The Weekly Machen
Despite the confidence—and domestic propaganda—of the warring powers in August 1914, the conflict did not end quickly, nor were the troops home before Christmas. By November, it was clear to most that a decisive victory had evaporated as the first winter of the Great War set upon a bewildered Europe. Reality had crashed down hard and smothered the heady, fever-pitched enthusiasm of the average British subject and the thousands of youthful men who signed up for assured and assumed glory on the Continent during those days of a dying summer.
In hindsight, it may seem incredible to today’s reader that anyone could have expected the scenario to unfold any differently than it did: a generation of dead men buried in France and the survivors wracked by shell-shock, mutilation and… loneliness. Yet, it is a fool’s errand to claim one would necessarily see this so clearly had we been living during the death of the Belle Epoque. In our lifetime, have we not seen the same mad visions expressed before a radically different reality materializes? In 2022, is it not seductive still to become drunk on imaginings of glory and easy victory over a foe?
In any case, we return to the time of our great-great grandfathers. The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 has passed and the Twelfth Night has become a dark one for the soldiers in trenches. Is there succor?
Although Arthur Machen was chosen to “record” the following exchange of letters between readers of the Evening News and the lonely soldier, it doesn’t seem likely that he continued in this role. Perhaps the task was rotated amongst the staff. Yet Machen, with a characteristic eye for the marvelous, threads together the anonymous missives with a sense of spiritual wonder that was probably not duplicated.
The Journal of the Lonely Soldier
January 7, 1915
The Lonely Soldier has become one of the most impressive figures of the war.
His discovery was due to an accident. A soldier in the trenches wrote to say that while all his comrades were in receipt of letters, parcels, presents, for him the post brought nothing.
There was nobody at home to remember him; he felt alone, neglected. From this letter arose “The Evening News” Guild of the Lonely Soldier; and the work has captured the heart of London, England, Great Britain, one might say of the world.
The man without a friend to remember him is a figure that has appealed to all. The work of the Guild is to ensure that his friendless state shall continue no longer. There is not to be a man in the army without a friend to write to him.
We are receiving letters at the rate of 4,000 a day from the friends of the lonely; and from time to time we shall publish a journal of the work that is being done, and of what the Lonely Soldier thinks of it.
January 6th.—I do rot know whether we have yet realised that this war is being won, not only by courage and force of arms and engines of destruction, but by brotherhood and compassions, which is another way of saying that we are beating the enemy, not only by weakening him, but by strengthening ourselves.
For there can be no doubt, I think, that the weakness of England—before the War—lay in this; that we were not really one people, that we had no common cause, binding us all together, and making us one in spite of all differences of culture and ignorance and wealth and poverty and position and disposition.
The war has changed all that; once more in England the Knight and the Miller have the one interest and the one aim. A year ago the West End club and the East End Public House were hemispheres, nay, whole spheres, apart; one might have said with Kipling that East was East and West was West, and never the twain could meet. They have met; they have one topic of conversation, one desire, one common effort; they are both bound on the pilgrimage of victory.
Once Stranger: Now Friends
So, as the wax has united that which was severed, it will not suffer the lonely man to be lonely any more. We are all in the same boat, and nobody aboard is to be left out of the friendly party.
My post-bag from the Lonely Soldiers is full of letters like this:
I was very much surprised to receive a parcel from people unknown to me, and should like you to gratify my curiosity by telling me how you or The Evening News obtained my name and address so accurately.
I cannot express to you how much we appreciate the kindness of people at home who have worked, and are still working so hard, to provide us with comforts.
And here is another message from a delighted, befriended man:
I am in receipt of your letter and parcel. I was properly dumbfounded on receiving the same; it was really too kind of you, I being an utter stranger.
And yet another—these are but a few out of thousands—says: “My gratitude to your paper cannot be expressed in words, and I can only say again that you have brought together myself and persons who, although strangers, are now my firm and fast friends.”
Once strangers, now friends; there is some soul of goodness, indeed, in the war if it can bring about such a result as that.
January 7th.—Some of the letters in today’s huge bag speak of the “grand parcels” that they have received.
I can imagine the contents of these parcels; goodly Christmas puddings, a pound or so of tobacco, a heavy tin of cigarettes, warm comforters, cosy mittens; all manner of pleasant bodily things, joyfully given, joyfully received.
Here again I think the war is teaching us a useful lesson. Though we have by no means been a super-spiritual nation in these later years, we have cherished a sort of affectation of spirituality. We have pretended that good meats and drinks are unworthy, trifling things, beneath our condescension. That may be good gospel for ghosts, but it is of no service for men; and since the war began, since we have realised what bodily miseries our brave soldiers and sailors are enduring for us in the trenches and on the seas, we have cast all that silly make-believe away.
Hence the “grand parcels”; especially let those who thought themselves friendless in the world discover that they have good friends who will see to it that they go not cold or comfortless.
Good Thing Doubly Good
What was “it”? The question is an odd one, but it is suggested by another dip into the bag.
It would have done your heart good to have seen twenty-eight men sit down to share it, everyone wishing you the best of wishes. I was first back from the trenches after forty-eight hours of severe fighting.
Was it a gigantic Christmas pudding that twenty-eight good fellows were able to partake of its delights? Perhaps, or perhaps it was a noble Yorkshire ham, such a ham as mortal knife has never carved, such a ham as John Browdie vowed he would send to Tim Linkinwater. Let conjecture range as it will; but let the sender rejoice, thinking of the merrymaking of the twenty-eight warriors, with her gift for the centre of it.
And I cannot help thinking that the surprise of it all was not the smallest element of joy in this affair of the Lonely Soldier and the greetings and presents from his unsuspected friends.
I really thought I should pass Christmas without a card, for I have no relations to write to me, so you see it was a very pleasant surprise to know that though I am very far, there is one unknown friend who thought of me.
A good thing is doubly good when it descends upon us unawares; and so we take care that the children shall know nothing about their presents till the Christmas morning.
So altogether, it seems to me, the Lonely Soldiers Guild is rekindling the old friendly fires, that we had suffered to burn low.
The old times were wild, there is no doubt of it; to read of them is as if one were out in a blustering and savage storm in outland country.
Yet there is a glow from the window far away across the heath; the logs are blazing there, and there warm welcome and warm comfort wait us. So it is now again. Once more the times are wild and dreadful, and the storm is terrible: but the glow shines once more.
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