War, the Liberator, and Other Pieces
WAR, THE LIBERATOR
AND OTHER PIECES BY
E. A. MACKINTOSH, M.C.
Lt. SEAFORTH HIGHLANDERS (51st Division)
WITH A MEMOIR
NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY MCMXVIII
Printed in Great Britain
by Turnbull & Spears, Edinburgh
SOME months ago a young American poet, wounded between the French and German lines, blew his brains out to avoid being captured. “I have a rendezvous with death,” he exclaimed dramatically. “I shall not fail that rendezvous.”
Very un-English! Yes, as a nation we suspect eloquence; it leaves too much room for over-statement. We never see ourselves as silhouetted against the sky-line of eternity—our dislike for self-advertisement prevents that. We rarely invent fine phrases to accompany fine actions; we distrust the sincerity of words. Instead, we camouflage our deepest emotions with humour and slang. We are so disdainful of hysterics that we mask our exaltations with indifference. In our dread of striking attitudes our very indifference becomes a pose. Hence in our moments of supreme crisis, when self-justice demands that we should speak out, we find ourselves inarticulate. Not wise, perhaps, and yet rather splendid, this cheerful reticence of the British soldier! To whomsoever else he is a hero, he is no hero to himself. He would rather be taken at his Piccadilly worth. He does nothing by his speech to help people at home to realise the hell he has lived through. When he comes on leave and is asked what kind of a time he has had, “Oh, a ripping time,” he says, “it’s a nice little war. Couldn’t do without it.”
Examples of this national characteristic are not far to seek. Other nations before an attack spur their troops to keener patriotism by recalling former glories and present injustices. Our Army Orders are to the point; they contain no bugle-calls. “On April the —th the Canadian Corps will capture Vimy Ridge,” ran the Army Order for one of the most important of the spring offensives; it can scarcely be beaten for brevity. Our Tommies are equally matter of fact. They go over the top to meet wounds and death, shouting, “This way for the early doors.” While a new patriotic poetry is being born in the trenches of the French, the songs composed by our battalions are burlesques on their own bravery. The solitary art-contributions we have to place beside the moral indignation of a Raemaekers are Captain Bairnsfather’s comic portrayals of Old Bill. Our pose of light-heartedness has succeeded too well; we have almost persuaded the world that we are incredible schoolboys out on a picnic. And so we are in a fashion; but it is a picnic with death.
The man at the Front is chiefly responsible for this impression, and yet he has a right to resent its acceptance. It is one thing to crack jokes about your own dying—quite another for the people whose lives you are preserving to laugh at them. The man at the Front is consciously risking his all for ideals. I have heard him called a spiritual genius. There has been nothing like him for pugnacity of faith since the Christian martyr. Whatever difference there is is in his favour. The Christian martyr was not a pleasant person; he took the consequences of his conscience sadly. Your British soldier accepts them with a jest. His jest rather belies his white-hot sincerity; it comes as a shock to him when on leave to discover that people at home have not realised his fervour and share his principles less passionately. They do—there is no doubt about that. He listens with contempt to wailings over sugar-shortage and the inadequate protection against air-raids—mere pinpricks to the winged tortures of the trenches. He forgets that inconvenience is less easily endurable than calvary. He tries to argue; tries to explain; gets angry; gives it up. ‘‘They don’t understand,” he says. “They make excuses for slackers. They think I’m unjust when I despise non-combatants. Because I’m anxious to get back to do my ‘bit’ they think I like living in the trenches.” Then he turns away to play the rôle that is expected of him—the rôle of the irresponsible boy out of school hours. The point he doesn’t realise is that why people are ignorant of his vision of sacrifice is because he has said nothing to mirror it to them. He can’t. It isn’t in his nature. His silence works an injustice both to others and to himself.
“I have a rendezvous with death!” Those words of Alan Seeger’s utter the true heart of the Front. Every khaki-clad figure has the same sure foreknowledge of the stern privilege of the rendezvous which awaits him. It is only his dumbness that causes him to conceal that knowledge.
But it is not of Alan Seeger that I wish to write. I only quote his last words because they are significant of the heart and mind of another poet—a Highlander who was brave enough to break through the curse of reticence and express the beliefs which to him appeared most shining. Lieutenant E. A. Mackintosh, M.C., belonged to the Seaforths and was killed recently near Fontaine-Notre-Dame while observing enemy movements under heavy shell-fire. He was twenty-four when he died. The war created him into bigness of soul; previous to that he had been a pleasant versifier with nothing important to say. He left behind one published volume, “A Highland Regiment,” and numerous scraps of mud-stained manuscript, including his finest achievement, “War, the Liberator,” which are here for the first time printed. It is not my purpose to write of him critically; he interests me solely as a soldier who managed to get said in a few words some of the poignant things that we have all felt.
His biography is brief. His mother is the daughter of the well-known preacher, Guinness Rogers, who was an intimate friend of Mr Gladstone, from whom he received his first name of Ewart. He was educated at St Paul’s School, from where he won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He was in the middle of his “Greats” course when war broke out and immediately tried to join the Army. At first he was rejected on the score of eyesight. Finally he got a commission in the Seaforth Highlanders, and was in France from July 1915 to August 1916, when he returned to England after having been wounded at High Wood. For eight months following his recovery he was at Cambridge, training cadets and eating his heart out to get back. In September last he returned to France, where he was killed on November 21st, 1917.
The first writing of his that I wish to quote is a letter; it expresses so inadvertently the inherent valour of the man—his cool, dutiful, take-it-for-granted and yet pitiful attitude towards the dreadful job he had on hand. It is written to his sister, describing how he won his M.C., and runs as follows:—
“You will probably have noticed in the official report that a raid was made on the 16th on the trenches at ————. That, my dearest, was me and I don’t want to do another. We killed seven Germans in the trench and about thirty or forty more in their dug-out. I should say they would have lost about thirty more by our artillery. Our losses were slight, but three of my men had their legs blown off in the Boches’ trench and we had to pull them out and get them back. I and Charles M——— and Sergeant G——— were alone, and I can tell you it was no joke pulling a helpless man a yard, and then throwing a bomb to keep the Boches back—then pulling him another yard and throwing another bomb.
“Charles was guarding our left while Sergeant G——— and I got our man up on the parapet with both his legs pulped. Then I went back for the next. Poor devil! He screamed, ‘Ma airm and ma leg’s off’ to me again and again. I was wasting no sympathy just then. Said I, ‘Crawl on your other arm and leg, then,’ and lugged him up. Sergeant M——— had got back to our own trench, but he returned to us and helped me get my man up into the open. We went back for the next man and he said, ‘Leave me. I’m done.’ Both his legs were off, so I said, ‘None of that, my lad, you’re coming with us.’ He died on the Boche parapet and we had to leave him. We got the other two home.
“Sergeant M——— and Charles got wounded, but they both came back to us again until the men were in. I just gave myself up. The shrapnel was bursting right in my face and the machineguns—ugh! I wasn’t touched except for a hole in my hose-top. I didn’t stop swearing the whole time, except when I was praying—but I’d promised the men that I wouldn’t leave the Boche trench while there was a man alive in it and I kept my word. One poor devil was a Catholic; he started confessing to me, thinking I was a priest—I meanwhile praying, ‘O God, let us get these poor beggars in.’ All the men I have brought in have died.
“I believe I’ve been recommended for the Military Cross, but I’'d rather have the boys’ lives. If I get one, I'll get home on special leave soon. I’ve had my taste of a show. It’s not romantic. It’s hell.”
The British soldier is nothing if not inconsistent. When he’s in the trenches, sharing magnanimously and doing noble things with a will day and night, he likes to pose as a grumbler. One of his chief topics of conversation is the way he’ll “swing the lead” if ever he has the luck to be wounded and get out to Blighty. But when he does get back to Blighty, he isn’t content to stay there. He can’t rest. The heroism of the hell “out there”—a hell that has nothing romantic—shouts to him. It isn’t the fascination of the horror that draws him. It certainly isn’t the love of fighting. I think it is the love of the men he has left behind, the knowledge of what they are enduring and the desire by his little help to afford some tired fellow an hour’s rest. To do that, even though he lasted no more than a week, would make death worth while.
“I’ll get home on special leave soon,” wrote Lieutenant Mackintosh. “I’ve had my taste of a show. It’s hell.” He got back wounded and found himself kept perforce in England as an instructor. The knowledge that his life was secure for a little while, that he could sleep in clean white-sheeted beds, that he could wash whenever he liked meant nothing to him, when contrasted with the loss to his self-respect that his courage was no longer tested and challenged. In the poem “From Home” he expresses this disgust for personal ease when friends are dying. He had just had news of an engagement in which his battalion had taken part. In his imagination he saw what must have happened:—
And shows me plain to see,
Battle and bodies of men that lived
And fought along with me.
Oh God, it would not have been so hard
If I’d been in it too,
But you are lying stiff, my friends,
And I not there with you.”
Besides that picture in bitter self-contempt he places his own warm peace:—
By a comfortable fire,
With everything that a man could want
But not my heart’s desire.
So I sit thinking and dreaming still,
A dream that won’t come true,
Of you in the German trench, my friends,
And I not there with you.”
I suppose it is almost incredible to the civilian mind that any man who has experienced the Judgment Day of an attack can speak truly when he says that he wants to go back. Lieutenant Mackintosh explains the soldier’s attitude in one line, “And I not there with you.” Each man feels that the war cannot be won without him; if he shirks, the next man may shirk, and the example of duty will be lost.
It has been said that the war has divided the world into two nations—the man of military age and the others. This was never more true than at the time when middle-aged gentlemen were writing recruiting-songs, feeling perfectly confident that they would never be recruited themselves. These songs too often took the form of insulting the younger generation into making up their minds to die; they were sung chiefly in music-halls by people who were paid to be patriotic. Again Mackintosh utters the voice of the Front when he expresses his resentment for such methods. He seems to me to have preserved the wholesome faculty for hatred which most of us Englishmen have lost—the same faculty which has made Raemaekers such an Elijah in his cartoons. I’m not sure that his “Recruiting” is poetry; but it’s Truth and it’s what many a lad in khaki has thought. Its inspiration was a frenzied poster, of which the intent was to shame men into enlisting. It made Mackintosh picture the people who had framed it:—
Could go out and fight the Hun.
Can’t you see them thanking God
They are over forty-one?
From the wicked German foe.
Don’t let him come over here!
Lad, you’re wanted! Out you go!”
Then he paints the picture of how the poster ought to have read:—
Lads, and can’t you hear it come
From the million men who call
You to share their martyrdom.
Comic songs about the Hun,
Leave the fat old men to say,
‘Now we’ve got them on the run.’
Than their dull threescore and ten.
Lad, you’re wanted! Come and learn
To live and die with decent men.
If you will but pay the price,
Learn the gaiety and strength
Of the gallant sacrifice.
Underneath the open sky.
Live clean, or go out quick—
Lads, you’re wanted. Come and die.”
The impulsive injustice and pride of youth! Yes, but it’s what millions are thinking at the Front. Whether you like to acknowledge it or no, the supreme value of Mackintosh as a poet lies in the fact that he was articulate, where others are silent and, above all, that he spoke the Truth.
He had a strange, almost womanly tenderness for his men—not for Kipling’s red-coats, but for the civilians in khaki who fight because of duty, with hatred in their hearts of shedding blood. His attitude towards them was a good deal that of a chieftain. War brought out in him his pride of race; he remembered increasingly that he was a Highlander. It speaks volumes for the new equality which has grown up among those who have shared “the gaiety and strength of the gallant sacrifice” that one of his noblest poems should have been addressed to the father of David Sutherland, a private in his company who was killed in action:—
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back in the twilight—
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you when you died.
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
The screamed, ‘Don’t leave me, Sir,’
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.”
The fields were fresh and green,
And green the willow tree stood up,
With the lazy stream between.
The river drifting by—
And now—you’re back at your work again
And here in a ditch I lie.
To rise and leave you so,
But the dead men’s hands were beckoning
And I knew that I must go.
Their lips were asking too,
We faced it out and payed the price—
Are we betrayed by you?
Before we meet again,
Long days of mud and work for me,
For you long care and pain.
Because of what you know,
I can look my dead friends in the face
As I couldn’t two months ago.
October 20th, 1917