War came at last in 1940. The particular incident that led to actual warfare in Europe was due to a Polish commercial traveller, a Pole of Jewish origin, who was so ill advised as to have trouble with an ill-fitting dental plate during the halt of his train in Danzig. He seems to have got this plate jammed in such a fashion that he had to open his mouth wide and use both hands to struggle with it, and out of deference to his fellow passengers he turned his face to the window during these efforts at readjustment. He was a black-bearded man with a long and prominent nose, and no doubt the effect of his contortions was unpleasing. Little did he realize that his clumsy hands were to release the dogs of war from the Pyrenees to Siberia.
The primary irritant seems to have been either an orange-pip or a small fragment of walnut.
Unhappily, a young Nazi was standing on the platform outside and construed the unfortunate man’s facial disarrangement into a hostile comment upon his uniform. For many of these youths were of an extreme innate sensibility. The flames of patriotic indignation shot up in his heart. He called up three fellow guards and two policemen—for like the Italian Fascisti these young heroes rarely acted alone—and boarded the train in a swift and exemplary mood. There was a furious altercation, rendered more difficult by the facts that the offending Pole knew little or no German and was still in effect gagged. Two fellow travellers, however, came to his help, others became involved, vociferation gave place to pushing and punching, and the Nazis, outnumbered, were put off the train.
Whereupon the young man who had started all the trouble, exasperated, heated and dishevelled, and seeing that now altogether intolerable Jew still making unsatisfactory passes with his hands and face at the window, drew a revolver and shot him dead. Other weapons flashed into action, and the miniature battle was brought to an end only by the engine-driver drawing his train out of the station. The matter was complicated politically by the fact that the exact status of the Danzig police was still in dispute and that the Nazis had no legal authority upon the Danzig platform.
By itself this distressing incident might have been arranged without the outbreak of a European war. The moribund League of Nations might have been invoked or even the mummified Hague Tribunal galvanized into activity; either institution was still fully capable of dealing with, let us say, a Polish dentist who might have been treated as the culpable party, traced, punished and made the scapegoat of Europe. But that would have needed a certain goodwill on the part of the Powers directly involved, and at that time no such goodwill was forthcoming.
For eight years now the German mind had been working up for a fight over the Corridor, and the rearmament of Germany, overt and secret, had been going on. Both France and Poland had been watching the military recovery of Germany with ever-deepening apprehension, and the military authorities of both countries were urgent that a blow should be struck while they were still disproportionately stronger. Time after time it seemed that the crisis had come, and time after time nothing more than a stock-exchange tornado had occurred. Now the last reasons for patience had disappeared. The tension had risen to a point at which disaster seemed like relief and Europe was free to tear itself to fragments.
Such a situation was the inevitable climax to every “armed peace” in the old belligerent world. At some point there was an irresistible logic in “Strike now before they get too strong”. That had been an underlying motive of primary force in the British readiness to fight in 1914. They were eager to strike before the ever-growing German fleet equalled their own. So they ended an intolerable tension. The Germans had “asked for it”, they said. “Better now than to-morrow.”
Now again Germany has “asked for it” and Poland was leaping to the occasion. The War Offices pressed their bell buttons. The printing machines of Paris, London and New York were still busy with various misstatements about the murdered commercial traveller, while the Polish and German air patrols were in conflict all along the fatal boundary. That dental plate apparently began to feel uncomfortable about one o’clock in the afternoon of Friday, January 4th, 1940. On Saturday, about three o’clock in the afternoon, Michael Koreniovsky, the Polish ace, after a brilliant fight with three antagonists, fell flaming out of the sky into the crowded Langgasse of Danzig and set fire to the Rathaus.
The first Polish air raid on Berlin and the unresisted “demonstration flight” of two hundred French air squadrons in formation over Bavaria and West Prussia followed. The Germans seem to have been taken completely by surprise by this display of immense and immediate preparedness. They had not thought it of the French. But they had the quickness of apprehension to decline an air battle against odds, and the French flew home again. The fighting on the Polish-German frontier continued.
The authorities in Paris were uncertain whether they were disappointed or relieved by the non-resistance of their old enemies. A smashing air victory over Germany would have been very satisfactory and conclusive, but these aeroplanes were also wanted at home to cow the ever-increasing domestic discontent. An indecisive battle—and that was always possible in the air—might have produced serious internal stresses.
For a week of years from the resumption of armament by Germany in 1933, the diplomatic centres of the world had been watching the steady onset of this conflict and had been doing nothing to avert it. Now London, Washington, Madrid and Geneva became hysterically active. There was a mighty running to and fro of ambassadors and foreign ministers. “Delay,” said Geneva; though there had already been twenty years of delay.
“Localize the conflict” was a phrase that leapt into vivid prominence. It found favour not only in the neutral countries, but in Paris and Berlin. In effect “localize the conflict” meant this: it meant that Paris should scrap her engagements to Poland and leave the Poles to make what sort of arrangements they could between Germany and Russia. For Russia now, by an enigmatical silence combined with a prompt mobilization of the Red Army, became almost immediately an important piece in the developing international game.
And Paris had soon very excellent reasons for not pushing a conflict with Berlin to extremities. The first Frenchman to be killed in the New Warfare had been killed already. And he had been killed in the Maritime Alps, shot by the bullet of an Italian patrol.
On Sunday night, January the 6th, while the Polish aeroplanes were dropping gas bombs on Berlin, the Italians were administering the same treatment to Belgrade. At the same time an identical note had been dispatched from Rome to all the Powers giving Italy’s reasons for this decisive blow. It seemed that between Friday evening and Sunday morning there had been a violent recrudescence of Yugo-Slav irreverence. The Fascist agents who had to supply the material for grievance and indignation had in fact overdone their task to the pitch of caricature. On Saturday the entire Italian population found itself roused from its normal preoccupation with its daily budget by the terrible intelligence of Mussolini everywhere made bibulous and ophthalmious with red paint, of Venetian lions coloured as indelicately as baboons and of shamefully overdecorated Roman eagles. Eloquent and dishevelled young Fascists, often in tears, protested at every street corner against these intolerable indignities and called for war. The cup of Yugo-Slav iniquity was full. It was only in later years that astounded students, tracing these outrages to their sources, realized how excessively that cup had been filled to justify the Fascist invasion.
Once the Polish and Italian forces had crossed their boundaries the other states of Eastern Europe did not wait even to produce an insult before launching their offensives. The whole crazy patchwork of Versailles dissolved into fighting—the joyless, frantic fighting of peoples full of hate and fear, led blindly to no ends that anyone could foresee. For two straining years the theory of localizing the conflict held Russia and France out of the fight. A “formula” was found by which France undertook not to intervene on the side of her erstwhile allies, on the understanding that Russia by way of compensation also refrained from any action against them. Moreover, the trade in munitions was to be carried on “impartially”. It was a flimsy formula to justify a diplomatic default, but it kept warfare away from the Western front of Germany for two distressful years. The persistent shooting by Italians over the French boundary was difficult to explain away, and indeed it was not so much explained away as quietly disregarded. The air fleets of France paraded at intervals, to the increasing irritation of all her immediate neighbours, but on the whole as a restraining influence. The demonstration chilled the foreigner and assuaged the hotheads at home.
From the outset there was far less enthusiasm for this “localized” European war of 1940 than had been displayed by the populations of the belligerent countries in 1914. What enthusiasm was displayed was confined to the inexperienced young of the middle and upper classes, the youth of the Fascisti, Nazi, “public schoolboy” and scoutmaster type. They went about, shouting and urgent, in a heavy, sullen and apprehensive atmosphere. No nation “leapt to arms”. The common soldiers deserted and “fell out” incessantly, and these shirkers were difficult to punish, since the “deserter mentality” was so widespread, more particularly in the peasant armies of Eastern Europe, that it was impossible to shoot offenders. One Posen battalion went into battle near Lodz with thirty-nine officers and fifty-seven men.
From the first “economies” marched with the troops. From the first there was a threadbare needy quality about the struggle. General orders insisted upon “a restrained use of ammunition”.
The actual fighting was, however, on a much higher level, mechanically and scientifically, than the Japanese war in China. The military authorities had good roads, automobiles, camions, railways, rolling stock, electrical material, guns of all sorts, and great air forces available. Behind the fronts were chemical and other munition factories in good working order. If there were no longer infantry battles there were some brilliant conflicts of technicians. The prompt cutting off of East Prussia from any help from main Germany by the Permanent Death Gas was an operation far above the technical level of any Eastern operations. It was strategically silly but technically very successful.
The first offensive against Berlin was also planned with modern equipment and the maximum of contemporary military science. It was to be another “blow at the heart”, and the Polish general staff relied upon it as firmly as the Germans in 1914 had relied upon their march on Paris. Unfortunately for the Poles, it had been necessary to consult a number of “experts” in preparing this advance; there were leakages through France, through the Czech and Swedish munition makers, through Russia, and through domestic treason, and the broad outline of the plan was as well known and understood in Berlin as it was in Warsaw. The great gas raid on Berlin was indeed terrifying and devastating, but the rush of tanks, great caterpillar guns and troops in motor transport was held and checked within sixty miles of the German capital by an ingenious system of poison-gas barriers—chiefly Lewisite and Blue Cross—wired mines and “slime pits” of a novel type in the roads and open fields. A cavalry raid to the north between Berlin and the sea failed disastrously amidst wire, gas and machine-guns; nearly forty thousand men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Moreover, there had been mistakes in the manufacture of the gas masks worn by the Polish troops, and several brigades gave way to the persuasion that they had been sold and betrayed. The main Polish masses never came into actual contact with the German troops, and only their great numerical superiority in aeroplanes saved their repulse from becoming a rout.
The Polish armies rallied and, according to the secondary plan prepared for any such failure, extended themselves and dug themselves in along a line between Stettin and the Bohemian frontier. Behind the barrier they began a systematic reduction of Silesia. Every night an air battle raged over both Berlin and Warsaw. It was often an indecisive battle. The Poles had the numerical superiority, but the German machines were more efficient and better handled. But the Poles had far more of the new aerial torpedoes—which could go to an assigned spot two hundred miles away, drop a large bomb and return—than their adversaries.
Bohemia, like France, had mobilized but did not immediately enter the war. The Czecho-Slovak armies remained in their mountain quadrilateral or lined out along the Hungarian front, awaiting the next turn in the game. Austria also remained excited but neutral.
The Southern war opened brilliantly for the Italians, and for some weeks it went on without any formal connexion with the Polish conflict. Bulgaria, Albania and Hungary also declared war upon Yugo-Slavia, the Italian air forces “darkened the sky”, and few of the towns in Croatia and Serbia escaped an aerial bombardment. The Italian fleet set itself to capture the ports and islands of Dalmatia. But the advance of the Italian troops into the hills of Slavonia and Croatia was not as rapid as had been expected. Six weeks passed before they were able to fight their way to Zagreb.
The country was a difficult one, ill adapted to the use of gas or mechanism, there was no central point at which a decisive blow could be struck, and the population had a long tradition of mountain warfare. It did not affect these sturdy peasants whether the townsmen were bombed or not. They never gave battle; they never exposed themselves in masses, but their bullets flew by day and night into the Italian encampments. Many of them went to and fro between their fields and the front. Munitions poured in for them through Roumania, which, with a big Red Army on its Bessarabian frontier and its own peasants recalcitrant, remained also ambiguously, dangerously, and yet for a time profitably, out of the struggle. The Hungarians crossed the Yugo-Slav frontier and threatened Belgrade, but the mass of their forces faced towards Czecho-Slovakia and awaited further events.
A curious pause in the fighting occurred at the end of the year. The frantic efforts of Prague, London and Paris to call a halt were temporarily successful. The invaders of Germany and Yugo-Slavia remained upon enemy territory, but neutral zones were improvised and there was a cessation of hostilities. An eleventh-hour attempt was made to stop the war by negotiation and keep the two conflicts from coalescence. There were weeks during which this seemed possible. Both Germany and Poland were of two minds about continuing the war now that the Polish advance was held, and Italy hoped to be left in possession of Dalmatia without an irksome campaign of further conquest. It was as if the spirit of civilization had once more come near to awakening from its hallucinations and had asked, “Why on earth is this happening to us?”
The British Cabinet thought the occasion opportune for a conference at Vevey to revise the Treaty of Versailles “finally”. The pacific speeches of Duff-Cooper, Hore-Belisha, Ellen Wilkinson and Randolph Churchill echoed throughout Europe and were brilliantly supported by Benito Caruso and Corliss Lamont in America. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Non-conformist Churches, the President of the Swiss Republic and the able and venerable President Benes swelled the chorus of remonstrance. France, which had been growing steadily more pacificist after her social conflicts in 1934-35, found able spokesmen in Louchère and Chavanne. Once again we are reminded of the impulses of Henry Ford and Wilson. Once again the concept of a World Pax flickered in the human imagination and vanished. This time it was a fuller, more explicit and more unanimous chorus than that which had cried aloud in 1916-17. Yet at the time it was hardly more effective. Vevey prolonged the truce throughout 1941 until June, but it could settle nothing. The military authorities, having had a breathing-time, became impatient. With a mutually destructive malice the fighting was resumed “before the harvest could be gathered”.
Vevey failed because the constructive conception of the Modern State had no representative there. It was just another gathering of national diplomatists who professed to seek peace, and yet who set about the business with all those antiquated assumptions of sovereignty that were bound to lead to a revival of the conflict. The fantasy of some “balance of power” was as near as they ever came to a peace idea. Such a balance was bound to sway from year to year and from day to day. Whatever the common people and men of intelligence were thinking, the experts now wanted to see the war fought to a finish. “The Germans hadn’t been beaten enough” was all too acceptable to the munition dealers and the Press in France and Scandinavia. “The Italians have their hands full in Yugo- Slavia.”
The British and Americans, who hoped to keep out of the conflict to the end, had experienced an exhilarating revival of exports and found their bills against the belligerents mounting very hopefully. Once more Tyneside echoed to hammering; steel, iron and chemical shares boomed and the iron and steel industry, like some mangy, toothless old tiger, roused itself for the only quarry it had now the vigour to pursue—man-eating. It had long ceased to dream of new liners or bridges or railways or steel-framed houses. But it could still make guns and kill. It could not look far enough ahead to reckon whether at last there would be any meat on the man’s bones. The only countries that really wanted peace, enduring peace, were Czecho-Slovakia and Austria, which stretched out between the two combatant systems and had possible enemy frontiers on every hand. The human will for peace as it found expression at Vevey was still a tangled and ineffective will.
The fighting revived almost simultaneously in the Polish Ukraine, where the peasants had revolted and were evidently fighting with Soviet officers and equipment, and in a vigorous surprise attack upon the Polish lines to free the German soil from the invader. The Germans had been working night and day during the truce to equalize conditions in the air; they produced new and swifter aeroplanes and a particularly effective machine-gun, and for some weeks there was such aerial fighting as was never seen before or since.
Gradually the Germans established a sufficient ascendancy to bring their bombers and gas into play. Lodz and Warsaw were terrorized and the civilian population evacuated and the Polish line broken so as to restore communications with Silesia. And then the conflict broadened. Lithuania, evidently with Russian encouragement, seized her old city of Wilna, and Austria linked the Northern and the Southern struggle by entering both wars as the ally of Germany and Italy. Germany declared her final union with Austria. Very swiftly now the remaining European states followed one another into the cauldron. Hungary attacked Eastern Czecho-Slovakia without a declaration of war “to restore her legitimate boundaries”, and brought the army frameworks of Roumania into the field against her. Thereupon Russia announced the impossibility of maintaining her understanding with France in the face of these events, and the Red Army advanced on Lemberg. Macedonia was already a seething mass of fighting, village against village; Bulgaria entered the “South Slav” alliance and assailed Albania, and Greece seized Rhodes, which had been up to that time held by Italy.
So France saw her ancient policy of “security”, of setting state to balance state and allying herself with a countervailing state at the back of every antagonistic neighbour, work out to its necessary conclusion. Gladly would her business men and her peoples now have rested behind her immensely fortified frontiers and shared the profits of neutrality and munition-selling with the British and Americans, but her engagements were too binding. After one last ambiguous attempt on the part of London, Washington and Geneva to avert the disaster, France declared war against the Central European alliance in 1943.
On the face of it the new war resembled the World War of 1914-18. It seemed to be an attempt to reverse or confirm the Versailles settlement. It had an air of being the same sort of siege of Central Europe. But now Italy was in close alliance with the Teutonic powers; Belgium, in a state of extreme industrial distress, was out of the war; Britain stood aloof; and in the place of her former Allies France had to help—rather than be helped—by the band of states from the Corridor to the Black Sea and the Balkans which the Quai d’Orsay had toiled so painfully to knit into an anti-German alliance.
Russia, however, was a doubtful ally of the Central Powers; she was not operating in concert with them; she was simply supporting the new Soviet republics in Eastern Poland and Bessarabia. There the Red Army halted. The old enthusiasm for a World Revolution had faded out of the Russian imagination. Marxism had become so Russianized that it feared now to take in too large a contingent of Western adherents. The Kremlin was content to consolidate the kindred Slav Soviets and then rest. Japan and China and the American continent remained out of the mêlée, concentrated on their own social difficulties.
It would be possible for a superficial student to regard all this merely as a rearrangement of the familiar counters of sovereign state politics. But, in reality, the forces in collision were profoundly different. France, in spite of her internal social stresses, was still a capitalist community of the Nineteenth Century type, with democratic parliamentary forms and irresponsible finance and industrialism. Save for the teaching of a sentimental patriotism, her young people were mentally unorganized. Her allies were peasant states with governments of the royal or parliamentary form, and, if anything, more old-fashioned. But the Central Powers were all of the new Fascist pattern, more closely knit in its structure and dominated by an organization of the younger spirits, which claimed to be an élite.
Except for the fundamentally important fact that these Fascisti were intensely nationalist, this control by a self-appointed, self-disciplined élite was a distinct step towards our Modern State organization. These various Fascisti were destined to destroy their own states and disappear because of their essentially shallow and sentimental mentality, their inability to get outside nationalist traditions and coalesce; there is no direct continuity between them and our modern educational and administrative system; but there was nothing like them in the World War of 1914-18 anywhere, and they are noteworthy, as the Russian Communist Party (in spite of its proletarian formula) is noteworthy, for their partial but very real advance on democratic institutions. Amidst the chaos, that organized “devotion of the young” on which our modern community rests was clearly foreshadowed in these Central European states. The idea of disciplined personal participation in human government was being driven into the mentality of the new generation.
Until something more convincing appeared, it had to crystallize, disastrously enough, about such strange nuclei as the theatrical Mussolini and the hysterical Hitler. It had to be patriotic because that was the only form in which the State then presented itself. But after these first crystallizations had been shattered and dissolved in the war disasters that now ensued, the idea was still there, this idea of banded cooperation ready to be directed to greater ends. Youth had ceased to be irresponsible in all the Fascist countries.
Not only were these new wars unlike their predecessors in the fact that they were not, so far as the Central Powers were concerned, wars of the democratic masses, but also they were quite unprecedented in the range and quality of the fighting. We have already indicated some of the main differences between the New Warfare and the Old. These now became accentuated by the extraordinary way in which the boundaries of the battling states interdigitated. In the first spurt of conflict there was indeed a “front” between Poland and Germany; but after 1943 there was no front, no main objective, and no central idea to the storming destruction that spread over Europe.
The Poles tried to draw a line of Permanent Death Gas across East Brandenburg before their withdrawal to Posen, but their collapse came too swiftly, and they were able only to poison three small areas of no strategic importance. After 1943 the war became mainly a war in the air, with an increasing use of gas and landing raids, raids rather than invasions, to seize, organize and hold advantageous positions. A bitter and intense naval struggle went on in the Mediterranean to cut off reinforcements and supplies between North Africa and France, but there was little molestation of the Atlantic traffic of France.
There was never an Aerial Trafalgar, never an Air Ecnomus. War in three dimensions does not afford those channels, straits, narrow seas, passes, main roads, by which an inferior force may be brought to a decisive battle, and indeed to this day it is uncertain which side was absolutely predominant in the air. It was a war of raids and reprisals, and no large decisive operations were attempted. A big German infantry push into Posen was held by gas and slimes, and a French invasion of Italy got no further than Turin.
The complete exhaustion of the adversary, materially and morally, became the only possible road to any sort of victory. Once more the tormented populations were urged to sustain a “war of attrition”. “It is the man who holds out half an hour longer than the other who wins” was translated into every European language. The attacks on social order increased in malignancy as the impossibility of any military decision became manifest. Crops and forests were deliberately fired, embankments smashed, low-lying regions flooded, gas and water supplies destroyed. The aviators would start off to look for a crowd and bomb it. It became as cruel as the fighting of ferrets.
There was still, in spite of a decade of financial dislocation and industrial depression, a vast amount of mechanical material in Europe; everywhere there were factories strongly protected against air attack and skilfully camouflaged. Moreover, all the chief belligerents had sufficiently open frontiers for the importation of material, so long as anything compact and valuable could be wrung out of their nationals by tax or levy, to pay for such supplies. The goods crossed the frontier at night; the cargoes were piloted into unlit harbours. Every able-bodied adult not actually in the fighting forces was pressed to work at excavations for bomb shelters and the reconstitution of buildings against gas and high explosive. Much of this also was night work. Recalcitrance and shirking were punished by a deprivation of rations. There is a grim picture by Eglon Callet called “Security at Last”, of which the reader may have seen reproductions. A chain gang of emaciated and ragged Frenchmen is working under the lash in a tunnel. In the foreground one who has fainted is being given a stimulant; another, past help, dies untended.
In comparison with the abundant literature of personal experiences in the World War, at least so far as the Western front was concerned, there are remarkably few records either of combatant or non-combatant adventures during the Fighting Forties. The big air raids seem to have been altogether horrible. They were much more dreadful than the air raids of the World War. They began with a nightmare of warning maroons, sirens, hooters and the shrill whistles of cyclist scouts, then swarms of frantic people running to and fro, all pride and dignity gone, seeking the nearest shelter and aid, and they ended for most of their victims in an extremity of physical suffering.
We have already given some intimation of the nature of those torture deaths. In nearly every case the organization of refuges and gas masks broke down. In many cases there had never been a real provision, but only sham visors and sham bomb-proof buildings to allay “premature” panic and “keep up the popular morale”. None of these great raids was ever reported in the newspapers that still struggled on into the war years. Even in America the publication of any detail was treated as “pacificist propaganda against recruiting”.
There is a descriptive letter from Berlin after an air raid, undated and signed “Sinclair”, which is believed by most competent critics to have been written by Sinclair Lewis the novelist (1885-1990). One passage may be quoted:
|“We went down Unter den Linden and along the Sieges Allee, and the bodies of people were lying everywhere, men, women and children, not scattered evenly, but bunched together very curiously in heaps, as though their last effort had been to climb on to each other for help. This attempt to get close up to someone seems to be characteristic of death by this particular gas. Something must happen in the mind. Everyone was crumpled up in the same fashion and nearly all had vomited blood. The stench was dreadful, although all this multitude had been alive twenty-four hours ago. The body corrupts at once. The archway into the park was almost impassable. . . . ”|
So we get one glimpse of how peaceful town-bred people might die a century and a half ago.
The individual stories of the actual fighting in that last warfare are no more ample than the non-combatant descriptions. There was little inducement for anyone to write about it in the subsequent decades; there was not the same high proportion of literate men as there was in the Western armies during the Great War; there was a less artless interest in what was happening and more running away, desertion, apathy, drunkenness, raping, plundering and malignant cruelty, which are not things of which men leave records. The whole world was less sensitive than it had been thirty years before; if it suffered more grossly it suffered less acutely. In 1914-15 many of the British and German rankers kept diaries from day to day. This shows a sense of personality and a receptiveness to events quite outside the sullen fatalism, shot with gleams of primitive exaltation or fury, which seems to have been the prevalent state of mind in the armies of the Forties.
In the Historical Documents Series there is a diary of a Japanese officer who was killed in the retreat from Wuchang. Failing any European material of the same kind, it may perhaps be quoted here to show how it felt to fight in the last wars of all. It is not, however, a very vivid document. He was an intellectual, a socialist and a strong believer in the League of Nations, and his record is mainly a series of hostile criticisms in cypher of the superior command. But in the latter half these dissertations die out. The diary becomes a broken record of what he found to eat and drink and how he fought against influenza and dysentery. He seems to have had a company of men with him; he notes twice when he contrived a haul of food for them, and he jots down names as they are killed or missing. There are also figures that may be a note of his diminishing ammunition. He was already badly starved when he was killed. As he weakened he seems to have found his rather complicated cypher too difficult to use, and he lapsed first into bad English and then into plain Japanese. The very last item is an unfinished poem, a fragment in the old style, which might be rendered as follows:
Almond blossom in the spring sunshine,|
Fuji-Yama gracious lady,
Island treasure home of lovely things,
Shall I never see you again? . . .
Something, death perhaps, prevented the completion of his naïve verses. He and his detachment were probably overtaken and done to death near Kai-feng.
In none of these later war memoirs is there anything to recall that queer quality of the 1914-18 stories, of men who felt they were going out from absolutely sure and stable homes and cities, to which with reasonable good fortune they would return—and live happily ever afterwards. The mood then was often extraordinarily brave and tender. The men of this later cycle of wars felt that there would be no such home-coming. They knew that they went out to misery and left misery in active possession at home. Their war was not an expedition; it was a change for ever. The memoirs of the airmen who did so much destruction are amazingly empty. They note fights, but quite flatly. “Put down two Polaks”, for example; “a close shave”; but they do not seem to have had an inkling of the effect of the bombs they dropped upon the living flesh below. Many of these young men survived to become Modern State aviators and to serve the Air and Sea Control after 1965. But though some wrote well of their later experiences, none of them has left any useful documents for the history of the war time. The historian turns to his dates, maps and totals again from this meagre salvage of the hopes, fears, dreads, curiosities and agonies of the millions who went through that age of cruel disaster, doubtful whether he is sorry or thankful that most of that welter of feeling and suffering has vanished now as completely as though it had never been.
After 1945 the signs of exhaustion multiplied. Such despair had come to the souls of men that even defensive energy failed. They lay starving in their beds and hovels and let the bombs fall about them. But a whiff of gas could still cause a panic, a headlong rush of tormented people coughing and spitting through the streets to the shelter pits. Influenza with its peculiar intensity of mental depression came again repeatedly after 1942, and in 1945 came cholera. These epidemics, though they seemed grave enough at the time, were the mere first scouts of that great “Raid of the Germs” which was in preparation for disunited humanity. It was as if they were testing the defensive organization of mankind.
Except for air warfare, Britain and the North European neutrals were suffering almost as acutely as if they were actually at war. They had poured munitions into Europe and reaped a harvest of bad debts. After the first economic exhilaration due to this state of employment, the exports from Great Britain, which had once been the pioneer of free world trade and cosmopolitan thought, dwindled to insignificance; the erstwhile creditor of the world could not collect such debts as were still due to her, and could not pay therefore for the food supply of her dwindling but still excessive population. Her former sanitation had rotted to filthiness under a régime of relentless saving. Housing in that disagreeable climate had passed from congestion to horror. The first cholera epidemic found her in the throes not only of famine but of civil disorder, controlled and suppressed by her highly mechanized army and by the still very powerful habits of orderliness and subordination in her people. Never, since the Black Death of the Fifteenth Century, had the British Isles known such a pestilence. They had believed the days of pestilence were past for ever. And yet that cholera was only the precursor of the still more terrible experiences that were to follow it in the subsequent decade.
Slowly but surely the spirit of protest and mutiny spread through Europe. That growing despairful insubordination that had done so much to bring about the winding up of the World War in 1918 reappeared in new forms. But because now war was no longer primarily an infantryman’s business, mass mutiny, such as had crippled the French offensives after 1917, taken Russia out of the war, and led to the final German collapse, had not now the same disabling effect. There were not the same big aggregations of men under exasperating discipline and in touch with “subversive” suggestions. Power had passed over to the specialized forces—to the aviators and war technicians. By the use of small bombs, machine-guns and the milder gases they could “handle” and disperse mass meetings and “tranquillize” insurgent districts in a manner that would have been inconceivable to the street barricade revolutionaries of the later Eighteenth Century.
Even strikes in the munition factories were no longer so effective as they had been, because even there the increased efficiency of power production had ousted the comparatively unskilled worker in his multitudes. For the same reason the propaganda of insurrectionary class-war communism, though it now dominated the thought of nine-tenths of the European peasants and workers, found unexpected obstacles in its attempts to seize control of affairs. It could not repeat the Russian social revolution because the new conditions were entirely different. The Bolshevik success had been possible only through the backwardness of Russia and the absence of a technically educated social stratum. The unrest and insubordination of the common people in Central and Western Europe could and did produce immense passive resistances and local revolutionary movements, but it found opposed to it a whole system of aviators, mechanics, technicians, scientific workers and so forth who had learnt from Red Russia what sort of direction and planning to expect from a proletariat led by party politicians. Whatever they thought about their own governments—and already they were beginning to think in a very fresh and vigorous fashion about them—it was not towards democratic communism that the minds of the scientific and technical workers were turning.
Nevertheless, with the help of organizers from Russia, the protest of humanity against the prolongation of the New Warfare took for a time the form of communist risings. In 1947, in Marseilles, St. Etienne, Paris, Barcelona, Milan, Naples, Hamburg, Lodz and Glasgow there were mutinies of troops under arms and risings sufficiently formidable to sustain provisional Soviets for periods varying from a week to several months. The Hamburg and Glasgow Soviets were the best organized and held out longest, collapsing only after considerable bloodshed. Almost everywhere there were minor incidents of the same character. And the formal suspension of the war by the responsible governments concerned was certainly due more than anything else to their terror of a general social revolt. As the material organization of the system was shattered, as the behaviour of the technicians became uncertain, the threatening visage of the class-vindictive proletarian drew nearer and nearer to the face of the stockbroker, the war-monger, the banker, the traditional ruler.
It took nearly three years to end the last war. The Conference of London in 1947 did its best to work out a stable settlement of Europe on the lines of the Versailles Treaty, but the politicians and diplomatists were still incapable of the frankness and generosity needed. Face-saving was so much more important than life-saving to these creatures that they actually allowed the now pointless hostilities to be renewed in 1948.
In the spring of 1949, however, at Prague, President Benes achieved what had seemed to be the impossible, and brought the fighting to an end. He did this by inventing a phrase and suggesting, instead of a treaty, a “Suspension of Hostilities”. Each Power was to remain in possession of the territory it occupied, and there was to be no further fighting pending the assembly of an unspecified Conference to be organized later. Influenza, cholera, and at last maculated fever, the progressive enfeeblement of economic life and new developments of human relationship, prevented that Conference from ever meeting. The Benes Suspension of Hostilities became a permanent suspension. It endures to this day.