In the evening there were picture-shows, concerts, lectures-nearly all dealing with the war, of course. They were held in big halls built by the Y.M.C.A., an organization for which Jimmie had a hearty contempt. He regarded it as a device of the exploiting classes to teach submission to their white-collar slaves. But nobody could live in a training-camp without being aware of the “Y”. Jimmie was invited to a lecture, and out of boredom he went.
It was Sergeant Ebenezer Collins, imported from Flanders to tell the “doughboys” about the wiles of the Hun. Sergeant Collins spoke a weird language which Jimmie had never heard before, and not all of which he could understand; it served, however, to convince him that the sergeant was genuine—for nobody could possibly have faked such a form of utterance! “When yer gow inter Wipers naow,” said the orator, “yer see owld, grye-headed lydies an’ bybies like little wite gowsts, an’ yer sye ter them, ’Gow-a-wye, the ’Un may be ’ere ter-dye,’ but they wown’t gow, they got now ’omes ter gow ter!”
But in spite of the difficulties of a foreign language, you realized that this Cockney sergeant was a man. For one thing he had a sense of humour; he had kept it in the midst of terror and death—kept it standing all night in trenches full of icy-cold water, with icy-cold water pouring down his collar. Also the sergeant had a sense of honour—there were things he could not do to a ’Un, even though the ’Un might do them to him. Jimmie had listened to excited debates in Local Leesville, as to whether the Allies were really any better than the Germans; whether, for example, the Allies would have sunk passenger-liners with women and babies on board, if it had been necessary in order to win the war. Sergeant Collins did not debate this question, he just revealed himself as a fighting man. “It’s because we plye gymes, an’ they down’t,” he remarked. “If yer plye gymes, yer now ’ow to plye fair.”
For three years and eight months Jimmie had been hearing stories about atrocities, and for three years and eight months he had been refusing to believe them. But now the Cockney sergeant told about a pal who had been wounded in a night attack by the ’Uns, and the sergeant had tried to carry him back and had had to leave him; towards dawn they made a counter-attack, and retook the village, and there they found the sergeant’s pal, still alive, in spite of the fact that he was spiked to a barn-door with bayonets through his hands and feet. When that story was told, you heard a low murmur run through the room and saw a couple of thousand young men clenching their hands and setting their jaws, getting ready for their big job in France.