War is never a laughing matter but here's a story that makes war look like the utter absurdity it really is
A T DAWN on an early summer morning, a young man riding a motor bicycle came along a lane that leads to the little wooden bridge marking the frontier between Uttersland and Gallia. The young man, who was an Uttersland soldier, was a weird and sinister spectacle. He was wearing the full panoply of modem war. His uniform was dull brown in color, made of a material that was a compound of rubber and canvas, impervious to blister-gas. His head and face were completely enclosed in a mask of the same material, with goggles for the eyes and a thick rubber tube leading from the mouthpiece to a zinc box, filled with chemicalsaturated cotton wool, strapped to his chest. A rifle was slung across his back; a bayonet on one side of his belt was balanced by a bag of hand grenades on the other. His hands were gloved; a vast steel helmet weighed upon his head. And the machine he bestrode was painted the same color as his uniform, with steel plates to protect the more vulnerable parts of the engine.
Directly he saw the bridge, Corporal Stefan of the Motor Scout Division of the Third Uttersland Army stopped his engine and dismounted. He was too excited to feel either fear or discomfort. The thought that he might be the first Uttersland invader to set foot on Gallian soil made him feel intoxicated with pride.
Rifle in hand he ran forward, bent double and expecting to feel the impact of a bullet at any moment. But all was quiet. He reached the bridge and stepped boldly across the white painted line marking the exact spot where Uttersland ended and Gallia began. He was actually in Gallia! His heart swelled with patriotic pride, he stood upright and made a menacing gesture toward the country that lay before him.
“We’ve come back! The day of revenge has dawned. Long live Uttersland!”
In his patriotic madness he had shouted the words aloud. Death—what was death when you died for God and Uttersland? Ah, he was proud and happy. He, Hugo Stefan, was the first Utterslander soldier to enter Gallia !
Extraordinary how quickly events had marched. Exactly a week ago he liad been working in his mother’s garden, making a trench for her sweet peas. He had been shovelling in rotted manure, refuse, filth of every description, stamping it down and shovelling earth on top, when the telegram ordering him to join his unit at once had come. How excited he had been ! He had flung down his spade and rushed into the kitchen.
“No sweet peas this year, mother. War is declared ! We’ll
give those cursed Gallians a licking. Revenge for what they did to us in the last war.”
And he’d gone, leaving the useless refuse lying in the unfilled trench.
He came to his senses, put his binoculars to his eyes and peered this way and that. Not a Gallian soldier within sight. He rode back and reported to his platoon commander. His platoon commander, a boy of nineteen, frowned.
“I don’t like the sound of that. We must be prepared for a trap. Well, we must advance with the utmost caution until we get into touch with them, and remember that on no account must any man remove his respirator.”
ÍN A WOOD ten miles from the A frontier the temporary field headquarters of the Uttersland Higher Command had been established.
Vast camouflage screens had been stretched between the trees to conceal them from the Gallian aircraft. It was a scene of tense, feverish activity. Dispatch riders came and went continually. Hard by the field wireless station stood a line of staff cars ready to proceed at a moment’s notice.
General Hildegrad, C.I.C. of the Uttersland Forces, was in the foremost car. The Uttersland press had called him the War Duce, and he looked the part. He was elderly with a square, obstinate face, a pugnacious jaw and a grizzled mustache. He wore a dark blue, tightly buttoned greatcoat, spiked helmet, and heavy field boots with silver spurs that clanked when he walked. Now he was sitting like a massive statue, his lips pursed in intense concentration of thought, with a large-scale map of the Gallian frontier spread across his knees. He was listening to a staff colonel reading a wireless bulletin message.
“. . . Perville, Frankton, Louisfrey south-east to the line of the Sparley. The Ninth and Tenth Divisions are now crossing the Sparley unopposed.”
The C.I.C. chuckled. “I see their game. Relying on the aircraft! Well, we can play that game, too. Go on.”
“Uttsfield area as far as the Ruritanian border is now occupied by our Seventh Army. No opposition of any sort has been encountered.”
“Foxing!” growled General Hildegrad. He frowned and spoke very much as Corporal Stefan’s platoon commander had done: “I don’t like it. They’ve let us cross the border at a dozen places without firing a shot. Depend upon it, they’ve got something up their sleeve . . . Well, Sasson?”
General Sasson, his Chief of Staff, had come out of the field-wireless tent. He saluted.
“I’ve had a chat with Air Commodore Balet, sir. The air fleet is circling above Galliopolis at twenty-five thousand. They haven’t seen a Gallian airplane and they haven’t been fired at. Balet is astonished. He says that the civilian population are watching them from the house-tops, and that as far as he can see there’s nothing to prevent the fleet landing.”
They stared at each other. Hildegrad spoke harshly.
“What on earth does it mean? Have the Gallians some weapon of which we know nothing? A death ray, a new form of gas? Balet must be prepared for any surprise.”
; “He is prepared, sir. And whatever happens he can wipe out Galliopolis.”
“Yes, and the Gallian air fleet could wipe out our capital as a reprisal,” Hildegrad said. “It’s extraordinary that our Intelligence has sent no word of their movements. Well, the only thing is to continue the advance. But have a warning message sent to all Army commanders to employ the utmost caution. And have this message circulated to all ranks.”
He wrote in pencil on a message form:
“Soldiers of Uttersland, forward to victory! You are fighting in the cause ol Justice and for the sake of our dear country. Twenty-five years ago a million Utterslander soldiers died in defense of Uttersland and Freedom. Remember them and be of good heart.”
THE ADVANCE continued. Steel rivers of death poured over the frontier and wound in long columns along the Gallian roads. Men, guns, tanks, armored cars and horses. Bridges trembled to their passing. They moved swiftly, drawing a cordon of death around Galliopolis, the capital of Gallia.
On and on. Hundreds of thousands of singing youths aflame to die for their country. Left, right, left. For God and Uttersland and Freedom. Ah, when they met those accursed Gallians! They strained forward, ever hoping to come face to face with their elusive enemy.
Over Galliopolis circled and weaved the squadrons of the Uttersland air fleet. Hundreds upon hundreds of death machines with roaring engines. Bombers, scouts, single-
engine fighters, and torpedo monoplanes. Steel bolts ready at any instant to go whistling down upon the doomed town behind a spray of bullets. In the bomb carriers, goggled rubber-clad men lay full length, peering down at their target through telescopic sights. Their hands were ready the levers that would release the missiles.
Steel globes filled with shattering explosives, canisters of death germs, cylinders of choking, blinding gas, incendiary bombs that would make the wrecked houses an inferno, devices that would squirt a rain of liquid fire upon the frantic ants below. A few hours and there would be hardly a man, woman or child alive in Galliopolis.
In Bergson, the chief town of Uttersland, the war madness was at its height. Cheering, flag-waving crowds patrolled the streets. In the packed churches men and women knelt and prayed that their dear sons might be victorious. On the tomb of the Unknown Warrior of Uttersland wreaths had been piled. Beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers of glorious hue. Homage to those who had fallen in the last war between Uttersland and Gallia. Uttersland had been defeated and humiliated then, but now the day of revenge had come. The pile of flowers grew and grew. They were symbolic—victory sprung from death.
And then the news came that their soldiers had entered Galliopolis and all Uttersland went mad with joy.
COLONEL MANET of the Uttersland Death Dragoons marched into the farmhouse sitting-room where General Hildegrad sat. He saluted.
“You wish to hear my personal report, sir?”
“We marched into Galliopolis through the Fenin Arch at seventeen hours precisely. There was a huge crowd, but it was well controlled by the Gallian police. The brigade proceeded with fixed bayonets along Marianabad Avenue to the Square of St. Mary. I left detachment at the Broadcasting Palace, the Senate Building, the Treasury, the Memorial Tower—”
“In other words, Galliopolis is entirely in our hands.” “Yes, sir.”
“Did you interview President Tapley?”
“Yes, sir. He gave me a message for you.”
“He said, ‘Tell your general that Gallia has not surrendered !’ ”
General Hildegrad stared at the speaker. Then he laughed loudly.
“They have surrendered. They’ve allowed us to march across their country and enter their capital without firing a shot. Not surrendered indeed! Tomorrow they’ll see Utterslander troops marching as victors through their streets with bands playing and flags flying. And yet the President says they have not surrendered! Is he mad?” Colonel Manet smiled slightly. His impression of the young ex-schoolmaster who was now President of the State of Gallia had been that he was a very sane man indeed.
“I think what he meant, sir, was that Gallia refuses to fight. There’s a distinction between that and surrendering.” “Then it’s too subtle for me to see,” General Hildegrad snorted. “Did you tell the President about the triumphal march tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir. He said it would be a very pretty pageant, and that the school children were to be given a half-holiday to watch it.”
“To witness the disgrace of their Fatherland!”
“The President said it would be a pity for them to miss seeing a spectacle that would never occur again.”
General Hildegrad’s fist crashed down on the table. He was apoplectic with rage.
“The cowardly curs! Cowards, traitors, degenerates! They refuse to fight for their country. How I wish they’d given me a chance to blow their accursed city into ruins! Well, they’ll get no mercy. Wait till they hear the terms I’m going to impose. Vae victis. They humiliated and crushed us in the war of twenty-five years ago. Now we’ll give them a taste of their own medicine. I tell you that this is the end of Gallia as a Great Power.”
The colonel said nothing. He was thinking to himself that if Gallia had fought and had been defeated the result would have been the same. As it was—
“Any further instructions, sir?”
“No. Ask General Sasson to bring me his plans for the triumphal entry of the army tomorrow. We must drive it home to these miserable Gallians that they’ve been defeated.”
“Just so, sir,” said Colonel Manet.
IE FT, right, left. Corporal Stefan was realizing the dream « of his life. He was marching in the vanguard of a victorious Utterslander army through Galliopolis. Flags and martial tunes. Dense, staring crowds. Amused, curious faces. Levelled cameras. A pretty Gallian girl gave him the glad-eye. Corporal Stefan felt rather silly.
“Beggars don’t seem to know they’re licked. Think we was a bloomin’ circus the way they look at us !”
Left, right, left. Corporal Stefan’s martial ardor had been strangely damped. This wasn’t victory as he’d imagined it.
“How long is the War Duce going to keep us trotting about like this?” growled the soldier on his right. “Giving the Gallians a free treat, that’s all we’re doing. I’m fed up.” Left, right, left. Performing elephants in funny uniforms. The crowd was laughing. And when the band of the Death Dragoons struck up a hymn of victory composed by an Utterslander poet for this very occasion, there was an angry mutter from the ranks.
“Aw, shut it! This isn’t a victory, it’s a circus.”
SENATOR DUFFLIS, the Utterslander Minister of Finance, had followed the army to Galliopolis. He walked into the office where General Hildegrad sat.
“Magnificent, my dear general. The Senate have asked me to convey to you their warmest thanks. That the Gallians refused to fight in no way detracts from your glory. As a recognition of your services, you are to receive the order of the Black Leopard.”
“Thank you. And what about the terms of the indemnity I proposed. Have they been approved by the Senate?” Senator Dufflis pursed up his lips and looked doubtful. “They have been carefully considered by a committee of financial experts and have been rejected as impractical.” “What! Do you mean they weren’t considered severe enough?”
“Hardly, general. The fact is that our present-day civilization is so complicated that it’s impossible for one state to punish another without jeopardizing its own existence. Our milliard is linked with the Gallian thakur. To make Gallia bankrupt would only be to deprive ourselves of one of our best customers. We can’t afford that.”
“The indemnity needn’t be in gold. Coal, wheat, rollingstock. We’ve conquered them; we can take anything we want.”
Dufflis hid a smile.
“In a world already suffering from excess of production and unemployment, to take anything would be to punish our own people. If we take their wheat and coal, what about our own farmers and miners?”
“Their colonies !”
“No, thanks. The era when it was profitable to administer a colony is past.”
“Are you trying to tell me we can do nothing?”
“Nothing without ruining ourselves. That’s the opinion of the greatest financial experts, based on lessons taught by Continued on page 36 the last war. The Gallians took a savage indemnity after that war, and were almost ruined themselves in consequence. We’re not going to repeat their mistake of trying to crush a neighboring state. Civilization is like an insecurely built house. If we remove one pillar it will come crashing down and destroy us all utterly in its mins. We’re linked together. If Gallia sinks, she’ll drag Uttersland with her.”
Continued from page 21 —Starts on page 20
The War Duce bowed his head. The savor had gone out of his victory. Dufflis was speaking again.
“I’m afraid, general, that in view of the attitude of the foreign press and also because of the change in the outlook of the Utterslander public, your plans for a march of triumph through Bergson will have to be abandoned. The war has ceased to be popular. We went into it because we were afraid that if we did not attack Gallia, Gallia would attack us. Now that President Tapley has removed that fear, people are no longer interested.”
He was touched by the stricken look on the War Duce’s face, the look of an old man who knows himself outstripped by a world that has grown up.
“Don’t take it to heart, general,” he cooed. “It was a splendid victory.”
STEFAN, no longer a corporal since he had his discharge papers in his pocket, walked into his mother’s garden. His eye lighted on a long, unfilled trench. At the bottom lay rotted manure, vegetable refuse and filth of every description. It reminded him of a ghastly photograph he had once seen in the Bergson war museum. There had been a trench much longer and deeper than the one he had made. And into the trench had been flung the distorted, mangled, tortured bodies of hundreds of young men who had died for humanity twenty odd years before.
“Poor beggars! I might have been like that myself if the Gallians had fought us,” he thought.
He was glad to be where he was. Taking armfuls of rubbish from the refuse pit, he began to strew it along the trench. Nothing would be wasted. By virtue of earth and air, the kindly forces of Nature and his man’s knowledge, there would presently spring from those poor dead broken things glorious flowers, growing brave and happy in the sunlight.