Sunday, November 11, 2012

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Ivar Campbell (1891-1916)

Captain Ivar Campbell wrote this while fighting in the trenches of France:
France, 1915: 
The sputter of shrapnel, the red squeal of field guns, N.E.; the growl of the heavies moving slowly through the air, the cr-r-r-r-ump of their explosion. But in a bombardment all tones mingle and their voice is like machinery running not smoothly but roughly, pantingly, angrily, wildly making shows of peace and wholeness. 
You perceive, too, in imagination, men infinitely small, running, affrighted rabbits, from the upheaval of the shells, nerve-wracked, deafened; clinging to earth, hiding eyes, whispering "O God, O God!"  You perceive, too, other men, sweaty, brown, infinitely small also, moving guns, feeding the belching monster, grimly, quietly pleased. 
But with eyes looking over this land of innumerable eruptions, you see no line. The land is inhuman. 
But thousands of men are there; men who are below ground, men who have little bodies but immense brains. And the men facing West are saying, "This is an attack, they will attack when this hell's over," and they go on saying this to themselves continually. 
And the men facing East are saying, "We have got to get over the parapet. We have got to get over the parapet--when the guns lift." 
And then the guns lift up their heads and so a long, higher song. 
And then untenanted land is suddenly alive with little men, rushing stumbling--rather foolishly leaping forward--laughing, shouting, crying in the charge... 
There is one thing cheering. The men of the battalion--through all and in spite of that noisy, untasty day; through the wet cold night, hungry and tired, living now in mud and water, with every prospect of more rain to-morrow--are cheery. Sometimes, back in billets, I hate the men--their petty crimes, their continual bad language with no variety of expression, their stubborn moods. But in a difficult time they show up splendidly. Laughing in mud, joking in water--I'd "demonstrate" into Hell with some of them and not care. 
Yet under heavy shell-fire it was curious to look into their eyes--some of them little fellows from shops, civilians before, now and after: you perceived the wide, rather frightened, piteous wonder in their eyes, the patient look turned towards you, not, "What the blankety, blankety hell is this?" but "Is this quite fair? We cannot move, we are like little animals. Is it quite necessary to make such infernally large shells to kill such infernally small and feeble animals as ourselves?" 
I quite agreed with them, but had to put my eye-glass fairly in my eye and make jokes; and, looking back, I blush to think of the damnably bad jokes I did make...
Captain Campbell was killed in action in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), January 8, 1916, aged 25 years. Prior to his service, he had been educated at Eton and at Christ Church College, Oxford, and had traveled to America.  I blogged another letter of his last year as part of a series "Letters From Their Eleventh Hour" in remembrance of 11/11/18. Link

Campbell's family published an entire series of his letters posthumously.  This one came from a collection of British soldiers' letters called "War Letters Of Fallen Englishmen." More about this remarkable book here. Link

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