I believe in the men who died
The church in the peaceful village where I live has a tower of grey stone, in which is a belfry. A clock with gilt hands and Roman numerals shines in the southern wall. It was built into the tower as a memorial to those men of the parish who fell in the great war. Down in the porch is an illuminated scroll with a list of the names of those who did not come home.
Sometimes, when the ringers go up into the room where hang the ropes with the coloured sallies, I go with them, climbing on up the worn stone steps of the dim spiral stairway, to the bells. The ropes and wheels begin to creak; the bells begin to swing, and the tower trembles. Then with a dinning crash the metal tongues smite the deep bronze mouths, and an immense torrent of sound pours out of the narrow doorway.
The great sound sweeps other thought away into the air, and the earth fades; the powerful wraith of those four years of the war enters into me, and the torrent becomes the light and clangour of massed guns that thrall the senses.
I take the weight and strength of the barrage, and grow mighty with it, until it becomes but a seam of sound nicked with flashes and puny in space and time controlled by the vaster roar of stars in their age-long travail through elemental darkness. I see all life created by those flaming suns of the night, and out of life arises a radiance, wan and phantasmal and pure, the light of Khristos.
The wraith of the war, glimmering with this inner vision, bears me to the wide and shattered country of the Somme, to every broken wood and trench and sunken lane, among the broad, straggling belts of rusty wire smashed and twisted in the chalky loam, while the ruddy clouds of brick-dust hang over the shelled villages by day, and at night the eastern horizon roars and bubbles with light.
And everywhere in these desolate places I see the faces and figures of enslaved men, the marching columns pearl-hued with chalky dust on the sweat of their heavy drab clothes; the files of carrying parties laden and staggering in the flickering moonlight of gun-fire; the ‘waves’ of assaulting troops lying silent and pale on the tape-lines of the jumping-off places . . .
Again I crouch with them while the steel glacier rushing by just overhead scrapes away every syllable, every fragment of a message bawled into my ear, while my mind begins to stare fixedly into the bitter dark of imminent death, and my limbs tremble and stiffen as in an icicle while the gaping, smoking parapet above the rim of my helmet spurts and lashes with machine-gun bullets . . .
Until in the flame and the rolling smoke I see men arising and walking forward; and I go forward with them, as in a nightmare wherein some seem to pause, with bowed heads, and sink carefully to their knees, and roll slowly over, and lie still. Others roll and roll, and scream and grip my legs in uttermost fear, and I have to struggle to break away, while the dust and earth on my tunic changes from grey to red . . .
And I go on with aching feet, up and down over ground like a huge ruined honeycomb, and my wave melts away, and the second wave comes up, and also melts away, and then the third wave merges into the ruins of the first and second, and after a while the fourth blunders into the remnants of the others, and we begin to run forward to catch up with the barrage, gasping and sweating, in bunches, anyhow, every bit of the months of drill and rehearsal forgotten, for who could have imagined that the big push was going to be like this?
We come to wire that is uncut, and beyond we see grey coal-scuttle helmets bobbing about, and the steam of over-heated machine-guns wafting away in the fountainous black smoke of howitzer shells; and the loud crackling of the machine-guns changes to a screeching as of steam being blown off by a hundred engines; and soon no one is left standing. And an hour later our guns are ‘back on the first objective’, and Kitchener’s Army, with all its hopes and beliefs, has found its grave on those northern slopes of the Somme battlefield.
A year drifts by, and I am standing on a duckboard by a flooded and foul beek in the Salient, listening in the flare-pallid rainy darkness to the cries of tens of thousands of wounded men lost in the morasses of third Ypres. To seek them is to drown with them . . . The living are still toiling on, homeless and without horizons, doing dreadful things under heaven that none want to do, through the long wet days and the longer nights, the weeks, the months, of a bare, sodden winter out of doors.
The survivors are worn out; some of them, tested beyond breaking point, put the muzzles of their rifles in their mouths, in the darkness of the terrible nights, and pull the trigger.
Those at home, sitting in armchairs and talking proudly of patriotism and heroism, will never realise the bitter contempt and scorn the soldiers have for these and other abstractions; the soldiers feel they have been betrayed by the high-sounding phrases that heralded the war, for they know that the enemy soldiers are the same men as themselves, suffering and disillusioned in exactly the same way . . .
And in the stupendous roar and light-blast of the final barrage that broke the Hindenburg line I see only one thing, which grows radiant before my eyes until it fills all my world: the sight of a Saxon boy half crushed under a shattered tank, moaning ‘Mutter, mutter, mutter’, out of ghastly grey lips. A British soldier, wounded in the leg, and sitting nearby, hears the words, and, dragging himself to the dying boy, takes his cold hand and says: ‘All right, son, it’s all right. Mother’s here with you.’
The bells cease, and I descend again to the world of the living, and move among men who did not go through the fire, and who think the old thoughts, and who seem not to care that it will happen again unless all believe in the sacrifice of the men who died. For it was a sacrifice, and we did believe, in a dull sort of way, that out of our loss would come a better world for our children.
Yet sometimes it seems hopeless, as when I hear a few hundred school children, marched to the local picture palace for patriotic purposes, cheering and yelling at a film, which only faintly suggests reality, called ‘The Somme’, frantically cheering the ‘British heroes’, and booing the ‘German cowards’, even when one poor lad in grey, who went forth to fetch water for a dying comrade, was knocked over by a shell.
The children, I know, are but distorting mirrors of a grown-up mental attitude; but surely, after the bitter agony and waste of the lost generation of Europe, it is time that people should begin to know what they do.
When I go back to the battlefields today I meet my old comrades in spirit, for I am dead with them, and they live with me again. They say to me the truths which have quickened out of their deaths; they say that we must free the child from the ideas and ideals of a narrow nationalism that inspired and generated the barrages.
The faceless corruption of Ypres and the Somme was the grave of the old world: the human virtues must develop from within, from the imagination, not from any forms of idolatry.
The summer is beautiful to men of all nations, and every man was once a little boy with an imagination.
I have a little boy now; a wild little innocent who looks at birds in the sky, at poppies and bumblebees and dandelions, and thinks no mean thought, and sees no harm anywhere. His little friends in the village play at trains and ‘moti-cars’ with him; he sings and smiles when he hears the bells on the wind. Must he, too, with those friends, traverse a waste place of the earth; must the blood and sweat of his generation drip in agony, where poppies have grown, and corn?
Monday, 17 September 1928
‘I Believe in the Men who Died’ created much interest among the newspaper's readers, and just a few of their responses are quoted below.
20 September 1928:
Sir, - I was deeply moved by Mr Henry Williamson’s splendid article in a recent issue. I only wish it could be translated into every language under the sun and distributed the world over.
Eastbrook-road, Blackheath , SE3
24 September 1928:
Sir, - A loss of faith in the omnipotence of God, a morbid temperament, and an intense hatred of the Germans – this was my state of mind when in 1918 I lost my only son. Time subsequently softened the bitterness, but had not eradicated it.
Then I read Mr Henry Williamson’s ‘Daily Express’ article: ‘I Believe in the Men Who Died’, and I am now looking at both sides, and on the equality of suffering, sorrow, and poignant loss which the war inflicted on enemies and Allies alike.
Please accept my deepest gratitude for these soul-easing articles. I feel sure I am speaking for thousands who, like myself, have passed through the pangs of hatred to the spirit of forgiveness, which can be only realised by the influence of fair-minded, equitable statements contained in these excellent writings.
Sir, - Rarely have I read a more soul-searching article than that of Mr Henry Williamson on ‘I Believe in the Men Who Died’. With true inspiration he expressed what millions of the plain men and women of the world are groping to say but cannot put into words.
I believe too in the men and women who live. Have we sufficient faith in ourselves to justify our belief in the men who died? What are we doing with the lives they laid aside? The war has left the world littered with crushed and crumbling heaps of terrible debris. It is our supreme task to clear it away, and set about building the house ‘that is not for time’s throwing’.
Leslie R. Aldous
Union-square, Islington, N1
1 October 1928:
Sir, - I am a German student of the new philology, and, therefore, sometimes buy French and English newspapers. Recently I saw a copy of the ‘Daily Express’ containing an article ‘I Believe in the Men Who Died’ by Henry Williamson. Believe me, that essay, those poetic phrases, made such an impression upon me that I could not refrain from sending my sincere thanks to you and to the author.
I love my country with my whole heart, and I might be indifferent to what the youth of England is thinking; but is it not necessary, now more than ever, for the young people of the European nations, who must rebuild on the ruins of the old Europe, to learn to know and to understand one another?
We revere the dead of all nations who bled in the war, for they died for a great idea – for a new Europe. We, the young, who live, have the duty of reconciling the nations who hated each other by means of that respect and reverence for the war’s victims.
We want no books, plays, or films that uphold overthrown ideals; we want a future in which the struggle is only for peace. We must ourselves work for it, and not listen to the wrong leaders. In Germany, too, men who were not in the war and purified by that fire try to lead our youth along the wrong roads; but, thank God, we defend ourselves with the might of our own ideals.
The poet, H. Williamson, has so inspired me that I must ask you to convey my thanks to him. I am sorry that my English is not equal to what I have to say. I write this although there are British troops in the Rhineland, only an hour away. With compliments.
Ludwigplatz, Mainz, Germany
'I Believe in the Men Who Died' has been collected in Stumberleap, and other Devon writings: Contributions to the Daily Express and Sunday Express, 1915–1935 (2005; The Henry Williamson Society), available both in print and as an e-book.