Should Soldiers Be Polite? by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

My desire was once to pass a peaceful and pleasant winter in Brussels, attending to my work, improving my mind. Brussels is a bright and cheerful town, and I think I could have succeeded had it not been for the Belgian Army. The Belgian Army would follow me about and worry me. Judging of it from my own experience, I should say it was a good army. Napoleon laid it down as an axiom that your enemy never ought to be permitted to get away from you–never ought to be allowed to feel, even for a moment, that he had shaken you off. What tactics the Belgian Army might adopt under other conditions I am unable to say, but against me personally that was the plan of campaign it determined upon and carried out with a success that was astonishing, even to myself.

I found it utterly impossible to escape from the Belgian Army. I made a point of choosing the quietest and most unlikely streets, I chose all hours–early in the morning, in the afternoon, late in the evening. There were moments of wild exaltation when I imagined I had given it the slip. I could not see it anywhere, I could not hear it.

“Now,” said I to myself, “now for five minutes’ peace and quiet.”

I had been doing it injustice: it had been working round me. Approaching the next corner, I would hear the tattoo of its drum. Before I had gone another quarter of a mile it would be in full pursuit of me. I would jump upon a tram, and travel for miles. Then, thinking I had shaken it off, I would alight and proceed upon my walk. Five minutes later another detachment would be upon my heels. I would slink home, the Belgian Army pursuing me with its exultant tattoo. Vanquished, shamed, my insular pride for ever vanished, I would creep up into my room and close the door. The victorious Belgian Army would then march back to barracks.

If only it had followed me with a band: I like a band. I can loaf against a post, listening to a band with anyone. I should not have minded so much had it come after me with a band. But the Belgian Army, apparently, doesn’t run to a band. It has nothing but this drum. It has not even a real drum–not what I call a drum. It is a little boy’s drum, the sort of thing I used to play myself at one time, until people took it away from me, and threatened that if they heard it once again that day they would break it over my own head. It is cowardly going up and down, playing a drum of this sort, when there is nobody to stop you. The man would not dare to do it if his mother was about. He does not even play it. He walks along tapping it with a little stick. There’s no tune, there’s no sense in it. He does not even keep time. I used to think at first, hearing it in the distance, that it was the work of some young gamin who ought to be at school, or making himself useful taking the baby out in the perambulator: and I would draw back into dark doorways, determined, as he came by, to dart out and pull his ear for him. To my astonishment–for the first week–I learnt it was the Belgian Army, getting itself accustomed, one supposes, to the horrors of war. It had the effect of making me a peace-at-any-price man.

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They tell me these armies are necessary to preserve the tranquility of Europe. For myself, I should be willing to run the risk of an occasional row. Cannot someone tell them they are out of date, with their bits of feathers and their odds and ends of ironmongery–grown men that cannot be sent out for a walk unless accompanied by a couple of nursemen, blowing a tin whistle and tapping a drum out of a toy shop to keep them in order and prevent their running about: one might think they were chickens. A herd of soldiers with their pots and pans and parcels, and all their deadly things tied on to them, prancing about in time to a tune, makes me think always of the White Knight that Alice met in Wonderland. I take it that for practical purposes–to fight for your country, or to fight for somebody else’s country, which is, generally speaking, more popular–the thing essential is that a certain proportion of the populace should be able to shoot straight with a gun. How standing in a line and turning out your toes is going to assist you, under modern conditions of warfare, is one of the many things my intellect is incapable of grasping.

In mediaeval days, when men fought hand to hand, there must have been advantage in combined and precise movement. When armies were mere iron machines, the simple endeavour of each being to push the other off the earth, then the striking simultaneously with a thousand arms was part of the game. Now, when we shoot from behind cover with smokeless powder, brain not brute force–individual sense not combined solidity is surely the result to be aimed at. Cannot somebody, as I have suggested, explain to the military man that the proper place for the drill sergeant nowadays is under a glass case in some museum of antiquities?

I lived once near the Hyde Park barracks, and saw much of the drill sergeant’s method. Generally speaking, he is a stout man with the walk of an egotistical pigeon. His voice is one of the most extraordinary things in nature: if you can distinguish it from the bark of a dog, you are clever. They tell me that the privates, after a little practice, can–which gives one a higher opinion of their intelligence than otherwise one might form. But myself I doubt even this statement. I was the owner of a fine retriever dog about the time of which I am speaking, and sometimes he and I would amuse ourselves by watching Mr. Sergeant exercising his squad. One morning he had been shouting out the usual “Whough, whough, whough!” for about ten minutes, and all had hitherto gone well. Suddenly, and evidently to his intense astonishment, the squad turned their backs upon him and commenced to walk towards the Serpentine.

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“Halt!” yelled the sergeant, the instant his amazed indignation permitted him to speak, which fortunately happened in time to save the detachment from a watery grave.

The squad halted.

“Who the thunder, and the blazes, and other things told you to do that?”

The squad looked bewildered, but said nothing, and were brought back to the place where they were before. A minute later precisely the same thing occurred again. I really thought the sergeant would burst. I was preparing to hasten to the barracks for medical aid. But the paroxysm passed. Calling upon the combined forces of heaven and hell to sustain him in his trouble, he requested his squad, as man to man, to inform him of the reason why to all appearance they were dispensing with his services and drilling themselves.

At this moment “Columbus” barked again, and the explanation came to him.

“Please go away, sir,” he requested me. “How can I exercise my men with that dog of yours interfering every five minutes?”

It was not only on that occasion. It happened at other times. The dog seemed to understand and take a pleasure in it. Sometimes meeting a soldier, walking with his sweetheart, Columbus, from behind my legs, would bark suddenly. Immediately the man would let go the girl and proceed, involuntarily, to perform military tricks.

The War Office authorities accused me of having trained the dog. I had not trained him: that was his natural voice. I suggested to the War Office authorities that instead of quarrelling with my dog for talking his own language, they should train their sergeants to use English.

They would not see it. Unpleasantness was in the air, and, living where I did at the time, I thought it best to part with Columbus. I could see what the War Office was driving at, and I did not desire that responsibility for the inefficiency of the British Army should be laid at my door.

Some twenty years ago we, in London, were passing through a riotous period, and a call was made to law-abiding citizens to enrol themselves as special constables. I was young, and the hope of trouble appealed to me more than it does now. In company with some five or six hundred other more or less respectable citizens, I found myself one Sunday morning in the drill yard of the Albany Barracks. It was the opinion of the authorities that we could guard our homes and protect our wives and children better if first of all we learned to roll our “eyes right” or left at the given word of command, and to walk with our thumbs stuck out. Accordingly a drill sergeant was appointed to instruct us on these points. He came out of the canteen, wiping his mouth and flicking his leg, according to rule, with the regulation cane. But, as he approached us, his expression changed. We were stout, pompous-looking gentlemen, the majority of us, in frock coats and silk hats. The sergeant was a man with a sense of the fitness of things. The idea of shouting and swearing at us fell from him: and that gone there seemed to be no happy medium left to him. The stiffness departed from his back. He met us with a defferential attitude, and spoke to us in the language of social intercourse.

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“Good morning, gentlemen,” said the sergeant.

“Good morning,” we replied: and there was a pause.

The sergeant fidgetted upon his feet. We waited.

“Well, now, gentlemen,” said the sergeant, with a pleasant smile, “what do you say to falling in?”

We agreed to fall in. He showed us how to do it. He cast a critical eye along the back of our rear line.

“A little further forward, number three, if you don’t mind, sir,” he suggested.

Number three, who was an important-looking gentleman, stepped forward.

The sergeant cast his critical eye along the front of the first line.

“A little further back, if you don’t mind, sir,” he suggested, addressing the third gentleman from the end.

“Can’t,” explained the third gentleman, “much as I can do to keep where I am.”

The sergeant cast his critical eye between the lines.

“Ah,” said the sergeant, “a little full-chested, some of us. We will make the distance another foot, if you please, gentlemen.”

In pleasant manner, like to this, the drill proceeded.

“Now then, gentlemen, shall we try a little walk? Quick march! Thank you, gentlemen. Sorry to trouble you, but it may be necessary to run–forward I mean, of course.. So if you really do not mind, we will now do the double quick. Halt! And if next time you can keep a little more in line–it has a more imposing appearance, if you understand me. The breathing comes with practice.”

If the thing must be done at all, why should it not be done in this way? Why should not the sergeant address the new recruits politely:

“Now then, you young chaps, are you all ready? Don’t hurry yourselves: no need to make hard work of what should be a pleasure to all of us. That’s right, that’s very good indeed–considering you are only novices. But there is still something to be desired in your attitude, Private Bully-boy. You will excuse my being personal, but are you knock-kneed naturally? Or could you, with an effort, do you think, contrive to give yourself less the appearance of a marionette whose strings have become loose? Thank you, that is better. These little things appear trivial, I know, but, after all, we may as well try and look our best –

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“Don’t you like your boots, Private Montmorency? Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought from the way you were bending down and looking at them that perhaps their appearance was dissatisfying to you. My mistake.

“Are you suffering from indigestion, my poor fellow? Shall I get you a little brandy? It isn’t indigestion. Then what’s the matter with it? Why are you trying to hide it? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all got one. Let it come forward man. Let’s see it.”

Having succeeded, with a few such kindly words, in getting his line into order, he would proceed to recommend healthy exercise.

“Shoulder arms! Good, gentlemen, very good for a beginning. Yet still, if I may be critical, not perfect. There is more in this thing than you might imagine, gentlemen. May I point out to Private Henry Thompson that a musket carried across the shoulder at right angles is apt to inconvenience the gentleman behind. Even from the point of view of his own comfort, I feel sure that Private Thompson would do better to follow the usual custom in this matter.

“I would also suggest to Private St. Leonard that we are not here to practice the art of balancing a heavy musket on the outstretched palm of the hand. Private St. Leonard’s performance with the musket is decidedly clever. But it is not war.

“Believe me, gentlemen, this thing has been carefully worked out, and no improvement is likely to result from individual effort. Let our idea be uniformity. It is monotonous, but it is safe. Now, then, gentlemen, once again.”

The drill yard would be converted into a source of innocent delight to thousands. “Officer and gentleman” would become a phrase of meaning. I present the idea, for what it may be worth, with my compliments, to Pall Mall.

The fault of the military man is that he studies too much, reads too much history, is over reflective. If, instead, he would look about him more he would notice that things are changing. Someone has told the British military man that Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton. So he goes to Eton and plays. One of these days he will be called upon to fight another Waterloo: and afterwards–when it is too late–they will explain to him that it was won not upon the play field but in the class room.

From the mound on the old Waterloo plain one can form a notion of what battles, under former conditions, must have been. The other battlefields of Europe are rapidly disappearing: useful Dutch cabbages, as Carlyle would have pointed out with justifiable satisfaction, hiding the theatre of man’s childish folly. You find, generally speaking, cobblers happily employed in cobbling shoes, women gossipping cheerfully over the washtub on the spot where a hundred years ago, according to the guide-book, a thousand men dressed in blue and a thousand men dressed in red rushed together like quarrelsome fox-terriers, and worried each other to death.

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But the field of Waterloo is little changed. The guide, whose grandfather was present at the battle–quite an extraordinary number of grandfathers must have fought at Waterloo: there must have been whole regiments composed of grandfathers–can point out to you the ground across which every charge was delivered, can show you every ridge, still existing, behind which the infantry crouched. The whole business was began and finished within a space little larger than a square mile. One can understand the advantage then to be derived from the perfect moving of the military machine; the uses of the echelon, the purposes of the linked battalion, the manipulation of centre, left wing and right wing. Then it may have been worth while- -if war be ever worth the while–which grown men of sense are beginning to doubt–to waste two years of a soldier’s training, teaching him the goose-step. In the twentieth century, teaching soldiers the evolutions of the Thirty Years’ War is about as sensible as it would be loading our iron-clads with canvas.

I followed once a company of Volunteers across Blackfriars Bridge on their way from Southwark to the Temple. At the bottom of Ludgate Hill the commanding officer, a young but conscientious gentleman, ordered “Left wheel!” At once the vanguard turned down a narrow alley–I forget its name–which would have led the troop into the purlieus of Whitefriars, where, in all probability, they would have been lost for ever. The whole company had to be halted, right-about- faced, and retired a hundred yards. Then the order “Quick march!” was given. The vanguard shot across Ludgate Circus, and were making for the Meat Market.

At this point that young commanding officer gave up being a military man and talked sense.

“Not that way,” he shouted: “up Fleet Street and through Middle Temple Lane.”

Then without further trouble the army of the future went upon its way.

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