When I Was Demobilised

 

 

When I Was Demobilised

 

Henry Williamson

 

 

I and my friends and others of our generation went into the war in a state of excitement and left it in a state of vacancy bordering on disillusion.

 

Perhaps I was more eccentric than most; for I had gone to the front in 1914, very young, to see action before my eighteenth birthday; and while trench-life at first had been exciting, and even enjoyable, nothing I had heard or read or been told had prepared me for the reality of men in battle.

 

When I came home a few months later, after some time in hospital, I was treated as a hero, on the basis that the enemy was stupid, cowardly, and always ran away from our heroic selves. Any attempt to stammer the truth was at once regarded as modesty; later, as unpatriotic. Civilians saw the war from newspapers; and what the man from the actual fighting tried to say was not acceptable.

 

So the two worlds drew apart; the world of the soldier was different from the mental sphere of the civilian. A schism arose, which was not closed again (and then only superficially) until Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front swept the reading public of all nations in 1928.

 

The book was an exaggeration, the work of a war-haunted German youth who had not experienced all that he wrote about; it sold five million copies.

 

I left the Army in the summer following the armistice. I was then with the reserve battalion at Cannock Chase, and I had done with the war. I had discovered myself as a writer, and spent my days in my asbestos cubicle writing, and reading Galsworthy, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Richard Jefferies.

 

I was immensely exhilarated by the world I had discovered my true self to be part of. I wanted to write the truth as I had seen it, and to do this it was necessary to keep myself entirely apart from my fellows. Parades, what were parades? I had done with parades!

 

So I stayed in my cubicle, eating biscuits and making tea, and occasionally going into mess dinner at night. I knew nobody there, and avoided speaking to them, as to strangers. I had a racing motor-cycle, the first post-war model turned out by a famous Birmingham firm, and sometimes went to Stratford to buy food, and meet acquaintances in the bars of hotels.

 

After two or three weeks of such irregular conduct, during which time I had ignored all chits summoning me to the orderly room, from both assistant adjutant and adjutant – both junior in service to myself – I was sent for by the colonel. He said curtly that I must hand in my papers.

 

He had been through the war from the beginning, and so I apologised to him for my conduct. He said he was glad I had apologised; and then I told him, in halting words, that I was possessed by an overwhelming feeling to devote myself to writing. We shook hands, while my eyes could not see properly; and the next day I left on my motor-cycle for London and demobilisation. A few formalities at the Crystal Palace, and I was out again, a free man.

 

It was then that I felt lost; all my years since boyhood – a very long time to me – the Army had been my home, indeed it had been my entire grown-up world. Now I had no world, except the shadowy and diminished sphere of civvy life which had been steadily dissolving since 1914. I could hardly speak to my parents; there were hardly any light-rays between our worlds.

 

I remember going slowly round the streets of Sydenham, wondering what I could do. At last I went to London, to stay in an hotel and visit some of my war-time leave-haunts. But I might have been a ghost. I drank beer alone, yet with imaginary comrades.

 

The next day I went to the Army bankers to see about my ‘blood-money’, or gratuity. This was payable at the rate of 180 days’ pay for the first year of commissioned service, with 90 days’ pay for every subsequent year or part of a year. I found I had nearly £300 to come. Of this, £100 had already been spent on the racing motor-cycle.

 

I wrote at night, and loafed about during the day. I ran into some of my friends and we hailed one another with cries of happiness. One was thinking of starting a poultry farm in Suffolk; another wanted to raise a loan to supplement his gratuity and buy a tractor to do contract ploughing in Essex.

 

A third wanted to be an actor; he had been a great success on guest nights in the past, with monologues accompanied with music from a home-made cigar-box violoncello. He told us of Major X, a ranker who had won both DSO and DCM, being seen outside a picture palace in the uniform of a commissionaire.

 

Another, a rather wild fellow who was an artist of sorts before the war, was going round the West End wearing a mask and uniform without rank-badges or buttons, and playing a barrel-organ.

 

It was a strange world; but the lighted bars at night, which we haunted, gave us a feeling of war-time comradeship. What did the future matter? It had never mattered in the only world we knew, that of the war.

 

There was an ex-Officers’ Association, to which I and a friend went, putting down our names for jobs. Any jobs; at home or abroad. We learned that what we were in the Army was of little use in the new world we were now becoming accustomed to.

 

One of my friends was offered a job as clerk in a shirt-factory in the East End. Later he went to South Africa, on a Government scheme, farming. I heard from him once only; he must have lost out when the slump came, later on.

 

Gradually we drifted apart. The new world took us our different ways. I don’t say that all were like ourselves; I can speak only of my little clique, made up of chaps a little less steady than the majority. One of them, a polished youth with charming manners and considerable skill at bridge, who had somehow wangled himself a job as ADC to a divisional commander, had managed to stay out of the fighting all through.

 

He was a young man of great charm, who had built for himself a bogus background during the war. Some of his letters in the mess had been addressed to Capt. the Honble. Charles Y----; we thought at the time he had written them to himself.

 

I remember him returning from draft leave once with a gift of pheasants for the MO (he had been returned to duty from his red-tab job in 1918, after a severe comb-out following the vast losses of Third Ypres). He went sick, after giving the birds to the reserve battalion doctor, saying they were from his ‘place in the country’. He got off the draft.

 

A year or two later, I read in a newspaper that the charming Captain Y---- was one of a gang of cardsharpers and gamblers taken in a West End ‘haunt’. There were several other charges, all from living on his wits. With a little more sincerity this pre-war bank clerk might have made a name for himself as an actor. He went to prison for two years.

           

Gradually we were absorbed into the post-war. The battlefields were cleared up. Tens of thousands of Poles and Italians filled in the craters with long-handled shovels; tens of thousands of tons of rusty dud shells and fragments of steel were collected into dumps.

 

We used to say during the war that it would take a hundred years to clear up the Somme battlefields; actually it was done in little more than half a hundred months. As for the human souls that once trudged there, in sweat and terror, in cold and mud and in heat and choking dust, they, too, became in time indistinguishable from the civilian world of which they had once been so derisive.

 

Once a year we met at a regimental dinner, and spoke, in odd sentences, almost in shyness, of our vanished world of comradeship. Every year the dinner was more sparsely attended; until one day a circular came from the honorary secretary of the Old Comrades Association, saying that it was decided to discontinue the yearly meeting.

 

So it came about that I left London and went to live in a cottage in Devon by myself, to meditate and to write the truth as I saw it, to clarify what we fought and died for – a new vision of the world. As the years went on I saw that vision receding, and the shadows stealing forth again towards those who had not been born when I was a soldier of 1914-18.

 

Is the vision lost? Somehow I think that the new post-war generation, when its authentic voice is heard, will join in comradeship with those who went before.

 

 

 


 

 

 

This essay was first published in Strand Magazine, September, 1945. It was later collected in Indian Summer Notebook (2001; e-book 2013, HWS).

 

 

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