At two o’clock in the morning, somewhere along that blackened coast, the G. I. trucks picked us up, Where? We could not say, for all our certitudes had been shattered when the train turned irrevocably away from London and in the last twilight sped through unknown towns. Through the long day we had followed her circuitous course on our crude maps: a dodging, twisting race through the bleak midlands, on a gray afternoon. From time to time the scars of bombing or an historic name on a station platform startled us. But in the evening, sitting in the blacked-out compartment, we so far drowsed off as to lose all sense of direction and time, We had not slept for forty hours. Cities and villages streamed by in their ghostly darkness, and it was not hard to believe that we—we and our little train and our months and years of preparation—had been lost. But then at last the train stopped, and we took on our fantastic burden. So jumbled together were the packs and rifles, the cartridge belts and bayonets, that only two could dress* at a time. But when we stumbled out onto the tiny station platform, it was a familiar voice that called us to attention, a little sharper than ever in its own dismay.
Now we were “overseas,” and American soldiers were here on this tiny platform to meet us, the familiar two-and-a-half ton trucks backed up against the train. Soon we were aboard, and there was an impression of driving very fast over a sparse un-English plain; the blackout headlights of following trucks nevertheless dipped and turned. Time cannot be measured when you sit awkwardly forward on the bench of an Army truck, with your blanket roll and your rifle making it impossible to lean back. Moods come and go with the swiftness that rumors change. Then silence and cold settle over the sixteen crowded men, and they speculate once more on how long the war will last. On this night, as the trucks rumbled close to the stone fences and then the actual dark houses of a little town, we regretted that we would not be billetted in any such town, but no doubt isolated in the barren enormity of a large camp. On Saturday nights only, and if we were lucky, we would get into this town.
Some minutes later the trucks stopped. We saw only a single Nissen hut and a row of imposing stone houses across the road: perhaps we would live in these houses. But there were more men in fatigues to welcome us—to put us at once through their awareness of our plight: not even barracks, not even the infamous Nissen huts, but the pyramids of six-man tents. Inside each tent were wooden cots and lumpy straw-filled mattresses, an oil heater and a lamp. After a snack at the primitive little kitchen hut, I was escorted to the latrine: to facilities so appalling that I turned to my guide with surprise. He shrugged his shoulders:
“You’re in the E. T. O. now. You’re not back home, you know.”
“But all the camps aren’t like this?”
“No. Some are better. Some worse. You haven’t got hot water. But who has got any, over here?”
“And no showers!”
He turned to me with what was unmistakably patience. He had been in England fourteen months.
“You’re really lucky,” he said. “You’re near a town. It’s a good town.”
“Are they friendly?”
“The girls? Sure, I guess so.”
“I mean the English.”
He fingered nervously the cigarette which he could not light till we got inside. “You’ll get it after a while. This isn’t the States, and there’s no use expecting anything. There’s nothing to do. And the people? Well, they’ve been through a lot. But they’re good people. I guess there’s just too many G. I.’s everywhere, though there’s not so many in this town. There’s lots you won’t like. You’ll want to give your last sixpence for a hot bath. But if you don’t expect too much, well, it isn’t so bad.”
He left me at the door to my tent with the news that we could sleep until eight o’clock. I record his resigned little speech, which was yet something infinitely more, because it was the only time I had ever heard a soldier speak in just this Way. He had as it were given up the soldier’s right to bitch. He was somehow older than I.
The tents loomed through the morning fog indistinctly, much as the first sergeant’s voice and whistle had loomed in our tired consciousness a few minutes before. To awaken is always to walk out of a fog; to recover equilibrium from the disarray of our false and uncensored selves. But now we were concerned with more immediate things: the damp cold, and the strange feel of lush wet grass to a soldier’s combat shoes. As we lined up for chow, in the fog, there was still the illusion that we were lost. Clearly we were here because mysterious coded orders had sent us here, but this here was out of the world: a precarious foothold on a small plot of English ground, an horizon of morning fog. It was as though, remaining so intact from our American experience, still the same officers and men, the land had refused to receive us. Only the actual touch of new human life would establish the reality of ourselves. We ate silently, still wearing our overcoats and helmet liners, in our fatigue and cold. We huddled over our canteen cups of coffee, and sought consolation in huddling within ourselves.
But we were to learn, soon, how swiftly English weather can change. When we left the Nissen hut dining hall, only twenty minutes later, the morning fog had lifted, and we knew where we were. So it was, standing in line to dip our mess kits, that we stared at our new home. Down the field the rows of tents sloped and then dropped sharply onto the immaculate green of a cricket field. We were indeed, as an army unit, alone; there were no other tents or huts. At the foot of the green cricket lawn the hillside vanished, and far below were the huddled roofs of a town: a myriad of roofs of all shapes and sizes, with here and there a thatched roof. It was at once clear that this was a quaint and ancient town, though quaintness and antiquity cease to be such when blended thus with the surrounding fields. Two grey churches dominated the town—a chapel and a church which seemed to belong together, though one must have been new and the other built long before the days of warring creeds. Around this larger and older church, as though on its shoulders, the whole town was built: one of those rare churches which must have carried through its original design. The sun now lit up the farther fields, and the valley was a bowl of green on the surface of which floated the jumbled yet spotless cluster of the town. On this bright spring morning we had yet to hear an automobile or a foreign voice; yet to hear the church’s bells. Only in the far distance of another world a silver-bellied trainer, speckled by the sun, droned high in the sky. The town itself was silent and asleep, and we were cowed by the fantastic beauty of its morning sleep.
But not for long. It was the solemnity of our first real formation of the morning that the noise shattered. At the top of our field was a high hedge of hazelnut, elder, blackberry, and hawthorn just coming in bloom. From behind this hedge, as though in obedience to the first sergeant’s preparatory command, “COMpany. . ..!”—a flock of sheep appeared, bounded eagerly over a row of flagstones and in sublime unconcern raced toward us across the field. We were directly athwart their course, and they had only to swerve slightly to bisect the second and third platoons. Behind the leaders a squat dog scurried, worrying the tiny snow-white lambs which dallied behind. And behind the entire flock, as though following the crippled shepherd rather than the sheep, were the ragged eager children of the town. When we laughed, happy to be so discovered, the sharp command “At ease!” could not make us still.
That was the beginning. Children revere ceremony and order, and they gaped in awe at the figure which our burly first sergeant cut. But once the formation had been dismissed, our tents were overrun. It took them only a minute to overcome shyness. For they had been through this before; and we had not. They knew with precision the exact contents of our green Red Cross bags: the Life Savers and gum. They knew the commodities which our K ration boxes contained. They knew of the chocolate bars, deep in our duffle bags. Within five minutes every child had candy in his hand or extra non-com stripes stuck in his cap. We were charmed; that, but also the boldness of these children, and their hunger for sweets, brought half-tears to our eyes. Perhaps they somehow knew that our company had more than its share of fathers. In every tent little bold ragamuffins were soon perched on the still unmade cots, completely at home. In that first overwhelming assault, we were stripped clean.
It was our first lesson in the meaning of privation, of what. the war had done. One could see it in the peculiar intense anxiety of the children, in their unnaturally rosy cheeks.
These rosy cheeks, which appear almost as lesions in the youngest children, are perhaps the most poignant mark of the war: a testimony far more eloquent than the unreality of a bombed building, or the curious twist of a still standing church spire. Malnutrition is no less terrible a spectacle because the children themselves are aware only of a hunger for sweets. These children, too, sturdy in a sense, hardy as the older children were wild, were older than we.
Our own privations were few. We had, of course, not bathed on our long spring cruise. Now we talked of taking a shower, weighing the possibilities, as we had once speculated where we would land. Late that morning we were marched into town with towels and soap rolled under our arms. Was there not something to confirm the darkest European suspicions in the fact that our first march in the E. T. O. was in quest of showers? Arrangements had somehow been made, but they were the arrangements possible in a strictly medieval town. Past hedgerows, thatched cottages, stone fences, and finally onto the cobblestones of the town itself we marched; then up a narrow walled alley and at last into a backyard with a coalbin. On this coalbin there was a sign: “Showers for Officers Wednesday and Friday Afternoons.” The showers could accommodate four men at a time, and to our cleanliness our officers had allotted very nearly the rest of the day. We sat down in the backyard to wait, but in the end only twelve men had showers. After that, the taps went dry.
The expedition taught us a good deal. On the way back, still unclean, we glanced curiously at the crowded windows of tiny shops—crowded with stiff bent second-hand shoes, with jam in cheap tin boxes, even with pieces of rope and string. Later we learned that in this town there was almost nothing to buy. The gay boxes of chocolate in the confectioner’s window had been empty for many months. Placards advertising football games and public dances filled the gaps where goods had once been displayed. There was nothing bright in any of the stores; nothing fresh and clean and new.
We should have expected this. In our minds we had expected much more. But privation must be seen to be known. Americans can understand but not know the war, as even the soldier stationed in England cannot yet know the war. Poverty, disease, destruction, death—these things had been presented us in terms of the exceptional case. In such extremes, they are things too remote to overcome human callousness, the natural laxity of the heart. It is only the unspectacular privations, the monotony of unspectacular poverties, that touch us at last. Walking back to our tents, we began to read these things on the faces of the people we met. In the years of war the privations had become a part of the faces, and were no longer merely a mask.
We had heard a good deal about the relationship of American soldiers and British civilians. Brochures, lectures, and even a welcoming speech on board ship had warned us of British reserve. Those of us who had been in England before, remembering the Sabbath silence of London residential hotels, added our own warnings—though we recalled too the sophisticated, tiny, and corrupt perimeter of Thackeray’s and Huxley’s world. We could only surmise the austerities of an isolated country town.
We—and the brochures—could not have been more wrong. We were indeed greeted with austere reserve, on our first night in town—but not by the British. The dark suspicious glances came rather from a detachment of American troops which for nearly a year had been billetted on the town. They stood hostile in the narrow doorways of the buildings, watching us on our first stroll up the cobblestoned streets. They did not seem anxious to show us the pubs; they answered evasively the questions which every newly-arrived soldier asks. And before long we understood the degree to which we were regarded as intruders. It was they, and not the British, who feared our boisterousness, our vulgarity, our destruction of rural peace. They had been forgotten by the war, it almost seemed, after their year. They had a good thing, and we had come to spoil it.
Was it jealousy over their girls? The girls at least showed no suspicion or reserve. We had not reached the center of the town before they had surrounded us: girls of sixteen and twenty and twenty-four, sturdy and bare-legged, for all their slimness and their thin faces—faces pinched and tired, yet infinitely mischievous, cunning, gay. There were husky Land Force girls, wood-choppers, in their comical baggy trousers; there were poignantly mature little evacuees who had never gone back to London; there were the frail pretty girls who worked in a new factory, a few miles away. But none of them could be described as “approachable”: we were the ones approached.
Largely, of course, we were novelties in a town without amusements. They were not so easy as at first they seemed. The fact was at once told us plainly by a shrewd townsman. The other American soldiers, the mistrusters, “were well bedded down.” The situation shocked and then rather pleased us. It had been accomplished in grace and ease— with such grace at least that the Americans might always have been there. They appeared one by one out of the ancient doorways, each with a girl on his arm, apparently for an after-dinner walk in the fine spring air. They walked with the affectionate indifference of married folk, or talked in subdued tones. Not once during our stay did we hear the familiar sounds of soldiers in town. Instead these corporals and sergeants nodded gravely to each other, or stopped for a quiet chat.
Later, in other camps and other towns, we were to learn how extraordinary this was. We were to be shocked by something more: by not merely the promiscuity of a whole generation, but by its casualness—a paradoxical combination of the fatigue and jaded nerves of “Antic Hay” with the inhuman and undeliberate naturalism of “Brave New World.” The sexual morality of this whole generation had to be seen to be believed: whether one saw it in a tiny smoky dance hall or listened to it amid the intense nervous shadows of blacked-out Piccadilly. Human relationships were something to be established in an hour; or to be dispensed with entirely, where this sexual relationship was concerned.
It was not so, here in our little town. Ordinary living demands an enormous measure of convention; or decency, as it is sometimes called.’ Convention at least remained here to demand that a girl should go with only one of the soldiers stationed in the town. And they had remained faithful enough, for all the sequence of recently debarked troops who had passed a week in the town and moved on. The Ajnericans who stayed had taken over the town, more or less to the exclusion of the few British boys left. But also they had themselves become, startlingly, quiet British boys. There was nothing but their uniforms to tell you that they had not come to stay.
What was there to do? This is the soldier’s peculiar question, inevitable because through the hard day and the long week inordinate value accrues to a pass. A pass must not merely compensate for what one has left behind with his civilian clothes; it must also cancel out the multiple indignities of the day. It is an American trait to want to do something: go to a movie, go to the beach, play bridge. The hard worker’s innate sense of justice demands some concrete satisfaction for the increment of boredom earned during the day. So the soldier, particularly the American soldier, is an especially frustrated and pathetic figure in England, as he roams the blacked-out streets.
What was there to do? Nothing, of course, but to go to a pub; or rather, to look for a pub which had not run out of bitter or ale. This was a first disappointment; and I found myself at last alone, as my tent-mates refused to believe that there was no movie, no Red Cross building, no dance. Also perhaps I separated myself: to go into one’s first pub, its old-fashioned facade as romantic as a page from Stevenson, was an adventure to be accomplished alone.
The pub itself was small: no more than two dark smoky rooms, one half-filled by the bar, the other lined by long stained benches. A darts game was in progress in the front room, and the half-silence was punctuated by the regular thuds of the darts. I had the distinct feeling of having brought this half-silence; the people kept on talking, giving me an unexpected smile of quasi-acceptance. But the voices had dropped in pitch. I hurried to the bar.
A few feet away an American private slouched against the wall: silent and stolid beyond loneliness. He took no notice of me, and I could only wonder whether this was the ultimate to be achieved: such a placid unobtrusive silent position at a bar as would not disturb the gaiety of the townsmen and farmers. The soldier might have been thirty, and the face would have been good-natured had it been at all alive. It was a position and face which showed tact rather than intelligence—but a tact of silence, a consciousness drugged and drowsed by the months of standing there. For he had been standing there for months: it took only the slightest nod to have his glass refilled.
By such slight signs, I soon realized, he was having other glasses refilled as well. He was buying drinks for half the room, but so inconspicuously that the bartender might have been dispensing drinks free. It is hard to explain just how it was done; and yet, he was not buying favor. The glasses of beer were offered and accepted without a word.
The half-silence was gone by the time I finished my glass. And by then I knew that the soldier was no intruder. The hoarse throaty dialect and the laughter had rolled back onto the room, and it certainly embraced him too. The bartender started things again. He took a small silver loving cup down from the bar, and brought it over to the soldier.
“It needs a polishing,” he said. “It’s a jolly fine cup, George. But it does need a bit to keep it so.”
George pushed back his overseas cap. He took the silver cup in his hand.
“I’ve been thinking that too. I was scrounging in the supply room today, and I think I can get just the right sort of cloth. I haven’t seen any polish. I’ll get the cloth, though.”
“Ay, it’s a mighty fine cup. We must be taking care on it.” The man on my right explained that the cup had been won by the pub’s team in a darts competition with the other pubs in the town. The American soldier was a member of the team.
It is hard to convey: the particular quality of feeling which had won for this soldier the affection of the people in the pub, these people who came every night. It was perhaps because he did things for them without seeming to; perhaps because he accepted as well as gave. Later in the evening there was a good deal of banter* about some work in a war garden. George had offered to help the town undertaker with his Victory garden, the next morning. But now two obstacles had appeared: the only available wheelbarrow was broken, and the undertaker’s wife—in one of her recurrent moods—objected to his working on a Sunday morning. The whole pub participated in a carefully laid campaign, for George insisted they could find another wheelbarrow, and that whatever happened, he wasn’t going to miss out on the party. He was going to bring a dozen bottles of ale and they were going to make an outing of it. They would do the work on the garden, wheelbarrow or no, wife or no, rain or shine.
These were first impressions, and correct ones, so far as they went. Perhaps George was unique, and would have deserved a colonel’s silver eagle, wherever he had been stationed. And yet, the ease with which he moved in this small closed village society was not exceptional. His whole detachment had been naturalized, as it were, and even their voices were shading imperceptibly into the earthy dialect of the town. They belonged now after their long stay; and I fancy they may some day find it hard to readjust themselves again to the world outside that little scooped-out valley: to an industrial and hurried world, even to a world at war.
Our own stay in the village was brief: so brief that now, after only weeks, hostile and incongruous experiences have already begun to cloud the purity of the image we saw. It is hard even to recapitulate those few gracious days. On Saturday afternoon we played soccer against the town club, losing 3-2. That evening there was a dance at the town hall. On Sunday we went to church, and in the afternoon went again to the town hall, where we were given cakes and tea. These were, if you like, simple modest things: we danced to the music of an accordion and a wheezing violin; we played soccer on a windswept slope whose white lines were marked out only an hour before the game. And yet they were part of our welcome—and a welcome such as we had received nowhere else, certainly not in the vast ornate service clubs and wide streets of strange towns back home.
Perhaps we shall remember the soccer game best of all. For it was the transitional hour during which we ceased to be strangers to whom a friendly welcome was due. The game was played on another bright windy afternoon, the exposed green hillside receiving every gust that shouldered up from the plain and the sea. There were no stands, and the townspeople strolled or lay about on the side-lines, or pushed the prams in which the rosy-cheeked babies were bundled. The town team played in the conventional shorts and emblemed shirts; our men played in their green fatigues. In the first two minutes, working the ball downhill and also with the precision of players who know each other’s weaknesses, the English team scored two goals. After that we were protected, in the first half, only by a hundred miraculous saves. We went into the second half with the sympathy of the crowd, for we were clearly in for a bad defeat, playing this British game that we scarcely knew. But luck and two brilliant players saved us, arid in the end we nearly got a tie.
It was, after all, the best possible score. We lost, as we deserved to lose; but we almost won, and in losing we won the town’s respect. I can still remember our friends, the little ragged children, yelling “Come on, Yanks!”—or the good humour of the adults when one of our men took an awkward spill or in a tight moment forgot that he was not playing American football. After the game, we scheduled another match for the following Saturday. There was no reason why weekly games should not become an institution, why we should not ourselves be an institution, as our American predecessors were. But by Wednesday we were gone.
We were gone: down onto the wide plain we had seen from that hilltop field: a plain which concealed thousands of Nissen huts and tents and drill fields, and from which we had watched planes rise on that bright afternoon, rise suddenly like unexpected birds fluttered by a sharp noise from their concealment in the thick trees. We had gone down from our protection, from our days of rest, onto this plain where inexorably the trucks and the planes were gathering, the orders and the formations, the vast panoply of war. We had gone down onto that only surmised plain where our first impressions of England would be shattered, where we had to unlearn so much.
Now, after these weeks of tension—and in cities surcharged with American soldiers: a dozen American soldiers to every British civilian, far too many soldiers to be absorbed—it is hard to reconstruct the little village where Americans and British mixed so without hostility or strain. We had come down to the plain where a society was changing before its own bewildered eyes, and where we who wandered helplessly along the streets could be held only partly to blame. The glorious spring continued through our first month, and then turned cold. And we were put to other tasks. More and more, as the trucks debarked and gathered on the plain, the days which were to come began to overshadow those few peaceful days in the immediate past: our free gift and respite from the war. Now, the rumors started once more.
For we too began to wait, as the world had so long been waiting, as the English people in their patient exhaustion had been waiting, on the wide bristling plain: as the trucks and the tanks gathered, as the summer collected its strength.