On Danger in War
Usually before we have learnt what danger really is we form an idea of it which is rather attractive than repulsive. In the intoxication of enthusiasm, to fall upon the enemy at the charge—who cares then about bullets and men falling? The eyes shut for a moment, to throw oneself against cold death, uncertain whether we or another shall escape him, and all this close to the golden aim of victory, close to the rich fruit which ambition thirsts for—can this be difficult? It will not be difficult, and still less will it appear so. But such moments, which, however, are not the work of a single pulse-beat as is supposed, but rather like doctors’ draughts, must be taken diluted and spoilt by mixture with time—such moments, we say, are but few.
Let us accompany the novice to the battle-field. As we approach, the thunder of the cannon becoming plainer and plainer is soon followed by the howling of shot, which attracts the attention of the inexperienced. Balls begin to strike the ground close to us, before and behind. We hasten to the hill where stands the General and his numerous Staff. Here the close striking of the cannon balls and the bursting of shells is so frequent that the seriousness of life makes itself visible through the youthful picture of imagination. Suddenly some one known to us falls—a shell makes its way into the crowd and causes some involuntary movements; we begin to feel that we are no longer perfectly at ease and collected, even the bravest is at least to some degree confused. Now, a step further into the battle which is raging before us like a scene in a theatre, we get to the nearest General of Division; here ball follows ball, and the noise of our own guns increases the confusion. From the General of Division to the Brigadier. He a man of acknowledged bravery, keeps carefully behind a rising ground, a house, or a tree—a sure sign of increasing danger. Grape rattles on the roofs of the houses and in the fields; cannon balls howl over us, and plough the air in all directions, and soon there is a frequent whistling of musket balls; a step further towards the troops, to that sturdy Infantry which for hours has maintained its firmness under this heavy fire; here the air is filled with the hissing of balls which announce their proximity by a short sharp noise as they pass within an inch of the ear, the head, or the breast.
To add to all this, compassion strikes the beating heart with pity, at the sight of the maimed and fallen. The young soldier cannot reach any of these different strata of danger, without feeling that the light of reason does not move here in the same medium, that it is not refracted in the same manner as in speculative contemplation. Indeed, he must be a very extraordinary man who, under these impressions for the first time, does not lose the power of making any instantaneous decisions. It is true that habit soon blunts such impressions; in half-an-hour we begin to be more or less indifferent to all that is going on around us: but an ordinary character never attains to complete coolness, and the natural elasticity of mind; and so we perceive that here, again, ordinary qualities will not suffice; a thing which gains truth, the wider the sphere of activity which is to be filled. Enthusiastic, stoical, natural bravery, great ambition, or also long familiarity with danger, much of all this there must be if all the effects produced in this resistant medium are not to fall far short of that which, in the student’s chamber, may appear only the ordinary standard.
Danger in war belongs to its friction; a correct idea of it is necessary for truth of perception, and therefore it is brought under notice here.