What It Means
By Major Laughlan MacLean Watt
(Chaplain to the Gordon Highlanders and Black Watch in the Somme, the Ancre, and at Ypres)
[Scribner's Magazine, June 1918]
I have been intimately linked up with the war since Christmas, living, moving, and serving with the brave men out there. And one learns many things on the spot, and gets not only fresh insight into old truths, but frequently also new standards and measurements to enable one to face positions that emerge from the struggle of to-day. And there are questions which are regularly being asked here of those who, like myself, come over from the Land of War, which should be answered with perfect candor—questions which arise partly from mere curiosity, and partly from pardonable anxiety.
One is asked oftenest about the men. American mothers and wives are anxious on that subject. "Is it true," they say, "that the standard of moral conduct is low-—that men behave out there as they would not behave at home—that war roughens, degrades, and pollutes manhood—that it will even be dangerous for nice American boys to mix with the fellows yonder? What about religion amongst them?" Well, war is a rough school. And the enemy has shown how civilized man can descend to brutal levels, and how devilry can take the place of humaneness, when strength forgets chivalry. The story of the girlhood and womanhood of Belgium, told by the suffering ones themselves, without passion and without emotion, as though told by creatures who have turned to stone through the horror of it, having no longer a heart, is perhaps the saddest story history has ever had to listen to. She has not been able fully to record it, being sometimes blinded by her tears as she listened. It perpetuates, however, the fact of the measurement of womanhood from the enemy point of view. And it is not ours. We cannot enter into understanding of it at all. Our army out there has put no violence of outrage upon the weak. Womanhood has not had to weep through rape at the hands of the British soldiers. He is, in fact, tenderly devoted to the ideals of chivalry. He loves his womanhood at home; and he cherishes most dearly and with an intimate remembrance those whose faces are imprinted deeply on his heart. I have read many love-letters in printed books, and I have written my own share of very good ones, but I have never read or written tenderer epistles than those of our brave soldier men to their wives, sisters, and sweethearts across the sea. If you are sending your boys out expecting them to join up a kind of choir or Bible-class picnic, you are foolish. If you are expecting to find out yonder plaster saints, you will be bitterly disappointed. But if you seek for true stanch manhood, that loves home and the hearts there dear to it with an unwavering fidelity—that loves honor, and is content to live yonder in suffering and discomfort, and to die without a grudge for its sake, thank God, you will find it yonder, in crowds and masses. And the heart that is devoted to these things is surely not far from the kingdom of heaven.
As for religion, as we all understand it, it is there, strong, virile, and clear. Our first army, the "contemptible" invincibles, were our professional fighting men. Yet there were amongst them many as truly-religious as may be found in pews or pulpits to-day. Their religion, however, was, in the main, dedication to duty. In their terrible experiences at the beginning of the war, vastly outnumbered, imperfectly munitioned, fighting divisions when they expected to be facing brigades, they lived right up to their ideal, and died as they were expected to die, making their bodies a wall impregnable against the terrible incursion of cruel wrong and anarchy into modern civilization and order. The next army of Territorials were our idealists. They comprised our scholars, our dreamers—the hope of our To-morrow the strength of our To-day. Their mission was clear and deliberate sacrifice—to plaster with their blood the wall their predecessors had upbuilded. And they did it. The crosses above their graves, where they fought until they fell, are their witnesses. They knew what was expected of them, and they rose to the expectation. They were religious men. I have given them the sacrament of sacrifice before they went across the Great Divide, and I know. Had the war ended soon the returning wave of these would certainly have uplifted our old world to a loftier level than it had known. The new army, which is the nation, in fact, the empire, is as miscellaneous as the empire is. All sorts and conditions are there, and every form of thought; but thought predominates.
There will, of course, always be "the problem," who will return probably as great and grave a problem to the slum he left as when he went away from it. Our environments are old and hardened in our ancient cities at home, though America has her environments also, even in her comparative youth. She has her problems in khaki, too. Yet even the problem cannot but be touched through contact with the big things of this war. And if we could only get the slum purified before the returning, life would put on a new light for him. Fitting in again to the old environments will be a stepping down from the level of the soul's school in the trenches, even for him. That is the pity of it. For even the roughest has had glimpses of eternal things out yonder, and moments of breathless awakening as he has looked into the deep well at the world's end.
Still, this is, with me, the conclusion of the matter. I have been beside many, of all kinds, at the last, in the low dark lane that runs between the eternities, in the Land of Pain, and few have died without a whisper of the divine, and none that I can think of without a woman's name upon their lips. It is clean womanhood that keeps manhood clean. If the womanhood at home imprints itself deeply on the hearts of the men as they go, the very ache of the imprint will keep remembrance living, and deliver men from evil.
For there is plenty evil in the land across the seas, down in the base towns—evil that could be crushed and rendered impotent sometimes by a word from the proper authority, if only it had not been allowed to become a recognized part of the national life. Still, of the army, as a whole, it may be honestly claimed that it lives truly a straight and clean existence, for it contains all that is best in the manliness, and all that is purest in the stuff of our folk. Home habits are apt to cross the seas with a man. And the source and the solution alike are found therein.
And then men ask about the prospects of negotiated peace. In such a matter there can be no argument. You are up against the biggest of the great eternities. Is there a price for you? Is the blood of liberty's betrayal to rot your name out of the shining roll of all the good and true? That is the one issue. And we who are the children of the free have joined hands across the wide ocean and given eternity our answer. We have taken our venture of faith, and no matter what comes of it to us, generations away ahead of us will not need to be ashamed of our blood beating in their hearts.
A great question that is always asked is: "When will the war end?" It will end only when we are ready for the finish. And that will be when God sees that our hearts are fit to be the hearts of conquerors. It is the war of the spiritual against the material, and there can be no doubt as to which must prevail, for the sake of the life of the world. If the issue finally be not uplifting and redeeming, then all this sacrifice and sorrow have been the most fatuous of earthly experiences, only fit for the tears of angels and the mocking laughter of devils. But it is working out aright. It is unifying the good in man, and eliminating the evil. That is wherein stands out with startling clarity, the wonderfully awful anomaly of war. War is the vilest, cruelest, blackest thing that ever came out of hell; and yet it drags to the surface elements of consecration, of sacrifice for highest ideals, of spiritual elevations beyond utterance or dreaming.
I never knew the real meaning of the wounds of Christ till I saw the wounds of my brave brothers, slain for the sake of others. I never knew the real significance of duty till I saw them torn and broken, dying for duty's sake rather than yield a foot in the front of battle. It may mean less for the church than the church is apt to think, but it will mean more for Christ and for the best life of the world than meantime we can understand for our heartache, or see for our tears. The world will be a fool if she do not begin a new book this moment and try to be worthier than she is of the sacrifice of the brave, and so become worthier of the divine that is within her. Life will require to be hereafter far less a thing of dividing gulfs than a thing of ascending pathways. And so there will be a growing certitude of future peace, and an opportunity for the heart of liberty to beat freely.
Our British flag is, of course, the flag of a very ancient state. And it is natural that it should be made up of crosses—red crosses that tell of the heart's blood of the bravest shed in the way of sacrifice, the pathway to the sun, set in the white of pure purpose, and with the blue of northern skies and seas for background. There are no crosses in the American flag yet. But it also has the white stripes of clean dreaming, and the red of brave men's battling for liberty, with stars of vision and hope set against the vast blue of the heavens. Surely the fight that has the message of these flags above it will mean a world's emancipation from such shadows as have darkened it in the days that are past. And surely the free states of the world will rise immediately to fully awakened strength, and keep awake until the victory.
There are still some who speak to-day, as many spoke at the beginning, as though the war will end in a matter of weeks. It need scarcely be said that this is just the sort of thing that keeps the war going. For it makes the feet of preparation lag. It makes for "Ha! ha!" when it should be "Yo-ho! and a pull together!" And it has actually, more painfully than we like or dare to think, made officials gamble, on the chances of an early finish, with war's necessities, involving the lives of men.
You may, if you like, delude yourself into believing that Germany is at her last kick. But it cannot be denied that she is kicking hard. And whether you think the war is to be over next week or the week afterward, you have to keep getting ready the things that are necessary for victory, or you may have to sell them to a victorious enemy instead of slinging them at him. In a great modern war there comes no moment when a nation can venture to say: "Now, there's enough." I remember when in the early stages of the war we had to call out continuously for munitions—when the enemy could fling over at us something like one hundred and fifty shells a day, and we could answer with only three. Then came the big awakening and the vast stream of material poured across the Channel. And old ladies and gentlemen said, when one was home on leave: "Now don't tell me you haven't enough shells!" In a great vast conflict, which everybody who has eyes and understanding can now see is the life-and-death struggle of the world for its right to its inheritance of liberty, you never can have enough of anything that is needed. In a sudden onslaught of the enemy, or in the first few days of a drive, you have to expend more ammunition and money than were ever exhausted in probably all the campaigns of human history before our day. Hence the absolutely fatal danger of talking, unless while you talk you get things into readiness, lest your enemy punctuate your paragraphs by a big gun at seventy miles. And it is all the worse if, you being so far away as to be for the moment, and perhaps for months, not only safe, but a futile potentiality, he blow your ally and friend off the page of your correspondence, and out of the map altogether.
Oliver Cromwell, was a wise and very tremendously effective soldier, and his maxim was: "Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry." When you are negotiating with a foe whose character is known to be dangerous, it is always well to be getting ready all the while for the hour when he will stop the conversation with an ugly snap of his jaw, and resume his favorite amusements of ship-sinking and baby-killing. He can overtake a tragically great deal of these before you are ready to help to stop him. It would not even really matter if you were left with a good deal of material on your hands. It could always be used in peace manoeuvres to show the world that you were in earnest, and that your talk is hitched to a battery or two—not an unwise thing to do when your adversary has already, before the world, beaten the life out of international law, and burked all laws divine and human. To shoot from under the white flag is treachery. But to show a coward and murderer that you have a gun ready to load to the muzzle with your protests, gives him pause, and makes him sit on something cool for reflection.
Great Britain had to go in first and do a vast amount of linking afterward. She could not resist the tug of honor, nor deny the call of freedom throttled in Belgium by one of the big powers that had pledged its protection of that freedom. She had to plunge right over the ankles at once in rich warm blood that was most precious to her. She was wading to the front line ere she knew, "reidwat shod," through graves of a shell-wrecked world. And that was how she secured her place, unshifted, in the perspective of history. There were some in Britain who wondered if money would not do the business. But the majority knew that a thing like this takes more than money—demands what is dearer than money—and so for over three long terrible tragic years she has given what was dearest to her. Every one of us has laid at her feet what we loved, God pity us, more than our life. For we have learned, through ages of sorrow, in the weaving of our ancient story, to give, holding our heart with both our hands, lest the bitter tears overspill, and we be shamed before the whole world, looking on at our pain.
We had no preliminary tappings to awake us. We plunged headlong into the horrid clang of a first casualty list of ten thousand of our best. When Uncle Sam gets his first big gash like that he will set his teeth and strike out in a way that shall make the enemy glower. The foe hoped he might come in at the very start of his first indignation, so that, because of internal conditions, America might be but a great eagle chained to his rock in the western ocean—a futile anger champing the links of his chain, which would have been a pitiable fatuity. But now, even though in some places loyalty may drowse, she will wake "when the deid bell jows," and the three thousand miles of the steep Atlantic will contract their bounds.
There can be no question of Britain's share. If she published all her figures the world's heart would stand still at the total of her waiting fee.
We were glad when America came in. We often wondered when she would come, but we never wondered if she would. We knew she could not resist her destiny, which is to share with all free states the burden and the sacrifice for liberty—to help to make the world a place where God's free people can live at peace and enjoy whatever prosperity comes to them by right. And now that she is in we all know she is there to stay until the victory.
That is the only answer, surely, when people ask, as they do continually: "How long is the war to last?" Until the victory. There is no half-way house in the struggle of the soul. It has to go on until it win its end, or die. And this is the conflict for more than bread and a wage. It is the soul's complete life that is at stake. And the men of the American army whom I have seen seem to be made of the true victory stuff, if only they get their chance.
I have long and frequently said that now we begin a new war. We can pull down the asbestos curtain between to-day and the past struggle. We are no longer fighting merely for the liberty of Belgium, or of the small states, nor for the rehabilitation of Serbia or Roumania. We are fighting for the liberty of mankind. It is our own death-grapple we are involved in.
And when people ask me: "Shall we win?" I answer by asking: "Do we dare to lose?" Do we dare to risk handing over our children and our children's children, if any be left us, to the same bitter heart-break, the same fathomless sorrow, the same tearless, dumb anguish of sacrifice that this hour of Europe's passion knows? It would be better to go right out anywhere, straightway, and walk into the jaws of immediate death—to drift in deep waters, or lie at the foot of a cliff with a bullet in one's brain—than to be an apostate of immortal destiny and betray the jewel of our soul.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald