During service the counter was closed; and after service, in our hut, we drew a firm line at tea and biscuits for what was left of the working night. Neither of ourselves being ordained of any denomination, we as a rule requisitioned one of the many ministers among the Y. But the men themselves set matters going, congregating at the platform end and singing hymns—their favourite hymns—not many of them mine—for a good half-hour before the pastor was due to appear. Of course, only a proportion of those present joined in; but it was a surprising proportion; and the uncritical forbearance of those who did not take part used to impress me quite as much as the unflinching fervour of those who did.
But then it is not too soon to say that in all my months in an Army area I never once saw or heard Religion, in any shape or form, flouted by look or word. The hymns were always started by the same man, a spectacled N. I think he must have been a street preacher before the war; at any rate he used to get leave to hold a service of his own on Tuesday evenings, and I have listened to his sermon more than once.
Indeed, it was impossible not to listen, every rasping word of the uncompromising harangue being more than audible at our end of the hut, no matter what we were doing. The man had an astounding flow of spiritual invective, at due distance the very drum-fire of withering anathema, but sorry stuff of a familiar order at close range. It was impossible not to respect this red-hot gospeller, who knew neither fear nor doubt, nor the base art of mincing words; and he had a strong following among the men, who seemed to enjoy his onslaughts, whether they took them to heart or not.
But those ministers were wonders in their way; not a man of them so meek upon the platform, nor one but had the knack of fluent, pointed, and courageous speech. They spoke without notes, from the break of the platform, like tight-sleeved conjurors; and they spoke from their hearts to many that beat the faster for their words. In that congregation there were no loath members; only those who liked need sit and listen; the rest were free to follow their own devices, within certain necessary limitations.descrevicrira.cf
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The counter, to be sure, had those green curtains drawn across it for the nonce. But all at that end of the hut were welcome as ever to their game of draughts, their cigarettes and newspapers, even their murmur of conversation. It generally happened, however, that the murmur died away as the preacher warmed to his work, and the bulk of the address was followed in attentive silence by all present. I used to think this a greater than any pulpit triumph ever won; and when it was all over, and the closing hymn had been sung with redoubled fervour, a knot of friendly faces would waylay the minister on his passage up the hut.
And yet how much of his success was due to the sensitive response of these simple-hearted, uncomplaining travellers in the valley of Death! No work of man is easier to criticise than a sermon, no sort of criticism cheaper or maybe in poorer taste; and yet I have felt, with all envy of their gift and their sincerity, that even these powerful preachers were, many of them, missing their great opportunity, missing the obvious point.
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Morality was too much their watchword, Sin the too frequent burden of their eloquence. It is not as sinners that we should view the men who are fighting for us in the great war against international sin. They are soldiers of Christ if ever such drew sword; then let them contemplate the love of Christ, and its human reflex in their own heroic hearts, not the cleft in the hoof of all who walk this earth! That, and the grateful love we also bear them, who cannot fight ourselves, seem to me the gist of war-time Christianity: that, and the immortality of the soul they may be rendering up at any moment for our sake and for His.
It is hateful to think of these great men in the light of their little sins. What thistledown to weigh against their noble sacrifice! The point is not that the worst has still to be eradicated out of poor human nature, but that the best as we know it now is better than the best we dared to dream in happier days. Bad language, for one; as if the low thoughtless word should seriously belittle the high deliberate deed!
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The decencies of language let us by all manner of means observe, but as decencies, not as virtues without which a man shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To stigmatise mere coarseness of speech as a first-class sin is to defeat an admirable end by the unwitting importation of a false yet not unnatural glamour.
They are base coin, very; but still the primary offence is against manners, not morals; and public opinion, not pulpit admonition, is the thing to put it down. It is well to consider every minute what the men are going through, how entirely the refining influence of their womankind has passed out of their lives, and how noticeably far from impropriety are the thoughts that clothe themselves in this grotesque and hateful habit of speech.
Let me close a tender topic with the last word thereon, as spoken by a Canadian from Vimy Ridge, who came into my hut months later, when I had one of my own but slightly sober, yet more so than his friends, with whom remonstrance became imperative. I say! Misty and pale the sunlight, brittle and black the trees; Roads powdered like sticks of candy for a car to crunch as they freeze Then we overtook a Battalion They were laden and groomed for the trenches, they were shaven and scrubbed and fed; Like the scales of a single Saurian their helmets rippled ahead; Not a sorrowful face beneath them, just the tail of a scornful eye For the car full of favoured mufti that went quacking and quaking by.
You gloat and take note in your motoring coat, and the sights come fast and thick: A party of pampered prisoners, toying with shovel and pick; A town where some of the houses are so many heaps of stone, And some of them steel anatomies picked clean to the buckled bone. Not a yard but was part of a shell-hole—not an inch, to be more precise— And most of the holes held water, and all the water was ice: They stared at the bleak blue heavens like the glazed blue eyes of the slain, Till the snow came, shutting them gently, and sheeting the slaughtered plain.
And behind and beyond and about us were the long black Dogs of War, With pigmies pulling their tails for them, and making the monsters roar As they slithered back on their haunches, as they put out their flaming tongues, And spat a murderous message long leagues from their iron lungs! They were kennelled in every corner, and some were in gay disguise, But all kept twitching their muzzles and baying the silvery skies! A howitzer like a hyena guffawed point-blank at the car— But only the sixty - pounder leaves an absolute aural scar! Could a giant but crack a cable as a stockman cracks his whip, Or tear up a mile of calico with one unthinkable r-r-r-r-rip!
Could he only squeak a slate-pencil about the size of this gun, You might get some faint idea of its sound, which is those three sounds in one. Livid and moist the twilight, heavy with snow the trees, And a road as of pleated velvet the colour of new cream-cheese. They had done their tour of the trenches, they were coated and caked with mud, And some of them wore a bandage, and some of them wore their blood! The gaps in their ranks were many, and none of them looked at me.
And I thought of no more vain phrases for the things I was there to see, But I felt like a man in a prison van where the rest of the world goes Free. Soon the shy wintry sun was wearing a veil of frosted silver. The eye of the moon was on us early in the afternoon, ever a little wider open and a degree colder in its stare.
All one day our mud rang like an anvil to the tramp of rubicund customers in greatcoats and gloves; and the next day they came and went like figures on the film next-door, silent and outstanding upon a field of dazzling snow.
But behind the counter we had no such seasonable sights to cheer us; behind the counter, mugs washed overnight needed wrenching off their shelf, and three waistcoats were none too many. In our room, for all the stove that reddened like a schoolgirl, and all the stoking that we did last thing at night, no amount of sweaters, blankets, and miscellaneous wraps was excessive provision against the early morning.
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By dawn, which leant like lead against our canvas windows, and poked sticks of icy light through a dozen holes and crannies, the only unfrozen water in the hut was in the kitchen boiler and in my own hot-water bottle. I made no bones about this trusty friend; it hung all day on a conspicuous nail; and it did not prevent me from being the first up in the morning, any more than modesty shall deter me from trumpeting the fact.
One of us had to get up to lay the stove and light the fire, and it was my chance of drawing approximately even with my brisk commander. No competing with his invidious energy once he had taken the deck; but here was a march I could count on stealing while he slept the sleep of the young. Often I was about before the orderlies, and have seen the two rogues lying on their backs in the dim light of their kitchen, side by side like huge dirty children. As for me, blackened and bent double by my exertions, swaddled in fleece lining and other scratch accoutrements, no doubt I looked the lion grotesque of the party; but, by the time the wood crackled and the chimney drew, I too had my inner glow.
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So we reached the shortest day; then came a break, and for me the Christmas outing of a lifetime. It was a new departure for the winter only, a kind of cocoa-kitchen in the trenches, and we were all very eager to take our turn as cooks. The post was being manned by relays of the workers in our area, one at a time and for a week apiece; but at Christmas there were to be substantial additions to the nightly offering.
It was the obvious thing to suggest that extra help would be required, and to volunteer for the special duty. But one may jump at such a chance and yet feel a sneaking thrill of morbid apprehension, and yet again enjoy the whole thing the more for that very feeling. Such was my case as I lit the fire on the morning of the 21st of December, foolishly wondering whether I should ever light it again.
By all accounts our pitch up the Line was none too sheltered in any sense, and the severity of the weather was not the least intimidating prospect. But for forty mortal months I would have given my right eye to see trench life with my left; and I was still prepared to strike that bargain and think it cheap.
The man already on the spot was coming down to take me back with him: we met at our headquarters over the mid-day meal, by which time my romantic experience had begun. I had walked the ruined streets in a shrapnel helmet, endeavouring to look as though it belonged to me, and had worn a gas-mask long enough to hope I might never have to do so for dear life. The other man had been wearing his in a gas-alarm up the Line; he had also been missed by a sniper, coming down the trench that morning; and had much to say about a man who had not been missed, but had lain, awaiting burial, all the day before on the spot where we were to spend our Christmas Alighting here we made as short work of that valley as appearances permitted, each with a shifty eye for the next shell-hole in case of need; there were plenty of them, including some extremely late models, but it was not our lot to see the collection enlarged.
Neither had our own batteries anything to say over our heads; and presently the trenches received us in fair order, if somewhat over-heated. I speak for myself and that infernal fleece lining, which I had buttoned back into its proper place. It alone precluded an indecent haste. But in the trenches we could certainly afford to go slower, and I for one was not sorry. It was too wonderful to be in them in the flesh. They were almost just what I had always pictured them; a little narrower, perhaps; and the unbroken chain of duck-boards was a feature not definitely foreseen; and the printed sign-boards had not the expected air of a joke, might rather have been put up by order of the London County Council.
But the extreme narrowness was a surprise, and indeed would have taken my breath away had I met my match in some places. An ordinary gaunt warrior caused me to lean hard against my side of the trench, and to apologise rather freely as he squeezed past; a file of them in leather jerkins, with snow on their toe-caps and a twinkle under their steel hat-brims, almost tempted me to take a short cut over the top. I wondered would I have got very far, or dropped straight back into the endless open grave of the communication trench. Seen from afar, as I knew of old, that was exactly what the trenches looked like; but from the inside they appeared more solid and rather deeper than any grave dug for the dead.
The whole thing put me more in mind of primitive ship-building—the great ribs leaning outwards—flat timbers in between—and over all sand-bags and sometimes wire-work with the precise effect of bulwarks and hammock-netting. Even the mouths of dug-outs were not unlike port-holes flush with the deck; and many a piquant glimpse we caught in passing, bits of faces lit by cigarette-ends and half-sentences or snatches of sardonic song; then the trench would twist round a corner into solitude, as a country road shakes off a hamlet, and on we trudged through the thickening dusk.
Once, where the sand-bags were lower than I had noticed, I thought some very small bird had chirped behind my head, until the other man turned his and smiled. I shortened my stick, and crept the rest of the way like the oldest inhabitant of those trenches, as perhaps I was. It was nearly dark when our journey ended at one of those sunken roads which make a name for themselves on all battle-fields, and duly complicate the Western Front. Sometimes they cut the trench as a level crossing does a street, and then it is not a bad rule to cross as though a train were coming.
Sometimes it is the trench that intersects the sunken road; this happened here. We squeezed through a gap in the sand-bags, a gap exactly like a stile in a stone fence, and from our feet the bleak road rose with a wild effect into the wintry sunset. It was a road of some breadth, but all crinkled and misshapen in its soiled bandage of frozen snow. This inviting habitation served as annex to a small enough hut at least three times its size; the two cowered end to end against the sunken roadside, each roof a bit of bank-top in more than camouflage, with real grass doing its best to grow in real sods.
The sand-bagged hutch at the end of all things is where we sleep. The three floors were sunk considerably below the level of the road, and a sunken track of duck-boards outside the semi-detached huts was like the bottom of a baby trench. We looked into our end; it was colder and darker than the open air, but cubes of packing-case and a capacious boiler took stark shape in the gloom. Yet those duck-boards outside the hut were the next best cover to the hut itself; accordingly the men greatly preferred waiting about in the open road, which the said machine-guns could spray at pleasure on the chance of laying British dust.