|The Aftermath of Battle. Joseph Offert and his wife and sister, who had come from Brittany to see him before he died. A hopeless case. Gunshot wound, touching spinal column and complete paralysis below the waist. See page 156.|
MOST of these pages following are, like the photographs which go with them, torn fresh and hot, so to speak, from the diary of a young American, just as he jotted them down day by day in the war-hospitals of France.
In those hospitals, from September, 1914, into February, 1915, with other young volunteers, many of them Americans also, he served the wounded Germans and Allies. He carried them upstairs and down, or in from the rain, he assisted at operations, he held basins, he gave chloroform, he built the kitchen fire, he pumped the water, he was chauffeur, forager, commissariat, he helped in what ways he could, as he was ordered, and also as his own intelligence prompted in the not infrequent absence of orders. He saw the wounded die, he saw them get well, and he tells about them, their suffering, their courage, their patience. He records one day, among other incidents, that "when we got to the Hospital we cut the clothes off most of the men and I tied them up for storage. While I was doing this for one of the Scots (of the Black Watch) who had a bullet through his chest . . . he said, 'Will ye let me have a look at those kilts?' I gave him the kilts and continued tying up his clothes. When I looked up he was folding them with his one arm, as carefully as a woman tucking her baby to sleep; 'see that they're not mussed, will ye?' he said. . .
In the doings caught alive and set down here, a glimpse of war as it is, is given us: aeroplanes sail by, shells explode and tear the earth, loaded trains arrive smelling of dead flesh; while, round the wounded and the walls which shelter them, life goes on with its birthdays and Christmas dinners, its diplomats, magnates, spectators passing on and off the scene along with doctors, surgeons, and trained nurses.
From this short authentic document a long string of morals and conclusions is to be drawn, and these, saving two remarks only, shall be left to the reflecting reader.
First. After the brief introduction of the diary, wherein the writer narrates his voyage in the steerage to Liverpool, one is plunged instantly into the French chaos. As page succeeds page, written without art, yet with the effect of high art, with the effect (for example) of De Foe's account of the Plague, the reader ceases to be looking at a picture, he is himself in the picture, its terrific realities surround him as if he were walking among them. Many such pages, most of them still unpublished, have come from soldiers and other participants in the Great Convulsion. It is one of the several marked phenomena of the Great Convulsion that it causes people who are not trained writers to produce pages which have the quality of the very greatest literature---of Shakespeare, of the Greek Tragedies, of the Old Testament. I have seen some fifty letters from an American boy in the trenches to his parents. Lately I heard read three letters equally intimate: one from a French officer, telling how he led his men at night in an assault on the German trenches; one from a young Englishman telling how in his aeroplane he chased a Zeppelin through the fog by night out over the North Sea; and one from an American lady telling how she went through and came out of the sinking of the Lusitania. Not one of these people was a writer: I have seen nothing whatever by any professional writer on the war that so touches the heights and the depths of emotion as did these private letters through their elemental, spontaneous simplicity. They seemed written not so much by men and women as by nature. This is one of the things which the Great Convulsion does to the human soul; if any human soul comes out of it, lives after it unchanged for the better---even those who walk American streets in safety here, they will have missed the greatest spiritual opportunity that will ever meet them in this world.
Second. Throughout the pages of this diary occur the names of Americans who have wholly or in part dedicated themselves to serving their fellow man in the Great Convulsion. Whichever of them win renown, all who serve faithfully win the spurs of moral knighthood. These spurs they wear along with Dr. Strong and those colleagues of his who rid Servia of pestilence, or Mr. Hoover who has been a sort of godfather to Belgium, and with many more. And this host---for a host it is---of Americans thus dedicated to service in the Great Convulsion, helps to remove the stain which was cast over all Americans when we were invited to be neutral in our opinions while Democracy in Europe was being strangled to death.