hard heads soft hearts
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Four War Letters From Britain
[an excerpt from "W. Somerset Maugham's Introduction to Modern English and American Literature" published in 1943 by The New Home Library]
Here are four letters. They were written by English people. One, the first, is already famous. The other three come from a volume entitled “War Letters from Britain”. I do not think anyone can read them without emotion and no Englishman without pride.
An Airman’s Letter to His Mother
Though I feel no premonition at all, events are moving rapidly, and I have instructed that this letter be forwarded to you should I fail to return from one of the raids which we shall shortly be called upon to undertake. You must hope on for a month, but at the end of that time you must accept the fact that I have handed my task over to the extremely capable hands of my comrades of the Royal Air Force, as so many splendid fellows have already done.
First, it will comfort you to know that my role in this war has been of the greatest importance. Our patrols far out over the North Sea have helped to keep the trade routes clear for our convoys and supply ships, and on one occasion our information was instrumental in saving the lives of the men in a crippled lighthouse relief ship. Though it will be difficult for you, you will disappoint me if you don not at least try to accept the facts dispassionately, for I shall have done my duty to the utmost of my ability. No man can do more, and no one calling himself a man could do less.
I have always admired your amazing courage in the face of continual setbacks; in the way you have given me as good an education and background as anyone in the country; and always kept up appearances without ever losing faith in the future. My death would not mean that your struggle has been in vain. Far from it. It means that your sacrifice is as great as mine. Those who serve England must expect nothing from her; we debase ourselves if we regard our country as merely a place in which to eat and sleep.
History resounds with illustrious names who have given all, yet their sacrifice has resulted in the British Empire, where there is a measure of peace, justice, and freedom for all, and where a higher standard of civilization has evolved, and is still evolving, than anywhere else. But this is not only concerning our own land. Today we are faced with the greatest organized challenge to Christianity and civilization that the world has ever seen, and I count myself lucky and honoured to be the right age and fully trained to throw my full weight into the scale. For this I have to thank you. Yet there is more work for you to do. The home front will have to stand united for years after the war is won. For all that can be said against it, I still maintain that this war is a very good thing; every individual is having the chance to give and dare all for his principle like the martyrs of old. However long time may be, one thing can never be altered –I shall have lived and dies an Englishman. Nothing else matters one jot nor can anything ever change it.
You must not grieve for me, for if you really believe in religion and all it entails that would be hypocrisy. I have no fear of death; only a queer elation . . . .I would have it no other way. The universe is so vast and ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice. We are sent to this world to acquire a personality and a character to take with us that can never be taken from us. Those who just eat and sleep, prosper and procreate, are no better than animals if all their lives they are at peace.
I firmly and absolutely believe that evil things are sent out into the world to try us; they are sent deliberately by our Creator to test our mettle because He knows what is good for us. The Bible is full of cases where the easy way out has been discarded for moral principles.
I count myself fortunate in that I have seen the whole country and known men of every calling. But with the final test of war I consider my character fully developed. Thus at my early age my earthly mission is already fulfilled and I am prepared to die with just one regret, and one only, that I could not devote myself to making your declining years more happy by being with you; but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have directly contributed to that, so here again my life will not have been in vain.
The following appeared in the English edition as an introduction to the letter:
Only with diffidence and reverence can the task be approached of drawing attention to the letter from a young airman which follows, and the feeling that any comment on it must be impertinent inspires a strong wish to do no more than draw attention to it – to write the equivalent of a pointing arrow or a prominent headline in the hope of making sure, so far as is possible, that no reader shall pass over or read lightly a document that may well become historical, a classic. Yet the circumstances in which the letter was written, as well as the quality of what it has to say, justify an attempt, however clumsy, to bring them out. The letter was written by a young airman to his mother, to whom it was only to be delivered on his death. It is a voice, as we crudely say, from the grave, and its utter sincerity – plain to all in its clean, simple English – is that of a man speaking in secrecy to his mother after he has gone to face his Maker.
The first and most ardent desire after reading is that it could be read and inwardly digested by our enemies. Our statesmen have said noble things about the British Empire and what that Empire knows itself to stand for; here is one, not a statesman speaking to the world, but a fighting man revealing his thoughts in the hush of the utmost intimacy; and he shows that in his secret heart he knows that vision of the British Empire to be a true one. It was built by sacrifice; it holds the present and future of peace, justice and freedom for all, and “not only concerning our own land”. Statesman, again, have said noble things about sacrifice. When Mr. Churchill said to the House of Commons, as he had said to the Government, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the hearts of all who knew him and knew his country soared high. But to our enemies it may well have seemed but brag or bluff. There is no brag nor bluff in a boy’s last letter to his mother – “those who serve England must expect nothing from her” – and, could our enemies ponder it, they must learn something at last of the faith which they have chosen to challenge.
During the last war, with Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke and others, the fighting man found his voice in poetry; and a noble voice it was. Yet in the simple prose of this letter there is perhaps a wider and even more glorious vision of the fighting man than theirs, something even surpassing Wordsworth ‘s Happy Warrior, who, called upon to face some awful moment, was “happy as a Lover”. That is because the writer saw the fighting man as a part of a great whole. Just as his pride in living and dying an Englishman reached out into a care for the future of all the world, so his spiritual joy in doing his duty and his “queer elation” at the prospect of death did not shut the rest of humanity out of his privilege to fight for good against evil. “Per ardua ad astra” is not for airmen only. For every man and woman the path that lies that way; and
Even that which Mischief
Meant most harm
Shall in the happy trial prove
To each and all who in “this universe so vast and ageless” justify their lives by the measure of their sacrifice.
Three War Letters from Britain
I. Condensed From a Letter By A Ten-Year-Old English Boy to the New York Herald Tribune.
July, 1940. – I am so glad you want us poorer class children as well. I hope to come to America soon not because I’m scared of the bombs or Old Hitler but because I want to see the world and to go on a liner and to see the New York World’s Fair. I hope you like boys in America. I should like to live with jolly people near an aerodrome because I’m very keen on aeronautics. I am 10, have just passed my exams and have been awarded a special place at the St. Alban County School for Boys. I hope I shall be able to go to a Secondary School in America. I have heard your paper quoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation so often so it must be a very reliable paper. I shall probably take it, although my Mother is going to send me the Overseas Daily Mirror every week. I though you would like to know my mother says the working class at any rate will appreciate what you are doing for us.
II. From a Seaman of The Royal Navy Patrol to Bundles For Britain
H.M.D. Peacemaker, C/O THAMES BOOM Defense, Sheerness, Kent, August, 1940. – Just a few lines thanking one of the friends in America for sea boots, stockings, mittens, also pullover, of which I am in possession of. Also could you introduce me to one of the lady friends? I am 28 years old. I would like to thank her personally. Things have been a bit hot at the Thames Estuary this last three or four weeks. Have seen as many as seven Jerrys brought down in one raid here.
Our ship is a large fishing drifter in peace times . Also I am a fisherman but I volunteered for the R.N. Patrol and minesweepers in Jan. I am gunner aboard our ship, have had several shots at Jerry, also I am in possession of several pieces of German planes. If one of the young lady friends wish to correspond I should only be too glad to send a piece on to her. With German writing on it.
We are having a rough time over here but still we will pull through in the end. Us Sailor hands are very thankful for the woolens from you people as they are needed on the water in the winter. Well must close now, hoping to hear from an American friend, wishing all American friends the best of health and good luck, from an English Sailor.
III. From an Englishman to the New York Times
London, NOV. 13, 1940.- In many ways, I believe, the people of this country are happier in their inmost selves than they have been for many years past.
For a very long time we have been feeling uneasily that we were not what we used to be: that we were “soft” through too much luxury, and that our civilization was becoming too artificial. We felt that there was a good deal of truth in what the dictators said when they spoke of the enfeebling effects of Western democracy and preached that order and discipline would bring their peoples to the peak of efficiency.
Also the British people, being thoroughly politically minded, had from Munich onward realized that everything pointed to a cataclysm, and the pacifists among them had preached defeatism as preferable to the horrors of war.
And then in September, 1939, the British people went to war, always with the gnawing doubt of their own soundness, and with cold apprehension of the effect of mass air raids, but nevertheless determined.
But now: the mass air raids have come-and gone-and we now know that the British people are as sound as they ever were, and that mass air raids, though terrible, are far less catastrophic than we had imagined. No wonder that through all the destruction and misery there is a note of grim exhilaration in every one’s mind and a redoubled feeling of confidence.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that familiarity has bred contempt. The first three weeks of bombing caused wide disorganization of public life, but from that time onward the tide flowed the other way until now the people have settled down to the presence of death, and life now goes on, in its essentials, much as usual. The people, in short, are now veterans-hardened to battle. It seems incredible, but it is true.
And another thing: I see that Mr. Kennedy, the American Ambassador here, has just given an interview in which he says that democracy in this country is dead! One is at a complete loss to understand how he formed such an opinion. True, the people have given the government much power-but that is necessary, and the power they give can be
taken away. But it seems to most people here that the tide is all the other way: that class distinctions and exclusiveness are passing away-slowly perhaps, almost imperceptibly in some ways, but nevertheless inexorably.
And that is to be expected, for the upper classes have made their choice: they have decided to rely on their own people instead of the blandishments of their compeers in the dictator countries.
It is for that reason that what happened in France could never happen here – I would be extremely sorry for any clique of politicians and rich men who endeavoured to sell their country to fortify their own positions. For the British people are in control: it is they who decided on war, and they who are determined to fight it to the end. Any statesman, from Churchill downward, who began even to hint at a compromise peace would be out of power tomorrow- and they know it.
So-the war will be long and terrible, and we may emerge financially crippled for generations and, perhaps, a poor country where life is hard. But it will be worth it.
For this is, in essence, a religious war. We fight not to determine how our neighbor shall worship God, but how he shall conduct himself toward his neighbor, and how he shall so govern himself as to be no menace to his fellows. They call it a crusade - it is wider than that, for many creeds take part.
What are we fighting for? Well, some will say for self-preservation. That hardly makes sense, considering the self-sacrifice. We fight against what we believe to be evil, and our aim is to make the world a better place. Details we leave until later.
"War Letters from Britain", edited by Diana Forbes-Robertson and Roger W Straus, Jr. New York. Putnam. 1941.