I’ve written a bit about Patrick MacGill on this blog before, and given extracts from his work: Patrick MacGill and the Red Horizon and The Women of France. In the centenary year of the start of the First World War, it’s worth considering the experience of the ordinary men who took part (which was brought home to me on a visit to Arras last November). A facet of this is captured well in the following extract, set on a troop-ship crossing to France, from MacGill’s autobiographical novel The Red Horizon.
My mates were smoking, and the whole place was dim with tobacco smoke. In the thick haze a man three yards away was invisible.
“Yes,” said a red-haired sergeant, with a thick blunt nose, and a broken row of tobacco-stained teeth; “we’re off for the doin’s now.”
“Blurry near time too,” said a Cockney named Spud Higgles. “I thought we weren’t goin’ out at all.”
“You’ll be there soon enough, my boy,” said the sergeant. “It’s not all fun, I’m tellin’ you, out yonder. I have a brother—-”
“The same bruvver?” asked Spud Higgles.
“What d’ye mean?” inquired the sergeant.
“Ye’re always speakin’ about that bruvver of yours,” said Spud. “‘E’s only in Ally Sloper’s Cavalry; no man’s ever killed in that mob.”
“H’m!” snorted the sergeant. “The A.S.C. runs twice as much risk as a line regiment.”
“That’s why ye didn’t join it then, is it?” asked the Cockney.
“Hold yer beastly tongue!” said the sergeant.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Spud—-
“Hold your tongue,” snapped the sergeant, and Spud relapsed into silence.
After a moment he turned to me where I sat. “It’s not only Germans that I’ll look for in the trenches,” he said, “when I have my rifle loaded and get close to that sergeant—-”
“You’ll put a bullet through him”; I said, “just as you vowed you’d do to me some time ago. You were going to put a bullet through the sergeant-major, the company cook, the sanitary inspector, the army tailor and every single man in the regiment. Are you going to destroy the London Irish root and branch?” I asked.
“Well, there’s some in it as wants a talking to at times,” said Spud.
“‘Ave yer got a fag to spare?”
Somebody sung a ragtime song, and the cabin took up the chorus. The boys bound for the fields of war were light-hearted and gay. A journey from the Bank to Charing Cross might be undertaken with a more serious air: it looked for all the world as if they were merely out on some night frolic, determined to throw the whole mad vitality of youth into the escapade.