“Why is the atmosphere of life more cheerful nearer to all the horrors and ugliness of modern war than it is behind?”

Ralph Glyn had political ambitions, and the College constituency in Glasgow was being nursed for him. He had narrowly lost the 1910 election to a Liberal (he was a Conservative/Unionist). While serving in the army he delivered a lengthy statement to those he viewed as future constituents. Unfortunately for him and all his work, the constituency was abolished before the 1918 election. The paper itself, however, is an interesting insight into the views of an intelligent officer into attitudes at home and at the front.

GHQ
MEF
November 1915

I have been asked by one or two friends in the College Division to write a letter that may be a link between so many old friends of those former days, when Peace was not understood, and myself. To do this as I would wish by personal letter my work here will not allow. I must ask everyone who reads these lines to believe how sincere are my wishes for as happy a New Year as these days permits to be theirs.

I write these lines because I have always been open with my friends in Glasgow, and I believe you will all understand how it is impossible to write “news”.

There are many who have been all the time in France, or in Gallipoli, whilst some have been in both theatres of operations; but there are few officers now who have not spent some time at home, either wounded, or on leave or duty, and so it is possible to take a comprehensive survey of men, matters and means.

The newspapers are the only medium between the Public and events that happen behind the veil of the censor. Letters from friends and relations pass from the Front to those at home producing for a period a clear gleam of light – sometimes too vivid – of what is fact and reality at one small point of that vague term “The Front”. The days are shortening, the winter with all its horrors is close upon us and we are all well aware that if only something could be lifted the Future would be brighter and more easy to face. To arrive at any satisfactory conclusion we must try and see things as they are – undisguised but very possibly naked and ashamed. No time should be lost in establishing both at “the front” and at “the back” a “New Feeling” based upon the firm belief that at last true bearings have been taken, the clouds have lifted and the sun seen long enough to enable the exact position of the ship to be located, and that each and all having but the one port open to them are determined, in spite of all stress of weather, to reach their destination without undue delay.

Why is the atmosphere of life more cheerful nearer to all the horrors and ugliness of modern war than it is behind? There is nothing in any trench in France or Gallipoli to equal the gloom of many a house at home. The individual man is happy when he knows he is doing “his bit” and has that feeling down his back of something worthy of accomplishment being well done. But this same feeling should animate those miners, munition-workers, ship-builders and all that other host at home, whose work is as vital to the war’s success as any gallant action in the trenches. Why is there this feeling of unrest and mistrust in so many quarters? “Out here”, be it in France or Gallipoli, this war acts in one way all the time and without variation. The Regular Army has almost ceased to exist as it was before the war. Officers and men have fallen and others have taken their place. The tradition of a great regiment holds all the new comers in its sway and the magic mantle of “esprit de corps” stirs through the new blood of the recruit, officer and man, tempering and making him part of the original stock. The Reserve ceased to exist when war began; because by our system the fighting force of the country, Regular and Reserve, were and are one and indivisible. Any gunner will tell you that had it not been for the “dug out” the new armies could not have been born. The “dug out” has much to bear from the gibes of younger men who too often assume that all “dug outs” must be musty and old, stupid and out of date, but he can console himself with the knowledge that without him the Regular serving soldiers could not have kept the machine running.

What is true of the officer is true of the man. The Army drew back to her ranks the reservists from all the world over. Many left good positions to take up their places where the Service knew them before – decent, orderly soldiers. The stories one hears sometimes of men who could not get their passage home from some distant port; of consuls and British steamship agents who showed willing men the door: and of those who had to borrow – and sometimes steal – the increased passage rates to take them home to fight for love of country. Many a man has shipped as a working hand in cargo ships to get home. And he tells you frankly that his brother in a draper’s shop in Oxford Street thinks him a fool, and himself an honourable man for handing out ribbons rather than walk a few yards to enlist.

The Territorial – having borne the burden and heat of the day in times of peace, found himself, when war broke out, the essential stop-gap of the army. All credit is not given in due proportion to those who cheerfully carry out the orders that condemn them to routine garrison duty in London or other oversea [sic] stations, where there is no glamour and where the daily round and common task furnishes enough for most in peace, and quite too much in war. This work has to be done, and the Territorials have justified their reputation as much by this duty as by the operation that they have carried out in the lime light of France, and the sun of the Dardanelles.

Then the last branch of the Army, as we know it today, is that which the “Junior Sub” has made himself the spokesman and thereby taught the Staff, and many others just what the New Army is, thinks, and does, in a manner that no orthodox reports can hope to do.

So much for the men out here. The conditions under which they all come are the same for all, and the Gentle Huns’ methods are first class levellers. New conditions make new outlooks and this war, if it has done nothing else, has already helped men in one walk of life to appreciate and understand men in any other walk of life – except the slacker. Novelty, excitement, discipline and God’s fresh air have come as a new thing to at least half the men in our ranks. What will they be and do in the future? How will peace affect them? How will those at home receive them? These are the problems – some of them – and already one can hear the men discussing that distant dawn of peace. Surely there must be something wrong with a system that allows these men, who so splendidly daily and nightly risk all for the winning of our cause and the downfall of the Hun, to have any doubt that the Blessings of Peace will be theirs!

What of those at home? Some of us may be inclined to judge rather harshly the coal worker on strike in South Wales, or the engineers of the Clyde who want their “rights” at any one’s expense. What, however, some of us have learnt, is that, to be impatient without first having understanding, is a mistake. We learn that to do the ordinary job in the ordinary way at home down in the pit or in the ship-yard, comes hard to a man. Many feel that their best work is there; many that they must support their families as long as possible, whilst the younger men go first; many that are blamed and given white feathers by young women have tried and failed on medical grounds to enlist, but they must keep silence or by Act of Parliament they may lose their job as well.

Then we fear that suddenly a great change has come over all the labour markets. No man need now look for work, the work seeks him out and employers quarrel over his skill. This is new and pleasant – labour indeed, loves some of the Power that Capital has so long held. What wonder then if the workers in other districts do not take good care that they too should profit by this forced increase. Many employers are certainly not without blame for undoubtedly turning the war to just as much personal gain as any striker – only being fewer in number and his gains being in cash to come the public did not realise the condition of affairs; ten thousand men on strike cannot hide their actions. All of these things we learn and more – much more – which helps us to weigh judgment with mercy.

But it is by coming in hourly contact with the men – who have given up their hammer or their pick for a rifle – the spade and the shovel are universal for all in this war – that teaches us most. There cannot be so much difference between those “out here” and those at home to account for such a different standard in morality that many would have us believe. Cheery, willing, gallant souls, ready at all times to obey to the death, working at pay less than their fellows at home have contrived to attain. And if they do not complain, who should? By this it must not be assumed that often one hears the most severe condemnation in no uncertain voice regarding some of those industrial disputes at home, which the men specify as being altogether outside the legitimate scope of the strike weapon. If we out here have arrived at this juster understanding of labour conditions, is it not possible for those at home also to arrive at a fair conclusion of the whole matter? It is for those at home to so guide the affairs of the country that the long-suffering troops can carry out their mission. The adjustment and control are by cruel fate not in the hands of soldiers and sailors in war time by vested in those who in the flabby days of peace contrived to stir up class against class and to teach the worker that all he desired was desirable indeed. Now that war the leveller has come, it is as hard for the working man to throw away the very policy that politicians have taught him, as it is easy for those out here to recognise that classes are one, and each man but a unit with his own small allotted task, when the shells and bullets bring men face to face with reality to the discomfiture of theory.

It is impossible to put on paper in proper form all that each officer and man must often feel. We all know that great things are being hammered out on the anvil of Fate. We here at any rate know well that nothing can be quite the same to us after the war as it was before. The hardships and sufferings all around, the nameless horrors indulged in by the enemy, the noise and feel of death for ever surrounding our every thought and act have produced a new spirit – a new idea. But since all our future is bound up with that of “home”, it comes to us with a shock how different to ours is the outlook of the men over the water.

There is not a man in the army, no matter where he serves or how, who does not recognise that the severest strain that the war can impose is that which is laid on the shoulders of the women – the good women – at home. Many of the men are fully aware that the Government to gain recruits has promised riches almost unknown to many dependents at home. We all know how many men have without marriage brought money into some woman’s hand. Sometimes love is also a link, but more often the hours comes when the soldier regretfully wishes that his service was of benefit to his mother or sister rather than to one who, he knows, regards him more as a source of wealth than as one to be cared and prayed for. There is, moreover, something in all these months of hideous war that turns all our feelings towards some high ideals. It may not show itself by methods that any “padre” would claim as his own. It is often an unspoken tenderness for women. Letters and talk from the men in the trenches or hospitals often betray unlooked for sentiment and expressions that make the honey in a carcase look small.

And on the other side of the scale, to see men employed in the business of war is to see the ordinary civilised workman of our time transformed into a blood-seeking human, who has no tender regard for his Hun trader, unionist or socialist.

Everything is, indeed, different – except the love of a woman and the certain feeling that there is somewhere beyond and above a God of Mercy and of Love who cannot approve of the doctrine of “frightfulness” nor forget the many crimes that the armies of the Allies are the instrument to avenge. The army, however, believes in itself, it has measured its task, it knows the vileness and the valour of the enemy, but it does not know if all is well behind.
Each man here is not so much an individual with no idea beyond his stomach, his public house, and his power to get – not earn – more waged for his work, but rather one cog in a great big wheel that must crush the evilness of Prussia from the world, if only the steam and oil for that wheel’s movement are honestly supplied by those at home as is their duty.

Every man, soldier, sailor, or of the crew of a transport is subjecting body for the soul. So far it is hard to see clearly that even the leaders of the country at home are sacrificing much.
Parliamentary members receive their salaries but do not seem very successful in doing any useful work. The members of the Cabinet have pooled their income, not to benefit those who are carrying on the work of war, but that those who have failed may at any rate not feel the pinch of poverty. An Admiral or a General with a task ten times more difficult fails, and at once goes on half-pay. Perhaps it is not meet or right that simple soldiers or sailors should understand this. It is to some of us far more easy to understand the difficulties of the working man grasping out to get all he can by his lights when all the world in which he lived and toiled and had his being is rocking and swaying with this world-war.

Both the Services after these months of war have “found themselves”. The feeling is good and sound throughout. Officers and men have been drawn into intimate relationship and close companionship. If this feeling together with the splendid spirit continues until the happy days of peace again come, the country has nothing but good to gain from her sons who return disciplined and schooled by war. Peace by them will be appreciated, loved, and enjoyed to the full, for by war we shall have made ourselves worthy of peace.

The object of this poor attempt to try and express the feelings that are strong in many of us, is in the hope that some of those at home, who are now so much concerned about the progress of affairs, should realise that many of us “out here” are far more concerned, not with the Present, which we know, and the immediate future, which we can gauge, but about the Ultimate Future, and a Peace that many be no peace.

It must be bad for men engaged in the most vital work their country can demand to be looking back over their shoulders to see if the Government are going to help them to return to their labour when peace comes. This is bad and it is growing worse. To hide these things is foolish, but to face them now may bring order again out of what is rapidly becoming chaos.

Has anybody at home any idea of how long an army of very large dimensions will have to be maintained, when Peace, the only form that our honour can accept, is declared? Does any minister now make it his business to explain to the socialist and Trades Unionist at home that after the war the present rates of wages cannot be maintained? How many working men realise that instead of more money after the war there will be much less than before the war?

It may be said that these are matters that should not concern a soldier. That may be the idea of many but it is wrong. What concerns the country concerns the army and the navy because the best of the country is employed now in the Services. It concerns a soldier for another reason also. We all know that without the work of the miner, the artisan, the railway and mercantile marine service our warfare could not continue. What concerns them concerns us. The problem is perhaps that some of them do not see that what concerns us concerns them still more.

Since the beginning of things Great Britain has been proud that business as usual should be the country’s watchword. Lack of organisation has been remedied by gallantry and courage unequalled in war. It is placing a burden on the men that makes the load (heavy enough) almost more than can well be borne. Add to all this the hopeless policy of “Wait and See” if-you-do-get-a-job when Peace comes and you try the high spirits of the men almost too hardly.

The good that this war has done already in raising us all to that plane where the spirit moves the body and the smallness and pettiness of life all vanish into one vast resolve by God’s great mercy so to turn to good account this ordeal by fire that the Freedom may survive and the organized brutality of Prussianism be for ever discredited. All this great good may be sacrificed if the soul of the Nation is not purged and cleansed. This process is far more easy for all who are serving than for those who have to remain at home. We see this process going on with each new army division that takes its place in the line. Who can bring the whole great message home to those left behind? Not the Politician who has been found wanting, and in the past was responsible for the doctrine of body before soul. Not the Press who publish according to politics and the dictates of circulation, which is another term for money. Not the Churches who have, so far at any rate, not succeeded in bringing home to the people that love of country is very near the love of God. Possibly the influence of the women of the country who seem more fully alive to all that war means, and to all that makes this war, more than any other war, a crusade of Right against Wrong. But chiefly this knowledge will come when at home there is established the happy understanding between all classes, all types, all conditions, standing shoulder to shoulder. A little human kindness, a little less ability in everyone to dodge the mote in their own eyes to take notice of the beam in the others. The Church can at any rate stimulate this, and the Press can possibly forego for once in a way one more gloat over some disaster from within.

This war will be won this next year. It can only be won by whole hearted and maintained effort. The strain will be increasingly greater and the future at times will look blacker than ever before. When, however, from behind we see the light of full understanding shining from Great Britain then will the end be in sight. Each man to his task: Soldiers and Sailors in High Places to the business of war. Politicians to the business of making war possible. Employers to the consideration of the country’s business being even more vital than their own: men to do for the work’s sake that which by their skill and labour will hasten the result of the war. Clergy to the thankless mission that at all times is their care but now forgetting the differences of dogma or caste to unite as in face of the very incarnation of Evil in providing all of us British with a faith that triumphs, even over the God of Prussianism. The lamp of faith has lately burnt up in many a soldier’s heart only to die down because the oil his Church supplied was only water.

Women have had their chance in this war and splendidly they have taken it. That influence will never, we must hope, leave those on whom it has fallen. Some men may possibly be brutalised by war – not many of our race – but all women appear to become more lovable, more powerful for good, as war touches them.

So we must leave the matter. Emotions more profound have been stirred during these War Days than possibly ever before. We of this generation have been entrusted with a task more noble and exalted than that permitted to any other. For this we should thank God. But there may be beyond this war days of stress and trial hardly less severe. It is then surely our duty to prepare ourselves by all the grace that is in us, confident n our Cause and steadfast in our endeavour, to emerge better, happier, and more worthy to merit the victory and the Peace that God will surely give us,

Ralph Glyn
Capt. GS

Letter from Ralph Glyn to his future constituents in Glasgow (D/EGL/C44)

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