Mr. Britling Sees It Through
MATCHING'S EASY AT WAR
CHAPTER THE THIRD
And while the countryside of England changed steadily from its lax pacific
amenity to the likeness of a rather slovenly armed camp, while long-fixed
boundaries shifted and dissolved and a great irreparable wasting of the world's
resources gathered way, Mr. Britling did his duty as a special constable, gave
his eldest son to the Territorials, entertained Belgians, petted his soldiers in
the barn, helped Teddy to his commission, contributed to war charities, sold out
securities at a loss and subscribed to the War Loan, and thought, thought
endlessly about the war.
He could think continuously day by day of nothing else. His mind was as
caught as a galley slave, as unable to escape from tugging at this oar. All his
universe was a magnetic field which oriented everything, whether he would have
it so or not, to this one polar question.
His thoughts grew firmer and clearer; they went deeper and wider. His first
superficial judgments were endorsed and deepened or replaced by others. He
thought along the lonely lanes at night; he thought at his desk; he thought in
bed; he thought in his bath; he tried over his thoughts in essays and leading
articles and reviewed them and corrected them. Now and then came relaxation and
lassitude, but never release. The war towered over him like a vigilant teacher,
day after day, week after week, regardless of fatigue and impatience, holding a
rod in its hand.
Certain things had to be forced upon Mr. Britling because they jarred so
greatly with his habits of mind that he would never have accepted them if he
could have avoided doing so.
Notably he would not recognise at first the extreme bitterness of this war.
He would not believe that the attack upon Britain and Western Europe generally
expressed the concentrated emotion of a whole nation. He thought that the Allies
were in conflict with a system and not with a national will. He fought against
the persuasion that the whole mass of a great civilised nation could be inspired
by a genuine and sustained hatred. Hostility was an uncongenial thing to him; he
would not recognise that the greater proportion of human beings are more readily
hostile than friendly. He did his best to believe—in his "And Now War Ends" he
did his best to make other people believe—that this war was the perverse exploit
of a small group of people, of limited but powerful influences, an outrage upon
the general geniality of mankind. The cruelty, mischief, and futility of war
were so obvious to him that he was almost apologetic in asserting them. He
believed that war had but to begin and demonstrate its quality among the Western
nations in order to unify them all against its repetition. They would exclaim:
"But we can't do things like this to one another!" He saw the aggressive
imperialism of Germany called to account even by its own people; a struggle, a
collapse, a liberal-minded conference of world powers, and a universal
resumption of amiability upon a more assured basis of security. He believed—and
many people in England believed with him—that a great section of the Germans
would welcome triumphant Allies as their liberators from intolerable political
The English because of their insularity had been political amateurs for
endless generations. It was their supreme vice, it was
their supreme virtue, to be easy-going. They had lived in an atmosphere of
comedy, and denied in the whole tenor of their lives that life is tragic. Not
even the Americans had been more isolated. The Americans had had their Indians,
their negroes, their War of Secession. Until the Great War the Channel was as
broad as the Atlantic for holding off every vital challenge. Even Ireland was
away—a four-hour crossing. And so the English had developed to the fullest
extent the virtues and vices of safety and comfort; they had a hatred of science
and dramatic behaviour; they could see no reason for exactness or intensity;
they disliked proceeding "to extremes." Ultimately everything would turn out all
right. But they knew what it is to be carried into conflicts by energetic
minorities and the trick of circumstances, and they were ready to understand the
case of any other country which has suffered that fate. All their habits
inclined them to fight good-temperedly and comfortably, to quarrel with a
government and not with a people. It took Mr. Britling at least a couple of
months of warfare to understand that the Germans were fighting in an altogether
The first intimations of this that struck upon his mind were the news of the
behaviour of the Kaiser and the Berlin crowd upon the declaration of war, and
the violent treatment of the British subjects seeking to return to their homes.
Everywhere such people had been insulted and ill-treated. It was the spontaneous
expression of a long-gathered bitterness. While the British ambassador was being
howled out of Berlin, the German ambassador to England was taking a farewell
stroll, quite unmolested, in St. James's Park.... One item that struck
particularly upon Mr. Britling's imagination was the story of the chorus of
young women who assembled on the railway platform of the station through which
the British ambassador was passing to sing—to his drawn blinds—"Deutschland,
Deutschland über Alles." Mr. Britling could imagine those
young people, probably dressed more or less uniformly in white, with flushed
faces and shining eyes, letting their voices go, full throated, in the modern
And then came stories of atrocities, stories of the shooting of old men and
the butchery of children by the wayside, stories of wounded men bayoneted or
burnt alive, of massacres of harmless citizens, of looting and filthy
Mr. Britling did his utmost not to believe these things. They contradicted
his habitual world. They produced horrible strains in his mind. They might, he
hoped, be misreported so as to seem more violent or less justifiable than they
were. They might be the acts of stray criminals, and quite disconnected from the
normal operations of the war. Here and there some weak-minded officer may have
sought to make himself terrible.... And as for the bombardment of cathedrals and
the crime of Louvain, well, Mr. Britling was prepared to argue that Gothic
architecture is not sacrosanct if military necessity cuts through it.... It was
only after the war had been going on some months that Mr. Britling's fluttering,
unwilling mind was pinned down by official reports and a cloud of witnesses to a
definite belief in the grim reality of systematic rape and murder, destruction,
dirtiness and abominable compulsions that blackened the first rush of the
Prussians into Belgium and Champagne....
They came hating and threatening the lands they outraged. They sought
occasion to do frightful deeds.... When they could not be frightful in the
houses they occupied, then to the best of their ability they were destructive
and filthy. The facts took Mr. Britling by the throat....
The first thing that really pierced Mr. Britling with the conviction that
there was something essentially different in the English and the German attitude
towards the war was the sight of a bale of German comic papers in the study of a friend in London. They were filled with
caricatures of the Allies and more particularly of the English, and they
displayed a force and quality of passion—an incredible force and quality of
passion. Their amazing hate and their amazing filthiness alike overwhelmed Mr.
Britling. There was no appearance of national pride or national dignity, but a
bellowing patriotism and a limitless desire to hurt and humiliate. They spat.
They were red in the face and they spat. He sat with these violent sheets in his
"But I say!" he said feebly. "It's the sort of thing that might come out of a
One incredible craving was manifest in every one of them. The German
caricaturist seemed unable to represent his enemies except in extremely tight
trousers or in none; he was equally unable to represent them without thrusting a
sword or bayonet, spluttering blood, into the more indelicate parts of their
persons. This was the leit-motif of the war as the German humorists
presented it. "But," said Mr. Britling, "these things can't represent anything
like the general state of mind in Germany."
"They do," said his friend.
"But it's blind fury—at the dirt-throwing stage."
"The whole of Germany is in that blind fury," said his friend. "While we are
going about astonished and rather incredulous about this war, and still rather
inclined to laugh, that's the state of mind of Germany.... There's a sort of
deliberation in it. They think it gives them strength. They want to foam
at the mouth. They do their utmost to foam more. They write themselves up. Have
you heard of the 'Hymn of Hate'?"
Mr. Britling had not.
"There was a translation of it in last week's Spectator.... This is
the sort of thing we are trying to fight in good temper and without
extravagance. Listen, Britling!
"You will we hate with a lasting hate;
We will never forgo our hate—
Hate by water and hate by land,
Hate of the head and hate of the hand,
Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,
Hate of seventy millions, choking down;
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have one foe, and one alone—
He read on to the end.
"Well," he said when he had finished reading, "what do you think of it?"
"I want to feel his bumps," said Mr. Britling after a pause. "It's
"They're singing that up and down Germany. Lissauer, I hear, has been
"It's—stark malignity," said Mr. Britling. "What have we done?"
"It's colossal. What is to happen to the world if these people prevail?"
"I can't believe it—even with this evidence before me.... No! I want to feel
"You see," said Mr. Britling, trying to get it into focus, "I have known
quite decent Germans. There must be some sort of misunderstanding.... I wonder
what makes them hate us. There seems to me no reason in it."
"I think it is just thoroughness," said his friend. "They are at war. To be
at war is to hate."
"That isn't at all my idea."
"We're not a thorough people. When we think of anything, we also think of its
opposite. When we adopt an opinion we also take in a provisional idea that it is
probably nearly as wrong as it is right. We are—atmospheric. They are
concrete.... All this filthy, vile, unjust and cruel stuff is honest genuine
war. We pretend war does not hurt. They know better.... The
Germans are a simple honest people. It is their virtue. Possibly it is their
Mr. Britling was only one of a multitude who wanted to feel the bumps of
Germany at that time. The effort to understand a people who had suddenly become
incredible was indeed one of the most remarkable facts in English intellectual
life during the opening phases of the war. The English state of mind was
unlimited astonishment. There was an enormous sale of any German books that
seemed likely to illuminate the mystery of this amazing concentration of
hostility; the works of Bernhardi, Treitschke, Nietzsche, Houston Stewart
Chamberlain, became the material of countless articles and interminable
discussions. One saw little clerks on the way to the office and workmen going
home after their work earnestly reading these remarkable writers. They were
asking, just as Mr. Britling was asking, what it was the British Empire had
struck against. They were trying to account for this wild storm of hostility
that was coming at them out of Central Europe.
It was a natural next stage to this, when after all it became manifest that
instead of there being a liberal and reluctant Germany at the back of
imperialism and Junkerdom, there was apparently one solid and enthusiastic
people, to suppose that the Germans were in some distinctive way evil, that they
were racially more envious, arrogant, and aggressive than the rest of mankind.
Upon that supposition a great number of English people settled. They concluded
that the Germans had a peculiar devil of their own—and had to be treated
accordingly. That was the second stage in the process of national apprehension,
and it was marked by the first beginnings of a spy hunt, by the first
denunciation of naturalised aliens, and by some anti-German rioting among the
mixed alien population in the East End. Most of the bakers
in the East End of London were Germans, and for some months after the war began
they went on with their trade unmolested. Now many of these shops were
wrecked.... It was only in October that the British gave these first signs of a
sense that they were fighting not merely political Germany but the Germans.
But the idea of a peculiar malignity in the German quality as a key to the
broad issue of the war was even less satisfactory and less permanent in Mr.
Britling's mind than his first crude opposition of militarism and a peaceful
humanity as embodied respectively in the Central Powers and the Russo-Western
alliance. It led logically to the conclusion that the extermination of the
German peoples was the only security for the general amiability of the world, a
conclusion that appealed but weakly to his essential kindliness. After all, the
Germans he had met and seen were neither cruel nor hate-inspired. He came back
to that obstinately. From the harshness and vileness of the printed word and the
unclean picture, he fell back upon the flesh and blood, the humanity and
sterling worth, of—as a sample—young Heinrich.
Who was moreover a thoroughly German young German—a thoroughly Prussian young
At times young Heinrich alone stood between Mr. Britling and the belief that
Germany and the whole German race was essentially wicked, essentially a canting
robber nation. Young Heinrich became a sort of advocate for his people before
the tribunal of Mr. Britling's mind. (And on his shoulder sat an absurdly
pampered squirrel.) s fresh, pink, sedulous face, very earnest, adjusting his
glasses, saying "Please," intervened and insisted upon an arrest of
Since the young man's departure he had sent two postcards of greeting
directly to the "Familie Britling," and one letter through the friendly
intervention of Mr. Britling's American publisher. Once also he sent a message through a friend in Norway. The postcards simply recorded
stages in the passage of a distraught pacifist across Holland to his enrolment.
The letter by way of America came two months later. He had been converted into a
combatant with extreme rapidity. He had been trained for three weeks, had spent
a fortnight in hospital with a severe cold, and had then gone to Belgium as a
transport driver—his father had been a horse-dealer and he was familiar with
horses. "If anything happens to me," he wrote, "please send my violin at least
very carefully to my mother." It was characteristic that he reported himself as
very comfortably quartered in Courtrai with "very nice people." The niceness
involved restraints. "Only never," he added, "do we talk about the war. It is
better not to do so." He mentioned the violin also in the later communication
through Norway. Therein he lamented the lost fleshpots of Courtrai. He had been
in Posen, and now he was in the Carpathians, up to his knees in snow and "very
And then abruptly all news from him ceased.
Month followed month, and no further letter came.
"Something has happened to him. Perhaps he is a prisoner...."
"I hope our little Heinrich hasn't got seriously damaged.... He may be
"Or perhaps they stop his letters.... Very probably they stop his
Mr. Britling would sit in his armchair and stare at his fire, and recall
conflicting memories of Germany—of a pleasant land, of friendly people. He had
spent many a jolly holiday there. So recently as 1911 all the Britling family
had gone up the Rhine from Rotterdam, had visited a string of great cities and
stayed for a cheerful month of sunshine at Neunkirchen in the Odenwald.
The little village perches high among the hills and
woods, and at its very centre is the inn and the linden tree and—Adam Meyer. Or
at least Adam Meyer was there. Whether he is there now, only the spirit
of change can tell; if he live to be a hundred no friendly English will ever
again come tramping along by the track of the Blaue Breiecke or the Weisse
Streiche to enjoy his hospitality; there are rivers of blood between, and a
thousand memories of hate....
It was a village distended with hospitalities. Not only the inn but all the
houses about the place of the linden tree, the shoe-maker's, the
post-mistress's, the white house beyond, every house indeed except the pastor's
house, were full of Adam Meyer's summer guests. And about it and over it went
and soared Adam Meyer, seeing they ate well, seeing they rested well, seeing
they had music and did not miss the moonlight—a host who forgot profit in
hospitality, an inn-keeper with the passion of an artist for his inn.
Music, moonlight, the simple German sentiment, the hearty German voices, the
great picnic in a Stuhl Wagen, the orderly round games the boys played with the
German children, and the tramps and confidences Hugh had with Kurt and Karl, and
at last a crowning jollification, a dance, with some gipsy musicians whom Mr.
Britling discovered, when the Germans taught the English various entertaining
sports with baskets and potatoes and forfeits and the English introduced the
Germans to the licence of the two-step. And everybody sang "Britannia, Rule the
Waves," and "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles," and Adam Meyer got on a chair
and made a tremendous speech more in dialect than ever, and there was much
drinking of beer and sirops in the moonlight under the linden....
Afterwards there had been a periodic sending of postcards and greetings,
which indeed only the war had ended.
Right pleasant people those Germans had been, sun and green-leaf lovers, for
whom "Frisch Auf" seemed the most natural of national cries. Mr. Britling
thought of the individual Germans who had made up the assembly, of the men's amusingly fierce little hats of green and blue
with an inevitable feather thrust perkily into the hatband behind, of the kindly
plumpnesses behind their turned-up moustaches, of the blonde, sedentary women,
very wise about the comforts of life and very kind to the children, of their
earnest pleasure in landscape and Art and Great Writers, of their general
frequent desire to sing, of their plasticity under the directing hands of Adam
Meyer. He thought of the mellow south German landscape, rolling away broad and
fair, of the little clean red-roofed townships, the old castles, the big
prosperous farms, the neatly marked pedestrian routes, the hospitable inns, and
the artless abundant Aussichtthurms....
He saw all those memories now through a veil of indescribable sadness—as of a
world lost, gone down like the cities of Lyonesse beneath deep seas....
Right pleasant people in a sunny land! Yet here pressing relentlessly upon
his mind were the murders of Visé, the massacres of Dinant, the massacres of
Louvain, murder red-handed and horrible upon an inoffensive people, foully
invaded, foully treated; murder done with a sickening cant of righteousness and
The two pictures would not stay steadily in his mind together. When he
thought of the broken faith that had poured those slaughtering hosts into the
decent peace of Belgium, that had smashed her cities, burnt her villages and
filled the pretty gorges of the Ardennes with blood and smoke and terror, he was
flooded with self-righteous indignation, a self-righteous indignation that was
indeed entirely Teutonic in its quality, that for a time drowned out his former
friendship and every kindly disposition towards Germany, that inspired him with
destructive impulses, and obsessed him with a desire to hear of death and more
death and yet death in every German town and home....
It will be an incredible thing to the happier reader of a coming age—if ever
this poor record of experience reaches a reader in the days to come—to learn how
much of the mental life of Mr. Britling was occupied at this time with the mere
horror and atrocity of warfare. It is idle and hopeless to speculate now how
that future reader will envisage this war; it may take on broad dramatic
outlines, it may seem a thing, just, logical, necessary, the burning of many
barriers, the destruction of many obstacles. Mr. Britling was too near to the
dirt and pain and heat for any such broad landscape consolations. Every day some
new detail of evil beat into his mind. Now it would be the artless story of some
Belgian refugee. There was a girl from Alost in the village for example, who had
heard the fusillade that meant the shooting of citizens, the shooting of people
she had known, she had seen the still blood-stained wall against which two
murdered cousins had died, the streaked sand along which their bodies had been
dragged; three German soldiers had been quartered in her house with her and her
invalid mother, and had talked freely of the massacres in which they had been
employed. One of them was in civil life a young schoolmaster, and he had had, he
said, to kill a woman and a baby. The girl had been incredulous. Yes, he had
done so! Of course he had done so! His officer had made him do it, had stood
over him. He could do nothing but obey. But since then he had been unable to
sleep, unable to forget.
"We had to punish the people," he said. "They had fired on us."
And besides, his officer had been drunk. It had been impossible to argue. His
officer had an unrelenting character at all times....
Over and over again Mr. Britling would try to imagine that young schoolmaster
soldier at Alost. He imagined with a weak staring face and
watery blue eyes behind his glasses, and that memory of murder....
Then again it would be some incident of death and mutilation in Antwerp, that
Van der Pant described to him. The Germans in Belgium were shooting women
frequently, not simply for grave spying but for trivial offences.... Then came
the battleship raid on Whitby and Scarborough, and the killing among other
victims of a number of children on their way to school. This shocked Mr.
Britling absurdly, much more than the Belgian crimes had done. They were
English children. At home!... The drowning of a great number of people on
a torpedoed ship full of refugees from Flanders filled his mind with pitiful
imaginings for days. The Zeppelin raids, with their slow crescendo of
blood-stained futility, began before the end of 1914.... It was small
consolation for Mr. Britling to reflect that English homes and women and
children were, after all, undergoing only the same kind of experience that our
ships have inflicted scores of times in the past upon innocent people in the
villages of Africa and Polynesia....
Each month the war grew bitterer and more cruel. Early in 1915 the Germans
began their submarine war, and for a time Mr. Britling's concern was chiefly for
the sailors and passengers of the ships destroyed. He noted with horror the
increasing indisposition of the German submarines to give any notice to their
victims; he did not understand the grim reasons that were turning every
submarine attack into a desperate challenge of death. For the Germans under the
seas had pitted themselves against a sea power far more resourceful, more
steadfast and skilful, sterner and more silent, than their own. It was not for
many months that Mr. Britling learnt the realities of the submarine blockade.
Submarine after submarine went out of the German harbours into the North Sea,
never to return. No prisoners were reported, no boasting was published by the
British fishers of men; U boat after U boat vanished into a
chilling mystery.... Only later did Mr. Britling begin to hear whispers and form
ideas of the noiseless, suffocating grip that sought through the waters for its
The Falaba crime, in which the German sailors were reported to have
jeered at the drowning victims in the water, was followed by the sinking of the
Lusitania. At that a wave of real anger swept through the Empire. Hate
was begetting hate at last. There were violent riots in Great Britain and in
South Africa. Wretched little German hairdressers and bakers and so forth fled
for their lives, to pay for the momentary satisfaction of the Kaiser and Herr
Ballin. Scores of German homes in England were wrecked and looted; hundreds of
Germans maltreated. War is war. Hard upon the Lusitania storm came the
publication of the Bryce Report, with its relentless array of witnesses, its
particulars of countless acts of cruelty and arrogant unreason and uncleanness
in Belgium and the occupied territory of France. Came also the gasping torture
of "gas," the use of flame jets, and a new exacerbation of the savagery of the
actual fighting. For a time it seemed as though the taking of prisoners along
the western front would cease. Tales of torture and mutilation, tales of the
kind that arise nowhere and out of nothing, and poison men's minds to the most
pitiless retaliations, drifted along the opposing fronts....
The realities were evil enough without any rumours. Over various
dinner-tables Mr. Britling heard this and that first-hand testimony of harshness
and spite. One story that stuck in his memory was of British prisoners on the
journey into Germany being put apart at a station from their French companions
in misfortune, and forced to "run the gauntlet" back to their train between the
fists and bayonets of files of German soldiers. And there were convincing
stories of the same prisoners robbed of overcoats in bitter weather, baited with
dogs, separated from their countrymen, and thrust among Russians and Poles with whom they could hold no speech. So Lissauer's Hate Song
bore its fruit in a thousand cruelties to wounded and defenceless men. The
English had cheated great Germany of another easy victory like that of '71. They
had to be punished. That was all too plainly the psychological process. At one
German station a woman had got out of a train and crossed a platform to spit on
the face of a wounded Englishman.... And there was no monopoly of such things on
either side. At some journalistic gathering Mr. Britling met a little
white-faced, resolute lady who had recently been nursing in the north of France.
She told of wounded men lying among the coal of coal-sheds, of a shortage of
nurses and every sort of material, of an absolute refusal to permit any share in
such things to reach the German "swine." ... "Why have they come here? Let our
own boys have it first. Why couldn't they stay in their own country? Let the
Two soldiers impressed to carry a wounded German officer on a stretcher had
given him a "joy ride," pitching him up and down as one tosses a man in a
blanket. "He was lucky to get off with that."...
"All our men aren't angels," said a cheerful young captain back from
the front. "If you had heard a little group of our East London boys talking of
what they meant to do when they got into Germany, you'd feel anxious...."
"But that was just talk," said Mr. Britling weakly, after a pause....
There were times when Mr. Britling's mind was imprisoned beyond any hope of
escape amidst such monstrous realities....
He was ashamed of his one secret consolation. For nearly two years yet Hugh
could not go out to it. There would surely be peace before that....
Tormenting the thought of Mr. Britling almost more acutely than this growing
tale of stupidly inflicted suffering and waste and sheer destruction was the
collapse of the British mind from its first fine phase of braced-up effort into
a state of bickering futility.
Too long had British life been corrupted by the fictions of loyalty to an
uninspiring and alien Court, of national piety in an official Church, of freedom
in a politician-rigged State, of justice in an economic system where the
advertiser, the sweater and usurer had a hundred advantages over the producer
and artisan, to maintain itself now steadily at any high pitch of heroic
endeavour. It had bought its comfort with the demoralisation of its servants. It
had no completely honest organs; its spirit was clogged by its accumulated
insincerities. Brought at last face to face with a bitter hostility and a
powerful and unscrupulous enemy, an enemy socialistic, scientific and efficient
to an unexampled degree, it seemed indeed to be inspired for a time by an
unwonted energy and unanimity. Youth and the common people shone. The sons of
every class went out to fight and die, full of a splendid dream of this war.
Easy-going vanished from the foreground of the picture. But only to creep back
again as the first inspiration passed. Presently the older men, the seasoned
politicians, the owners and hucksters, the charming women and the habitual
consumers, began to recover from this blaze of moral exaltation. Old habits of
mind and procedure reasserted themselves. The war which had begun so
dramatically missed its climax; there was neither heroic swift defeat nor heroic
swift victory. There was indecision; the most trying test of all for an
undisciplined people. There were great spaces of uneventful fatigue. Before the
Battle of the Yser had fully developed the dramatic quality had gone out of the
war. It had ceased to be either a tragedy or a triumph; for both sides it became a monstrous strain and wasting. It had become a
wearisome thrusting against a pressure of evils....
Under that strain the dignity of England broke, and revealed a malignity less
focussed and intense than the German, but perhaps even more distressing. No
paternal government had organised the British spirit for patriotic ends; it
became now peevish and impatient, like some ill-trained man who is sick, it
directed itself no longer against the enemy alone but fitfully against imagined
traitors and shirkers; it wasted its energies in a deepening and spreading net
of internal squabbles and accusations. Now it was the wily indolence of the
Prime Minister, now it was the German culture of the Lord Chancellor, now the
imaginative enterprise of the First Lord of the Admiralty that focussed a
vindictive campaign. There began a hunt for spies and of suspects of German
origin in every quarter except the highest; a denunciation now of "traitors,"
now of people with imaginations, now of scientific men, now of the personal
friend of the Commander-in-Chief, now of this group and then of that group....
Every day Mr. Britling read his three or four newspapers with a deepening
When he turned from the newspaper to his post, he would find the anonymous
letter-writer had been busy....
Perhaps Mr. Britling had remarked that Germans were after all human beings,
or that if England had listened to Matthew Arnold in the 'eighties our officers
by this time might have added efficiency to their courage and good temper.
Perhaps he had himself put a touch of irritant acid into his comment. Back
flared the hate. "Who are you, Sir? What are you, Sir? What right
have you, Sir? What claim have you, Sir?"...
"Life had a wrangling birth. On the head of every one of us rests the
ancestral curse of fifty million murders."
So Mr. Britling's thoughts shaped themselves in words as he prowled one night
in March, chill and melancholy, across a rushy meadow under an overcast sky. The
death squeal of some little beast caught suddenly in a distant copse had set
loose this train of thought. "Life struggling under a birth curse?" he thought.
"How nearly I come back at times to the Christian theology!... And then,
Redemption by the shedding of blood."
"Life, like a rebellious child, struggling out of the control of the hate
which made it what it is."
But that was Mr. Britling's idea of Gnosticism, not of orthodox Christianity.
He went off for a time into faded reminiscences of theological reading. What had
been the Gnostic idea? That the God of the Old Testament was the Devil of the
New? But that had been the idea of the Manichæans!...
Mr. Britling, between the black hedges, came back presently from his attempts
to recall his youthful inquiries into man's ancient speculations, to the
enduring riddles that have outlasted a thousand speculations. Has hate been
necessary, and is it still necessary, and will it always be necessary? Is all
life a war forever? The rabbit is nimble, lives keenly, is prevented from
degenerating into a diseased crawling eater of herbs by the incessant ferret.
Without the ferret of war, what would life become?... War is murder truly, but
is not Peace decay?
It was during these prowling nights in the first winter of the war that Mr.
Britling planned a new writing that was to go whole abysses beneath the facile
superficiality of "And Now War Ends." It was to be called the "Anatomy of Hate."
It was to deal very faithfully with the function of hate as a corrective to
inefficiency. So long as men were slack, men must be
fierce. This conviction pressed upon him....
In spite of his detestation of war Mr. Britling found it impossible to
maintain that any sort of peace state was better than a state of war. If wars
produced destructions and cruelties, peace could produce indolence, perversity,
greedy accumulation and selfish indulgences. War is discipline for evil, but
peace may be relaxation from good. The poor man may be as wretched in peace time
as in war time. The gathering forces of an evil peace, the malignity and waste
of war, are but obverse and reverse of the medal of ill-adjusted human
relationships. Was there no Greater Peace possible; not a mere recuperative
pause in killing and destruction, but a phase of noble and creative living, a
phase of building, of discovery, of beauty and research? He remembered, as one
remembers the dead, dreams he had once dreamt of the great cities, the splendid
freedoms, of a coming age, of marvellous enlargements of human faculty, of a
coming science that would be light and of art that could be power....
But would that former peace have ever risen to that?...
After all, had such visions ever been more than idle dreams? Had the war done
more than unmask reality?...
He came to a gate and leant over it.
The darkness drizzled about him; he turned up his collar and watched the dim
shapes of trees and hedges gather out of the night to meet the dismal dawn. He
was cold and hungry and weary.
He may have drowsed; at least he had a vision, very real and plain, a vision
very different from any dream of Utopia.
It seemed to him that suddenly a mine burst under a great ship at sea, that
men shouted and women sobbed and cowered, and flares played upon the rain-pitted
black waves; and then the picture changed and showed a battle upon land, and searchlights were flickering through the rain
and shells flashed luridly, and men darkly seen in silhouette against red flames
ran with fixed bayonets and slipped and floundered over the mud, and at last,
shouting thinly through the wind, leapt down into the enemy trenches....
And then he was alone again staring over a wet black field towards a dim
crest of shapeless trees.
Abruptly and shockingly, this malignity of warfare, which had been so far
only a festering cluster of reports and stories and rumours and suspicions,
stretched out its arm into Essex and struck a barb of grotesque cruelty into the
very heart of Mr. Britling. Late one afternoon came a telegram from
Filmington-on-Sea, where Aunt Wilshire had been recovering her temper in a
boarding-house after a round of visits in Yorkshire and the moorlands. And she
had been "very seriously injured" by an overnight German air raid. It was a raid
that had not been even mentioned in the morning's papers. She had asked to see
It was, ran the compressed telegraphic phrase, "advisable to come at
Mrs. Britling helped him pack a bag, and came with him to the station in
order to drive the car back to the Dower House; for the gardener's boy who had
hitherto attended to these small duties had now gone off as an unskilled
labourer to some munition works at Chelmsford. Mr. Britling sat in the slow
train that carried him across country to the junction for Filmington, and failed
altogether to realise what had happened to the old lady. He had an absurd
feeling that it was characteristic of her to intervene in affairs in this
manner. She had always been so tough and unbent an old lady that until he saw
her he could not imagine her as being really seriously and pitifully
But he found her in the hospital very much hurt indeed. She had been smashed
in some complicated manner that left the upper part of her body intact, and
lying slantingly upon pillows. Over the horror of bandaged broken limbs and
tormented flesh below sheets and a counterpane were drawn. Morphia had been
injected, he understood, to save her from pain, but presently it might be
necessary for her to suffer. She lay up in her bed with an effect of being
enthroned, very white and still, her strong profile with its big nose and her
straggling hair and a certain dignity gave her the appearance of some very
important, very old man, of an aged pope for instance, rather than of an old
woman. She had made no remark after they had set her and dressed her and put her
to bed except "send for Hughie Britling, The Dower House, Matching's Easy. He is
the best of the bunch." She had repeated the address and this commendation
firmly over and over again, in large print as it were, even after they had
assured her that a telegram had been despatched.
In the night, they said, she had talked of him.
He was not sure at first that she knew of his presence.
"Here I am, Aunt Wilshire," he said.
She gave no sign.
"Your nephew Hugh."
"Mean and preposterous," she said very distinctly.
But she was not thinking of Mr. Britling. She was talking of something
She was saying: "It should not have been known I was here. There are spies
everywhere. Everywhere. There is a spy now—or a lump very like a spy. They
pretend it is a hot-water bottle. Pretext.... Oh, yes! I admit—absurd. But I
have been pursued by spies. Endless spies. Endless, endless spies. Their devices
are almost incredible.... He has never forgiven me....
"All this on account of a carpet. A palace carpet. Over which I had no
control. I spoke my mind. He knew I knew of it. I never
concealed it. So I was hunted. For years he had meditated revenge. Now he has
it. But at what a cost! And they call him Emperor. Emperor!
"His arm is withered; his son—imbecile. He will die—without dignity...."
Her voice weakened, but it was evident she wanted to say something more.
"I'm here," said Mr. Britling. "Your nephew Hughie."
"Can you understand me?" he asked.
She became suddenly an earnest, tender human being. "My dear!" she said, and
seemed to search for something in her mind and failed to find it.
"You have always understood me," she tried.
"You have always been a good boy to me, Hughie," she said, rather vacantly,
and added after some moments of still reflection, "au fond."
After that she was silent for some minutes, and took no notice of his
Then she recollected what had been in her mind. She put out a hand that
sought for Mr. Britling's sleeve.
"I'm here, Auntie," said Mr. Britling. "I'm here."
"Don't let him get at your Hughie.... Too good for it, dear. Oh!
much—much too good.... People let these wars and excitements run away with
them.... They put too much into them.... They aren't—they aren't worth it. Don't
let him get at your Hughie."
"You understand me, Hughie?"
"Then don't forget it. Ever."
She had said what she wanted to say. She had made her testament. She closed
her eyes. He was amazed to find this grotesque old creature had suddenly
become beautiful, in that silvery vein of beauty one
sometimes finds in very old men. She was exalted as great artists will sometimes
exalt the portraits of the aged. He was moved to kiss her forehead.
There came a little tug at his sleeve.
"I think that is enough," said the nurse, who had stood forgotten at his
"But I can come again?"
She indicated departure by a movement of her hand.
The next day Aunt Wilshire was unconscious of her visitor.
They had altered her position so that she lay now horizontally, staring
inflexibly at the ceiling and muttering queer old disconnected things.
The Windsor Castle carpet story was still running through her mind, but mixed
up with it now were scraps of the current newspaper controversies about the
conduct of the war. And she was still thinking of the dynastic aspects of the
war. And of spies. She had something upon her mind about the King's more German
"As a precaution," she said, "as a precaution. Watch them all.... The
Princess Christian.... Laying foundation stones.... Cement.... Guns. Or else why
should they always be laying foundation stones?... Always.... Why?... Hushed
"None of these things," she said, "in the newspapers. They ought to be."
And then after an interval, very distinctly, "The Duke of Wellington. My
ancestor—in reality.... Publish and be damned."
After that she lay still....
The doctors and nurses could hold out only very faint
hopes to Mr. Britling's inquiries; they said indeed it was astonishing that she
was still alive.
And about seven o'clock that evening she died....
Mr. Britling, after he had looked at his dead cousin for the last time,
wandered for an hour or so about the silent little watering-place before he
returned to his hotel. There was no one to talk to and nothing else to do but to
think of her death.
The night was cold and bleak, but full of stars. He had already mastered the
local topography, and he knew now exactly where all the bombs that had been
showered upon the place had fallen. Here was the corner of blackened walls and
roasted beams where three wounded horses had been burnt alive in a barn, here
the row of houses, some smashed, some almost intact, where a mutilated child had
screamed for two hours before she could be rescued from the debris that had
pinned her down, and taken to the hospital. Everywhere by the dim light of the
shaded street lamps he could see the black holes and gaps of broken windows;
sometimes abundant, sometimes rare and exceptional, among otherwise uninjured
dwellings. Many of the victims he had visited in the little cottage hospital
where Aunt Wilshire had just died. She was the eleventh dead. Altogether
fifty-seven people had been killed or injured in this brilliant German action.
They were all civilians, and only twelve were men.
Two Zeppelins had come in from over the sea, and had been fired at by an
anti-aircraft gun coming on an automobile from Ipswich. The first intimation the
people of the town had had of the raid was the report of this gun. Many had run
out to see what was happening. It was doubtful if any one had really seen the
Zeppelins, though every one testified to the sound of their engines. Then
suddenly the bombs had come streaming down. Only six had
made hits upon houses or people; the rest had fallen ruinously and very close
together on the local golf links, and at least half had not exploded at all and
did not seem to have been released to explode.
A third at least of the injured people had been in bed when destruction came
The story was like a page from some fantastic romance of Jules Verne's; the
peace of the little old town, the people going to bed, the quiet streets, the
quiet starry sky, and then for ten minutes an uproar of guns and shells, a
clatter of breaking glass, and then a fire here, a fire there, a child's voice
pitched high by pain and terror, scared people going to and fro with lanterns,
and the sky empty again, the raiders gone....
Five minutes before, Aunt Wilshire had been sitting in the boarding-house
drawing-room playing a great stern "Patience," the Emperor Patience ("Napoleon,
my dear!—not that Potsdam creature") that took hours to do. Five minutes later
she was a thing of elemental terror and agony, bleeding wounds and shattered
bones, plunging about in the darkness amidst a heap of wreckage. And already the
German airmen were buzzing away to sea again, proud of themselves, pleased no
doubt—like boys who have thrown a stone through a window, beating their way back
to thanks and rewards, to iron crosses and the proud embraces of delighted Fraus
For the first time it seemed to Mr. Britling he really saw the immediate
horror of war, the dense cruel stupidity of the business, plain and close. It
was as if he had never perceived anything of the sort before, as if he had been
dealing with stories, pictures, shows and representations that he knew to be
shams. But that this dear, absurd old creature, this thing of home, this being
of familiar humours and familiar irritations, should be torn to pieces, left in
torment like a smashed mouse over which an automobile has passed, brought the
whole business to a raw and quivering focus. Not a soul
among all those who had been rent and torn and tortured in this agony of
millions, but was to any one who understood and had been near to it, in some way
lovable, in some way laughable, in some way worthy of respect and care. Poor
Aunt Wilshire was but the sample thrust in his face of all this mangled
multitude, whose green-white lips had sweated in anguish, whose broken bones had
thrust raggedly through red dripping flesh.... The detested features of the
German Crown Prince jerked into the centre of Mr. Britling's picture. The young
man stood in his dapper uniform and grinned under his long nose, carrying
himself jauntily, proud of his extreme importance to so many lives....
And for a while Mr. Britling could do nothing but rage.
"Devils they are!" he cried to the stars.
"Devils! Devilish fools rather. Cruel blockheads. Apes with all science in
their hands! My God! but we will teach them a lesson yet!..."
That was the key of his mood for an hour of aimless wandering, wandering that
was only checked at last by a sentinel who turned him back towards the
He wandered, muttering. He found great comfort in scheming vindictive
destruction for countless Germans. He dreamt of swift armoured aeroplanes
swooping down upon the flying airship, and sending it reeling earthward, the men
screaming. He imagined a shattered Zeppelin staggering earthward in the fields
behind the Dower House, and how he would himself run out with a spade and smite
the Germans down. "Quarter indeed! Kamerad! Take that, you foul
In the dim light the sentinel saw the retreating figure of Mr. Britling make
an extravagant gesture, and wondered what it might mean. Signalling? What ought
an intelligent sentry to do? Let fly at him? Arrest him?... Take no
Mr. Britling was at that moment killing Count Zeppelin and beating out his
brains. Count Zeppelin was killed that night and the German
Emperor was assassinated; a score of lesser victims were offered up to the
manes of Aunt Wilshire; there were memorable cruelties before the wrath
and bitterness of Mr. Britling was appeased. And then suddenly he had had enough
of these thoughts; they were thrust aside, they vanished out of his
All the while that Mr. Britling had been indulging in these imaginative
slaughterings and spending the tears and hate that had gathered in his heart,
his reason had been sitting apart and above the storm, like the sun waiting
above thunder, like a wise nurse watching and patient above the wild passions of
a child. And all the time his reason had been maintaining silently and firmly,
without shouting, without speech, that the men who had made this hour were
indeed not devils, were no more devils than Mr. Britling was a devil, but sinful
men of like nature with himself, hard, stupid, caught in the same web of
circumstance. "Kill them in your passion if you will," said reason, "but
understand. This thing was done neither by devils nor fools, but by a conspiracy
of foolish motives, by the weak acquiescences of the clever, by a crime that was
no man's crime but the natural necessary outcome of the ineffectiveness, the
blind motives and muddleheadedness of all mankind."
So reason maintained her thesis, like a light above the head of Mr. Britling
at which he would not look, while he hewed airmen to quivering rags with a spade
that he had sharpened, and stifled German princes with their own poison gas,
given slowly and as painfully as possible. "And what of the towns our
ships have bombarded?" asked reason unheeded. "What of those Tasmanians
our people utterly swept away?"
"What of French machine-guns in the Atlas?" reason pressed the case. "Of
Himalayan villages burning? Of the things we did in China?
Especially of the things we did in China...."
Mr. Britling gave no heed to that.
"The Germans in China were worse than we were," he threw out....
He was maddened by the thought of the Zeppelin making off, high and far in
the sky, a thing dwindling to nothing among the stars, and the thought of those
murderers escaping him. Time after time he stood still and shook his fist at
Boötes, slowly sweeping up the sky....
And at last, sick and wretched, he sat down on a seat upon the deserted
parade under the stars, close to the soughing of the invisible sea below....
His mind drifted back once more to those ancient heresies of the Gnostics and
the Manichæans which saw the God of the World as altogether evil, which sought
only to escape by the utmost abstinences and evasions and perversions from the
black wickedness of being. For a while his soul sank down into the uncongenial
darknesses of these creeds of despair. "I who have loved life," he murmured, and
could have believed for a time that he wished he had never had a son....
Is the whole scheme of nature evil? Is life in its essence cruel? Is man
stretched quivering upon the table of the eternal vivisector for no end—and
These were thoughts that Mr. Britling had never faced before the war. They
came to him now, and they came only to be rejected by the inherent quality of
his mind. For weeks, consciously and subconsciously, his mind had been grappling
with this riddle. He had thought of it during his lonely prowlings as a special
constable; it had flung itself in monstrous symbols across the dark canvas of
his dreams. "Is there indeed a devil of pure cruelty? Does any creature, even
the very cruellest of creatures, really apprehend the pain it causes, or inflict
it for the sake of the infliction?" He summoned a score of memories, a score of
imaginations, to bear their witness before the tribunal of
his mind. He forgot cold and loneliness in this speculation. He sat, trying all
Being, on this score, under the cold indifferent stars.
He thought of certain instances of boyish cruelty that had horrified him in
his own boyhood, and it was clear to him that indeed it was not cruelty, it was
curiosity, dense textured, thick skinned, so that it could not feel even the
anguish of a blinded cat. Those boys who had wrung his childish soul to nigh
intolerable misery, had not indeed been tormenting so much as observing torment,
testing life as wantonly as one breaks thin ice in the early days of winter. In
very much cruelty the real motive is surely no worse than that obtuse curiosity;
a mere step of understanding, a mere quickening of the nerves and mind, makes it
impossible. But that is not true of all or most cruelty. Most cruelty has
something else in it, something more than the clumsy plunging into experience of
the hobbledehoy; it is vindictive or indignant; it is never tranquil and
sensuous; it draws its incentive, however crippled and monstrous the
justification may be, from something punitive in man's instinct, something
therefore that implies a sense, however misguided, of righteousness and
vindication. That factor is present even in spite; when some vile or atrocious
thing is done out of envy or malice, that envy and malice has in it
always—always? Yes, always—a genuine condemnation of the hated thing as
an unrighteous thing, as an unjust usurpation, as an inexcusable privilege, as a
sinful overconfidence. Those men in the airship?—he was coming to that. He found
himself asking himself whether it was possible for a human being to do any cruel
act without an excuse—or, at least, without the feeling of excusability. And in
the case of these Germans and the outrages they had committed and the
retaliations they had provoked, he perceived that always there was the element
of a perceptible if inadequate justification. Just as there would be if
presently he were to maltreat a fallen German airman. There
was anger in their vileness. These Germans were an unsubtle people, a people in
the worst and best sense of the words, plain and honest; they were prone to
moral indignation; and moral indignation is the mother of most of the cruelty in
the world. They perceived the indolence of the English and Russians, they
perceived their disregard of science and system, they could not perceive the
longer reach of these greater races, and it seemed to them that the mission of
Germany was to chastise and correct this laxity. Surely, they had argued, God
was not on the side of those who kept an untilled field. So they had butchered
these old ladies and slaughtered these children just to show us the
"All along of dirtiness, all along of mess,
All along of doing things rather more or less."
The very justification our English poet has found for a thousand overbearing
actions in the East! "Forget not order and the real," that was the underlying
message of bomb and gas and submarine. After all, what right had we English
not to have a gun or an aeroplane fit to bring down that Zeppelin
ignominiously and conclusively? Had we not undertaken Empire? Were we not the
leaders of great nations? Had we indeed much right to complain if our imperial
pose was flouted? "There, at least," said Mr. Britling's reason, "is one of the
lines of thought that brought that unseen cruelty out of the night high over the
houses of Filmington-on-Sea. That, in a sense, is the cause of this killing.
Cruel it is and abominable, yes, but is it altogether cruel? Hasn't it, after
all, a sort of stupid rightness?—isn't it a stupid reaction to an indolence at
least equally stupid?"
What was this rightness that lurked below cruelty? What was the inspiration
of this pressure of spite, this anger that was aroused by ineffective gentleness
and kindliness? Was it indeed an altogether evil thing; was it not rather an
impulse, blind as yet, but in its ultimate quality as
good as mercy, greater perhaps in its ultimate values than mercy?
This idea had been gathering in Mr. Britling's mind for many weeks; it had
been growing and taking shape as he wrote, making experimental beginnings for
his essay, "The Anatomy of Hate." Is there not, he now asked himself plainly, a
creative and corrective impulse behind all hate? Is not this malignity indeed
only the ape-like precursor of the great disciplines of a creative state?
The invincible hopefulness of his sanguine temperament had now got Mr.
Britling well out of the pessimistic pit again. Already he had been on the verge
of his phrase while wandering across the rushy fields towards Market Saffron;
now it came to him again like a legitimate monarch returning from exile.
"When hate shall have become creative energy....
"Hate which passes into creative power; gentleness which is indolence and the
herald of euthanasia....
"Pity is but a passing grace; for mankind will not always be pitiful."
But meanwhile, meanwhile.... How long were men so to mingle wrong with right,
to be energetic without mercy and kindly without energy?...
For a time Mr. Britling sat on the lonely parade under the stars and in the
sound of the sea, brooding upon these ideas.
His mind could make no further steps. It had worked for its spell. His rage
had ebbed away now altogether. His despair was no longer infinite. But the world
was dark and dreadful still. It seemed none the less dark because at the end
there was a gleam of light. It was a gleam of light far beyond the limits of his
own life, far beyond the life of his son. It had no balm for these sufferings.
Between it and himself stretched the weary generations still to come,
generations of bickering and accusation, greed and faintheartedness, and half
truth and the hasty blow. And all those years would be full
of pitiful things, such pitiful things as the blackened ruins in the town
behind, the little grey-faced corpses, the lives torn and wasted, the hopes
extinguished and the gladness gone....
He was no longer thinking of the Germans as diabolical. They were human; they
had a case. It was a stupid case, but our case, too, was a stupid case. How
stupid were all our cases! What was it we missed? Something, he felt, very close
to us, and very elusive. Something that would resolve a hundred tangled
His mind hung at that. Back upon his consciousness came crowding the horrors
and desolations that had been his daily food now for three quarters of a year.
He groaned aloud. He struggled against that renewed envelopment of his spirit.
"Oh, blood-stained fools!" he cried, "oh, pitiful, tormented fools!
"Even that vile airship was a ship of fools!
"We are all fools still. Striving apes, irritated beyond measure by our own
striving, easily moved to anger."
Some train of subconscious suggestion brought a long-forgotten speech back
into Mr. Britling's mind, a speech that is full of that light which still seeks
so mysteriously and indefatigably to break through the darkness and thickness of
the human mind.
He whispered the words. No unfamiliar words could have had the same effect of
comfort and conviction.
He whispered it of those men whom he still imagined flying far away there
eastward, through the clear freezing air beneath the stars, those muffled
sailors and engineers who had caused so much pain and agony in this little
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."