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In the early days of the war I was present at many embarkations at Liverpool and Southampton, and they left an impression on my mind which will not easily be effaced. For, even to an onlooker, the embarkation of troops, with its sights and sounds of tragedy, is an affair that burns itself into the memory; one is dazzled and confounded by the number and variety of the small dramas that are enacted before one's eyes; and the whole is framed in a setting of military system and circumstance that lends dignity, if that were needed, to the humble tragedies of the moment.
Another man who had missed seeing his wife before he had embarked caught sight of her from the ship's deck as she stood upon the quay with tears in her eyes. There was no chance of his being allowed to pass down the gangway. But the husband in him knew no obedience to the stern order, and he dived clean off the stern of the steamer into the filthy water and swam, khaki and all, to the steps at the side of the dock. And you may be sure his wife was there to help him out, and she forgot her grief in her pride at his daring. So he held her in his arm for a moment (and had three ringing cheers from his mates into the bargain) before he was collared and marched back to restraint, dirty but glorious.
That night and the next morning I walked through the town and talked to people who had been living there; and it was when I talked to the people that I began to realise what had been happening. The few ruined buildings and riddled walls conveyed little to me. But when one found man after man thin, listless, and (in spite of the joy of salvation) dispirited; talking with a tired voice and hopeless air, and with a queer, shifty, nervous, scared look in the eye, one began to understand.The thing was scarcely human, scarcely of this world. These men were not like oneself. If you threaten an inexperienced boxer with a quick play of fists on every side of his head, even though you never touch him, you may completely demoralise him; he shies at every feint and every movement. And these people had been in a situation comparable with that of the poor boxer. Think of it. The signal from the conning tower, the clamour of bells and whistles, the sudden silence amongst the people, the rush for shelter, and then the hum and roar, like wind in a chimney, of the huge iron cylinder flying through the air, potent for death. And then, perhaps, the noise of a falling building, or the scream of some human creature who is nothing but a mass of offence when you come up five seconds later. Think of this repeated six or seven—sometimes sixty or seventy—times during the daylight hours, and can you wonder that men should lose their placid manners and scuttle like rats into their holes at the dreaded sound? And all this fear and horror to be borne upon an empty stomach, for the horrors of partial starvation were added to the constant fear of a violent death. Mothers had to see their babies die because there was no milk or other suitable nourishment; a baby cannot live on horse and mule flesh. There was hardly a coloured baby left alive; and that one statement accounts for whole lifetimes of misery and suffering.