From Evelyn Waugh, “Men at Arms”

They performed an exercise of “company in the attack,” became entirely intermixed, extricated themselves and bivouacked under the stars. A warm night, smelling of dry furze. Guy made a round of the sentries and then lay awake. Dawn came quickly, bringing momentary beauty even to that sorry countryside. They fell in and marched back to camp. Rather light-headed after his sleepless night Guy marched in front beside de Souza. From behind them came the songs: “Roll out the barrel”; “There are rats, rats, rats as big as cats in the quartermaster’s store”; “We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.”

“That sounds a little out of date at the moment,” said Guy.

“Do you know what it always makes me think of, Uncle? A drawing of the last war, in one of the galleries, of barbed wire and a corpse hanging across it like a scarecrow. Not a very good drawing. I forget who did it. A sort of sham Goya.”

“I don’t think the men really like it. They hear it at Ensa concerts and pick it up. I suppose as the war goes on, some good songs will grow out of it, as they did last time.”

“Somehow I rather doubt it,” said de Souza. “There’s probably a department of martial music in the Ministry of Information. Last-war songs were all eminently lacking in what’s called morale-building qualities. ‘We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here,’ and ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty,’ ‘Nobody knows how bored we are and nobody seems to care.’ Not at all the kind of thing that would get official approval today. This war has begun in darkness and it will end in silence.”

“Do you say these things simply to depress me, Frank?”

“No, Uncle, simply to cheer myself up.”

About Eve Tushnet

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