C E MontagueMEN wearying in trenches used to tell one another sometimes what they fancied the end of the war would be like. Each had his particular favourite vision. Some morning the Captain would come down the trench at "stand-to" and try to speak as if it were nothing. "All right, men," he would say, "you can go across and shake hands." Or the first thing we should hear would be some jubilant peal suddenly shaken out on the air from the nearest standing church in the rear. But the commonest vision was that of marching down a road to a wide, shining river. Once more the longing of a multitude struggling slowly across a venomous wilderness fixed itself on the first glimpse of a Jordan beyond; for most men the Rhine was the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of all attainment and rest.

To win what your youth had desired, and find the taste of it gone, is said to be one of the standard pains of old age. With a kind of blank space in their minds where the joy of fulfilment ought to have been, two British privates of 1914, now Captains attached to the Staff, emerged from the narrow and crowded High Street of Cologne on December 7, 1918, crossed the Cathedral square, and gained their first sight of the Rhine. As they stood on the Hohenzollern bridge and looked at the mighty breadth of rushing stream, each of them certainly gave his heart leave to leap up if it would and if it could. Had they not, by toil and entreaty, gained permission to enter the city with our first cavalry? Were they not putting their lips to the first glass of the sparkling vintage of victory? Neither of them said anything then. The heart that knoweth its own bitterness need not always avow it straight off. But they were friends; they told afterwards.

The first hours of that ultimate winding-up of the old, long-decaying estate of hopes and illusions were not the worst, either. The cavalry brigadier in command at Cologne, those first few days, was a man with a good fighting record; and now his gesture towards the conquered was that of the happy warrior, that of Virgilian Rome, that of the older England in hours of victory. German civilians clearly expected some kind of maltreatment, such perhaps as their own scum had given to Belgians. They strove with desperate care to be correct in their bearing, neither to jostle us accidentally in the streets nor to shrink away from us pointedly. Soon, to their surprise and shame, they found that among the combatant English there lingered the hobby of acting like those whom the Germans had known through their Shakespeare: "We give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused, in disdainful language."

The "cease fire" order on Armistice Day had forbidden all "fraternizing." But any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who has only blown with a trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a sense of the tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind together all who cling precariously to life on a half-barren ball that goes spinning through Space. All castaways together, all really marooned on the one desert island, they know that, however hard we may have to fight to sober a bully or guard to each man his share of the shell-fish and clams, we all have to come back at last to the joint work of making the island more fit to live on. The gesture of the decimated troops who held Cologne at the end of that year was, in essence, that of the cavalry brigadier. Sober or drunk, the men were contumaciously sportsmen, incorrigibly English. One night before Christmas I thought I heard voices outside my quarters long after curfew, and went to look out from my balcony high up in the Domhof into the moon-hooded expanse of the Cathedral square below. By rights there should have been no figures there at that hour, German or British. But there were three; two tipsy Highlanders - "Women from Hell," as German soldiers used to call the demonic stabbers in kilts - gravely dispensing the consolations of chivalry to a stout burgher of Cologne. "Och, dinna tak' it to hairrt, mon. I tell ye that your lads were grond." It was like a last leap of the flame that had burnt clear and high four years before.

(II)

For the day of the fighting man, him and his chivalric hobbies, was over. The guns had hardly ceased to fire before from the rear, from the bases, from London, there came flooding up the braves who for all those four years had been squealing threats and abuse, some of them begging off service in arms on the plea that squealing was indispensable national work. We had not been long in Cologne when there arrived in hot haste a young pressman from London, one of the first of a swarm.. He looked a fine strong man. He seemed to be one of the male Vestals who have it for their trade to feed the eternal flame of hatred between nations, instead of cleaning out stables or doing some other work fit for a male. His train had fortunately brought him just in time for luncheon. This he ate and drank with goodwill, complaining only that the wine, which seemed to me good, was not better. He then slept on his bed until tea-time. Reanimated with tea, he said genially, "Well, I must be getting on with my mission of hate," and retired to his room to write a vivacious account of the wealth and luxury of Cologne, the guzzling in all cafes and restaurants, the fair round bellies of all the working class, the sleek and rosy children of the poor. I read it, two days after, in his paper. Our men who had helped to fight Germany down were going short of food at the time, through feeding the children in houses where they were billeted. "Proper Zoo there is in this place," one of them told me. "Proper lions and tigers. Me and my friend are taking the kids from our billet soon's we've got them fatted up a bit. If you'll believe me, sir, them kiddies ain't safe in a Zoo. They could walk in through the bars and get patting the lions." I had just seen some of the major carnivora in their cages close to the Rhine, each a rectangular lamina of fur and bone like the tottering cats I had seen pass through incredible slits of space in Amiens a month after the people had fled from the city that spring. But little it mattered in London what he or I saw. The nimble scamps had the ear of the world; what the soldier said was not evidence.

Some Allied non-combatants did almost unthinkable things in the first ecstasy of the triumph that others had won. One worthy drove into Cologne in a car plastered over with Union Jacks, like a minor bookie going to Epsom. It passed the wit of man to make him understand that one does not do these things to defeated peoples. But he could understand, with some help, that our Commander-in-Chief alone was entitled to carry a Union Jack on his car. "We must show these fellows our power"; that was the form of the licence taken out by every churl in spirit who wanted to let his coltish nature loose on a waiter or barber in some German hotel. I saw one such gallant assert the majesty of the Allies by refusing to pay more than half the prices put down on the wine-list. Another would send a waiter across an hotel dining-room to order a quiet party of German men and women not to speak so loud. Another was all for inflicting little bullying indignities on the editor of the Kolnische Zeitung - making him print as matters of fact our versions of old cases of German misconduct, etc. Probably he did not even know that the intended exhibition-ground for these deplorable tricks was one of the great journals of Europe.

Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. It had become a fashion to have it, as in some raffish circles it is a fashion at times to have some rakish disease. In the German military cemetery at Lille I have heard a man reared at one of our most famous public schools and our most noble university, and then wearing our uniform, say that he thought the French might do well to desecrate all the German soldiers' graves on French soil. Another, at Brussels, commended a Belgian who was said to have stripped his wife naked in one of the streets of that city and cut off her hair on some airy suspicion of an affair with a German officer during the enemy's occupation. A fine sturdy sneer at the notion of doing anything chivalrous was by this time the mode. "I hope to God," an oldish and highly non-combatant general said, in discussing the probable terms of peace with a younger general who had begun the war as a full lieutenant and fought hard all the way up, "that there's going to be no rot about not kicking a man when he's down." The junior general grunted. He did not agree. But he clearly felt shy of protesting. Worshippers of setting suns feel ill at ease in discussion with these bright, confident fellows who swear by the rising one.

(III)

The senior general need not have feared. The generous youth of the war, when England could carry, with no air of burlesque, the flag of St. George, was pretty well gone. The authentic flame might still flicker on in the minds of a few tired soldiers and disregarded civilians. Otherwise it was as dead as the half-million of good fellows whom it had fired four years ago, whose credulous hearts the maggots were now eating under so many shining and streaming square miles of wet Flanders and Picardy. They gone, their war had lived into a kind of dotage ruled by mean fears and desires. At home our places of honour were brown with shirkers masquerading in the dead men's clothes and licensed by careless authorities to shelter themselves from all danger under the titles of Colonel, Major, and Captain. Nimble politicians were rushing already to coin into votes for themselves - "the men who won the war" - the golden memory of the dead before the living could come home and make themselves heard. Sounds of a general election, the yells of political cheap-jacks, the bawling of some shabby promise, capped by some shabbier bawl, made their way out to Cologne.

"This way, gents, for the right sort of whip to give Germans!" "Rats, gentlemen, rats! Don't listen to him. Leave it to me and I'll chastise 'em with scorpions." "I'll devise the brave punishments for them." "Ah, but I'll sweat you more money out of the swine." That was the gist of the din that most of the gramophones of the home press gave out on the Rhine. Each little demagogue had got his little pots of pitch and sulphur on sale for the proper giving of hell to the enemy whom he had not faced. Germany lay at our feet, a world's wonder of downfall, a very Lucifer, fallen, broken, bereaved beyond all the retributive griefs which Greek tragedy shows you afflicting the great who were insolent, wilful, and proud. But it was not enough for our small epicures of revenge. They wanted to twist the enemy's wrists, where he lay bound, and to run pins into his eyes. And they had the upper hand of us now. The soldiers could only look on while the scurvy performance dragged itself out till the meanest of treaties was signed at Versailles. "Fatal Versailles!" as General Sir Ian Hamilton said for us all; "Not a line - not one line in your treaty to show that those boys (our friends who were dead) had been any better than the emperors; not one line to stand for the kindliness of England; not one word to bring back some memory of the generosity of her sons!"

"The freedom of Europe," "The war to end war," "The overthrow of militarism," "The cause of civilization" - most people believe so little now in anything or anyone that they would find it hard to understand the simplicity and intensity of faith with which these phrases were once taken among our troops, or the certitude felt by hundreds of thousands of men who are now dead that if they were killed their monument would be a new Europe not soured or soiled with the hates and greeds of the old. That the old spirit of Prussia might not infest our world any more; that they or, if not they, their sons might breathe a new, cleaner air they had willingly hung themselves up to rot on the uncut wire at Loos or wriggled to death, slow hour by hour, in the cold filth at Broodseinde. Now all was done that man could do, and all was done in vain. The old spirit of Prussia was blowing anew, from strange mouths. From several species of men who passed for English - as mongrels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are all clept by the name of dogs - there was rising a chorus of shrill yelps for the outdoing of all the base folly committed by Prussia when drunk with her old conquest of France. Prussia, beaten out of the field, had won in the souls of her conquerors' rulers ; they had become her pupils ; they took her word for it that she, and not the older England, knew how to use victory.

(IV)

Sir Douglas Haig came to Cologne when we had been there a few days. On the grandiose bridge over the Rhine he made a short speech to a few of us. Most of it sounded as if the thing were a job he had got to get through with, and did not much care for. Perhaps the speech, like those of other great men who wisely hate making speeches, had been written for him by somebody else. But once he looked up from the paper and put in some words which I felt sure were his own; "I only hope that, now we have won, we shall not lose our heads, as the Germans did after 1870. It has brought them to this." He looked at the gigantic mounted statue of the Kaiser overhead, a thing crying out in its pride for fire from heaven to fall and consume it, and at the homely, squat British sentry moving below on his post. I think the speech was reported. But none of our foremen at home took any notice of it at all. They knew a trick worth two of Haig's. They were as moonstruck as any victorious Prussian.

So we had failed - had won the fight and lost the prize; the garland of the war was withered before it was gained. The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women's overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat - all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in. Many men felt, and said to each other, that they had been fooled. They had believed that their country was backing them. They had thought, as they marched into Germany, "Now we shall show old Fritz how you treat a man when you've thrashed him." They would let him into the English secret, the tip that the power and glory are not to the bully. As some of them looked at the melancholy performance which followed, our Press and our politicians parading at Paris in moral pickelhauben and doing the Prussianist goose-step by way of pas de triomphae, they could not but say in dismay to themselves : "This is our doing. We cannot wish the war unwon, and yet - if we had shirked, poor old England, for all we know, might not have come to this pass. So we come home draggletailed, sick of the mess that we were unwittingly helping to make when we tried to do well."


Recent Additions
   & Updates
Search the site


Site Information
Resources

Land fit for heroes

Disenchantment
by C.E.Montague

C.E.Montague (pictured below) wrote Disenchantment in 1922. He was 47 and had been with the Manchester Guardian for nearly 25 years when he enlisted in 1914, dyeing his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant that he was young enough. Apart from his age he had been a typical Kitchener volunteer, in his eagerness to fight for his country for all the values which the war was supposed to be upholding.

After serving in France he was invalided out, and returned to journalism. Back in England he began to believe that the high ideals for which the volunteer army had enlisted were being betrayed at home, by the government, by the General Staff and by those who were making a handsome profit from the war.

Disenchantment chronicles that sense of disillusion. It has its faults: it over-sentimentalises and stereotypes the ordinary soldier, and Montague's use of language can be very long-winded and pompous.

C.E.Montague inscriptionBut there is a great deal of truth in his message, and it is well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy. I found a 1924 reprint in Gibbs Bookshop on Charlotte Street in Manchester (worth visiting if you're ever in the city).

It wasn't until I got it home that I realised it had been signed by the author (right). The inscription reads S.R.Cameron with kind regards from C.E.Montague April 26/24.

The following chapter is one of the most powerful in the book.

CHAPTER XIII

THE OLD AGE OF THE WAR

(I)

Member of the History Channel
visit aftermath books
In association with Amazon

Aftermath - when the boys came home

Saturday 17 December 2005