- 'Enchanted Cigarettes'
- by Arthur Gleason
- from his book 'Golden Lads' 1916
In Praise of Cigarettes
an advertisement from a French magazine
Where does the comfort of the trenches lie? What solace do the soldiers find for a weary life of unemployment and for sudden death? Of course, they find it in the age-old things that have always sufficed, or, if these things do not here altogether suffice, at least they help. For a certain few out of every hundred men, religion avails. Some of our dying men were glad of the last rites. Some wore their Catholic emblems. The quiet devout men continued faithful as they had been at home. Art is playing the true part it plays at all times of fundamental need. The men busy themselves with music, with carving, and drawing. Security and luxury destroy art, for it is no longer a necessity when a man is stuffed with foods, and his fat body whirled in hot compartments from point to point of a tame world. But when he tumbles in from a gusty night out of a trenchful of mud, with the patter from slivers of shell, then he turns to song and color, odd tricks with the knife, and the tales of an ancient adventure.
After our group had brought food and clothing to a regiment, I remember the pride with which one of the privates presented to our head nurse a sculptured group, done in mud of the Yser. But the greatest thing in the world to soldiers is plain comradeship. That is where they take their comfort. And the expression of that comradeship is most often found in the social smoke. The meager happiness of fighting-men is more closely interwoven with tobacco than with any other single thing. To rob them of that would be to leave them poor indeed. It would reduce their morale. It would depress their cheery patience. The wonder of tobacco is that it fits itself to each one of several needs. It is the medium by which the average man maintains normality at an abnormal time. It is a device to soothe jumping nerves, to deaden pain, to chase away brooding. Tobacco connects a man with the human race, and his own past life. It gives him a little thing to do in a big danger, in seeping loneliness, and the grip of sharp pain. It brings back his cafe evenings, when black horror is reaching out for him.
If you have weathered around the world a bit, you know how everywhere strange situations turn into places for plain men to feel at home. Sailors on a Nova Scotia freight schooner, five days out, sit around in the evening glow and take a pipe and a chat with the same homely accustomedness, as if they were at a tavern. It is so in the jungle and at a lumber camp. Now, that is what the millions of average men have done to war. They have taken a raw, disordered, muddied, horrible thing, and given it a monotony and regularity of its own. They have smoked away its fighting tension, its hideous expectancy. They refuse to let mangling and murder put crimps in their spirit. Apparently there is nothing hellish enough to flatten the human spirit. Not all the sprinkled shells and caravans of bleeding victims can cow the boys of the front line. In this work of lifting clear of horror, tobacco has been a friend to the soldiers of the Great War.
"I wouldn't know a good cigarette if I saw it," said Geoffrey Gilling, after a year of ambulance work at Furnes and Coxzyde. He had given up all that makes the life of an upper-class Englishman pleasant, and I think that the deprivation of high-grade smoking material was a severe item in his sacrifice.
Four of us in Red Cross work spent weary hours each day in a filthy room in a noisy wine-shop, waiting for fresh trouble to break loose. The dreariness of it made B------ petulant and T------ mournfully silent, and finally left me melancholy. But sturdy Andrew MacEwan, the Scotchman with the forty-inch barrel chest, would reach out for his big can of naval tobacco, slipped to him by the sailors at Dunkirk when the commissariat officer wasn't looking, and would light his short stocky pipe, shaped very much like himself, and then we were all off together on a jaunt around the world. He had driven nearly all known "makes" of motor-car over most of the map, apparently about one car to each country. Twelve months of bad roads in a shelled district had left him full of talk, as soon as he was well lit.
Up at Nieuport, last northern stand of the Allied line, a walking merchant would call each day, a basket around his throat, and in the hamper chocolate, fruit, and tobacco. A muddy, unshaven Brittany sailor, out of his few sous a week, bought us cigars. The less men have, the more generous they are. That is an old saying, but it drove home to me when I had poor men do me courtesy day by day for five months. As we motored in and out of Nieuport in the dark of the night, we passed hundreds of silent men trudging through the mud of the gutter. They were troops that had been relieved who were marching back for a rest. As soon as they came out of the zone where no sound can be made and no light shown, we saw here and there down the invisible ranks the sudden flare of a match, and then the glow in the cup of the hand, as the man prepared to cheer himself.
A more somber and lonely watch even than that of these French sailors was the vigil kept by our good Belgian friend, Commandant Gilson, in the shattered village of Pervyse. With his old Maltese cat, he prowled through the wrecked place till two and three of the morning, waiting for Germans to cross the flooded fields. For him cigarettes were an endless chain that went through his life. From the expiring stub he lit his fresh smoke, as if he were maintaining a vestal flame. He kept puffing till the live butt singed his upturned mustache. He squinted his eyes to escape the ascending smoke.
Always the cigarette for him and for the other men. Our cellar of nurses in Pervyse kept a stock of pipes and of cigarettes ready for tired soldiers off duty. The pipes remained as intact as a collection in a museum. The cigarettes never equaled the demand. We once took out a earful of supplies to 300 Belgian soldiers. We gave them their choice of cigarettes or smoking tobacco, and about 250 of them selected cigarettes. That barrack vote gives the popularity of the cigarette among men of French blood. Some cigars, some pipes, but everywhere the shorter smoke. Tobacco and pipe exhaust precious pocket room. The cigarette is portable. Cigars break and peel in the kneading motion of walking and crouching. But the cigarette is protected in its little box. And yet, rather than lose a smoke, a soldier will carry one lonesome cigarette, rained on and limp and fraying at the end, drag it from the depths of a kit, dry it out, and have a go. For, after all, it isn't for theoretical advantages over larger, longer smokes he likes it, but because it is fitted to his temperament. It is a French and Belgian smoke, short-lived and of a light touch, as dear to memory and liking as the wines of La Champagne.
Twice, in dramatic setting, I have seen tobacco intervene to give men a release from overstrained nerves. Once it was at a skirmish. Behind a street defense, crouched thirty Belgian soldiers. Shrapnel began to burst over us, and the bullets tumbled on the cobbles. With each puff of the shrapnel, like a paper bag exploding, releasing a handful of white smoke, the men flattened against the walls and dove into the open doors. The sound of shrapnel is the same sound as hailstones, a crisp crackle as they strike and bounce. We ran and picked them up. They were blunted by smiting on the paving. Any one of them would have plowed into soft flesh and found the bone and shattered it. They seem harmless because they make so little noise. They don't scream and wail and thunder. Our guns, back on the hillocks of the Ghent road, grew louder and more frequent. Each minute now was cut into by a roar or a fainter rumble. The battle was on. Our barricaded street was a pocket in the storm, like the center of a typhoon.
Yonder we could see the canal, fifty feet away, at the foot of our street. On the farther side behind the river front houses lay the Germans, ready to sally out and charge. It would be all right if they came quickly. But a few hours of waiting for them on an empty stomach, and having them disappoint us, was wearing. We wished they would hurry and have it over with, or else go away for good. Civilians stumbling and bleeding went past us.
And that was how the morning went by, heavy footed, unrelieved, with a sense of waiting for a sudden crash and horror. It was peaceful, in a way, but, at the heart of the calm, a menace. So we overlaid the tension with casual petty acts. We made an informal pool of our resources in tobacco, each man sharing with his neighbor, till nearly every one of us was puffing away, and deciding there was nothing to this German attack, after all. A smoke makes just the difference between sticking it out or acting the coward's part.
Each one of us in a lifetime has a day of days, when external event is lively, and our inner mood dances to the tune. Some of us will perhaps always feel that we spent our day on October 21, 1914. For we were allowed to go into a town that fell in that one afternoon and to come out again alive. It was the afternoon when Dixmude was leveled from a fair upstanding city to a heap of scorched brick and crumbled plaster. The enemy guns from over the Yser were accurate on its houses.
We received our first taste of the dread to come, while we were yet a little way out. In the road ahead of us, a shell had just splashed an artillery convoy. Four horses, the driver, and the splintered wood of the wagon were all worked together into one pulp, so that our car skidded on it. We entered the falling town of Dixmude. It was a thick mess into which we rode, with hot smoke and fine masonry dust blowing into the eyes. Houses around us crumpled up at one blast, and then shot a thick brown cloud of dust, and out of the cloud a high central flame that leaped and spread. With the wailing of shells in the air, every few seconds, the thud 2nd thunder of their impact, the scattering of the shattered metal, it was one of the hot, thorough bombardments of the war. It cleared the town of troops, after tearing their ranks. But it left wounded men in the cellar of the Hotel de Ville. The Grand Place and the Hotel were the center of the fire. Here we had to wait fifteen minutes, while the wounded were made ready for our two cars. It was then we turned to tobacco as to a friend. I remember the easement that came when I found I had cigars in my waistcoat pocket. The act of lighting a cigar, and pulling at it briskly, was a relief.
There was a second of time when we could hear a shell, about to burst close, before it struck. It came, sharpening its nose on the air, making a shrill whistle with a moan in it, that gathered volume as it neared. There was a menace in the sound. It seemed to approach in a vast enveloping mass that can't be escaped, filling all out-doors, and sure to find you. It was as if the all-including sound were the missile itself, with no hiding place offered. And yet the shell is generally a little three-or-four inch thing, like a flower-pot, hurtling through the scenery. But bruised nerves refuse to listen to reason, and again and again I ducked as I heard that high wail, believing I was about to be struck.
In that second of tension, it was a pleasant thing to draw in on a buttto discharge the smoke, a second later, carelessly, as who should say, "It is nothing." The little cylinder was a lightning conductor to lead away the danger from a vital part. It let the nervousness leak off into biting and puffing, and making a play of fingering the stub, instead of striking into the stomach and the courage. It gave the troubled face something to do, and let the writhing hand busy itself. It saved me from knowing just how frightened I was.
But what of the wounded themselves? They have to endure all that dreariness of long waiting, and the pressure of danger, and then, for good measure, a burden of pain. So I come to the men who are revealing human nature at a higher pitch than any others in the war. The trench-digging, elderly chaps are patient and long-enduring, and the fighting men are as gallant as any the ballad-mongers used to rime about.
But it is of the wounded that one would like to speak in a way to win respect for them rather than pity. I think some American observers have missed the truth about the wounded. They have told of the groaning and screaming, the heavy smells, the delays and neglect. It is a picture of vivid horror. But the final impression left on me by caring for many hundred wounded men is that of their patience and cheeriness. I think they would resent having a sordid pen picture made of their suffering and letting it go at that. After all, it is their wound: they suffered it for a purpose, and they conquer their bodily pain by will power and the Gallic touch of humor. Suffering borne nobly merits something more than an emphasis on the blood and the moan. To speak of these wounded men as of a heap of futile misery is like missing the worthiness of motherhood in the details of obstetrics.
It was thought we moderns had gone soft, but it seems we were storing up reserves of stoic strength and courage. This war has drawn on them more heavily than any former test, and they have met all its demands. Sometimes, being tired, I would drop my corner of the stretcher, a few inches suddenly. This would draw a quick intake of the breath from the hurt man and an "aahh"but not once a word of blame. I should want to curse the careless hand that wrenched my wound, but these soldiers of France and Belgium whom I carried had passed beyond littleness.
Once we had a French Zouave officer on the stretcher. He was wounded in the right arm and the stomach. Every careen of the ambulance over cobble and into shell-hole was a thrust into his hurt. We had to carry him all the way from the Nieuport cellar to Zuydcoote Hospital, ten miles. The driver was one more of the American young men who have gone over into France to pay back a little of what we owe her. I want to give his name, Robert Cardell Toms, because it is good for us to know that we have brave and tender gentlemen. On this long haul, as always, he drove with extreme care, changing his speed without the staccato jerk, avoiding bumps and holes of the trying road. When we reached the hospital, he ran ahead into the ward to prepare the bed. The officer beckoned me to him. He spoke with some difficulty, as the effort caught him in the wound of his stomach.
"Please be good enough," he said, "to give my thanks to the chauffeur. He has driven me down with much consideration. He cares for wounded men."
Where other races are grateful and inarticulate, the French are able to put into speech the last fine touch of feeling.
My friend kept a supply of cigarettes for his ambulance cases, and as soon as the hour- long -drive began we dealt them out to the bandaged men. How often we have started with a groaning man for the ride to Zuydcoote, and how well the trip went, when we had lighted his cigarette for him. It brought back a little of the conversation and the merriment which it had called out in better days. It is such a relief to be wounded. You have done your duty, and now you are to have a little rest. With a clear conscience, you can sink back into laziness, far away from noise and filth. Luck has come along and pulled the pack off your back, and the responsibility from your sick mind. No weary city clerk ever went to his seashore holiday with more blitheness than some of our wounded showed as they came riding in from the Nieuport trenches at full length on the stretcher, and singing all the way. What is a splintered forehead or a damaged leg compared to the happiness of an honorable discharge ? Nothing to do for a month but lie quietly, and watch the wholesome, clean-clad nurse. I am not forgetting the sadness of many men, nor the men hurt to death, who lay motionless and did not sing, and some of whom died while we were on the road to help. I am only trying to tell of the one man in every four who was glad of his enforced rest, and who didn't let a little thing like agony conquer his gaiety. Those men were the Joyous Wounded. I have seldom seen men more light hearted.
Word came to my wife one day that several hundred wounded were side-tracked at Furnes railway station. With two nurses she hurried to them, carrying hot soup. The women went through the train, feeding the soldiers, giving them a drink of cold water, and bringing some of them hot water for washing. Then, being fed, they were ready for a smoke, and my wife began walking down the foul-smelling ambulance car with boxes of supplies, letting each man take out a cigarette and a match. The car was slung with double layers of stretcher bunks. Some men were freshly wounded, others were convalescent. A few lay in a stupor. She provided ten or a dozen soldiers with their pleasure, and they lighted up and were well under way. She had so many patients that day that she was not watching the individual man in her general distribution. She came half way down the car, and held out her store to a soldier without looking at him. He glanced up and grinned. The men in the bunks around him laughed heartily. Then she looked down at him. He was flapping the two stumps of his arms and was smiling. His hands had been blown off. She put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it for him. Only his hands were gone. Comradeship was left for him, and here was the lighted cigarette expressing that comradeship.
- an advertisement from 'Leslie's', an American magazine
- see text of the poem below
by Corporal Jack Turner
What tobacco really means to a soldier has been voiced in more poetrygood, bad and indifferent, hut always heartfeltthan almost any other subject of the war. Here is a poem from the British army which became so popular abroad that it has been reprinted and widely distributed.
- When the cold is making ice cream of the marrow of your bones,
- When you're shaking like a jelly and your feet are dead as stones,
- When your clothes and boots and blankets, and your rifle and your kit,
- Are soaked from Hell to Breakfast, and the dugout where you sit
- Is leaking like a basket, and upon the muddy floor
- The water lies in filthy pools, six inches deep or more;
- Tho life seems cold and mis'rable and all the world is wet,
- You'll always get thro' somehow if you've got a cigarette.
- When you're lying in a listening post way out beyond the wire,
- While a blasted Hun, behind a gun, is doing rapid fire;
- When the bullets whine above your head, and sputter on the ground,
- When your eyes are strained for every move, your ears for every sound
- You'd bet your life a Hun patrol is prowling somewhere near;
- A shiver runs along your spine that's very much like fear;
- You'll stick it to the finishbut, I'll make a little bet,
- You'd feel a whole lot better if you had a cigarette.
- When Fritz is starting something and his guns are on the bust
- When the parapet goes up in chunks, and settles down in dust,
- When the roly-poly "rum-jar" comes a-wobbling thro' the air,
- 'Til it lands upon a dugoutand the dugout isn't there;
- When the air is full of dust, and smoke, and scraps of steel, and noise
- And you think you're booked for golden crowns and other Heavenly joys,
- When your nerves are all a-tremble, and your brain is all a fret
- It isn't half so hopeless if you've-got a cigarette.
- When you're waiting for the whistle and your foot is on the step,
- You bluff yourself, it's lots of fun, and all the time you're hep
- To the fact that you may stop one 'fore you've gone a dozen feet,
- And you wonder what it feels like, and your thoughts are far from sweet;
- Then you think about a little grave, with R. I. P. on top.
- And you know you've got to go acrossaltho' you'd like to stop;
- When your backbone's limp as water, and you're bathed in icy sweat,
- Why, you'll feel a lot more cheerful if you puff your cigarette.
- Then, when you stop a good one, and the stretcher bearers come
- And patch you up with strings, and splints, and bandages, and gum;
- When you think you've got a million wounds and fifty thousand breaks.
- And your body's just a blasted sack packed full of pains and aches;
- Then you feel you've reached the finish, and you're sure your number's up,
- And you feel as weak as Belgian beer, and helpless as a pup
- But you know that you're not down and out, that life's worth living yet,
- When some old war-wise Red Cross guy slips you a cigarette.
- We can do without MacConachies, and Bully, and hard tack,
- When Fritz's curtain fire keeps the ration parties back;
- We can do without our greatcoats, and our socks, and shirts, and shoes,
- We might almosttho' I doubt itget along without our booze;
- We can do without "K. R. & 0.." and "Military Law,"
- We can beat the ancient Israelites at making bricks, sans straw;
- We can do without a lot of things and still win out, you bet,
- But Id hate to think of soldiering without a cigarette.
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