So I went. Nearly all the time that I was marching, or resting dead tired, or lying in the trenches, I thought: 'Shall I ever see home again? God let me see home again!' But I knew that my first duty was to kill you, so that you should never see home again. I did not want to kill you, but I knew I had to.

"When I was under fire or tired and hungry, it is true, I hated you so that I had only a savage wish to kill you. But when it was over I had an ache in my heart. We used to sing while marching, make jokes, enjoy the feel of our comrades' shoulders touching our own, say to ourselves: 'We're fine fellows, serving our country, doing our duty!' But still the ache went on underneath, very deep, as if one were asleep and could not come to the end of a bad dream. We seldom knew what our bullets were doing, but sometimes we came to fighting hand to hand. The first time, I remember, we had advanced through a wood under shell-fire, and were lying down at the edge. I had that ache all the time I was coming through the wood; it was fine, the larches smelled sweet. But when I saw you charging down on us with the sun gleaming on your bayonets it left me; I felt weak and queer down the backs of my legs, wondering which of you, yelling and running toward me, would plunge his steel into my stomach. Then my officer shouted; I fired, once, twice, three times, and began to run forward. If I had not I should have turned and fled. I did not feel savage, but I knew I must move every bit of me as quick as I could, and defend myself and stab. Then our supports came through the wood, and you were beaten. My bayonet was bloody. One or more of you I must have killed; I had been brave, we had won, I felt excited and yet sick. In the evening when I lay down my ache was worse than ever. All my life I had been taught that to kill a fellow man was the worst thing man can do; it did not come natural to me to kill. Brothers, it was having to risk my life so dear to me, in order that I might kill, that gave me that ache. If I had been risking it trying to save you it would have been more natural; I should not have ached then."


"The glories of war!"

Courage, devotion, endurance, contempt of death! These are glories that the unmartial may not deride. Verily, even the humblest of brave soldiers is a hero, for all that his heroism coins the misery of others; but what does the soldier know, see, feel, of the real "glories of war"? That knowledge is confined to readers of newspapers and books! The pressman, the romancer, the historian can with glowing pen call up in the reader a feeling that war is glorious; that there is something in itself desirable and to be admired in that licensed murder, arson, robbery that we call war. Glorious war! Every penny thrill of each reader of the newspaper, every spasm of each one who sees armed men passing or hears the fifes and drums, is manufactured out of blood and groans, wrung out of the torments of the human heart and the torture of human flesh.

When I read in the paper of some glorious charge and the great slaughter of the enemy, I feel a thrill through every fibre. It is grand, it is splendid! I take a deep breath of joy, almost of rapture. Grand, splendid! That there should be lying, with their faces haggard to the stars, hundreds, thousands of men like myself, better men than myself! Hundreds, thousands, who loved life as much as I, felt pain as much as I; whose women loved them as much as mine love me! Grand, splendid! That the blood should be oozing from them into grass that once smelled as sweet to them as it does to me. That their eyes, which delighted in sunlight and beauty as much as mine, should be glazing fast with death; their mouths, that mothers and wives and children are aching to kiss again, should be twisted into gaps of horror. Grand, splendid! That other men, no more savage than myself, should have strown them there. Grand, splendid! That in thousands of far-off houses women, children, and old men will soon lie quivering with anguished memories of those lying there dead.

I thank you, gentle pressmen, romancers, historians—you have given me a noble thrill in recounting these glories of war!


This is the grand defeat of all of us utopians, dreamers, poets, philosophers, idealists, humanitarians, lovers of peace and the arts; bag and baggage we are thrown out of a world that has for a time no use for us. To the despot, the bureaucrat, the militarist, the man of affairs, we have always been hateful. If they had the whole of their way, as they have had before now in history and—who knows?—may have again, we should be lined up against a wall and shot. We are soft, yet dangerous, because we venture to hold up little flags in the face of the big flag of force; venture to distract men's attention from dwelling on the beauty of its size. I believe solemnly that we English have had to join this bloody carnival of force to guard democracy, honor, and the sanctity of treaty rights. It is sacred necessity; let us keep it sacred, without the loathsome reek of a satisfaction that peace, humanism, and the arts are down, and the country once more showing the stuff of which it is made, a tusky lover of a fight, as jealous and afraid of a rival as ever.

The idealist said in his heart: The god of force is dead. He has been proven the fool that the man of affairs and the militarist always said he was. But the fools of this world—generally after they are gone—have a way of moving men which the wise and practical believers in force have not. If they had not this power man would still be, year in year out, the savage that the believers in force have for the moment once more made him. The battle between the god of love and the god of force endures for ever. We fools of the former camp, drummed out and beaten to our knees, in due time will get up again and plant our poor flags a little farther on. ''All men shall be brothers," said the German fool, Schiller; so shall all we fools say again when the time comes; and again, and again, after every beating.


Culture! You wreckers of Louvain! Culture! There are stores of knowledge in your Prussian brains, but there is no culture in your blood. Culture is not scientific learning; culture is not social method and iron discipline; culture is not even power of producing and appreciating works of art—though in these days you have not much of that! The Assyrians, the Persians, the old Egyptians had all these qualities—they, like you, had little or no culture.

Culture is natural gentility—a very different thing. Culture is a quality of some races, inborn or passed into the blood by generations of conformity to humane ideals. You may persist another thousand years, but you will not be cultured at the end. There is a harshness in your blood; there is an arrogance, a thickness of sensibility. Try as you may, you will never strain it out of your natures. Culture, forsooth!

The Hindoo is cultured, the Burmese, the Jew, the Irish cottager, the Pole, the Russian peasant, even the Englishman; for deep in them all is a live humanity, a far-down kindliness, proof against the ranker instincts. You Prussian supermen of Nietzsche's cult have no use for this; it is a quality for slaves, you say! Culture! If you knew what true culture was, you would be the last to claim it. No, no! You have great qualities, no doubt; but do not claim the apostleship of culture, or you will make the nations laugh! Culture is spiritual, not material, salvation; the spiritual salvation of the world will never come from you. Sooner, far sooner, will it come from that Russia whom you despise and dread.

Culture! You wreckers of Louvain!


Last night, when the half-moon was golden and the white stars very high, I saw the souls of the killed passing. They came riding through the dark, some on gray horses, some on black; they came marching, white-faced; hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. The night smelled sweet, the breeze rustled, the stream murmured; and past me on the air the souls of the killed came marching. They seemed of one great company, no longer enemies. All had the same fixed stare, braving something strange, that they were trying terribly to push away. All had their eyes narrowed yet fixed-open, in their gray-white, smoke-grimed faces. They made no sound as they passed. Whence were they coming, where going, trailing the ghosts of guns, riding the ghosts of horses; into what river of oblivion, far from horror, and the savagery of man?

They passed. The golden half-moon shone, and the high white stars. The fields smelt sweet; the wind gently stirred the trees. The moon and stars would be shining over the battle-fields, the wind rustling the trees there, the earth sleeping in dark beauty. So would it be all over the Western world. The peace of God doth indeed pass our understanding!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury