"My God! She makes us die happy." (from One who has Fought and Bled)
A day when so many bloviate about "sacrifice" ought to be a day when we refuse to tolerate waste. Here's a thought for Memorial Day: how about a day of remembrance with, the gods forfend, "nuance"? A day that lets us pause a moment for the men waiting on Little Round Top or in the forest of Ardennes, but also a day when we don't tolerate lies about war, or lie to ourselves about the senseless waste of Fredericksburg or My Lai or the Somme.
The following letter by "A Little Mother" appeared in Britain during World War One, and was widely circulated as genuine. Though now considered the work of a propagandist, the responses praising it appear to be genuine. In The Great War and Modern Memory (one of those world-shifting books that everyone should read at least once) historian and combat veteran Paul Fussell says the “testimonials earned by this famous letter suggest a society for which the only accurate term would be 'sick'”.
A MOTHER'S ANSWER TO 'A COMMON SOLDIER'
by "A Little Mother"
A Message to the Pacifists A Message to the Bereaved
A Message to the Trenches
(Owing to the immense demand from home and from the trenches for this letter, which appeared in The Morning Post, the editor found it necessary to place it in the hands of London publishers to be reprinted in pamphlet form, seventy-five thousand copies of which were sold in less than a week direct from the publishers.)
Extract from a letter from Her Majesty
The Queen was deeply touched at the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter, and Her Majesty fully realizes what her words must mean to our soldiers in the trenches and in hospitals.
To the Editor of The Morning Post:
Sir,--As a mother of an only child--a son who was early and eager to do his duty--may I be permitted to reply to Tommy Atkins, whose letter appeared in your issue of the 9th instead? Perhaps he will kindly convey to his friends in the trenches, not what the Government thinks, not what the Pacifists think, but what the mothers of the British race think of our fighting men. It is a voice which demands to be heard, seeing that we play the most important part in the history of the world, for it is we who 'mother the men' who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world.
To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier,' may I say that we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as 'Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood of our brave lads shall testify to the future that their blood was not spilt in vain. We need no marble monuments to remind us. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no 'sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and "comfy" in the summer'. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherwood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps, so that when the 'common soldier' looks back before going 'over the top' he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.
The reinforcements of women are, therefore, behind the 'common soldier'. We gentle-nurtured, timid sex did not want the war. It is no pleasure to us to have our homes made desolate and the apple of our eye taken away. We would sooner our lovable, promising, rollicking boy stayed at school. We would have much preferred to have gone on in a light-hearted way with our amusements and our hobbies. But the bugle call came, and we have hung up the tennis racquet, we've fetched our laddie from school, we've put his cap away, and we have glanced lovingly over his last report, which said 'Excellent'--we've wrapped them all in a Union Jack and locked them up, to be taken out only after the war to be looked at. A 'common soldier', perhaps, did not count on the women, but they have their part to play, and we have risen to our responsibility. We are proud of our men, and they in turn have to be proud of us. If the men fail, Tommy Atkins, the women won't.
Tommy Atkins to the front,
He has gone to bear the brunt.
Shall 'stay-at-homes' do naught but snivel and but sigh?
No, while your eyes are filling
We are up and doing, willing
To face the music with you--or to die!
Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.
A LITTLE MOTHER
"Florence Nightingale did great and grand things for the soldiers of her day, but no woman has done more than the "Little Mother", whose now famous letter to The Morning Post has spread like wild-fire from trench to trench. I hope to God it will be handed down in history, for nothing like it has ever made such an impression on our fighting men. I defy any man to feel weak-hearted after reading it...My God! she makes us die happy." (One who has Fought and Bled)
"The "Little Mother's" letter should reach every corner of the earth--a letter of the loftiest ideal, tempered with courage and the most sublime sacrifice." (Percival H. Monkton)
"I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over." (A Bereaved Mother)
This would all be academic and quaint were it not that we again live in a time when to question the morality of any war is apparently a breach of good manners on television, though every other subject is fit for company. After all, as Dr. Johnson cynically observed, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea", and the war lovers have bullied almost every journalist and politician in the United States into seeing things their way. In 2008, it is better to throw a hundred soldiers into a meat grinder than to question those patriots' wisdom in sacrificing themselves For the Benefit of Mother War, that sow who eats her own babies. Me, I'll leave the last word to a “shell-shocked” Siegfried Sassoon:
You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardors while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops "retire"
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses, blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
... Like the old man in Twain’s The War Prayer -- of whom the crowd declared “there was no sense in anything he said”-- Sassoon’s friends had to conspire together to have him declared mentally incompetent, in order to save him from being shot for treason.