Authors: John Masters
To the victims of the Great War,
among whom were
As the arc of noon passes over the Urals its high sun pours down on a continent aflame from end to end with a war that has been raging out of control for seventeen months. It begins, officially, over the murder of an Austrian Archduke by a Serbian schoolboy, but that event, and the increasingly violent emotional reactions of the powers of Europe, are no more than the opportunities given to wills eager to strike. The rich, long-settled world of Europe is bleeding to death, dying in the ruins of its own chÃ¢teaux, suffocating in the churned mud of its own vineyards. A narrow belt of yellow slime â the trenches â snakes from the English Channel to Switzerland, and beyond the Alps, begins again and crawls across northern Italy. The corpses are rotting in the Polish marshes, on the Rumanian plains, the beaches of Gallipoli, the burning banks of Nile and Euphrates, in the rain forests of Africa. At sea, especially off the coasts of Europe, no ship is safe from the German submarines, for Germany, faced with the overpowering surface fleets of England and its allies, is waging war from under the water.
Only one country in the world has had experience of war on so vast a scale and, as it is turning out, of so long duration; and that country is not a combatant â the United States, fifty-one years after its Civil War. The Americans are a troubled people. Though their commerce is being harassed by the British blockade, they are becoming rich producing war goods for the British side, which, alone, can transport them across the Atlantic. President Wilson, with one year in office remaining of his first term, strives to keep that nation out of the war, which is manifestly becoming more bloody than any in history.
England has taken part in no European War since the Crimean War of the 1850s; and before that, the Napoleonic Wars. The nation is mentally quite unprepared for the
casualties: 80,174 killed and died of wounds in the first seventeen months â 331,719 missing, prisoners, and wounded; all this on the Western Front alone (31,097 British died in the Crimean War, which lasted more than two years: of these, over half died of disease). For England 1915 has been a disappointing year. So much is expected of the offensives at Loos and Gallipoli, so little is achieved. A change of mood cuts deep into the hearts of the people. No one now recites Rupert Brooke's passionate lines:
Now God be thanked, Who has matched us with His hour, And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping
No more cries are heard of
On to Berlin! Berlin or Bust! Home by Christmas!
The war is not fun, but it has to be won. The Regular Army dies at First Ypres, late in 1914; the volunteer army bult on its cadres dies at Loos, late in 1915. For the first time in a thousand years military conscription looms over Britain. The war will continue, a presence in every act of living â shopping, fishing, selling goods, electioneering, even reading the newspaper, or celebrating a wedding â¦
Walstone, Kent: Friday, February 4, 1916
THE DATE OF COMPULSION
At a meeting of the Privy Council yesterday, his Majesty the King signed a Proclamation fixing February 10 as the date upon which the Military Service Act shall come into operation. In a supplement to the London Gazette last night, the
Christopher Cate, gentleman, titular squire of Walstone in the County of Kent, read the piece again with a puzzled frown. The Act was to come into operation on February 10th, but the headline stated that March 2nd was the date of compulsion? Ah, of course, the Act had allowed for a three-week period before anyone was actually conscripted, and that would bring it to March 2nd.
He looked out of the window. Low clouds hid the setting sun, and a cold wind, threatening sleet or snow, stirred the bare trees and rustled the hedge beyond the lawn â¦ not a good prospect for his daughter Stella's wedding tomorrow. She was upstairs now, with her aunt Fiona, and Garrod the maid. Fiona, his sister-in-law, was acting as hostess and âmother of the bride,' since Stella's own mother, his wife, had deserted them all for Ireland and the cause of Irish Independence, a year ago. It would be a happy occasion nonetheless, with his tenants and their wives present in the old Saxon church, and all the other villagers; and the staff of the Manor here; and Laurence â his only son, as Stella was his only daughter; and Stephen and Betty Merritt, the father and sister of Stella's groom, from America; his own father and mother-in-law â¦ It would be wonderful to see the marriage of such a good-looking young couple, his Stella and Johnny Merritt, with so happy and prosperous a life ahead of them, if â¦
He flung the paper down.
â¦ if the war did not devour them and that happiness, as it had so many others'. There would be gaiety and laughter at the wedding, all right, but he for one would not be able to erase from his mind, in the midst of his happiness for his daughter, the faces of those who were not present â¦ Fiona's husband, his brother-in-law Quentin Rowland; and his nephew Boy Rowland â both somewhere in France with the Weald Light Infantry; his own brother Oswald, died of wounds received with the Rifle Brigade at Neuve Chapelle last March; another brother-in-law, Tom Rowland, at sea in all weathers, enforcing the blockade of Germany; young Sam Mayhew, one of his tenants' sons, died of wounds the same day as Oswald; and Lord Swanwick's younger son, Arthur Durand-Beaulieu, killed with the Guards at Loos in September â¦ Oh, there'd be a wedding tomorrow, for life would go on, and love could not be killed. But there would be few in the old church who would not see writ clear before them, not the words of the service, but that stark headline:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of
God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly
âSoberly,' Johnny Merritt repeated silently to himself. He was not quite sober, but he had seen bridegrooms in much worse state after the farewell bachelor party of the night before. It might have been worse if Guy Rowland had been at home, but he was at Upavon, flying, and could not get leave; so the party had been relatively small and subdued â just his father, Overfeld, Morgan, Ginger Keble-Palmer, David Toledano, and himself. Overfeld the production expert and Morgan the plant foreman at the Jupiter Motor Company were not the sort of people who would normally have been invited to such an occasion, but they were good company and fellow Americans. He had never met David Toledano before, but he had been a school friend of Guy's, and it was his family's bank that had provided the English capital to match the American capital provided by his own father to found both the Jupiter Motor Company and the new Hedlington Aircraft Company. Besides, there was no one else. The other young Englishmen he had met in his year here, and who might have helped him bid farewell to bachelordom, were in the trenches across the Channel â¦ or under that earth. He gritted his teeth. The sense of shame could not be exorcised, however hard he worked, however often Overfeld or his father told him he was more use to the war effort here than over there. How much longer could he stand it, face himself every morning in the mirror?
Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body
âFornication,' Stella Cate thought, head bowed and eyes downcast behind the thin veil. She had committed fornication, and knew that she would have done it again, if she had remained unmarried. No one knew it, except Probyn's Woman, somewhere in the back of the church with Probyn, Fletcher, Florinda, and Willum. All of them, except Willum, knew, for the Woman and Florinda had got rid of the fruit of that fornication. Betty Merritt, her groom's sister, suspected, Stella thought; not the specific fact of her night with Captain Irwin a year ago; but that she had somewhere, somehow, eaten of the fruit. Betty was not unfriendly â the opposite, in fact â but there was a look in her eye that said, âYou know what I do not know.'
She lifted her head instinctively, for she had heard a strange sound, a rhythmic thudding, a subdued creaking, the deep hum or murmur of men's voices. It was outside the church, in the village street. But what was it? Unwillingly, she bowed her head again. She'd have liked to run out and see what it was.
I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it
Stella's uncle, John Rowland, standing a little stooped in the second row of pews on the right, wished his wife Louise could have been here, as she had dearly wanted to be; but she was attending a course in Wiltshire, being run under the auspices of the British Friesian Society, on ways of keeping Friesian cattle healthy, increasing milk production and improving the breed while importing only a minimum of champion bulls from Holland. Those bulls cost money â foreign exchange, which the country needed to buy shells and steel and beef and wheat and â¦ if it needed to go on fighting the ghastly war at all. Whatever the original rights and wrongs, it was surely time that the slaughter, and the plague of hatred, were stemmed â¦ when Louise came back he must talk with her about buying some more heifers â¦ Stella looked almost ethereally lovely, in spite of the simple daytime dress and short veil she was wearing â perhaps because of them. Christopher Cate had wanted to avoid waste and ostentation when he had decreed a simple
wedding, and simple clothes for his daughter; but the effect had been to enhance Stella's classic English rose-petal colouring and complexion. Louise would have been weeping happily long since, of course â¦ Johnny Merritt was a fine-looking young man, and his father a tall and distinguished figure beside him, as best man. These Americans crossed the Atlantic, even in wartime, with no more thought than he'd give a trip to London. A son's wedding would be ample justification for anyone, of course; and in Stephen Merritt's case there were also the affairs of the motor and aircraft companies to be looked into. Mr Merritt's fellow directors in the bank in New York would expect him to give those very careful study; after all they must have a great deal of money invested in them â¦ The daughter, Johnny's sister, was a good-looking girl, too, just over medium height, lithe and athletic in her movements â¦ He cocked his head. He heard a steady tramp tramp tramp outside â¦ singing, or rather humming, what was that tune? Ah, the one with bawdy words,
Mademoiselle from ArmentiÃ¨res
â¦ a soldiers' song. There must be troops marching through Walstone on manoeuvres. A barked command confirmed it. He frowned and sighed: even here, he thought, even now â¦