| It is my keenest desire
and sense of duty to do a little part for France,
since it hinders nothing in my daily life but only gives me a bit of manhood.
THESE letters from my son, I gathered for publication just as they came, with the full joy and pride I had in receiving them, hoping to give to other boys something of his fine courage and spirit --- to other mothers comfort and hope, and to all readers the vivid, beautiful sketches of France, of War, of Idealism as he, "Poet of the Airs," has given me.
Jack Wright, the author of these letters is an American boy of eighteen years, born in New York City. When a small child he was taken to France, where he remained until the outbreak of the war.
He was educated entirely in French schools; his playmates were the children of the artists and poets of France. French was his language. This will explain his unique literary expression, the curious blend of French and English which, even to the formation of words, I have left entirely as he writes them, feeling therein a special charm.
This will explain also his great love for France, the home of his childhood.
Although but eighteen years old when he left to make the supreme sacrifice as one of the first American Volunteers, he had graduated with special honors from l'École Alsacienne at Paris and Andover in America, and entered Harvard University.
Although only nine months in the war, he had won his commission as First Lieutenant Pilot-Aviator of the American Aviation.
While joyously compiling these letters (having even confided my plan to him) the official telegram came that announced his last flight, January 24, 1918.
But a few days before, these lines of Scott, which he had written on a scrap of paper, fell from one of his books into my hands: --
One glorious hour of crowded life
Is worth an age without a name."
SARA GREENE WISE
THESE letters are taken directly out of the hurried office of Mars; they are notes on the exact shell-holes your man will crouch in, on the precious stars and mighty heavens he will look up to, on War's fight, toil, and divinity; on War's romance and War's exile; on War's New World and the new life it spreads each passing day, to every human proud to have a soul across the Atlantic firmament in the first grasping streaks of dawn.
They are secret notes that Mars held nearest his heart, that were dictated to me on top of blasting mines of which the undersigned stenographer who received Mar's dictation takes an enthusiastic interest in revealing their message to you.
TO-DAY the unusual has become the commonplace. No one can remain deaf to duty's call as it rings its challenge throughout the world. Youth has heard that call and youth has been the first to respond. The superficialities of life have fallen in swift confusion. Luxury and ease no longer allure. The spiritual in human nature has risen supreme and strong above the material that so recently held sway. Youth has caught the vision of the higher values of life and with enthusiasm and unselfish devotion has answered the challenge to protect and establish these values for the youth and manhood of a later day.
Not all have caught this vision with equal clearness. To some it has come sooner than to others. To those who were best fitted to welcome it has been granted the privilege to see it clearest and first. Among these last was Jack Wright, whose pure soul and lofty idealism are so clearly revealed in this collection of his letters.
It was not the love of adventure that prompted this mere boy in years to volunteer for early and active service in the great cause. When the Phillips Academy Ambulance Unit was first suggested in the spring of 1917, Jack Wright was one of the first to ask to go. His intimate knowledge of and love for the French, with whom he had passed much of his early life, had led him to enter into their great struggle and the spirit of their sacrifice to a degree that few of us have as yet fully attained. "I am sure I can help them," he said to me simply as we discussed the project, "and I owe them so much." And as I said my last "good-byes" and waved my last farewells to that group of eager and expectant American youth as the gray French liner backed slowly away from the New York pier, I was conscious that Jack Wright was the real crusader of them all.
Among his schoolmates Jack Wright was not a prominent figure. His interests and tastes, like those of other poet-warriors now dear to us, were not those most commonly in evidence in American school and college life --- so often superficial, so readily shaped by passing, common interests and the popular will. He lived a bit above and beyond the commonplace. He breathed a somewhat purer air; and his poetic nature enabled him to see the higher peaks along life's highway while his mates were still content to view the immediate hills that rose about their pathway. Yet he was far from prudish: and the red blood coursed freely and unalloyed in his veins. His natural literary talents at once evoked the interest and admiration of his instructors; and by those few schoolboy friends whose kindred spirits enabled them to measure him at his true worth he was beloved as few boys are privileged to be.
The Ambulance Service, splendid as the opportunity it offered, proved insufficient for one who had so thoroughly caught the spirit of France in her mortal combat with a cruel and relentless foe and who had so completely dedicated his young life to the great cause of a suffering humanity. By temperament and inclination Jack Wright was well fitted for service in the air; and it was in this branch of the service that he early sought and promptly secured his opportunity to make his full contribution to the common cause and the welfare of the France he loved. In that service, joyful and unafraid, and almost at the moment when as a commissioned officer he was about to take his place on the firing-line itself, he met his glorious death.
The memory and inspiration of such a life and such a death are a priceless heritage to those who still fight the common foe and to those who to-day and in the days of perplexity still to come must continue to fight life's stern battles and answer life's eternal challenge to youth to make realities of its visions and to enthrone above the transient and material the spiritual verities that alone endure. Had Jack Wright lived to be an "Ace of Aces" in the mere destruction of human life he could not have made a greater contribution to the cause to which he had unselfishly devoted himself. By his example he has pointed out to youth its highest goal and by his influence he has helped and will continue to help aspiring youth to persevere and attain. Idealism, which makes for all that is finest and best in human life, has been glorified and enriched by this brave boy who held and lived true to high ideals and gladly died in their defense.
He scarce had need to doff his pride or slough the dross of earth.
E'en as he trod that day to God so walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness and honour and clean mirth."
ALFRED E. STEARNS
Principal of Phillips Academy
À bord de la Touraine
Au REVOIR, chère maman, vois-tu, me voici déjà français. I can only say a word as the pilot is leaving --- stop crying, read a book, work, work, work, and within two weeks you'll feel all right. I don't know why you shouldn't now, for I feel absolutely at home. It's just a trip with sights here and there --- no more. A year ago we used to talk lightly of ambulanceers ---my being in it cannot augment the importance or the glory or the danger of our former opinions.
We have two wonderful guns aboard, one of which is sixteen inches across the muzzle. Sharpshooters man them. Every one is friendly, and I hear with great enthusiasm that little Red Cross nurses are aboard to tickle our fancies. Ta lettre m'est chère because it is written at a changing point in your life. I notice the change, as I notice all, and am quite satisfied. You have shared the glories of Art --- the such must now be re-emplaced by other beauties. You are going through a grand experience --- d'envoyer un fils à la guerre --- and life is only measured by the weight of its various experiences --- the bigger the weight the bigger the life....
Remember to Mr. W. that this letter's sympathies are equally his, though the pilot may refuse me permission to express them silently. I think he understands my silent gratitude as you do my silent love --- at least I hope so.
Bid good-bye and tender wishes to the many complaining ones who will be pestering you for my lack of civility in not bidding them good-bye.
Miss Mack's letter was unforgettable; it contained a background. I shall always be interested in her.
I refuse to send you Godspeed and blessing as every letter I have received has sent me, but I do send you the hope that you'll have your own soul's blessing.
Man's soul is the shrine of religion, you know.
Read again the poem by Henri Bataille "Mères de France" or "Mères douloureuses." It contains a-plenty for you, and the last line has a ruggedness that is full of Saxon granite.
À bord de la Touraine
6 May, 1917
MA BIEN CHÈRE MÈRE: --
This is Sunday. Tuesday morning I expect to land. In other words, there's little time left for torpedoes. Nevertheless many gunners, to the number of thirty, man our guns and scan the horizon; the lifeboats are ready; lights are kept out; extra shells are being fused; mats are being put back of each gun; torpedo boats cruise, invisible, around us; all told, we feel like a chest of gold in Chicago.
This morning I went to a Catholic mass on board and got all mixed up, but the Catholics did too, and the priest had to turn around every while and correct them.
About twenty soldiers are on board going back from leave in America. A number of Fords and some Pathé films of Joffre's American tour complete the cargo. The boys are fun and time is slowly passing by.
The first four days I was sea-sick on account of the storm, but now not a white cap can be seen. Schools of flying fish follow us and dive under the boat.
This P.M. French soldiers are getting up a vaudeville. I mean the priest gets it up --- and on Sunday.
We made 450 fr. at our vaudeville out of 100 spectators, for the benefit of Secours National.
Now all passengers must keep their clothes on until arrival at the river's mouth, and life preservers must always be at hand.
Last night I read a little Verlaine and wrote a couple of bad poems à sa façon. I got up for lunch as usual; it is tout à fait en accord with the height of laziness I am floating in these steamer days. In fact, that's why I wrote poetry last night, as a pill to wake me up for the arrival. The arrival, however, will probably be drizzling and lengthened out to fatigue instead of bathed in sunshine 'neath the happiness of a rich blue sky.
Paris --- May 11
I have seen France at Tuesday dawn; and Paris at Tuesday eve. I am just about crazy as we might say. I wander the streets in awe, like a farmer on Broadway, excepting that every two minutes I start shrieking with joy; I can hardly hold myself in; I never fully realized this beauty before---every Frenchman ought to be a genius.
I cannot write now. I can hardly talk. The only people so far seen were the Griziers, a couple of old pupils, my room (for it is a personality), and all were wild to see me.
Remember me to dear Mr. W. and trust in a nearby letter.
DEAREST MOTHER: --
Excuse my tardiness. In the meantime I have been made foreman over a gang of twenty men to construct barracks. I was asked by our chief to go out with our new organization ---the Munition Transports that supply the guns --- and make sketches for articles to be published in America. I am, with sixteen others, to drive big five-ton Pierce-Arrow trucks.
This P.M. I arrived at the instruction camp twenty miles behind the trenches near where I camped one Easter (with French Boy Scouts). I can detail no more.
The country is wooded and hilly, with the sunlit villages of stone and the sheep and the songs of soldiers. I am now writing in the court of an ancient Charlemagne fort farmyard where rabbits, cats, goats, and a big dog hide and seek around the piles of country, smelling of new-mown hay, and where poilus smoke and argue and sing perched in the notch of an ancient low tower or under the tumbling arch of a door way.
The country is of such a May green and blossoming that war seems impossible and yet every night we can hear the guns and watch the distant rockets.
Good-bye for a moment.
May 19, 1917
MY DEAR NANA: --
You'll excuse the paper when you know that this note is written from the tower of a mediaeval farm, where goats and calves mix with five-ton Pierce-Arrow trucks, spick and span for war.
As you see, and as mother has doubtless told you, I suddenly took a fancy to serve France and came within as quick a time as transportation permitted. Were it not for the warm sun that is baking the rolling hills of the peaceful French country; were it not for such a homelike and slumbering environment, I should scarcely myself be able to believe that within a week I had jumped from the petty world of academic studies to the biggest war nations ever poured their blood into.
After a week in Paris where I awaited my ambulance, I was suddenly sent with a transport section that carries munitions up to the line, so that I should make sketches to be sent to America.
Within three months, though, I will be back to a Ford ambulance unless something else turns up or unless I prefer to remain here.
Twenty boys and two Profs of my school have come with me, so I feel quite at home. But of course I am at home anyway since France means so very much to me. I have always been in Paradise here. I have often been in Hell in America. Then the war is a sight that only a fool or a prisoner would miss.
I consider what I am learning now, worth a year of schooling; although it impedes in no way in that. On the contrary, it gives me my diploma at Andover and gets me into Harvard next year.
At present I am staying at a farm; rather at an instruction camp. Within a week we form up our section and leave for the front.
In Paris I saw a number of friends, but was chiefly occupied in the shopping. That city, of course, still remains unequalled in beauty throughout the world.
For a couple of days I was foreman over twenty men for the building of barracks, etc. Now I am off for three months of steady physical work and expect to become what the war has made of millions of French men and women.
DEAR MR. W.: --
It may seem queer to you that I have not written you sooner, but my time has been filled to such an extent that I have only been able to write mother, out of all those who expect letters from me.
In Paris I had not even time to see my intimate friends. In the field I have not time even to draw a series of sketches which I have been ordered to do by our chief, for articles to be sent to America.
As you know, I am now running ammunition up to the batteries. The work is that of a man and will probably make men of us all. The group forming our camp is made up of Cornell, Dartmouth, and Andover. The first American flag to float alone over American troops in France is high above us on the trunk of a long pine, and as the worn-out soldiers of France march by they cheer us as saviours. The glory that we are bestowed with is so much that it becomes comical, but nevertheless it does us good to feel ourselves some of the first American troops.
As yet we have had no trouble, but any day an aeroplane or some gun fire could settle the matter.
With such surroundings I have become quite a little heathen. I work about a big Pierce-Arrow like a regular chauffeur; I never read a book; I eat war bread and cheese, with guns flashing next to me and while sitting on a truck load of ten thousand pounds of dynamite. It is n't exactly the trigonometry propositions and the little tea parties of Andover or New York. It is still further from the entanglements of Broad Street and Wall Street, yet I am so sure that you would have the time of your life here that I cannot understand why you should not take a vacation of six months, see something you'd never believe and go back to work again fully five years younger.
There are pages I could write you about my present life, but neither of us have time for them. I would like to ask you how things are going in New York, but I know that most of your existence there consists of hard work and on that subject I can't converse yet. All I can say is that I hope you will understand that I fully appreciate your regards towards me, and that though I may appear somewhat neglective, now and then, my respect and my sympathies axe none less than my appreciation.
War Zone of the French Armies On the Eastern Front
May 25, 1917
DEAREST MOTHER: --
This is not a very sacred place to answer such a sweet letter. I am in a large camp tent with boys singing, sleeping and smoking. Right next door in some fake trenches, Alpine chasseurs are throwing hand-grenades that shake the guts out of you. Overhead the constant purr and buzz of aeroplanes keep up the time of twenty kilometres behind the lines.
Yesterday our trucks pounded along a trip of five hours or so, during which time I had to drive past rolling field artillery for miles.
We arrived at ------, the first big town since Paris. It is of very Spanish inhabitants so that our one hour there was ringing with merriment and flirtation from us drivers up to our French officers.
In the morning we had target practice. You see with the job I've got now we carry guns and cartridges. The day before yesterday, a brigadier of the section we're bound for was killed by our bombardment while trying to hide himself.
The valley is merry with May sunshine, new leafage, blue sky, Alpine chasseurs, and the mixing of wine and spring songs. Just now I'm waiting to learn when I take my twenty-four-hour leave to Paris from this training camp before leaving for the front.
I have very little time to myself as yet.
Just back from the leave. We got to Paris at noon. I invaded the coiffeur's. He was on permission too. Then lunch and shopping. A French lady helped me out in the post office and I thereby made her delightful acquaintance. Such things, though, are only a matter of daily event in this Parisian swimming pool.
I had an early dinner at the Café des Lilas where by chance I sat next to a charming girl I had met last night in Paris. She is the beautiful "amie" of an ambulanceer and a very good camarade. Then I walked through the grand Luxembourg Gardens; its terraces where the artists' models and young family girls just learning to pose stroll carelessly in its caressing atmosphere. I had a "Fraise" at a café just to watch the types walk the "Boul. Miche." ...
We took the evening-train at eight o'clock with high spirits, but low hearts. Then from ten to one o'clock at night we had a truck ride. That, of course, is like riding on artillery wagon seats at full gallop, in the dust of a whole army through the cold of the North Pole. The rest of the night I slept in my bunk without bothering to undo my shoe laces, having been going since four in the morning before, to one that morning, and "some going."
To-day, Friday, we are taking our last day of rest (it's the only one too) before packing bags for a trip unknown. The sun in coming out, brought out the mandolins, and between the two, vague thoughts of yesterday's Paris and a month ago's home, filter through our weariness as the souvenir notes of a song from out the past.
I received quite a love letter from my little unknown girl way down along the twining Doubs river. But hélas! such other things call me with such other forces that my idle, magnetized soul cannot hypnotize myself to going down to see her --- though I easily could....
By the way, an adjutant of chasseurs whom I was talking with two days ago is now being buried. You see some hand-grenades went off too soon during practise work and --- well, a number of other soldier friends had their faces wiped off at the same time.
I will write you more whenever I get time. You will learn much more, though, of my trip from my diary when I get back, than from the little side notes of those hasty careless letters. With much love,
Give all my best wishes to Mr. W. Remember me to my friends and thank all those who sent me their vague wishes of love with an equal amount of very distant gratitude.
Irwin, the famous "Sat. Eve. Post" war correspondent, visited camp and got some snap shots which I was in. Be on the look out for a write up or photos in that magazine at any time.
The French War Minister had some movies and photographs taken at our instruction camp, which I was also in. They will be exhibited in America.
Remember that I am in the "Transport Munitions" by five-ton Pierce-Arrow trucks, that I have a gun and that I am one of the first thirty American soldiers in France.
I am not in the ambulance now. Later, I will change over to the ambulance to see that side too.
June 4, 1918
MY DEAR HARRISON: [Classmate at Phillips Academy, Andover.]
How can I write you all that I have to say! I cannot; so I shan't. Just accept with a conventional smile a much conventional letter, concerning my present health my present satisfaction with the world and all my other little presents.
This letter will reach you after the term and the "exams" are over. I know it was mean of me to leave you up on the hill, but after trying to persuade you that you could come, my selfishness told me I had done my duty and that self-sacrifice was but a dream-vision of Youth, unpractical in the life of business-like reality which the world is made of.
... Were I to tell you of my return to France, the first sight of her shores in the blue light of early morn; were I to tell you of the return to Paris, the actual vision of what I had contemplated but as an unrealizable dream; were I to tell you of my life in Paris, the heart of the city and the beloved wonderful girls you meet; were I to tell you of passing out of the gates of Paris into the arms of France's peaceful country land in the uniform of "one of them"; were I to tell you of the first thundering crash of a shell, the faint smell of battle and the distant incense of a gigantic spirit of the "Marseillaise" fighting for Victory; were I to tell you all that I have seen, felt, gone through, experienced in my first one and a half months of adventure, I would be writing in one letter the wonders of the "Divine Comedy," of Boccaccio's "Sonnets," of Verlaine and Gibson and the unspelled poetry of Paradise itself. See, then, why I refuse to write, why I shall only scribble, not even describe or even give you the notes of my diary. Some day you will hear me talk of it. Some day you will read my diary; some day you will live a while in the land where I came to walk a moment with my soul and then you shall think that for one vague dream second you shall have caught a glimpse of what my heart's Paradise is --- a glimpse only, though; an unperfumed, unfelt glimpse.
But why rave on so blundersomely? Listen! Troops are passing, ranks of blue-clad, helmeted troops of France! Their bugles clash in the morning, and I stand with awe as they march towards the nearby woods from which the smoke of shells is rising. See! to my left a peaceful little lake, a primitive rowboat and white oxen lying in the high grass just beyond; between the trees the stone walls of the château are baking in the sun, and underneath the trees a nurse, all in white and very silent, passes along the garden path. That, then, is my present life and of that only dare I give you the most microscopic aspect.
I am driving a five-ton Pierce-Arrow truck these days instead of a Ford, and hauling thousands of pounds of death up to batteries, instead of bringing back the dying. I am doing something positive --not negative. At the same time I am making sketches of this first unit of American soldiers for magazines and books of propaganda in America. It is an order for which I am not paid, but which I willingly accept.
We are the first American soldiers in France, inasmuch as we carry rifles and are a part of the war machine, ready for fight and defense and prison camps, all of which the ambulance is not. Other colleges are joining us week on week and soon we shall be quite a regiment.
I can tell you nothing of my trip; it is too great. You see I am in Paradise, That's all I can say.
MY DEAR DICK: ---
Excuse all, --- paper, wit, and brévité, --- for I am at war --- at least I am vaguely concerned with it. You see I have written to no one but mother. What I am doing takes up all my energy and strength; it consists of driving a five-ton Pierce-Arrow truck full of five more tons of ammunition up to the batteries on the firing line. I am on a trip of adventure and am therefore rushed with new adventure every minute of my life. As a result, I am becoming more as ye ancient adventurer who rode the moonlit highways long ago with a rapier by his side and a swear-word for a bible. I have become rash, indifferent, brutal, and impatient. I never touch my pen or my pencil. I never woo nor pine: I just take; I never drive: I race; I never stand still: I am in action; I never think or dream: I just do.
It is a life I had thought unrealizable in such modern times, but I have found out that war brings with it all the barbarism of the past and the wars gone by that had lain in a grave during peace time.
Paris is for me a Babylon and the country of France is for me a plain overflowing with the fever of the Huns; the incense of bursting shells and smoking powder.
In Paris I am sought after as a hero. In the country I seek after and find. The firing lines are awful and it takes all the grit you've got to stand them. You must be ready for Hell as well as Paradise when you come here, but if you do come, you'll find them both, and at their highest pitch. I sincerely hope you do come and honestly believe you will. I want you with me very much, for your influence helps me and gives me a laugh to work and woo with. In fact you would be a great companion for my present six months of adventure, and you would perhaps help me formulate and accompany me in carrying out of vague desires for wandering and further adventure beyond the distant horizon line.
I am deeply lured by service at Salonica, by working my way down to the mystic, templed shores of uncomprehensible India and into the flowery, mediæval heart of Japan where the peasants wear ancient costumes and the Oriental women have weird and fascinating ways of flirtation. I want to watch the brown-skinned Grecian women bathe by Salonica's waters. I want to hear the Hindoo priestesses sing 'midst the clouds of incense; I want to hold an Oriental geisha in my young American arms.
Are you coming, then?
Are you coming with me?
Or will you spend your years of youth and adventure in conventional America that any one can see at any time?
With my best wishes to you in any case, and my fondest love to your dear mother, --
June 11, 1918
MY DEAR NANA: --
You see I am writing you on your birthday. Perhaps you'll never see the letter, but nevertheless I write. I could write of everything under God's sweet sky and yet only be telling you fifty per cent of what I've done and gone through.
I've been under shell-fire; drank wine in dug-outs, fired cannons, walked the connecting trenches, raced round Paris, seen aeroplanes fall to their death, heard the wounded cry ...
Milked a cow from the German trenches, been in German officers' headquarters, driven trucks, Fords, officers' cars, donkeys; sketched, written and felt blue and more than anything else, as always --- I've dreamed ...
Just as this moment I am smelling roses in an English pasture, thinking of having tea with the nurses in the château.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER:---
Your last letters quite discouraged me, for I have written you on an average of once a week since I left America, telling you of some of the incidents around my new life; telling you of the success we are having with the newspapers and movie men and what Paris and French country have meant to me.
However, if boats lose mail, one must not fret in their cozy corner, but simply remember that whatever small ills one may happen to have, they are totally unproportional and immeasurable with these horrible tragedies that sweep down from the most northern point of Russia to the most southern point of Africa.
I hope that you will at least receive half my letters, for I can understand your worry. As long as you have not got the little chain-bracelet I wear on the hand now writing you, do not worry.
War is reduced for me now to the trenches and the air. Outside of that I have become so habituated to the steady flow of ammunition wagons, reserve troops and troops on leave that I pay no more attention to their wondrous system that back up the front line than I would pay to the traffic in New York. In fact, it is aggravating to always be "just behind" the action. You are practically as sure as though driving along the roads of Massachusetts, if not safer. The ambulance risks a little more. However, the other day towards dusk, While approaching Château Soupir, a fairy shell construction on which Calmet spent millions, as we were nearing the ridge behind which desperate fighting was taking place, a smoke as that of a bonfire puffed up thirty yards to our starboard. I wondered where the gypsies were, when a crackling of timber made it dawn upon me that the smoke was that of a Boche "seventy-seven" digging a rain-hole for horses to drink out of. About twenty-five seconds after it was over I remembered that once upon a time a Frenchman had told me to lie down so I squatted behind the dasher; some fifty seconds still later, I realized; things becoming clearer and clearer that it was all over. I looked ahead. Instead of speeding up, the cars had all slowed down and we were waiting for another explosion, with our vest pockets set.
The rest of the night, as every night, I had plenty of amusements: wine in officers' dug-outs, joking with soldiers, visiting batteries, going through the château in spite of "Défense d'entrer, --- Quartiers Généraux" --- learning how things were really done and why, and what the ways of war sent out to me in their silent, indifferent messages. I also walked through a connecting trench for the first time up to the little fort of a "seventy-five." The French call the connecting trenches "boyaux," or "guts," if translated, because of their zig-zag course to avert fire.
That is a night on the camions, but I am tired of it now --- the novelty wears off --- one needs new adventures or else absolute peace, work and time to think.
These last three days, not having been out and being inspired by the continual chilling sleet, the echoes of German attacks thirteen kilometres over the hills and the gigantic English pasture which spreads out in front of me and the chateau here, I have been writing a poem which means late hours.
Now I have obtained a trailer to live in, instead of the barracks, claiming that I needed a studio. A trailer is a cabin on wheels. I chose a fine chap to come down and help me fix it up for us both and so each day we take expeditions around the famous hunting country of France in hunt of flowers for our cabin and flowers for our hearts --- the latter is not lacking, thanks to my vest pocket.
The last time my curiosity led me into a charming summer villa where three exquisite Parisiennes were smiling and perfuming away the summer-time, one of them being in love with an aviator who comes to kiss her each morning in his aero before risking his life over the lines. Oh! war as nothing else brings you back to the adventurous times of old.
God bless those who linger in America, for they are brave not to drop all business and tea parties for the inhuman events in France. In fact, if they knew what they were missing, they would.
It is not that you see so much, but that from details here and there, from atmosphere and contact with things and heroes you soon learn to feel what you had already read of in legends as that which was forever entombed in the past.
We have a number of artists in camp amongst whom is the decorator Lepeltier, who has a big bunch of studios near the Madeleine. His designs are used as standards on the Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI periods, in the art schools of America. He's a good chap and we're quite chummy.
I found that all out, otherwise I'd have never known, for the main thing of war is that you all meet without knowledge of your respective positions.
I've found a singer who sang with Caruso at the Metropolitan, who carries lumber at our main loading base, and many such as he ran across my path. I, too, to them am only a poilu --- not even that, for I have not seen the trenches. I am almost an "embusqué," so safe is my job.
Our captain here is a good chap and intelligent --- at least well "instruit." We often talk together. It is funny to see how all the dainty French officers up to the Colonels included have been suddenly shifted to little one-horse Fords by the Government.
You speak of dying of ennui in the country --- mon Dieu, I remained three years at Andover. If you are bored with life, it's your own fault. Ah, well, I must talk to you to prove it, so don't expect a solution here, but just take it for granted and get in the country and think, think, think, from 7 A.M. to 12 P.M.; exercise and eat --- then go to bed and sleep. When you get back to the city again, you'll wonder you could ever have been like the thousands of fluttering birds that dabble with a little work some three or four hours each morning and then gabble away the rest of the day. Just suppose you had Mr. W.'s shoes on for a day. Ye gods, would n't it just be too dreadful for words! Yet he grinds in and out the three hundred and sixty-five days of each year and that year in, year out.
Six of our section of forty have been sent to Meaux to become Second Lieutenants. If I stick with the service a few more months, I'll get there too, but I have further plans in view. Just remember that your son is now a rank adventurer, that is to say, with plenty of adventures but little danger, so do not worry. Just accept my letters tranquilly, and if you do so, you shall learn all and each thing that I do.
Now I will take a walk over the hill to the town built into, in, under and over a cliff. Some friends are there and we'll have tea; on the way back I'll pick some flowers. The wheat fields are sprinkled with the blue (bluets), the white marguerites and the red poppies. A barrage fire has been raging over the other hills during the past three days of rain --- it sounds like approaching the lions' cages of the zoo.
DEAREST MOTHER: --
Your letters are awfully good, way off from home. It's awfully nice of you to write me so thoroughly and kindly every once a week. They're just like cake and ice cream, not forgetting the chocolate nut sauce, over here in the war-dried land. You know we can't get a single luxury in the war zone outside of some coarse chocolate. We do get jam, three times a day, so we don't eat it much between meals. The cigarettes would kill an ordinary horse, but we quite enjoy them; in fact the Fatimas that used to be too strong in the States are sickeningly weak over here.
I've spent an hour writing twelve little pages in my diary about yesterday. You will really learn more of my trip when I get home. Now I can hardly find time to tell you of my health and send a few material facts and incidents without the least of description or sentiment.
Yesterday I left the park where we were unloading a mile behind the trenches, and though the noise of the batteries was a little dizzying, I made my way to one of them ---a "hundred and five." The artillery men got me behind a tree, a whistle blew, and the whole world was lightning. Well, after the cloudburst, I straightened my disjointed features and immediately began to inquire just how often the Germans popped at them and just how often they were popped. They laughed at me --- told me their job was a cinch; that only three men had been killed that week so far, and that an hour or so ago the first shells of the day exploded some forty yards off . I wanted to retreat, but then the ridge ahead of me let out such an explosion I thought the whole thing was blown up. It was the "seventy-fives" on top, opening fire --- and what a fire! Balls of lightning leapt from muzzle to muzzle and clouds of red flame burst upwards as they sent Hell screeching through the air as actually and deadly as man could invent.
This war is all electric operation, explosions, ---death--- all, and that is what fills you with fear --- a fear of electricity, of the unknown and omnipotent.
Then some strings of light-balls floated up like champagne bubbles, so to call aeroplanes back; rockets signalled the guns, star shells made the night day for two miles around.
I had always wanted to go in the trenches some quiet period for just a little visit. I had thought it a curiosity. Now I no longer shall think about playing with death. Death means a lot when you talk about it while leaning with one hand on the muzzle of a five-inch gun and stopping up your ears with the other.
My greatest attainment so far on this trip has been to arrive at understanding the French poilus. At first I admired them, then I grew tired of them and was even disgusted at them. Since last night, though, I have been able to understand them, to feel myself their comrade, and to know that each common one is such a hero as I may never be.
I landed back at camp at three, having started out at three. I went to bed feeling that I could face a New York gang of gunmen as though catching butterflies, after what I had heard that night, that very quiet night as the Frenchmen say, when no one ever has worries as long as they be safe with the heavy artillery.
We have now the cutest blue overalls --- or uniforms, rather---that is a mixture between pajamas and a sailor's suit. It's awfully cool and most of the French army wear them. It's roasting hot over here so we get a swim nearby every two days.
Every other day we get orders to take our camions (trucks) out for ten to twelve hours.
The other night we tried to have a fight between the sections, just to stir up the stagnancy of camp life, but even that died down, so I talked the evening away.
I discovered some French poetry in camp and also a picture of myself and others that came out in the Boston Sunday Herald about the first half of May.
I can send no more postcards from the war zone. The Captain has forbidden it. But I will write as much as time allows. You see, even on rest days, we are kept busy.
Pershing was received as a victorious Roman general. We expect him ourselves soon.
Give my love to every one and remember me especially to Mr. W.
July 9, 1917
MY VERY DEAR LADY OF THE PEACEFUL LAND: --
Your letters have a ceaseless charm: they bring me all the warm luxury and love from my little circle back in America. Your letters frame the twirl of events and persons that are dear to me in a homelike atmosphere that is sweet in this world of war and that mingles harmoniously with the souvenirs of yonder that now and then pass over the wheat and poppy fields 'midst veils and fairy wings.
Each day I realize---with little help from my imagination, with little influence from brass button uniforms (they're not very bright in the mud and danger of front life)--- I realize that then my present service of truckdriver not only contains faults such as you would expect in any hardship wearing service, but is lacking in some factors that are fundamental, if one chooses that war is better than peace for the education of one's youth.
The service has much monotony. It is entirely monotonous, for your events are but a repetition of themselves. You are a work horse pulling a load of stones over the same road each day, with, for a horizon of hope or a world of beauty, the ugly back of the stone cart in front of you.
This service is an illusion that cultivates false vanity in the hearts of the weak and shame in the hearts of the strong. You think that because you wear a uniform and now and then carry shells for some one else to fire, you are participating in the war. You are not. What you are doing is a participation in the system that prepares material for other men to wage war with. You are not in the war any more than the scene-shifter is on the stage. One is the actor and sometimes the matinée idol; the other is the scene-shifter or the page. Both wear uniforms, though, and both uniforms pertain to the theatre and are connected with the stage.
We pass as bus-drivers, coal-haulers, with our convois of automobiles, such as you would see around factories and mines and which you would consider so, were they not on French soil instead of American.
At the same time that our jangling trucks roll around through villages animated with soldiers of France or country resorts, where tender lips await the hero's return, at the same time out of our reach but all around us, blow the bugles of the men of the day, clap and flap the banners of France and Freedom.
War's great caldron of heroism, praise, glory, poetry, music, brains, energy, flashes and glows, rustles and roars, fills the heavens with its mighty being --- its world far off from ours, rushing fast and faster around us, while yet we ceaselessly roll as many a month ago, in the dust of the same roads, puffing over bumps and hills the same loads undeserving to even think what the life of a warrior is. We are not even feeling war, for the heart of it beats in blood; not even breathing it, for the soul of it exhales in the high-up clouds of gold.
Illusioned by a sense of false service, false bearing of war burdens, we think ourselves inspired; think ourselves worthy to live in France, and day in, week out we pass as newly rich bourgeois in the rich studio of warfare. We dabble with its greatness, mimicizing the most gigantic drama of the world's history --- the final struggle between democracy and autocracy, as some society girl would gabble her criticism of Victor Hugo finding him generally too exaltant or too chaotic.
The service dawns to me more and more with the glimmering of but a pale green moon 'midst a world of stars, zephyrs and gigantic oaks. You see, when one has drunk with the men in war gray-blue, whose faces under the glinting steel of their helmets have been heroically stamped with the conglomeration of Hell, called the trenches; when you hear these big-pulsed volunteers of Freedom talk of the hearts and honors that await them, and that, feeling really worthy of such returns, will really enjoy them; when you have seen men wind their way, singing the "Marseillaise," toward the land of death, while you bump around on a seat of a bulky truck, nearing the front but by night, sharing none of the danger and none of the bravery, it is only natural that you should feel as Frenchmen call chauffeurs of my age ---"embusqué."
What right have I to dress up in a stylish khaki uniform, buttoned and belted and parade, the gauntlet of wondrous eyes? Why the important air with which I pass down the boulevards of Paris, scorning civilians, seeking praise? I have no right to even the muddy coat of a poilu. I should be shining his shoes, instead of tossing a tip with a snobby air to the bellboy who shines my boots at the Continental. Perhaps I'm not quite as bad, but when I've seen the suffering I've seen, I feel that way. Why, I don't feel at home even to talk to the least flower girl in Paris. I shirk to accept the open-hearted hospitality of a poilu.
I have no right to the comradeship of men who put no price to their lives or at least who have the grit to stand up for some god or other. If a man can't come over here to fight, he has no right to share with the fighters --- to enjoy the beauty of a land that's waging war --- to seek the sympathy of women in mourning. I should return immediately to America and forget that I had made such a bad attempt at giving a hand to a friend, or else remain in France and stick by her blood and bone. That's what a dog can do --- why can't I? Why should n't I?
This service is the lowest form of warfare. It consists of treading as an elephant 'midst the gardens of Allah. We bang down a dusty, clouded road, 'midst grease and oil, with loads of timber and shells, to a park a mile or two behind danger, and roll back to camp in the drizzle and sleet of half night, half morning, to sleep. Then we eat --- that is quite an event; then we clean cars or carry out some orders meant to keep us busy, or else we loaf all day and all evening, and some of the night we gape up at the infinite heavens --- not there to find a ray of glory, thanking us from on high, but to ponder over just how the weather will be next day.
In front of a wheel that needs hardly to be turned, we sit for hours as a china dog, gulping in dust and bouncing over long roads in the dream that we are doing our duty to humanity; that we are paying back the debt we owe our ancestors who bought our freedom at the price of their lives, ambitions, ideals, and what else their souls were set on.
Again, it's the lowest form of warfare: we are the snail crawling slowly, heavily all day long in mud and in the far distant echo of bugles, fire, charges, medals, praise ...
This service is most occupied with inaction; now and then only does it wake up, but only an awakening to sleep, for truck-driving soon becomes deaf and dumb slumber. Either one should stay in peaceful America and cast the war far from his luxurious couches or one should fully swell his breast proudly, patriotically, under a fighter's coat of mail and enter one's self entirely into the deepest of war's depths and the highest of its heights; never to vainly, hypnotized look on at others fight, concealed in the bushes, wrapped in a velvet cloak, clinking a ballroom rapier. Why, I don't even know how to walk in my uniform. It is more than I am.
No in-between can exist in the world if one wishes to avert the horror of becoming a living dead. Everything must be idealistic.
Idealism is extremes. If one desires to get the most out of the biggest God gave to get, one must plunge into it to the end of its extremes.
Shall it be Peace or War?
Shall it be Bourgeoisie or Romance?
Shall you learn life and learn to appreciate it to its fullest or shall you not?
This service is a bluff any way you turn. Service, danger, heroism, praise, glory --- all that war contains it mimics. It makes a bluff and makes you bluff . You are here in a world of grandeur, wonder, miracles and with men that make them, and yet you are not "one of them."
To be out of a crowd, to belong to no "frat," to have no comrade, brother, to be a hermit, unmystic, unnoticed, un-anything, is a feeling no human can stand. As it is now, I am not "one of them."
The widow in mourning asks me if I have been "with them"; the café girl washes away her paint as she hears the soldiers are coming back and asks me if I am "one of them." The little boy takes me joyfully by the hand, for he thinks something of me, and pointing to his father's grave says, " It seems you are 'one of them.'"
You can only be worthy of France's friendship and feel yourself intimately connected with the heroes (who are the people of your daily contact); and how else could you wish to be connected with them; you can only feel yourself "one of them" by doing, offering, taking even as they are; otherwise, is one to take the tinsel-tassel before the eyes of all, of a carpet-knight amongst women, a tourist amongst countries and men? An optimist onlooker to the accomplishments of working humans? ...
Why do I think my heart beating in time with the heart of France? Just because I'm here? Why do I put my hands in the hands of these brave peoples --- where are my rights, my password, my papers? The few shells I've seen --- why the "poilus" call them a bore.
If one intends to live, he must reap what life spreads out to him. A man lives in the true sense of the word, proportionately to the inspiration he derives from nature and events. All other life is but ephemeral, sensual pleasure. If, then, you are to live, you must live not in lukewarmness, for its inspiration is despicable, worse than criminal; it is Flaubert's everlasting enemy --- Bourgeoisie; not then in an "in-between" but in the extreme, which Idealism and the highest of life commands.
Extreme demands extreme in every way, thought and action; dreams and accomplishments. Then I must live to the extreme of life's following steps:---
1. Childhood --- impressions --- discovery --- foolishness.
2. Youth --- adventure, romance, preparation for manhood.
3. Manhood --- grand amour (since love is the greatest in life --- even greater than Art).
Home --- wife --- children.
4. Old age --- brain pleasure.
Here, then, is my philosophy: That since I choose to live life as an Idealist, each one of the aforesaid steps must be lived to the utmost possible, for the benefit of those following me and the delight of my soul.
If I die in the fulfilling of one of the steps, what remains of pleasure in life will cause me no regret, for unto ashes shall I be returned. If not, "tant mieux!"
Two propositions seem to object: --
1. That my decision is egotistical --- yet if every man thought of the pleasure and beauty in life, wars would cease; men would rise intellectually and the world morally.
2. That my decision is inconsiderate of those nearest to me --- yet I was not asked whether I wanted to come into life --- why then should I ask others whether I could leave it or not? Besides, the greatest treasure a man has is his life --- no other person should propose to himself a claim on it. I have my own life to live --- may it be done worthily.
You see, dear mother, I am in a very curious world --- on a very queer planet. One does no work, yet somehow life is much larger. The past---the grumbling civilization I left behind me has become but a collection of trifling memories. That is why such queer ideas come to me. Perhaps they are all wrong; if so, please do tell me, but do not forget to tell me why.
Most devotedly and appreciatively, I await impatiently your answering letter.
14 July, 1917
MY DEAR MOTHER: --
Doubtless on such a day as this I should write in eloquent words an international philosophy, seeing that this is usually considered a world-wide fête.
The mondial horizon of this day, as far as I have seen, has been under my "trailer" the first half of the day, and under the car, the last half. I almost stayed under my trailer (that's my house), for the whole thing got tired of standing up on its wheels and came down to take a rest on my back.
Please start to understand things. When I left America I thought I was a hero. I now consider myself a shirker and a fool. In America, you see us under shellfire from the time we get up. Please see it as it is. A shell once a month and the rest either running these busses along some road with about as much excitement as running a trolley car --- only that there are not as many stops --- or writing poetry in a little peasant village.
This work is not that of a man full of the blood of youth, with inspiration and with ideals. This was made for the lowest type of man --- not even the chauffeur, but the peasant. It is a peasant-like, animal toil. Not that I mind the work and the fatigue, but that I mind doing it for so little positive result. If an intellectual man comes over here to help France, he should help her, if he has any patriotism, not with arms and legs, but with his brains. Is there anything more dramatic than to let go to waste the most vital factor of modern warfare --- the spirit and energy of Youth? Is there anything more dramatic than to hold in, any small promise of grandeur in a human? It is the bourgeois parent quenching the spark of Art in the child; the New England mother forbidding her son to leave the farm and expand himself. It is weighing down a fellow by the neck by putting his red-blooded vitality to driving trucks instead of driving for positive results and victory, side by side with the other boys who are expanding their young souls as the beauty of youth requires and the breed of their nation demands.
If there is a factory of beauty in the world, nothing could be more bourgeois than to hold it down; nothing could be more criminal than to hinder its perfecting itself.
Is there any more glorious factory of beauty in the world than the fiery, soaring, impressioned, enjoying spirit of Youth? No. Then let its wings take wind and fly. Let them spread on their tornado and fly their highest! It will be something for the world to look up to, and the world lives in divinity but by the things it looks up to, or can sometimes --- rare times, fully attain.
A statue, a picture can never be perfectioned enough, so, at least, develop it to the fullest, if it is to be something big --- a monument, a factor in the world.
Please consider the mixture of facts and philosophy that I am giving you in these letters, without indifference and without pessimism. Do not, when reading this, see the world as wholly made up of elder ones, but know that there is another half to it, and a very big one. Look over carefully the steps in life I marked out in my last letter. I have made them a plan to follow for myself (if it be my good fortune to attain them) and I want to feel sure that you agree.
I always consider you very much, mother, but more than you, more than myself, must I be true to the Idealism of the world. That is the greatest god to obey and the greatest religion to be loyal to. More than patriotism, more than home, more than church, does the philosophy which makes man's life beautiful, strong and divine demand self-sacrifice and loyalty. Mother, inasmuch as it is so high, our human customs and trifling attachments must be unconsidered, our human desires must be sacrificed. In so doing, if there be need, I can see nothing of mourning in the joy of such a divine light and the height of such inspiration. If the Idealism of life in its fulfillment and perfectionment demand that I give up my life for it, mother, your soul should be so filled with the grandeur of it that the smile of the gods should dawn across a heart where human tears were meant.
If I could give my life to make a bit of Idealism perfect itself and live immortal on a mortal world, it would be the highest hope I could attain and the greatest happiness I could enjoy. If I were to live lukewarmly and die weakly, it would be the greatest tragedy I or any human could suffer.
I am only telling you this because I feel assured that you can rise to the appreciation of it. I do not ask you to live to it --- just to appreciate it and in the future to sympathize with it as you have so far kindly accepted it in the past. Just as a Roman would be true to his Rome, a Catholic to his God, I hope that you will not fret at my being true to it --- the modern religion.
You will remember my poem " Crepusculum Sacrum ("Man's Soul is the Shrine of Religion").
In following out of a philosophy in life, I would not be doing it through weakness, as when J. J. Rousseau said, "Man must have a god to worship"; but I am following it out that my life may be a unit, a factor, a piece, of something while yet it is and not dwindled away unlived, unremembered ...
20 July, 1917
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER:---
The letter you sent June 25th has greatly impressed me. Although in the midst of much joy it brought back souvenirs of America and New London with the most vivid colors. That you should meet those with whom I held delightful friendship and who were factors in the most perfect summer I have yet passed, is a great joy to me now that I am one year, three thousand miles away from them, and far from the pleasant smiles along the sunny beach or the cool night rides --- far isolated from them in a world of much suffering and of much sorrow.
But this is not entirely grief --- grief is but a half of my new world. As deep as grief lies buried on the one side, so much higher does joy contrast on the other. However, it is not the joy of the summer resort --- it is the gay little peasant street or the flowing gowns and naughty eyes that pass beneath the Paris boulevard trees, or yet the hoarse singing of soldiers behind the lines covered with mud and fatigue, but finding in the twinkling red wine distraction from horrors men have never witnessed. That is joy indeed; but it is such a foreign joy to me that your letters still bring me the childish sting of homesickness.
Your letter also thrilled me --- the initiative power you take with you never fails wherever you go. You seem an Indian Prince travelling with his entire court of gallants, artisans, and officers; wherever you land a world of art takes birth, and were it in the midst of Sahara, tribes would soon be wending their camels towards the shrine of new life, so mysteriously sprung in their dry country. Though you may lack in certain qualities --- which would indeed be contrary to your part of a woman---you always have a self-made environment of art, happiness, and movement that must forcibly make the world one lovely garden for you and surely attract others with its magnetism. Nothing could attract more: Art, happiness, movement.
Yesterday evening I received orders that my permission came to-day. Little would be the amount of whooping and jumping stunts you have seen me go through, compared to those I carried out then. A bath followed immediately. Finally, when much pacified again, I strolled through the little village streets with much the same impression I had upon leaving school.
The houses and walls of vine-sprinkled stone, huddled together in the evening as a big herd of sheep in the pasture of hills surrounding. Over the gray masses and through the evening sky one long streak of yellow was closing the day. Entering the winding main street, I passed groups of men in blue tiredly talking their hours of rest away. Now and then I found a few peasant girls with their old mothers around a doorstep and knowing them, bade them "Bonsoir, Mesdames."
All along the street of many stage-settings, men and women were at peace, sometimes laughing; more often just reposing far from the land of war.
I was not coming back again to drive trucks along these dusty roads. I would never seek adventure in these hollyhock gardens again. I would no longer buy cigarettes from Madame or "petits gâteaux:" from Mademoiselle. The monotonous village of before became a place of slumber and rest as one big, sweet, reposing grave into which one could always enter weary-worn and afterwards leave with new strength. Of my little village and the two months I had spent there, I was entirely satisfied and betook myself contentedly to bed. "Good-bye, Little Village."
This morning, before any one else, I arose in the snappy chill, breathed in the fragrance of a thousand trees and awoke to the dawn of a day of supreme joy. Everything became new. I was to go back to Paris. This time I was one of her soldiers --- one who had been to the front; one who felt somewhat, although not entirely, entitled to the pleasure rivers of her happy capitol. I had set off for school vacations before with more or less of an idea for a good time, but this time life's pleasures seemed precise , and vivid. I felt my Youth stronger than the adolescence of school days. I knew more of what life was --- a great deal more --- and I was going back to the joyful city of the French, more than ever prepared to find my pleasures definitely; to weigh them to their exact proportion; to feel them contrast with the toil of a nobler sort than study, and more than all to get them and live them by myself, for myself, with the constant knowledge that I was more of a man, and that I had at last worthied myself to gain self-reliance and independence.
My first "séjour à Paris" was exceedingly joyful. It was the return to my first love. But then I put on the uniform --- immediately I entered upon a new life and found in my first love a new heart --- one that loved me more for greater reasons and one that in return I cherished with a deeper sympathy, for, you see, we were both at war together.
My second séjour, then, was my first permission. As I told you, I felt quite elated to say to my friends, "Oui, en permission."
This is my third séjour. It is really my first permission, for in time, red tape, and the rest, it is truly military. It is also my first return to Babylon from the field of dashing armies --- in other words, as we say in 1917, "I have been at the front."
My fourth séjour will be still more joyful, though, for it will be a return to rise higher in the hearts of those I love. Wait! ...
My fifth séjour will be almost glorious. I will be between the mountain peak and the sky.
My sixth séjour and fifth permission will be glorious if it comes, for I will have attained the sky.
Tell me, many details, dear stenographer, of those you meet at N. Tell me especially about H., for although there are roses of many lands, I never forget those who, in any way, have been tangent to my heart.
Tell me a great deal about her. She won't have much to say --- it was n't for that I liked her, but she's always H., so remember me enthusiastically to her.
Tell Dick he'd better come over here before I go fetch him --- that if the submarines don't duck him, I will, for he's a naughty boy to remain so far away from the world that's the only one for him.
I have made, varnished, bullet-tipped, and painted myself a curious cane indeed. The decorations on the handle are paintings of an Indian girl and a Russian princess --- one each side --- the Far West and the Far East; so that when my hand takes hold of it I can flatter myself by repeating: --
For East is East and West is West, And never the twain shall meet, But in the mighty hand of God
I'd make some cute, little god, now, would n't I?