In ‘The Last Shot’, which appeared only a few months before the Great War began, drawing from my experience in many wars, I attempted to describe the character of a conflict between two great European land-powers, such as France and Germany.
“You were wrong in some ways,” a friend writes to me, “but in other ways it is almost as if you had written a play and they were following your script and stage business.”
Wrong as to the duration of the struggle and its bitterness and the atrocious disregard of treaties and the laws of war by one side; right about the part which artillery would play; right in suggesting the stalemate of intrenchments when vast masses of troops occupied the length of a frontier. Had the Germans not gone through Belgium and attacked on the shorter line of the Franco-German boundary, the parallel of fact with that of prediction would have been more complete. As for the ideal of ‘The Last Shot’, we must await the outcome to see how far it shall be fulfilled by a lasting peace.
Then my friend asks, “How does it make you feel?” Not as a prophet; only as an eager observer, who finds that imagination pales beside reality. If sometimes an incident seemed a page out of my novel, I was reminded how much better I might have done that page from life; and from life I am writing now.
I have seen too much of the war and yet not enough to assume the pose of a military expert; which is easy when seated in a chair at home before maps and news dispatches, but becomes fantastic after one has lived at the front. One waits on more information before he forms conclusions about campaigns. He is certain only that the Marne was a decisive battle for civilization; that if England had not gone into the war the Germanic Powers would have won in three months.
No words can exaggerate the heroism and sacrifice of the French or the importance of the part which the British have played, which we shall not realize till the war is over. In England no newspapers were suppressed; casualty lists were published; she gave publicity to dissensions and mistakes which others concealed, in keeping with her ancient birthright of free institutions which work out conclusions through discussion rather than take them ready-made from any ruler or leader.
Whatever value this book has is the reflection of personal observation and the thoughts which have occurred to me when I have walked around my experiences and measured them and found what was worth while and what was not. Such as they are, they are real.
Most vital of all in sheer expression of military power was the visit to the British Grand Fleet; most humanly appealing, the time spent in Belgium under German rule; most dramatic, the French victory on the Marne; most precious, my long stay at the British front.