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from Cloud and silver (1916)
by E.V. Lucas

On Bellona's hem, pt. 5

Laughter in the Trenches

THE careless facetiousness of the British soldier in the fighting line of the present war is the wonder of the world. Where does he get this spirit? we ask. How comes it that, even there, jokes are so ready to his tongue? How can so much of his terrible business lend itself to jest? The complete answer would require a psychological memoir of great length, and no doubt we should in the course of it alight upon the fact that irony is allied to courage, or, at any rate, is one of the best protections against a too vivid perception of fact, and, collectively, an admirable means of concealing deeper feelings. But it is not the British soldier's use of humour as a sustaining influence in which I am at the moment interested, but his general day and night delight in it. This not only is new, but very curious.

   For the best rapid idea of the persistent levity that I mean, one must go perhaps to the drawings of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, collected in a book entitled Fragments from France. Here may be seen two score and more diverting pictures of Mr. Atkins at the Front informed by a sardonic laughing philosophy. The horrors of war are by no means lacking. Indeed, but for those horrors we should not have these jokes: the relation is intimate. No historian of the war who takes any account of the psychology of the New Army can afford to neglect Captain Bairnsfather's work. And it certainly reveals the value of irony as a prop in hard times. Without that buckler no trench fighter is fully armed.

   What is the cause of this levity in this most cruel and terrible of campaigns? To a large extent fashion. Human nature, it is true, does not change, but human veneers change very often; and no doubt there is a fashion for facetiousness to-day that did not exist a few years ago. They had their jesters then, of course, but the joke was not essential; it was not yet crowned. To-day every one is funny, or would like to be funny. It is a kind of national duty. To-day the German trenches are given comic names, and bayonet charges towards them, which are to end in the bloodiest and most dreaded kind of warfare, are dashed into to such battle-cries as "Early doors, sixpence!" — a significant enough form of words, for it is largely through the music-hall and theatre that this prevailing and far from undesirable tendency to jest has grown and spread. Were I lecturing upon the two Georges — Mr. George Graves, with his grotesque epithet or simile for every incident of life; and Mr. George Robey, with his discoveries of the humour that lurks in seaminess — I should say that they are prime movers in this mode. Without them and what they stand for there would not exist half the raillery that now enlivens and heartens the army.

   But there is still another reason for the levity of our men in this war; and that is the foe himself. Implacable and unscrupulous as the enemy has been, the German qua German yet remains a comic figure to the mind of the English rank and file soldier, who is, one has to remember, very largely either the man in the street or the man in the village. To him the broad idea of the German, familiar, though not much considered, for years, is a quaint foreigner, often in too sharp competition with Englishmen, who shaves his head, usually wears spectacles, has an outlandish speech, is often too fat and always too alien; while it is notorious that he lives on sausages and that they are made of dachshunds. Probably the inseparable association of the sausage with Germany would alone have served to render the German a figure pour rire in the eyes of the unexamining, for, as has been often enough pointed out, it is sufficient to mention this article of diet to any English music-hall audience to have them in fits of laughter. Why, no one has ever wholly understood. For the comedian to say " kipper" is to partake of much of the same triumph, but not all. The sausage comes first, and the German, no matter what the rest of his activities may be, or how dreadful, is a sausage-eater or even sausage-worshipper.

   Such, then, is the preconception, however erroneous, and it is so firmly fixed that not even the horrors of war can wholly exclude a certain amusement at the notion of this figure, indefinitely multiplied and clad in uniform, constituting the other side.

   So much for those of our soldiers who had never met a German. There remain those that had, and here again was nothing to provoke anticipatory gloom, for the Germans visible and tangible to the man in the street and the man in the village are Germans who have shaved them, or fed them, or done them out of jobs; and none of them, despite their efficiency, were ridicule proof. There was something comic in the idea of an enemy consisting of this expatriated parasitical type of warrior. It made the campaign wear a farcical look. I do not suggest that there have not been very serious awakenings and realizations to the contrary, but the preconception gave the note and it has persisted. Moreover, when it is remembered that the British soldier is more ready to be amused than to be frightened, it will be seen that even the Germans themselves have contributed not a little to this risibility since the war began. That they devastated Belgium is true, but the deed carried its penalty with it in the name Hun, and to Mr. Atkins' whimsical mind such a word as that, and especially without the aspirate, is meat and drink. An enemy who, whatever his deadly purposefulness, can be characterized as 'uns is bound to attract banter. Then, again, there was the French soldier's word for him, also very sympathetic to the British sense of fun — Boche. The finer types of foe could never be called either 'un or Bosh; and when an 'ymn of 'ate is added there is no more to be said. In short, whatever the Germans have done, they have left a loophole, a joint in the armour, for the satirist to penetrate, and satire was never more general in England than now.

   If one doubts that the alleged character and physical conformation of the enemy is in any way responsible for so much jestingness in our men, one has but to conjecture what would be the ease were we fighting some one else. Did our men, for example, exhibit during the Crimean War anything approaching the sardonic mirthfulness of their present attitude? I can find no evidence that they did. And is it likely, were the Russians of to-day our foes instead of our friends, that our men would fight them laughing as they are so ready to laugh now? I think not, for the Russian is certainly not a figure of fun to the English mind. The mass of us know almost nothing about him, but what we do know, or think we know, is very serious.

   Or against the French, should we be so lighthearted, so ready with hilarity? I think not. The Frenchman, once a target for English ridicule, has long ceased to be so. To this generation the term "Froggy" is hardly known. Moreover, the French, when it comes to warfare, have a tradition that carries a very impressive weight. They may have been beaten by the Germans in 1870, but Napoleon is still a gigantic idea, and atavistically we may yet be conscious of the Boney scares. Anyway, I hold that whatever preconception the man in the street and the man in the village may have fostered with regard to the French, there was no element of contempt in it. One reason for this I have given, and the other is that Frenchmen are rare in England, and when they are met they are not antipathetic enough for any very distinct preconception to have been formed, and certainly not one of disdain. It is the admirable nature of the French to wish to leave France as little as they can, and, once away, to wish quickly to be back again; and with such a nostalgia always present, they are concerned to take away no Englishman's livelihood. To a Frenchman there is no home but the country which it is foolishly customary to accuse of lacking a word for that sacred haven; whereas many Germans who bleat tearfully of their Fatherland are never happy until they substitute foreign soil for it.