[from 'Our Girls' 1916]
AND now what of the Christmas Eve that is to follow the war ? None of us know when it will come, or what it will be, and perhaps it is futile and even foolish to predict. Yet a dream may be something better than an idle and useless effort, for the longest and blackest night may be shortened and made bearable by a vision of the morning. After two years of the night of war it is not for us, who have known its unimaginable horrors, to prate about peace until we see that it is near and know it will be right. But some of us who through the dark hours have been watchers for the dawn think we see the signs of it. For my part I take my courage in both hands, and say we shall be a happier people at this time next year. I think the great Peace will come before that, and when it comes it will be righteous and authentic and bring tidings of great joy not to Britain and her Allies only, but to the whole body of mankind, who have lived so long in the deep bondage of an unnatural fear. I think next Christmas will see the war ended, our soldiers coming home, and the world lit up afresh as by a flaming torch. I think it will be worth ten years of life to live to see the morning of that mighty day. May I not venture to describe it as I see it ?
I see the great news of the new peace flying over Britain, not as the news of the peace of 1815 did, to the galloping of horses and the sounding of trumpets, by stage-coaches from Lombard Street, like spokes from the hub of a wheel, down the dark high roads to Bath, to Portsmouth, to Manchester, to York, to Edinburgh, but in one instant through the air to every corner of the kingdom, so that if it goes by day the very earth seems to know of it, and if by night the darkness seems to hear and the morning light to tell of it.
I see twenty million of men on the long line that used to be their battle front, breaking up with joyous cries, now that the thunder of the guns has ceased, and turning north, south, east and west, but always towards home. I see our own armies coming westward, war-weary, perhaps, but full of cheer. I see them travelling by train through the desolate country which has been laid waste for the next ten years at least by a Niagara of shells, but is to be known henceforward to history as the scenes of splendid vic tories. I see the life of the world already beginning again. I see a man ploughing a field that is not yet cleared of broken guns, shattered gun-carriages, and tangled masses of barbed wire; a woman milking her cow in a half-roofed cow-house, and children playing among the piled-up stones of a village street where less than a week ago a child lay face down after the bursting of a shell.
I see our armies arriving in Paris, now our second capital, and full for all time to come of vivid memories. I see a flower girl on the platform of the Gare de Lyon handing up a flower to one of our wounded men, who is waiting in his carriage to be taken round to the Gare du Nord. " Ah, yes, Monsieur looks pale, but the air of England will soon bring the colour back to Monsieur's handsome face." I see our men arriving at Calais, welcomed with handshakes, and speeded on their home ward way with shouts. I see them cross ing the grey waters of the Channel-the English Channel still, thank God, but now swept of its mines, its patrols and its destroyers. I see them arriving under Shakespeare's Cliff at the Admiralty pier at Dover, and going ashore amidst tu multuous greetings. I see them travelling up through Kent, and wondering if the world ever saw anything so beautiful, with its grass that is really green, its trees that are not torn through at the trunks, and its red-roofed homesteads, covered with ivy and with chimneys smoking for tea.
I see our armies arriving at Charing Cross, after stretching their necks in thick clumps through the carriage windows to catch the earliest glimpse of it. I see the platform of the railway station crowded with fluctuating masses of women, who have come up from every part of the city and from every quarter of the kingdom to meet the trains from France-the wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts who are the daughters of Britain. I see all the dis tinctions of classes and all the reserve of strangers broken down, at the bidding of a great national impulse-one joy, one pride, one glory.
Perhaps it is night outside the station, and perhaps it is raining, but that makes no difference. As our men sweep through the streets, saluted by shouts, the big, busy, tumultuous city seems to them to be laughing aloud. Motor-buses, taxis, umbrellas and bright eyes, eyes, eyes, are everywhere. And then how light! Is this really London, this brilliant, gorgeous, glorious place, with all its thoroughfares ablaze after three years of darkness? Our soldiers almost feel as if they do not know it.
And then next day, Christmas Day, perhaps (God grant it may be sooner), I see our armies of men going up to St. Paul's to thank God for their great deliverance. I see our armies of women workers going up with them, for have they not also won the right to be called soldiers of the King ? I see such a congregation in the Cathedral as can never have gathered there before ; not even at the service for Kitchener, for Nurse Cavell, or yet for the old warrior, Roberts, who died on the battlefield, within sound of the guns in the war he had foretold. I see the crimson altar, the white-robed choris ters and the glistening winter sunshine that is slanting in through the windows of the clerestory. I see the procession of priests and the hanging up of the torn but triumphant flags of the Somme by the side of the tattered banners that are the emblems of British history through a thousand years. And I see, too, that more moving than all the pomp of scene and ceremony is the sense which everyone has of the presence in the grey old Cathedral of another congregation that has not been called, and yet is there-the congregation of the armies of the dead. They died in the day of struggle, often in the night of defeat, but if there is victory now it is theirs also, and if there is rejoicing it is for them to share it. Therefore they are there with the armies of the living, above and about and within them, not lying out yonder in acres on acres and miles on miles of uncounted graves in France, under lines of wooden crosses. That is what seems to be pealing through the thunder of the organ and thrilling through the jubilation of the choir-the voice of the invisible hosts who died in the war.
I see the preacher in the pulpit. I hear him tell our soldiers the majestic story. They have won a great victory, not merely over human enemies (who may have thought they were doing right and were therefore all the more wrong), but over the powers of darkness which have been using our fellow men to destroy the living soul of humanity. For this reason God in His wisdom has permitted the miseries and calamities of war, that as once by flood so now by fire the world may be purged of its impurities. The earth sleeps full of the dead who have died to win this conflict. Over the tranquil graves of the millions who fell on former battlefields (Wagram, Waterloo, Sedan, Metz), other millions have fought and fallen and been trampled into the ground. In the drifting shadows of the North Sea, which has swallowed up through centuries of storm our bravest and best, mighty warships, which we believed to be invincible-amid the roll of smoke and the roar of flame, like creatures cut across the throat, and screaming to the empty mists-have turned over and gone down in a moment, with every soul of their gallant companies. Yet our faith, and the fulfilment of the promise of this day, tell us that nothing has been wasted-no suffering, no sacrifices. The heroism of the martyrs of humanity has not perished from this planet, but passed into the souls of those who remain, so that none who fought for the right can ever again live for the wrong. That is what lifts war, with all its anguish and barbarities, into the " realm of glory, and gives to sorrow its recompense ` as darkness gives to night its stars.' " Therefore let us sing together to the Most High God Who through the grandeur as well as the sorrow of the times has granted to His stricken world a glorious resurrection : " Peace on earth, good will to men."
I see the congregation coming out of the Cathedral as out of a great confessional in which the soul of a whole nation in public, not that of one poor penitent in secret, has been absolved and strength ened. And not in St. Paul's in London only, but in St. Peter's in Rome, in Notre Dame in Paris, in St. Isaac in Petrograd, and among the ruined stones of the desecrated churches of Belgium, I see the same great scene. Out of the storm of battle a new spirit of brotherhood has been born into the world, and men who have shed their blood together are vowing before God that never again will they take up arms against each other.
And then the singing and the shouting being over, the streets once more full of the trade and traffic of peace, and the spring having come again, perhaps, to heal the battlefields with " the sweet oblivion of flowers," I see another scene, less splendid but more moving, a scene which, sooner or later, will only too surely find its way into innumerable houses in these islands, into palaces as well as cottages-that of an old mother, sitting alone with the memory of her only son. There, perhaps, and not in cathedrals or in parliaments, or yet on fields of battle, will lie the whole tragedy and ultimate test of war. What is it to the mother in her darkened dwelling that the tyranny of military domination in Europe has been destroyed, the liberties of the little nations established, the covenants kept that were made before she was born, by men whose names she had never heard of, and that the great empires of the world have entered into a league for the protection of peace, if all she has left as part of the price that has had to be paid for such triumphs and honours are a few soiled postcards, scored across with lines, a few scraps of letters scribbled in pencil from the mud of the trenches, and a few French photographs of her boy in his British uniform ?
But I see, too, that an angel's searching eye is able to light up even that dark place of a mother's sorrow as with a heavenly torch, telling her that just as the woman who loses her child in infancy has a child always in her lap, and never knows the bitterness of seeing it grow up to go astray and suffer, so the woman who has lost her son in the war has " a young man in all the beauty of his strength "* and the pride and glory of his love for ever beside her.
That is what keeps the hearts of the mothers of Britain alive, notwithstanding all they have lost and suffered. And the heart of our British Empire, too, which is the mother of all of us, may yet find com fort in the same deep thought-that her loss may be her gain ; that those of her children who died earliest may live the longest ; that her vast armies that have fallen in the war may be the multitude of her invisible subjects who will rule her in the days of peace ; that dark as it some times seems to be, even now, the sky is shot through with gleams from the morning, and that as long as the night lasts we must work on and fight on (cruelly hard as it is to say so) in the sure and certain hope that we shall be the happiest and most united people that have * Maeterlinck. ever lived on British soil if we are here to see the dawn.
And that, too, is why some of us who hate war with all our souls, and would gladly die to end it, are living and working for that great day and the hope of seeing it.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018