- To the Editor of The Nation
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 547 To the Editor of The Nation1 The Nation, 21 (23 June 1917) 299 Sir–I enclose herewith an extract from a letter lately received from a young officer which I hope may interest some of your readers. I may add that the officer in question entered the Army directly from a public school, and began his service in the trenches before he was nineteen.2 –Yours, etc., T. S. Eliot 18, Crawford Mansions, Crawford Street, W. 1. June 17th, 1917. “June 8th, 1917. “DEAR —, –There is rather a good article in The Nation this last week called ‘On Leave.’3 You should read it. I have often heard it said that the curious thing about those who have been to the front is their complete indifference. They appear to be practically untouched by what they have seen and gone through, they talk of war in a callous and humorous way, they even joke about its horrors. The impression one has from them is that it is, on the whole, a dreary and unpleasant business, with its anxious moments and its bright moments, but not nearly such a hell as one really knows it to be. “In the case of the vast majority, however, this is an attitude, a screen–I speakofeducated,thinkingmen–anditisnotgrantedtomanywhohavenot shared the same experiences to see behind this screen. The reason for this, as the article points out, is the practical impossibility of the uninitiated to realize or imagine even dimly the actual conditions of war. And a man who has been through it and seen and taken part to the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess. “It is morally impossible for him to talk seriously of these things to people who cannot even approach comprehension. It is hideously exasperating to hear people talking the glib commonplaces about the war and distributing cheap sympathy to its victims. “Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion mingled with the sickening smell of 1917: Journalism 548 ] exploded lyddite and ammonal. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge–porridge that stinks in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded, smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men hanging in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers. They shudder, and it is forgotten. . . . “I need hardly say that on a great number of men war does not produce this effect; of these the old regular officer is a type–blunt, kindly, jolly good fellows–who have never stopped to think in their lives.” Notes 1. This letter, one of a series from the trenches published in the Nation, was printed under the editorial title “WAR.” 2. The letter enclosed by TSE was from his brother-in-law, Maurice Haigh-Wood (18961980 ),whohadattendedSandhurstMilitaryAcademy,whereatagenineteenhewascommissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment, Lincolnshire, on 11 May 1915. Invalided home in Sept 1916, he wrote to TSE from Lincolnshire before returning to the war. In a letter to his mother of 18 Nov 1915, TSE described Haigh-Wood’s experiences on the Western Front: “It seems very strange that a boy of nineteen should have such experiences–often twelve hours alone in his ‘dug-out’ in the trenches, and at night, when he cannot sleep, occupying himself by shooting rats with a revolver. What he tells about rats and vermin is incredible– Northern France is swarming, and the rats are as big as cats” (L1 132). 3. In the Nation of 2 June 1917, H. M. Tomlinson describes the unreality of London as seen by a soldier on leave from the front: “The greatest evil of war–this is what staggers you when you come home, feeling you know the worst of it–is the unconscious indifference to war’s obscene blasphemy against life of the men and women who have the assurance that they will never...