To the Unknown Soldier (from Goodbye West Country)


To an Unknown Soldier of the Great War, from one who survived

(A photocopy of the hand-written draft, heavily revised; the whereabouts of the original, if it still exists, is unknown.)



Goodbye West Country (Putnam, 1937) purports to be a diary for 1936. The entry for 11 November is a long and moving essay commemorating the anniversary of the Armistice: ‘To the Unknown Soldier’. However, this was actually written in 1932 as a script, commissioned by the BBC, to be broadcast on or near Armistice Day in that year. Regrettably it was rejected by them as unsuitable and was not used. In the amended version that appears in Goodbye West Country HW laments that 'no one has spoken to you, or for you, Soldier . . . the lack is most sad'.


The original manuscript opens more powerfully than the printed version, giving an immediate vision of contact with that mass of dead men waiting in eternity:


It may be that the etheric waves will carry this voice, or the thoughts behind it, to its destination. The unknown soldier and those with him who did not return, may be waiting, curiously and a little sadly, this address to the living. Therefore this voice must strive to say what is true . . .


The essay makes for compulsive reading, more than eighty years after; and indeed, for anyone who wishes to know HW, it should be compulsory reading.




To the Unknown Soldier



It may be that these words, or the thought behind them, may travel to their destination. The Unknown Soldier, and those with him who did not return, may be awaiting, curiously and a little sadly, this address to the living. Therefore, the words must strive to say what is true.


But what is Truth? Many have fallen in the search for it. Some, in the moment of apparent defeat, have perceived the truth for which they have lost the world, for which they have been persecuted and destroyed, to be but an illusion arising from themselves; and those who follow them later in spirit have made a system out of their words, which they believe to be absolute Truth; and this lettered system is often the negation of their prophet’s meaning and intention.


What is Truth? For one, it will be his personal grievances; for another, whose thought has not remained so stagnant within himself, it will be an escape from those grievances, a mental attitude by which he avoids the unpleasant things in his life. For yet another, Truth will be his vision of poor men struggling for the barest livelihood in a world which could, by organization, provide a full and happy life for all. For still another, Truth will be what he calls the scheme of nature, by which the best is gained for the strongest. And for the few, Truth will be entirely relative: a hundred men, a hundred varying visions of Truth: and the realization of what Heine meant when he said that under every gravestone a world lies buried.


Now this may seem a mere tabulation; while the many are crying, Tell us how we may live, how we may avoid, or obliterate among men, for ever, the unhappiness of economic strife, and the bitter misery of mechanical wars which arise inevitably out of our present civilization. For those who will listen, you, the Unknown Soldier, can reveal from your ancient sunlight a way for civilized men to live. For ancient sunlight is Truth: seeing the past with clarity.


Wars are caused by irritable men; men who have not attained harmony, or true strength, within themselves, men who desire to escape from themselves. The mass of men, who, earning their living in places shut away from the sun, gathered in the streets of the cities of Europe and cheered and roared in masses when the late war was imminent, were not thinking of military servitude and pain and misery; they were excited by the idea of leaving the dull routine of their lives for a new heroic world of immense and unknown glamorous action.


Did you, O Unknown Soldier, like millions of others in Europe, believe in the righteousness of the war? In such a manner, indeed, that you believed your intuition to be the false, even the shameful, part of yourself? Were you, like hundreds of millions of others in Europe, reared and educated in such a manner that you could seldom be your true self? Were you as a child, made to sit still in a room with other children, bewildered and appalled under a sort of water-drop torture of letters and figures and unrealizable dull stories, which you had to learn, to cram into your resisting mind, day after day, week after week, until the natural edge of your mind, its intuition, was worn away? And did you thus become shut away from others, in a core of selfishness? And, by the enforcement of stillness and the repression of your growing self, were you thus doomed to irritability, to disharmony, to futility, in later life? So that, inevitably, you took up the inheritance of your fathers; and, one of hundreds of millions, you helped, unconsciously, in the making of the machine of civilization running backwards into chaos, called the Great War.


Our cause is holy and just, God is with us, cry the Germans in August 1914, for years we have been encircled by a ring of French and Russian and English steel to throttle us. We know of the secret alliance between England and France and Belgium, we have observed the staff-rides in Belgium – Belgium whose neutrality is guaranteed by those very English and French – the Treaty of Neutrality between us is betrayed, it is but a scrap of paper!


No, it is our cause that is righteous, and God is with us, cry the English and French and Russians: our pact is purely defensive, and our staff-rides in Belgium took place because war, owing to obvious German military preparations, was inevitable. So war, prepared by the mental attitudes of all Europe, is inevitable. One day it happens. The ideals inspiring hundreds of millions are patriotic and unselfish and, since Truth is relative, righteous. The words glory, honour, heroes, are used in every public speech in every country at war.


Those righteous words of glory, honour, heroism, so you remember them, soldier? In your misery of sleeplessness, dirt, and the dreary wet night, night, night unending? O the wet and the cold, no sleep, no sleep, no sleep, work, work, all the timelessness of time suspended, life suspended. Do you remember the mud-slabbed overcoats, yourself staggering away from the clay-marn in the trenches, belly-high in water and clay-puddle, to lie down in low shelters of hewn green oak-branches, paradise-shelters, although in the night your boots froze stiff, and glittered with frost when the Very lights threw their pallor between the shadows of trees, shadows bent and vanishing in the pallid-brilliant flares rising and falling beyond the edge of the wood. Bullets cracked among the trees, thudded into the earth-mounded shelters; bullets arose in ricochet, fell with sounds strangely plaintive, between a buzzing and a whining, somewhere beyond. In the morning the grey-green water in shell-holes was glazed with ice, your boots were heavy and solid, feet without feeling, your mittened hands swung and thumped against your stiff and creaking greatcoat – frost pushing its thorns under the nails of your fingers and toes – how glad you were for the frost, for now the mud was gone!


Soldier, do you remember marching with the support troops towards flaming Ypres during the first gas-attack? Those salvoes of 17-inch shells filling the twilit air with their brutal and torpid downward droning: those vast ruddy fans opening on the immediate horizon, glaring and darkening with smoke which spread and drifted slowly long moments after the upflung tons of masonry had dropped. Then the stupendous concussions which made your breathing, as you waited and watched, by the Canal, very audible to yourself. God, look at them, coming out of the line! Hobbling, faces pale as toadstools, some slipping down and croaking, retching, in the ditch. Do you remember thinking, Put a bullet through the poor sods, for Christ’s sake, someone? Then you were marching on, into that great horizon horseshoe everlastingly forged by gunfire, nearer and nearer the tattoo and crackle of machine guns and rifles, nearer and nearer the everlasting white flares which sear up into the darkness and cross in their rising, to waver wanly as they sink slowly down, and leave, with their final ground hissing, an unutterably blasted darkness before your eyes staring out of trenches pounded and flattened, blackened and stinking afresh after each stupendously linked series of bright shell-blasts, until in the prolonged bombardment you left your body, your heavy unfamiliar body flinching at every unbearable shell-burst, and somehow it was growing lighter, greyer, and a voice shouting, “Stand to! Stand to! They’re coming over!” and your rifle fired itself, despite the stiff-working bolt, again and again from your buffeted shoulder and ringing ear-drums. Then a voice was saying “Cease fire! Keep your heads down!” and the attack was over. And the shells began to fall again; and you did not care any longer.


The newspapers used the same old terms of glorification; but your eyes, Soldier, in solitary moments, were vacant and haunted. You were bitter about those war correspondents’ accounts, when you read them days afterwards. Do you remember, now that everything is different, Soldier, now that you are glorified? Do you accept the glory? Or do you cry from your tomb in Westminster Abbey that even the best war correspondent’s accounts are false, like most regimental histories, in that they do not record the actuality of truth? That mere compilations of staff-officer facts do not recreate the human past? You know that, with scarce exceptions, the more glorious a military accomplishment appears in the imagination of the inexperienced, the more terrible was the actual thing.


Were you of Kitchener’s New Armies, Soldier, going to France in exultation, in anticipation of getting the “cowardly” enemy on the run? But no one at home imagines it is like this, you cried within yourself, after the first shock of action. Fricourt, Montauban, Beaumont Hamel, the Schwaben Redoubt, Ovilliers – the wide and shattered country, broken woods and trenches and sunken lanes, broad straggling belts of rusty barbed wire smashed and buried, the sun and the dust by day and the flickering, roaring horizons by night, the chalky pitted downlands littered with thousands of dead men, the columns of soldiers marching up, survivors slowly slouching down. Do you remember the Somme rain, Soldier? The mud churned by thousands of boots and hooves and wheels, when your life was fatigue and hopelessness among watery grey wastes of the battlefields glimmering and gleaming with flares rising and wavering and falling from everlasting to everlasting in the watery cold wastes of the battlefield? Do you remember the feeling of darkness pressing on you, darkness sucking at you from the mud, sucking oaths of despair from your muffled, floundering being: the vast negation of darkness, in helpless travail with the dead-weight of human and animal misery, scored by the white streaks rising with soft brilliance around our lurching lives?


“If only people knew what was happening” . . . but the still small frustrated voice of intuition cried vainly within yourself, cried vainly against the man-made machine of civilization running backwards, the machine that forced you, with death the swift penalty of disobedience, to do hateful things, for ever and for ever, in a life without horizon. Sometimes your intuition, or that by which the spirit enters human life, was permitted to make you truly strong; and you arose, not to destroy, but to save life, the life of an enemy maybe, despite the monstrous criticism of the guns.


That mass formlessness called Nineteen Sixteen dragged away; and nothing happened, there was no Hope. Ah, those attacks for the Passchendaele Ridge overlooking Ypres! Rain, rain, rain, the timber tracks over the linked shell-holes, transport wreckage piled beside the dishevelled wooden baulks, rain lashing across the nihilism of the old battle wastes, thousands of acres of once arable land where every worm had been killed by gas and the churn of shells, the wreckage of tilted and sky-gaping tanks, the cries of the wounded of yesterday’s attack left to die in the mud. Were you among them, Soldier? Happy to be with the boys, the old pals, the canteen chums, housey-housey, crown-and-anchor, and no parade in the morning?


Or did you, only God knows how, live until the last attack on the Hindenburg line – men going forward with you in an unreality of movement, drawn towards the barrage which was all-weight and all-sound, so that you were carried forward effortlessly over a land freed from the force of gravity, and in a nightmare of rising coloured rockets above the rending fire you shouted without sound in a silent world of suspended life fused in glassy delirium which lasted until you realized that of the figures on either side of you some were slowly going down on knees, their chins on their box-respirators, bayoneted rifles loosening from their hands

            and your heart instead of finishing its beat and pausing to beat again swelled out of its beat into an ear-bursting agony and great lurid light that leapt out of your broken-apart body with a spinning shriek, and the earth was in your eyes and your mouth, and going away smaller and smaller . . . into blackness.


You were free, Soldier.


Moving strangely, queerly, effortlessly, among others, in khaki and grey, looking curiously one at another. The war was fini, Soldier. Rather strange at first, wasn’t it? But your pals were there – the boys you’d chummed in with, and almost forgotten, long long ago you saw them last, at First Ypres, at Loos, on the Somme, at Passchendaele. Hullo Ginger, hullo Nobby boy, wotcher me old bucko, shake hands Fritz, ’ave a fag Jerry.


They asked me to talk to you on Armistice Day, they asked me to prepare a talk to the Unknown Soldier lying in the sanctity of the Abbey. They said I must write it exactly as I wanted to, as I felt it, as I knew you in the flesh. But when I sent it to the British Broadcasting Corporation they said it was not what they had hoped for, that it was not suitable, it did not condemn War sufficiently, it was too philosophical, it would not be understood by the ordinary listener. They said also (but that didn’t matter) there was no obligation on their part to pay for it, and they would not ask me to do any more work on it: but would invite half a dozen other writers to submit scripts for it. I don’t know what happened about that; but no one has spoken to you, or for you, Soldier, at least on the air of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I thought the lack was most sad; for you, the dead, and we, the living, of England, are all filled with a great hunger for a new Idea – a new world.






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