This letter is rather disjointed; I’m in charge of the battery for the time, and messages keep on coming in, and one has to rush out to give the order to fire.
It’s an American night—snow-white and piercing, with a frigid moon sailing quietly. I think the quiet beauty of the sky is about the only thing in Nature that we do not scar and destroy with our fighting.
Good-bye, and thank you ever so much.
February 1st, 1917.
Your picture of the black days when no letter comes from me sets me off scribbling to you at this late hour. All to-day I’ve been having a cold but amusing time at the O.P. (Forward Observation Post). It seems brutal to say it, but taking potshots at the enemy when they present themselves is rather fun. When you watch them scattering like ants before the shell whose direction you have ordered, you somehow forget to think of them as individuals, any more than the bear-hunter thinks of the cubs that will be left motherless. You watch your victims through your glasses as God might watch his mad universe. Your skill in directing fire makes you what in peace times would be called a murderer. Curious! You’re glad, and yet at close quarters only in hot blood would you hurt a man.
I’d been back for a little over an hour when I had to go forward again to guide in some guns. The country was dazzlingly white in the moonlight. As far as eye could see every yard was an old battlefield; beneath the soft white fleece of snow lay countless unburied bodies. Like frantic fingers tearing at the sky, all along the horizon, Hun lights were shooting up and drifting across our front. Tap-tap-tappity went the machine-guns; whoo-oo went the heavies, and they always stamp like angry bulls. I had to come back by myself across the heroic corruption which the snow had covered. All the way I asked myself why was I not frightened. What has happened to me? Ghosts should walk here if anywhere. Moreover, I know that I shall be frightened again when the war is ended. Do you remember how you once offered me money to walk through the Forest of Dean after dark, and I wouldn’t? I wouldn’t if you offered it to me now. You remember Meredith’s lines in “The Woods of Westermain”:
“All the eyeballs
Shroud you in their glare;
Enter these enchanted woods
You who dare.”
Maybe what re-creates one for the moment is the British officer’s uniform, and even more the fact that you are not asked, but expected, to do your duty. So I came back quite unruffled across battered trenches and silent mounds to write this letter to you.
My dear father, I’m over thirty, and yet just as much a little boy as ever. I still feel overwhelmingly dependent on your good opinion and love. I’m glad that they are black days when you have no letters from me. I love to think of the rush to the door when the postman rings and the excited shouting up the stairs, “Quick, one from Con.”