Memoirs & Diaries - War is War - Fear, Friends and Black Humour

Humorous illustration from the 'Wipers Times' "Most of us were cowards - I was certainly one - but there are as many degrees of cowardice as there are shades of a primary colour.

I could respect my own brand of cowardice, and that of others like me, because we laughed at it and owned to it and didn't expect anybody else to take any interest in our own personal reactions.  But the really repulsive coward... was the complete egotist who felt that his skin was too precious to be punctured, and expected the next man - also in the same boat - to sympathise with him.

"We have become grossly selfish.  We think only of our own bellies and our own skins.  It has to be that way.  Our hearts would break if we shouldered the burdens of others and let our minds dwell on their agonies and their deaths.  It isn't safe to have a friend.  Any moment he may become a mess of human wreckage with a twisted rifle in his hand, and then you've got to look for a new one.  When a man is killed we rush to him to see whether he's got any food in his haversack or, that priceless possession, a safety-razor."

Despite being totally unlike Burrage in many ways, and despite all the emotional risks involved in forming friendships, "Dave" nevertheless was his friend from the earliest days of the war, and went missing at Passchendaele.

"One mid-day I get a great piece of news.  Dave wasn't killed after all! ...he was blown up and buried twice on the night preceding the attack.  It seems now that he was blown up and buried again during the attack - planted in the ground like an onion with his head protruding - and he would be there now if another shell hadn't blown him out again.  And not a scratch!

Of course I am delighted beyond words, but in some odd way I am a little cross with him.  I am conscious of having wasted a lot of emotion on the old devil, and I have now got used to the idea of his being dead... He is the only 'Missing, believed killed,' who has turned up again.  So, glad as I am, I can't help feeling that he might have had the decency to remain dead... he has just arrived in the nick of time to save me from posting a letter to his father, saying that he died quite painlessly and quoting some very noble 'last words' which I had invented for the occasion. 

"We had a lot of fun in the tent on rather a grim subject.  Most of us had the addresses of one another's people in order to write the usual letter in case the worst happened to one or any of us.  I had not given my mother's address for, if I became too intimate with some high explosive, I wanted the news to be broken to her a little more gently.

So Jacko had the name and address of a lady who was the mother of a girl in whom I was interested, and who had promised to call on my poor mother and break the news, if any news had to be broken.  To Jacko's amusement I pictured the scene.  The lady would do it so tactfully!  She would call and have tea and suddenly say: "What a nice fellow your son was."  "Not was - is," my mother would reply.  "No, not is - was!" the other lady would exclaim.

There will be those who think this is a perfectly heartless joke.  Yet we found ourselves in that frame of mind.  We had to regard the prospect of our own respective violent deaths as something natural and probable, and in defence of the weakness of our own natures we treated the subject as lightly as possible.

"Our ambitions are quite pathetic, seen now in retrospect.  We discuss the chances of getting back to England not too painfully wounded.  After the war we arrange to meet at a little pub in Epping Forest... and get gloriously zig-zag while discussing these bad old times.  That's all we ask of the future - just safety, just comfort and enough to eat and drink.  If only we can come through alive we will never, never grumble at the petty annoyances of life which civilians know no better than to call misfortunes and even tragedies."

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

Panzer was a term used to describe a German tank.

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A M Burrage - War is War