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Full Online Book HomeEssays"fix Bayonets!"
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'fix Bayonets!' Post by :Lightning296 Category :Essays Author :Henry W. Nevinson Date :April 2011 Read :3587

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"fix Bayonets!"

"Oh, que j'aime le militaire!" sighed the old French song, no doubt with a touch of frivolity; but the sentiment moves us all. Sages have thought the army worth preserving for a dash of scarlet and a roll of the kettledrum; in every State procession it is the implements of death and the men of blood that we parade; and not to nursemaids only is the soldier irresistible. The glamour of romance hangs round him. Terrible with knife and spike and pellet he stalks through this puddle of a world, disdainful of drab mankind. Multitudes may toil at keeping alive, drudging through their scanty years for no hope but living and giving life; he shares with very few the function of inflicting death, and moves gaily clad and light of heart. "No doubt, some civilian occupations are very useful," said the author of an old drill-book; I think it was Lord Wolseley, and it was a large admission for any officer to have made. It was certainly Lord Wolseley who wrote in his _Soldier's Pocket-Book_ that the soldier "must believe his duties are the noblest that fall to man's lot":


"He must be taught to despise all those of civil life. Soldiers,
like missionaries, must be fanatics. An army thoroughly imbued
with fanaticism can be killed, but never suffer disgrace;
Napoleon, in speaking of it, said, 'Il en faut pour se faire tuer.'"


And not only to get himself killed, but to kill must the soldier be imbued with this fanaticism and self-glory. In the same spirit Mr. Kipling and Mr. Fletcher have told us in their _History of England_ that there is only one better trade than being a soldier, and that is being a sailor:


"To serve King and country in the army is the second
best profession for Englishmen of all classes; to
serve in the navy, I suppose we all admit, is the best."


As we all admit it, certainly it does seem very hard on all classes that there should be anything else to do in the world besides soldiering and sailoring. It is most deplorable that, in Lord Wolseley's words, some civilian occupations are very useful; for, if they were not, we might all have a fine time playing at soldiers--real soldiers, with guns!--from a tumultuous cradle to a bloody grave. If only we could abolish the civilian and his ignoble toil, what a rollicking life we should all enjoy upon this earthly field of glory!

Such was the fond dream of many an innocent heart, when in August of 1911 we saw the soldiers distributed among the city stations or posted at peaceful junctions where suburb had met suburb for years in the morning, and parted at evening without a blow. There the sentry stood, let us say, at a gate of Euston station. There he stood, embodying glory, enjoying the second best profession for Englishmen of all classes. He was dressed in clean khaki and shiny boots. On his head he bore a huge dome of fluffy bearskin, just the thing for a fashionable muff; oppressive in the heat, no doubt, but imparting additional grandeur to his mien. There he stood, emblematic of splendour, and on each side of him were encamped distressful little families, grasping spades and buckets and seated on their corded luggage, unable to move because of the railway strike, while behind him flared a huge advertisement that said, "The Sea is Calling you." Along the kerbstone a few yards in front were ranged the children of the district, row upon row, uncombed, in rags, filthy from head to foot, but silent with joy and admiration as they gazed upon the face of war. For many a gentle girl and boy that Friday and Saturday were the days of all their lives--the days on which the pretty soldiers came.

Nor was it only the charm of nice clothes and personal appearance that attracted them. Horror added its tremulous delight. There the sentry stood, ready to kill people at a word. His right knee was slightly bent, and against his right foot he propped the long wooden instrument that he killed with. In little pouches round his belt he carried the pointed bits of metal that the instrument shoots out quicker than arrows. It was whispered that some of them were placed already inside the gun itself, and could be fired as fast as a teacher could count, and each would kill a man. And at the end of the gun gleamed a knife, about as long as a butcher's carving-knife. It would go through a fattish person's body as through butter, and the point would stick a little way through the clothes at his back. Down each side of the knife ran a groove to let the blood out, so that the man might die quicker. It was a pleasure to look at such a thing. It was better than watching the sheep and oxen driven into the Aldgate slaughter-houses. It was almost as good as the glimpse of the executioner driving up to Pentonville in his dog-cart the evening before an execution.

Few have given the Home Office credit for the amount of interesting and cheap amusement it then afforded by parcelling out the country among the military authorities. In a period of general lassitude and holiday, it supplied the populace with a spectacle more widely distributed than the Coronation, and equally encouraging to loyalty. For it is not only pleasure that the sight of the soldiers in their midst provides: it gives every man and woman and child an opportunity of realising the significance of uniforms. Here are soldiers, men sprung from the working classes, speaking the same language, and having the same thoughts; men who have been brought up in poor homes, have known hunger, and have nearly all joined the army because they were out of work. And now that they are dressed in a particular way, they stand there with guns and those beautiful gleaming knives, ready, at a word, to kill people--to kill their own class, their own friends and relations, if it so happens. The word of command from an officer is alone required, and they would do it. People talk about the reading of the Riot Act and the sounding of the bugles in warning before the shooting begins; but no such warning is necessary. Lord Mansfield laid it down in 1780 that the Riot Act was but "a step in terrorism and of gentleness." There is no need for such gentleness. At an officer's bare word, a man in uniform must shoot. And all for a shilling a day, with food and lodging! To the inexperienced intelligence of men and women, the thing seems incredible, and the country owes a debt of gratitude to the Home Office for showing the whole working population that it is true. Certainly, the soldiers themselves strongly object to being put to this use. Their Red Book of instructions insists that the primary duty of keeping order rests with the civil power. It lays it down that soldiers should never be required to act except in cases where the riot cannot reasonably be expected to be quelled without resorting to the risk of inflicting death. But the Home Office, in requiring soldiers to act throughout the whole country at points where no riot at all was reasonably expected, gave us all during that railway strike an object-lesson in the meaning of uniform more impressive than the pictures on a Board School wall. Mr. Brailsford has well said, "the discovery of tyrants is that, for a soldier's motive, a uniform will serve as well as an idea."

Not a century has passed since the days when, as the noblest mind of those times wrote, a million of hungry operative men rose all up, came all out into the streets, and--stood there. "Who shall compute," he asked:

"Who shall compute the waste and loss, the destruction of every sort, that was produced in the Manchester region by Peterloo alone! Some thirteen unarmed men and women cut down--the number of the slain and maimed is very countable; but the treasury of rage, burning, hidden or visible, in all hearts ever since, more or less perverting the effort and aim of all hearts ever since, is of unknown extent. 'How came ye among us, in your cruel armed blindness, ye unspeakable County Yeomanry, sabres flourishing, hoofs prancing, and slashed us down at your brute pleasure; deaf, blind to all _our_ claims and woes and wrongs; of quick sight and sense to your own claims only! There lie poor, sallow, work-worn weavers, and complain no more now; women themselves are slashed and sabred; howling terror fills the air; and ye ride prosperous, very victorious--ye unspeakable: give _us_ sabres too, and then come on a little!' Such are Peterloos."


The parallel, if not exact, is close enough. During popular movements in Germany and Russia, the party of freedom has sometimes hoped that the troops would come over to their side--would "fraternise," as the expression goes. The soldiers in those countries are even more closely connected with the people than our own, for about one in three of the young men pass into the army, whether they like it or not, and in two or three years return to ordinary life. Yet the hope of "fraternisation" has nearly always been in vain. Half a dozen here and there may stand out to defend their brothers and their homes. But the risk is too great, the bonds of uniform and habit too strong. Hitherto in England, we have jealously preserved our civil liberties from the dragooning of military districts, and the few Peterloos of our history, compared with the suppressions in other countries, prove how justified our jealousy has been. It may be true--we wish it were always true, that, as Carlyle says, "if your Woolwich grapeshot be but eclipsing Divine Justice, and the God's radiance itself gleam recognisable athwart such grapeshot, then, yes, then, is the time coming for fighting and attacking." We all wish that were always true, and that the people of every country would always act upon it. But for the moment, we are grateful for the reminder that, whether it eclipses Divine Justice or not, the grapeshot is still there, and that a man in uniform, at a word of command, will shoot his mother.


(The end)
Henry W. Nevinson's essay: "Fix Bayonets!"

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