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´╗┐Title: The Soul of a Nation
Author: Gibbs, Phillip
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  Transcriber's note:

  Text in italics is marked with _underscore_



      THE SOUL OF A NATION

      BY SIR PHILLIP GIBBS

      Author of "_Now it may be told_"


      Reprinted by
      Permission of the
      TORONTO "GLOBE"

      Armistice Day, 1920



It did not seem an unknown warrior whose body came on a gun carriage
down Whitehall, where we were waiting for him. He was known to us all.
It was one of "our boys" (not warriors), as we called them in the days
of darkness lit by faith.

To some women, weeping a little in the crowd after an all-night vigil,
he was their boy who went missing one day and was never found till now,
though their souls went searching for him through the dreadful places
in the night.

To many men among those packed densely on each side of the empty street
wearing ribbons and badges on civil clothes, he was a familiar figure,
one of their comrades, the one they liked best, perhaps, in the old
crowd who into the fields of death went and stayed there with a great
companionship.

It was a steel helmet, an old "tin hat," lying there on the crimson of
the flag, which revealed him instantly, not as a mythical warrior,
aloof from common humanity, a shadowy type of national pride and
martial glory, but as one of those fellows, dressed in the drab of
khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into dirty ditches with this
steel hat on his head, and in his heart unspoken things which made him
one of us in courage and in fear, with some kind of faith, not clear,
full of perplexities, often dim in the watchwords of those years of
war.

So it seemed to me, at least, as I looked down Whitehall and listened
to the music which told us that the Unknown was coming down the road.
The band was playing the old "Dead March in Saul" with heavy drumming,
but as yet the roadway was clear where it led up to that altar of
sacrifice, as it looked, covered by two flags hanging in long folds of
scarlet and white.

About that altar-cenotaph there were little groups of strange people,
all waiting for the dead soldier. Why were they there, these people?
There were great folk to greet the dust of a simple soldier. There was
the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and other clergy
in gowns and hoods. What had they to do with the body of the soldier
who had gone trudging through the mud and muck like one ant in a
legion of ants, unknown to fame, not more heroic, perhaps, than all his
pals about him, not missed much when he fell dead between the tangled
wire and shell holes? There were great Generals and Admirals, Lord Haig
himself, Commander-in-Chief of our armies in France, and Admiral
Beatty, who held the seas; Lord French of Ypres, with Horne of the
First Army, and Byng of the Third, and Air Marshal Trenchard, who had
commanded all the birds that flew above the lines on mornings of
enormous battle.

These were high powers, infinitely remote, perhaps, in the imagination
of the man whose dust was now being brought toward them. It was their
brains that had directed his movements down the long roads which galled
his feet, over ground churned up by gunfire, up the duckboards, from
which he slipped under his heavy pack, if he were a foot-slogger, and,
whatever his class as a soldier, ordained at last the end of his
journey, which finished in the grave marked by the metal disc. Unknown
in life, he had looked upon these Generals as terrifying in their power
"for the likes of him." Sometimes, perhaps, he had saluted them as they
rode past. Now they stood in Whitehall to salute him, to keep silence
in his presence, to render him homage more wonderful, with deeper
reverence, than any General of them all has had.

There were Princes there about the cenotaph, not only of England, but
of the Indian Empire. These Indian Rajahs, that old white-bearded,
white-turbaned man, with the face of an Eastern prophet, was it
possible they, too, were out to pay homage to the unknown British
soldier? There was something of the light of Flanders in Whitehall--the
strange light that the tattered ruins of the Cloth Hall at Ypres used
to shine with through the mist--suffused a little by wan sunlight,
white as the walls and turrets of the War Office in the mist of London.
The tower of Big Ben was dim through the mist like the tower of Albert
Church until it fell into a heap of dust under the fury of gunfire.
Presently the sun shone brighter, so that the picture of Whitehall was
etched with deeper lines. On all the buildings flags were flying at
half-mast.

The people who kept moving about the cenotaph were there for mourning,
not for mere pageantry. Grenadier officers who walked about with drawn
swords wore crepe on their arms. Presently they passed the word along
"Reverse arms!" and all along the line of route soldiers turned over
their rifles and bent their heads over the butts. It was when the music
of the Dead March came louder up the street.

A number of black figures stood in a separate group, apart from the
Admirals and Generals, people of importance, to whom the eyes of the
crowd turned, while men and women tiptoed to get a glimpse of them. The
Prime Minister and the Ministers and ex-Ministers of Britain were
there. Asquith, Lord Curzon and other statesmen, who, in those years of
conflict, were responsible for all the mighty effort of the nation, who
stirred up its passions and emotions, who organized its labor and
service, who won that victory and this peace. I thought the people
about me stared at them as though conscious of the task that is theirs,
now that peace is the test of victory.

But it was one figure who stood alone as the symbol of the nation in
this tribute to the spirit of our dead. As Big Ben struck
three-quarters after 10, the King advanced toward the cenotaph,
followed by the Prince of Wales, the Prince's two brothers, and the
Duke of Connaught, and while others stood in line looking toward the
top of Whitehall, the King was a few paces ahead of them, alone,
waiting, motionless, for the body of the Unknown Warrior who had died
in his service.

It was very silent in Whitehall, and before this ordered silence the
dense lines of people kept their places without movement, only spoke
little in their long time of waiting, and then, as they caught their
first glimpse of the gun carriage, were utterly quiet. All heads were
bared and bent. Their emotion was as though a little cold breeze were
passing. One seemed to feel the spirit of the crowd. Above all this
mass of plain people something touched one with a sharp yet softening
touch.

The massed bands passed with their noble music and their drums thumping
at the hearts of men and women, the Guards with their reversed arms,
and then the gun carriage, with its team of horses, halted in front of
the cenotaph, where the King stood, and the Royal hand was raised to
salute the soldier who had died that we might live, chosen by fate for
this honor, which is in remembrance of that great army of comrades who
went out with him to No Man's Land. The King laid a wreath on his
coffin and then stepped back again.

Crowded behind the gun carriage in one long vista was an immense column
of men of all branches of the navy and army, moving up slowly before
coming to a halt, and behind again other men in civil clothes, and
everywhere among them and above them were flowers in the form of
wreaths and crosses. Then all was still, and the picture was complete,
framing in that coffin, where the steel hat and the King's sword lay
upon the flag which draped it. The soul of the nation at its best,
purified at this moment by this emotion, was there, in silence, about
the dust of that Unknown.

Guns were being fired somewhere in the distance. They were not loud,
but like the distant thumping of the guns on a misty day in Flanders
when there was "nothing to report," though on such a day, perhaps, this
man had died.

Presently there was a far-off wailing, like the cry of a banshee. It
was a siren giving the warning of silence in some place by the river.
The deep notes of Big Ben struck 11, and then the King turned quickly
to the lever behind him, touched it, and let fall the great flags which
had draped it. A grim, hard thing, like a pagan altar, as it seems to
me, the cenotaph stood revealed, utterly austere, except for three
standards, with their gilt wreaths.

It was a time of silence. What thoughts were in the minds of all the
people only God knows, as they stood there for those two minutes, which
were very long. There was a dead stillness in Whitehall, only broken
here and there by the coughing of a man or a woman, quickly hushed.

The Unknown Warrior! Was it young Jack, perhaps, who had never been
found? Was it one of those fellows in the battalion that moved up
through Ypres before the height of the battle in the bogs? Men were
smoking, this side of Ypres. One could see the glow of their cigarette
ends as they were halted round the old mill house at Vlamertinghe. It
rained after that, beating sharply on the tin hats, pouring in spouts
down waterproof capes. They went out through Menin Gate. The shelling
began along the duckboards by Westhoek Ridge, gas shelling, every old
thing. Fellows dropped into shell holes, full of water. They had their
packs on, all their fighting kit. Some of them lay there in the pits,
where the water was reddish.

There were a lot of unknown warriors in the bogs by Glencorse Wood and
Inverness Copse. They lay by upturned tanks and sank in the slime.
Queer how the fellows used to drop and never give a sound, so that
their pals passed on without knowing. In all sorts of places the
unknown warrior lay down and was not quickly found. In Bourlon Wood
they were lying after the battle among the river trees. On the fields
of the Somme they lay in the churned-up earth, in High Wood and
Delville Wood and this side of Loupart Wood. It was queer, one day, how
the sun shone on Loupart Wood, which was red with autumn tints. The old
Boche was there then, and the wood seemed to have a thousand eyes
staring at our lines, newly dug. An airplane came through the fleecy
sky, wonderfully careless of the black shrapnel bursting about it.
Wonderful chaps, those airmen! For a man afoot it wasn't good to
stumble in that ground. Barbed wire tore one's hands damnably. There
was a boy lying in a tangle of barbed wire. He looked as though he were
asleep, but he was dead, all right. The airplane passed overhead with a
loud humming song.

What is this long silence, all this crowd in London streets, two years
after the armistice and peace? Yes, those were the old dreams that have
passed, old ghosts passing down Whitehall among the living.

The silence ended. Some word rang out; the bugles were blowing. They
were sounding the "Last Post" to the Unknown Warrior of the great war
in which many men died without record or renown. Farther than Whitehall
sounded the "Last Post" to the dead. Did the whole army of the dead
hear that call to them from the living? In the crowd below me women
were weeping quietly. It was the cry from their hearts that was heard
farthest, perhaps. The men's faces were hard, like masks, hiding all
they thought and felt.

The King stepped forward again and took the wreath from Lord Haig and
laid it at the base of the cenotaph. It was the first of the world of
flowers brought as a tribute of living hearts to this altar of the
dead. Admirals and Generals and statesmen came with wreaths, and
battalions of police following, bearing great trophies of flowers, on
behalf of fighting men and all their comrades, and presently, when the
gun carriage passed on toward the Abbey, with the King following behind
it on foot with his sons and soldiers, there was a moving tide of men
and women advancing ceaselessly with floral tributes. They waited until
the escort of the coffin had passed, the bluejackets and marines, the
air force and infantry, and then took their turn to file past the
cenotaph and lay their flowers upon the bed of lilies and
chrysanthemums which rose above the base.

As the columns passed, they turned eyes left or eyes right to that tall
symbol of death, if they had eyes to see, but there were blind men
there, who saw only by the light of the Spirit and saluted when their
guides touched them and said "Now." It is two years after "Cease fire!"
on the front, but in the crowds of Whitehall there were men in hospital
blue who are still casualties, not too well remembered by those in
health. Two of them were legless men, but they rode on wheels, and with
a fine gesture gave the salute as they passed the memorial of those who
fought with them and suffered less perhaps than they now do.

After the ceremony at the cenotaph the procession reformed and the
Unknown Warrior was borne to Westminster Abbey. There awaited him a
great congregation of mourners. They came from every class and every
part of the Empire. They sat without the distinction of rank as lot had
arranged them places, titled ladies next to charwomen, artisans by city
merchants, for all had equal title to be there, the gift of a son or
brother to the country.

At the door leading to Parliament Square, Bishop Ryle, Dean of
Westminster, in a purple and gold embroidered cape, with his Canons and
choir, met the body. It was carried shoulder-high by eight tall
Guardsmen, and on the war-worn Union Jack that covered it lay a
shrapnel helmet, a crusader's sword and a wreath of laurel. Through the
transept lined with statues of statesmen, and past the high altar the
Unknown Warrior was borne, and then through the choir into the nave,
where already many famous fighting men slept. Just within the west
door, a great purple square, bordered with white, marked the site of
the grave.

It is in the pathway of Kings, for not a Monarch can ever again go up
to the altar to be crowned but must step over the resting place of the
man who died that his kingdom might endure. Four ladies sat apart and
rose to greet this great Unknown, Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra of
England, Queen Maud of Denmark, and Queen Victoria of Spain, and
behind them were grouped Princess Mary and other women of Royal blood.
Waiting, too, near his grave, were men of the Warrior's own kind. He
passed through ranks of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians in
mufti, strangely mixed; Captains stood next to seamen. Colonels by
enlisted men, for all wore the Victoria Cross, and that earned them the
right to attend.

The mournful strains of the Croft Purcell setting of the funeral
sentences were chanted, unaccompanied, as the procession passed through
the Abbey, and as the grave was reached, the King, as the chief
mourner, stepped to its head. Behind him stood the Prince of Wales, the
Duke of Connaught and other members of the Royal family, and ranked in
the rear were Lloyd George and Asquith, the two war Premiers, and the
members of their Cabinets, three or four Princes from India and a score
or more of the leaders of British life. The pall-bearers, chiefs of the
army and navy, Haig, French, Beatty and Jackson among them, took their
stand on either side of the coffin, and the service began.

It was as simple as in any village church in the land.

The Twenty-third Psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd," was sung to the
familiar chant, and then came the account read by the Dean from
Revelations of the "great multitude, which no man could number, out of
every nation, and of all tribes, and of all peoples and tongues,
standing before the Throne."

As the coffin was lowered into the grave, "Lead, Kindly Light," was
sung, and then came the committal prayer. As the Dean spoke solemnly,
"earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the King, as the chief
mourner, stepped forward and from a silver bowl sprinkled the coffin
with soil brought from France. A few more prayers, "Abide With Me" and
Kipling's "Recessional" concluded the service, and as the words of
blessing died away, from far up among the pillared arches came a
whisper of sound. It grew and grew, and it seemed that regiments and
then divisions and armies of men were on the march. The whole Cathedral
was filled with the murmur of their footfalls until they passed and the
sound grew faint in the distance. It was the roll of drums, and seemed
to symbolize that host of glorious dead which has left one Unknown
Warrior forever on guard at the entrance to England's old Abbey.





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