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Good Words 1860
Reflections of a Rifle Volunteer


What business has a rifleman to reflect? No man in this island has so much reason to reflect as we have. When I lift my eyes from this table, covered with peaceful literature, and catch the gleam of my sword-bayonet resting against the corner of the room, it is natural that so unaccustomed a sight should stir some unusual questionings in the mind. It is not the mere irruption of martial exercises and ideas into the ordinary tenor of our life. It is not the hours subtracted from other pursuits and devoted to the dulness of drill; nor the hours joyfully yielded by these pursuits to the holiday splendour of parade. Those for whom we write have too great a value for their time, and too strong a sense of the responsibilities imposed by youthful strength and manly vigour, to squander them on the fopperies of merely mimic war. We have become volunteers earnestly. If we had not done it in earnest, we should not have done it at all.

What, then, is our earnest purpose? It is the saddest and sternest of all duties that can be imposed upon a man—so sad, so stern, that many a pure and nobly-tender soul has withdrawn with horror from the task, as involving something of an overbold and sacrilegious impiety. Men talk of wars and victories lightly and easily. Fools and fops banter about the technicalities of homicide. But were the reality of even one death of a human being by the armed hands of his brother brought home to our imagination, how would the heart shrink and quiver in the bitterness of anticipatory remorse! Yet it were the merest cowardice and self-deceit on the part of the thousands of Christian men who are now, in every direction, arming and training for the defence of their country, to turn away their eyes from the result which they are making such exertions to provide for. If there is no invasion, there will be no fighting. But if there is—if all this drilling and training and talking is to have any result, what is that result to be? For some of us it will be this—to send a bullet through the heart of some fair-haired French boy, whose mother and sisters shall look for him long in vain among the darkened vineyards and skies that for them are bright no more. To some of us a night shall come when, in lying down to sleep, we shall have to think of a Life which our hands have violently torn from time, with all its rich enjoyments and strange responsibilities, and sent in anguished bewilderment into that outer world from which no life returns. That is a death: and what is a battle but an aggregate of deaths?— when Hades opens her mouth, and is not satisfied; when the vast gates of the unseen turn upon their groaning hinges perpetually, as one immortal after another passes through, and the whole spiritual world rocks and trembles at the unwonted convulsion.

This is no fiction of the imagination and no dream of the past. Battle and murder and sudden death are not things which the world has outgrown. If we, in our selfish and insular isolation, were willing to think so, the events of the last three years might undeceive us. China is at war, India is bleeding, Solferino and Magenta are scarcely dry from the blood of nations fighting on that old pretext of the balance of European power. Nations are no wiser than they used to be, and still recall to us that sarcastic definition of a mob, which a wise man calls a compound mass of human beings, in which each one has for the moment all the follies and evil passions of the rest in addition to his own, and his usual common sense and good feeling divided by the total number of persons collected together." [Arthur Helps.] No prudent man can think that we have absolute security for a single month from all the horrors of warfare, and no volunteer should put on his uniform without feeling that it may one day either enclose his own mangled clay, or be spotted with life-blood from a heart as warm and pure and human as his own—a heart which shall beat no more, and which has been stilled by him.

In these circumstances, what is the first duty of this vast array, not of hired homicides, but of Christian men? It is surely to feel the responsibility of the step they are taking, and to make sure that they are right in it. There is no more tremendous occasion in a man's life (if we except those visible and solemn approaches to Himself which God has instituted for His Church in this world) than that of his enrolling and binding himself to die or to slay on behalf of his country. If it is a duty at all, it is a sacred duty—a terrible privilege. It is solemn to think that they who take the sword may perish by the sword, but it is even more so to remember that they may be called upon to slay with the sword. Therefore it is that we do most surely and firmly believe that God, from whom alone such a right could come, hath given to men, made of one blood upon the face of the earth, the right to defend themselves, their wives, and their children, even by that last argument of death; that from the necessity of the case, and from the authority of Scripture, and from the history of deeds of battle done under the smile (most stern and awful smile!) of the God of holy love, men who are to pray everywhere for each other, lifting up holy hands, are also, in that last resort, to fight with these armed hands for the life or lives which He has entrusted to them.

And if this is so, what an inexpressible tenderness and dignity of love should it not diffuse through our whole life! If these hands, with which we would not willingly smite a child, may one day break asunder a brother's brittle life, how pure should they be—how immaculate from all sordid or selfish taint—how rich in acts of kindness, and prompt to ministry of love! What manner of persons ought we to be, in all beauty of a godly life, who have bound ourselves to look habitually into the clear eyes of death, and, if need so require, to become unflinching, though unwilling partakers in the avenging prerogatives of Heaven! I cannot help thinking that this general volunteer movement in Great Britain is likely to work, what I am very sure it ought to work, a great improvement in the moral tone and sentiment of society. War is in itself an evil, not a good; but the very worst thing that can be done with such an evil is to connive at it—to turn our eyes from the sterner truths with which it deals, and look only on the fair and pleasant aspect of the thing. We have done this too long. We have kept up a standing army, and hired the refuse of society (yet our equals and our brothers) to be "shot and shovelled into a trench for sixpence a-day." Our island has been so long free from invasion, that neither we, nor our fathers, nor grandfathers, have seen the realities of war, and we have been well content to read of them in the Gazette, and pay taxes for the distant luxury. I question if any men have a right so to do. Warfare of any sort is to the Christian mind a monstrous and abhorrent thing; but if it is to be, if we recognise it as a terrible necessity, then are we bound also to take the immediate responsibility, and not to delegate the most awful duty to which a man can be called. We may not hold homicide at arms'-length, and contemplate as a gratifying spectacle what we should shudder to engage in ourselves. If it is wrong, it ought not to be at all; if it is right, we may not shrink from our department of the stern duty. And history leaves no doubt that there are some virtues which, though not peculiar to war, are yet apt to slumber in peace, and have been oftenest evoked by the clarion voice of battle. There is a cowardliness and frivolity natural to peace, or rather to the weak and facile nature of man in a state of peace, which is perhaps most of all manifested in a high state of civilisation. Are we free from this unworthy taint? Look at our population immersed, in commerce, at our youth sauntering and dawdling through life, at the mass of men who keep so respectable when they have no inducement to go wrong, but are so easily swept aside by the first fierce onset of temptation—is there no room, in such a state of matters, for a purer, higher, more chivalrously Christian tone of life? If any are disposed to smile at the union of such epithets, I admit they are incommensurable, but deny that they are incongruous. Christianity includes whatsoever things are pure and lovely and of good report; and even in the simplest and most savage age of chivalry there was a nobility and dignity of ideal present to the eyes of men which we are too apt to lose among the richer and more manifold marvels of our age. In that grand old book, "The Historie of King Arthur," the knights —simple-minded gentlemen, who ride through the world with the narrowest range of ideas, and the most straightforward notions both of love and war, splintering lances, and smiting each other "backwards over their horses' tails"—have yet, in all their words and deeds, a peculiar beauty which coming ages will not willingly let die. Take that touching lamentation, when Sir Ector, having sought Sir Launcelot for seven years, finds him at last lying on his bier, with visor open, as men of worship were wont to be laid forth:—

"'Ah, Sir Launcelot,' said hee, 'thou were head of all christen knights! And now I dare say,' said Sir Ector, 'that, Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, thou were never matched of none earthly knight's hands; and thou were the curtiest knight that ever beare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrood horse; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strooke with sword; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among presse of knights; and thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever eate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortall foe that ever put speare in the rest.'"

It is no doubt true, that peace hath her victories no less than war; and that for the man who has put off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light, there will always be occasions and calls, whatever be his employment, to add to his faith a heroic virtue. The conflict of life, in our modern days, is assuming a wonderful complication and intensity, and there is certainly no necessity that it should be reinforced, in those who understand this, by the coarse collision of external hostilities. But that is not the question. The question is, whether that war, which we have been accustomed to tolerate and patronise at a distance, binding upon epauletted shoulders a burden which we would not touch with one of our fingers, should, or should not, be now brought near to each one of us, and what is to be the moral effect of such an approximation? Now, there are many men to whom life is not a warfare. It is a drudgery, or an amusement, or a weariness, or a lounge. Well for them if anything is found to bring them in front of the responsibilities of life, and death, and the life beyond! It may be said that this movement, with its parades, and holidays, and festivities, is likely to have any effect but this. I do not think so. No doubt there are many youths who do not look on it in the light we do, who join the ranks as a frolic, and remain in them as an amusement. They have no business there. The movement is an earnest and serious one, already national, and almost certain to be permanent. It is one in which the heart and strength of the country seem engaged, and in which thoughtful and religious men are taking an active part. War is not sport. It has too long been considered as such; and perhaps one of the chief reasons of this is the very fact that, in our modern times, in this country at least, the mass of the people have held themselves apart from its duties. To them it has been an expensive pageant,—not a sad necessity, touching intimately their personal interests. Perhaps, when the golden harps of the future are strung to '"hant the death of war," it may turn out that one of the chief steps towards that desired consummation has been the forcing of a great and Christian people to take up the subject seriously and individually. But, however that may be, the moral effect of their so looking at it cannot be other than good— good for the unthinking crowd, good also for him in whose heart is something better and higher.

For, comparing the religion of this our peaceful age with others that went before it, there is one difference with which we must all be struck. We take things so very easily. Religious men in former days moved about as if cased in mail, burdened with the panoply of their faith, resisting unto blood, and striving against sin. Like the knights in Branksome Hall, they seemed as if

"Sheath'd in steel,
With belted sword, and spur on heel;
They quitted not their armour bright,
Neither by day, nor yet by night;
They lay down to rest
With corslet laced,
Pillow'd on buckler cold and hard;
They carved at the meal
With gloves of steel,
And they drank the red wine through the helmet barred."

Not many in our day keep such painful vigil or heroic watch. Our religion is various, beautiful, spontaneous, and free; but the overpowering sense of compulsion that drove men to God, and kept them there, is too much wanting. We are aesthetic religionists; we admire our religion, and obey it because we approve of it. If, indeed, we could believe that this freedom from "the dread of Him and the fear of Him" was the result, in every case, of a more enlarged and evangelical spirit,— that it was but a manifestation of the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, then it were nothing to be complained of. But, alas! it is not so. Even our self-deception cannot blind our eyes so far. The wheat and the chaff lie mingled in heaps on the thrashing-floor, because no fierce wind disturbs them. How would the Church, in our country, stand a Diocletian persecution? If the Armada that God dashed to pieces in 1588 could land upon our shores in 1860, would we, who profess the name of Christ, be all strong not to fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do? To our fathers, even such a test as this was proposed. No man then believed that he lived for Christ, unless he were prepared deliberately to die for Christ. And corresponding with this outward pressure of Providence was an inward urgency of fear. In the Puritan age, men "feared God," and lived under the powers of the world to come. A sense of duty, the "sternest consciousness of right," and of the Divine authority which imposed that right, pervaded their whole religion. It is not so with us. And one reason why it is not, is doubtless those long years of quiet, prosperous ease in which our country has reposed, where there are no great perils to rouse the national conscience, and no shadow of coming calamity to drive us to our God. It is an evil use to make of His good gifts; but it is one to which the heart of man has been prone in every age, and for which He has been wont, when His purposes were gracious, to use the sharpest remedies. He may do so with us; but let us thankfully deal with the milder first. This Volunteer movement, this confronting of the realities of death and warfare by Christian and religious men, is it not fitted to give a truer and keener edge to our religion—to invigorate and elevate our Christianity? I do not see how any one, who knows what death and eternity are, can put himself in training for slaughter, and handle the instruments of death, without being driven to rely for support on the dear power and absolute strength of duty. And our sense of duty must be a sense of Christian duty. We need a religion that can stand the strain of death, and that will not dissolve into nothingness under the clear, cold, ghastly light that streams from that other world. If we have no such religion, it is time for us to get it. We are unfit to die, and are not fit to live. We cannot perform the highest functions of a citizen; we are cowards at heart, and have reason to be so. But if we have such a sustaining faith in Christ, then let us put on the whole armour of God, nor shrink from the saddest, sternest duties to which, as men and as subjects of the commonwealth, we may be called.

So let the sword-bayonet hang by the wall! Not to be handled without reverence, yet not to be hid from craven eyes,—to be accepted, if accepted at all, as part of our religion, and part of our life.


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