Without warning a terrific loud bang exploded right behind our heels…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 14, 1939.

“This war,” said Jimmie Frise, “is still the Great War. Don’t forget it was just an armistice we signed, 21 years ago.”

“I suppose,” I admitted, “that a hundred years from now, historians will really look upon this whole period, from 1914 to goodness knows when, as one long conflict.”

“We signed the armistice,” said Jim, “so as to allow us all to grow a fresh crop of men. Twenty-one years are up. The new crop of men is ready.”

“In some respects,” I stated, “they are a better crop than we were. And in other respects, they’re not as good a crop as we were.”

“In all respects,” declared Jim firmly, “the young men of today are a better crop than we were. My dear sir, don’t you realize that this generation today is a war-born, war-prepared, war-conscious generation?”

“Not one in 10,000 of them has played soldier in the militia, these past few years,” I protested.

“You’ve got it wrong,” insisted Jimmie. “Our boyhood was passed in the golden glow of the dying Victorian age. We played Indian or cowboy, for a little romantic release. But our true interests, even as little kids, were saturated with the spirit of the Victorian and Edwardian era; we were little business men, little lounge lizards, little athletes and aesthetes. When war came, it came as a profound surprise. All we had to go on was the Boer war and the Russo-Japanese war. To us, war was an adventure, a romance. We thought in terms of masses of men marching: and then charging; and battles won. We had no sense of bitter sacrifice, personal, fatal.”

“There were casualty lists a foot long in the papers when I enlisted,” I informed him.

“But those lists,” pointed out Jim, “were not reinforced with all the power of press and radio and movies. You had not been going to movies ever since your childhood seeing pictures that realistically portrayed war with death in the air, and hell on earth, and men thrown, away as weeds are cut. This generation, my boy, has been steeped, body and soul, in war.”

“We were pretty good,” I reminded him.

Remote Control Justice

“We weren’t good enough,” retorted Jim. “If we had been, this outbreak would never have occurred. We all got tired, all sides, and seized the first opportunity to end it. We should have marched into Germany. into every city, town and village. All the farmers should have seen us passing by, in our terrible might. Without harming a hair of their heads, we should have passed before them, our guns, our machines, our men, like dark angels of justice, moving harmlessly among them, an unforgettable lesson. But instead, from afar, we wrought justice, taxed and fined, took their goods, punished them, by mail order. From afar, we meted justice, and at home, their own old soldiers proceeded to do what all the defeated do; they put on bitter airs, passed the buck, explained, wept and were figures of grim sympathy among the old and the young in the towns and the villages. Instead of leaving colored troops1 and missions of staff officers among them, we should have left teachers.”

“Teachers?” I protested.

“Yes, teachers, who would answer their questions about us, and give lectures on what we thought and believed,” explained Jim. “And from them, we would have brought teachers to explain to us what the Germans thought and believed. But instead, we all retired to our own towns and villages, and hated each other by remote control.”

“Our hate faded, about 1925,” I agreed. “But theirs took root.”

“The one thing that makes me confident,” said Jim, “is that the Germans have been taught to love war, while our new generation has been taught to hate war. I think men who hate war will always fight harder and longer than men who have been taught to love it, and sooner or later are disillusioned.”

“That was true in our war,” I agreed. “I never saw a Canadian or a Britisher weeping, but I saw lots of German soldiers weeping and carrying on.”

“They’re an emotional race,” explained Jim. “We imagine them a stolid and phlegmatic people. But they are nothing of the kind. They are intensely emotional, and only emotional people would think that by putting on a fierce air, they could scare others. That is the way a child thinks, until he grows up and his emotions come under control.”

The Men in Charge

“I know a lot of Canadians of German descent,” I submitted. “And they’re not in the least like the Germans that we know through history, past and present.”

“Why do you suppose,” asked Jim, “that the grandparents and great-grandparents of these Canadian Germans came to this country? To escape from the rest of the Germans, most likely. They were unhappy, they did not fit into the German scheme of things. Men don’t come to a new and hard country, and a foreign country at that, without very good and very deep reasons.”

“Well,” I sighed, “I wish we had done something a little more permanent while we were at it.”

“You and I weren’t to blame anyway,” said Jim.

“Then who was?” I inquired bitterly.

“The men in charge of us,” said Jim.

“And who put them in charge of us?” I retorted.

“They just took charge,” explained Jim. “That’s always the way. We talk about placing men in charge. It’s not that way at all. The ones in charge just step up and take charge.”

“They’re chosen,” I corrected.

“Listen,” pleaded Jimmie, “how does a guy get to be the manager of a business? Is he elected? No chance. He works up to it. He schemes and he contrives, he works, he plans, he sacrifices and plots. And every chance he gets, he takes charge. And when his big chance comes, he is all ready. He just takes charge.”

“It sure was like that in our old army,” I admitted, “that is, after we got to the front. Once we got into action, all the officers and sergeants that weren’t equal to the real job soon shook loose. I suppose it’s the same in business and politics and soldiering. In a jam, the real men shove naturally to the front.”

“Let’s go home,” said Jim, “along the Lake Shore and on the way, we’ll stop at the armories and watch these new-fangled mechanized soldiers.”

“To tell you the truth, Jim,” I stated, “I can’t see the slightest difference between these new soldiers and what we were in our time. Every time I get near enough to a platoon of them. I can almost imagine it’s my old platoon, and I want to step out and take charge of them.”

“They’re far different,” said Jim. “They’re a new breed.”

“They’re making a sad mistake,” I differed, “not including a lot of us old soldiers in their ranks, to steady them.”

“We could never keep up with them,” said Jim. “We’d be a drag.”

“Haw,” I laughed, “just wait until the first big shell comes whooping in. A five-nine or an eight-inch. Or one of those drum-busting big trench mortar pigs.”

Left Countrified Town

“They no doubt scared you,” said Jim, “but they won’t have much effect on these kids. Don’t forget, when you went to war to face five-nines, you came fresh from a peaceful, quiet, almost countrified town called Toronto.”

“Countrified?” I demanded.

“About the only motor car in Toronto,” said Jim, “was Sir John Eaton’s2. The street cars were run by a guy in the front with a big brass handle he wound up, while he banged his bell with his foot, the car raging along at all of 18 miles an hour. About the only time you had to move at anything faster than a crawl was to step out of the way of the butcher cart. All the rest of the wagons went at a walk.”

“Wagons,” I snorted.

“Have you completely forgotten your generation?” demanded Jim. “Don’t you recall that one of the most exciting things of your young manhood was to go down to the old Union Station and see a train come in? There was no stress or strain in the world you left to go to war. The street cars rocked and bumped and dawdled along the streets. Cars were few and far between, and an airplane was like television. Lou Marsh created a tremendous sensation, at the outbreak of the war, by going for a ride in an airplane and reporting it for The Star.”

“You exaggerate,” I submitted. “Life was lively enough in those days.”

“From a quiet, unruffled world,” said Jim, “you, the heir of languid centuries of slow progress, went to a war that grew into an inferno of noise, explosion, traffic on the ground and in the air, of speed, of wireless, of fury and strain. But these new lads of the army are entering war from a world that is already a riot. In fact, many of the young soldiers are already bored with the country peace and quiet of army life.”

“I bet they will duck just as quick when a shell comes over,” I sneered.

“They’ll duck quicker,” said Jim. “That’s the point. They are used to the fury of modern civilization, as we speeded it up in the war. They have been born and raised amid the stress and strain of modern traffic, of cars, radio, planes, racket, rumpus and panjandrum. Their nerves are attuned to war. We were a jumpy, startled generation, because we left a quiet, peaceful world. These boys leave a madhouse world to enter into the order and law of modern warfare.”

A Generation of Action

“I held the championship of the Eighth Brigade,” I stated, “for being able to jump higher, dive deeper and lie flatter than any other officer in the brigade.”

“These boys won’t have to do any jumping.” said Jim. “They’ll lean to one side, as cool and easy as they cross street traffic today. That is why they don’t want any mid-Victorians running amok in their ranks nowadays.”

“They’re just like us,” I grumbled. “I can’t see the slightest difference between them and the old platoons I used to know. They look the same. They stand the same. They have all the little old tricks. Every guy that used to be there is there still. The one who traded his rum for cheese. The one who was always tying his puttee when he should have been going over the top. The one who always wanted to be paraded to the officer. The one who could have been an officer if he wanted to. The one who joined the army to play cards.”

“We’ll see,” said Jim, as we got into the car and headed through downtown streets and steered for the Lake Shore.

Out at the armories, the fading lawns were crowded with drilling troops. Some were clustered around machine-guns, taking lessons. Others were playing soccer, others lying prone practising the sighting of rifles. But always, some were drilling.

“And look you, Jim,” I exclaimed. “The same as ever, old drill sergeant in front of young soldiers. It never changes.”

“And as usual,” remarked Jim, “the old soldier looks us if he didn’t belong….”

“Why, listen, Jim,” I cried, “he even sounds the very same.”

The sergeant was “hup, hup-hupping,” as the boys wheeled and turned and marked time. His voice had the same old authority, the same sharp bite to it.

“Caesar had drill sergeants, Jim,” I said as we got out of the car and strolled along the pavement for a closer look. “Caesar’s men looked exactly the same as those men. It never changes, because men never change.”

“Young men never change,” sighed Jim, “until they start to get a little old.”

“I bet in six weeks,” I declared, “we could be just as good as that old drill sergeant.”

Without a warning, a terrific loud bang exploded right behind our heels. It was probably the nature of our conversation that really upset us, not the bang. For it was only a tire on an old truck that had been delivering packages at the armories. But the effect of so untimely an explosion, and so nearly under our feet, made Jimmie leap about a foot in the air and I very nearly lost my balance entirely, owing to leaping both upward and forward. My old infantry muscles and nerves naturally looked for a shell hole.

The squad of lads that was nearest us laughed outright. But the grim old drill sergeant, who had done a bit of a jump himself, turned on them and roared and bellowed and had them at the double.

We covered our confusion by helping the driver of the truck, himself an old soldier, to unfasten the rusted spare tire off the back of his jalopy, and while we were at it, the drill sergeant strolled over the lawn toward us.

“Old soldiers?” he inquired confidentially.

“Yes,” we admitted, variously confiding the names of our old units.

“I noticed you,” he said, “when that tire went off.”

“We were just talking about shells when it happened,” apologized Jim. “We kind of had shells on the brain at the moment.”

“Did you… ah… notice me?” asked the sergeant.

“We were too busy,” I explained.

“I was just wondering,” said the old sergeant, “if I jumped too. I just wanted to know if those young squirts were laughing at you two birds or at me.”

“When I looked,” I admitted, “you seemed to be quite calm.”

“I just went kind of numb,” said the old sergeant. “I don’t remember what happened there for a minute. When you put the uniform on again, after all these years, a loud bang is very upsetting.”

“I don’t believe you turned a hair,” said Jim stoutly.

“I hope I didn’t,” said the old sergeant. “It means a lot whether those young kids were laughing at me or not. The young devils.”

“Are they hard to handle?” I inquired.

“They have no nerves at all,” groaned the drill sergeant. “The worse I roar, the cooler they get. Back when I was a drill sergeant in the old war, all I had to do was let ‘er out a little, and boy, they wilted. These kids are sound proof.”

“They look good,” agreed Jim.

“They haven’t any nerves,” sighed the drill sergeant. “They don’t know what a drill sergeant is. They’re as cold as ice. They’re all business. They do exactly what you tell them, faster than you can think up what to tell them to do next. They’re getting on my nerves.”

“It’s a new generation,” suggested Jim.

“It’s a mechanized army,” said the old sergeant, looking furtively over his shoulder at the squad which stood silently waiting, almost eagerly waiting, for him to return. “Even the men are mechanized.”

So with further assurances that he stood like a rock, and looked ten years younger than his age, and that all we old soldiers envied him, the drill sergeant turned and marched stiffly back onto the lawn and began barking fiercely again. And the young men, like joyous panthers, leaped into their drill.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Jim’s reference to “colored troops” was related to the Occupation of the Rhineland after World War One. That France used some “non-white” French colonial soldiers in the occupation was considered disgraceful by some. ↩︎
  2. Sir John Eaton was the youngest son of department store magnate Timothy Eaton. ↩︎