THE ETERNAL ATKINS.
WAR-HOSPITAL patients are of many sorts. It is a common mistake of the armchair newspaper devourer to lump all soldiers together as quaint, bibulous, aitch-dropping innocents, lamblike and gauche in drawing-rooms, fierce and picturesque on the field, who (to judge by their published photographs) aro continually on the grin and continually shaking hands either with each other or with equally grinsomc French peasant women at cottage doors or with the local Mayor who congratulates them on the glorious V.C.'s which, of courso, they are continually winning. In a war hospital that harbours many thousands of patients per annum, we should know, in the long run, something about the characteristics of Tommy Atkins ; and it is with resentment that I hear him thus classified as a mere type. He is not a type. Discipline and training have given him some veneer of generalized
similarities. Beneath these, Tommy Atkins is simply the man in the street—any man in any street ; and if you look out of your window in the city and see a throng of pedestrians upon the pave- ments, you might just as well say that because they are all civilians they are all alike as that because all soldiers wear khaki they are all alike.
I have a quarrel with the Press on the score of its persistent fostering of tLie notion that " our gallant lads " (as the sentimental scribe calls them) are a pack of children about whose exploits an unfailing stream of semi-pathetic, semi-humorous anecdotes must be put forth. Even the old professional Army exhibited no dead level either of blackguards on the one hand or humble Galahads on the other. But whatever may have been the case before the war, all the Armies of Europe are now alike in this, that they are composed of civilians who merely happen to have adopted a certain garb for the performance of a certain job—and, be it remarked, a temporary job. That garb has not reduced the citizens who have the honour to wear it to a monotonous level either of intelligence or of conduct ; nor even of opinions about the war itself. I have had fire-eaters in my ward who breathed the sentiments of John Bull and the Evening News, and I have had i'acificists (they seemed to have fought no less bravely) who, week by week, read and• approved Mr. Snowden in the Labour Leader ; 1 have had Radicals and Tories, and patients who cared for neither party, but whose passion was cage-birds or boxing or amateur photography ; I have had patients who were sulky and patients who were bright, patients who were unlettered and patients who were educated, patients who could hardly express themselves without the use of an ensanguined vocabulary and patients who were gently spoken and fastidious. Each of them was Tommy Atkins—the inanely smirking hero of the picture-paper and the funny paragraph. Neither his picture nor the paragraph may be positively a lie, and yet, when the armchair dweller chucklingly draws attention to them, I am tempted to relapse into irreverence and utter one or other (or perhaps both) of two phrases which T. Atkins is himself credited with using ad nauseam : " Na-poo," and " I don't think."
When I assert—as I do unhesitatingly assert—that no one could work in a war-hospital ward for any length of time without an ever-deepening respect and fondness for Tommy Atkins, it is the same thing as asserting that the respect and fondness are evoked by close contact with one's countrymen ; nothing more nor less. A hospital ward is a haphazard selection of one's fellow-Britons- the most wildly haphazard it is possible to conceive. And the pessimistic cynic who, after a sojourn in that changing company for a month or two, can still either generalize about them, or (if he does) can still not acknowledge that in the mass they are amazingly lovable, is beyond hope. The war has taught its lessons to us all, and none more important than this. For myself, I confess that I never blew before how nice were nine out of ten of the individuals with whom I sat silent in trains, whom I glanced at in business offices or behind counters, whom I saw in workshops or in the field, or who were my neighbours in music-halls. They were strangers. In the years to come I hope they will be strangers no longer. For they and I have dressed alike, and borne the same surname—Atkins.
Of course there remain a few generalizations Which can safely be risked about even so nondescript a person as the new Tommy Atkins. As practically all the Tommy Atkinses are, at this moment, concentrated on the prosecution of one great job, it is natural that their main interests should revolve round that job. They all (for instance) want the job to be finished. They all (within my experience) want it to be finished well. They nearly all desire earnestly to cease soldiering as soon as the job is finished well. I never yet met the man (though he may exist, outside the brains of the scribes afore-mentioned), who, having tasted the joys of roughing it, is determined not to return to a humdrum desk in an office. On the contrary, that office and that humdrum desk have now become this travelled adventurer's most roseate dream. I have conversed with patients drawn from nearly every walk in life, and I do not remember one who definitely spoke of refusing to go back to his former work—if he could get it.
One of my patients had been a subterranean-lavatory attendant. You would have thought his ambitions—after visits to Egypt, Malta, the Dardanelles, and France—might have soared to loftier altitudes. He had survived hair-raising adventures ; he had taken part in the making of history ; although wounded, he had not been incapacitated for an active career in the future ; and he was neither illiterate nor unintelligent. Yet he told me, with obvious satisfaction, that his place was being kept open for him.
I was, as it were, invited to rejoice with him over the destiny which was his. I may add that the singular revelations which he imparted as to the opportunities -for extra earnings in his troglodyte trade extorted from me a more enthusiastic sympathy than might be supposed possible.
That agreeable domestic pet, homo sapiens, remains unchanged even when you dress him up in a uhiform and set him fighting.
He is always consistently inconsistent ; he is always both reasonable and unreasonable. You can try to cast him in a mould, but he resumes his normal shapelessness the moment the mould is removed.
Expose him to frightful ordeals of terror and pain, and he will emerge grumbling about some petty grievance, or carrying on a flirtation with another man's wife, or squabbling about sectarian
dogmas, or gambling on magazine competitions, or planning new businesses ; in fact, behaving precisely as the natural lord of creation always does behave. No member of our hospital staff, I imagine, will ever forget the arrival of the first batch of exchanged British wounded prisoners. It was the most tragic scene I •have ever witnessed. It is a fact, for which I make no apology, that tears were shed by some of those whose task it was to welcome that pitiful band of mar Lyi s . We had received convoys of wounded many a time, but these broken creatures, so pale, so neglected, so thin, and so infinitely happy to be free once more, had a poignant appeal which must have melted the most rigid official. (And we are neither very official, here, nor very rigid.) Well, amongst these liberated captives was one who told a sad tale of starvation at his internment camp. There is little doubt that it was a true tale, in the main. On that I make no comment. I simply introduce you to this gentleman, who had been restored to his native land after ten months of entombment, in order to mention •that on the following morning, when his breakfast was placed before him, he turned up his nose at it. Loudly complaining of the poorness of the food, he leant out of bed, picked up a brown-paper parcel which had been his only luggage, and produced from it some German salted herring, which he proceeded to eat with grumbling gusto. That is not specially Tommy Atkins ; it is homo sapiens of the hearthside, whether in suburban villa or in slum, for ever dis- satisfied (more especially with his victuals), and for ever evoking our affection all the same.
No ; Tommy Atkins is never twice alike. He is unanimous on few debatable matters. One of them, as I have said, is the desirability of finishing the war—in the proper way. (But even here there are differences as to what constitutes the proper way.) Another is (I trust I shall not shock the reader) the extrenie dis- pleasingness of life at the front. I would not say that our hospital patients are positively thankful to be wounded, or that they do not wish to recover with reasonable rapidity. But that they are glad to be safe in England once more is undeniable. The more honour to them that few, if any, flinch from returning to duty— when they know only too well what that duty consists of. But they make no bones about their opinion. Not long ago I was the conductor of a party of convalescents who went to a special matinee of a military drama. The theatre was •entirely filled with wounded soldiers from hospitals, plus a few nurses and orderlies. It was an inspiring sight. The drama went well, and its patriotic touches received their due weed of applause. But when the heroine, in a moving passage, declared that she had never met a wounded British soldier who was not eager to get back to the front, there arose, in an instant, a spontaneous shout of laughter from the whole audience. That was Tommy Atkins unanimous for once. He was unanimous, too, I should add, in perceiving immediately that the actress had been disconcerted by his roar of amusement. The poor girl's emotional speech had been ruined. She looked blank, and stood irresolute. At once a burst of hand-clapping took the place of the laughter. It was not ironical, it was friendly and apologetic. " Go ahead ! " it said. " We're sorry. Those lines aren't your fault, anyway. You spoke them very prettily, and it was a shame to laugh. But the ass of a playwright hadn't been in the trenches, and if your usual audiences relish that kind of speech, they haven't been there either."
So much for Tommy Atkins in his unanimous mood--unanimously condemning cant and at the same time unanimously courteous. Now that I come to reflect, I believe that, in his best moments, these are perhaps the only two points concerning which Tommy Atkins is unanimous. Whether he lives up to them or not (and to expect him unflinchingly to live up to them in season and out of season is about as sensible as to expect him perpetually to live up to the photographs and anecdotes), we may take them as his ideal. He dislikes humbug ; he tries to be polite. Could one sketch a sounder scaffolding on which to build all the ,odd diver- gences—crankinesees and heroisms, stupidities and engagingnesses
—which may go to make the edifice of an average decent soul's material, mental, and spiritual habitation y
PosTscarer.—An expert—one of England's greatest experts— who has read the above tells me that I have not done justice to the old professional Army men of Mom and the Aisne. When wounded and in our hospital they did want to go- back to fight. But their sole reason, given with frankness, was that they con- sidered they were needed ; the new Army, in training, was not ready ; it would be murder to send the new Army out, unprepared, to such an ordeal. This authority, who has interviewed many thousands of convalescents, farther remarked : " The wounded man who has been under shell-fire and who professes to be eager to go back, whether ordered or no, is a liar. On the other hand, the scrimshankers who try to get out of going back, when they should go. back, are an amazingly small minority."
WA RD MDDI.