Read CHAPTER XVIII - THE RASCAL IN WAR of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on

Even the most apathetic of us has been changed by war he who in times of peace was content with his ledgers and daily office round is now in the ranks of men who clamber over the parapet and rush, cheering, to the German lines; she who lived for golf, dances, and theatres is now caring for the wounded through the long nights in hospital. Everyone in every class of life has altered the “slacker” has turned soldier, and the burglar has become a sound, honest man.

Strange it is that war, which might be expected to arouse all the animal passions in us, has done us so much good! There are among the men in the trenches many hundreds who were, before the war, vastly more at home in the police courts and prisons than is the average Londoner at a public dinner. That they should be brave is not astonishing, for adventure is in their bones, but they are also as faithful, as trustworthy, as amenable to discipline as any soldiers we possess.

There was “Nobby” Clarke, for instance. “Nobby” was a weedy little Cockney who became my “batman,” or servant. He had complete control of my privy purse, did all my shopping, and haggled over my every halfpenny as carefully as though it were his own. Then, when he had served me for over six months, I overheard him one day recounting his prison experiences, and I discovered that he had been a pilferer and pickpocket well known in all the London police courts. In his odd moments out of jail, he would hover outside the larger stations, touch a bedraggled cap with a filthy finger, and say, “Kerry yer beg, sir?” in a threatening tone to all passers-by; his main income, however, appeared to come from far less respectable sources.

And yet he served me more faithfully than I have ever been served before or since, and I have seldom been more sorry than I was when “Nobby” Clarke was hit. As we were tying him up he had been wounded in eight places by a rifle grenade he signed to me and I stooped over him.

“I ain’t got no one at ’ome as cares fer me,” he said, “so yer might ’and me things round to the blokes ’ere. I’ve got a photograph of me ole woman wot died five years ago. It’s in me pay book, sir, an’ I’d like yer to keep it jest to remind yer of me.” Then, his voice getting weaker every moment, “I ain’t been such a bad servant to yer, ’as I, sir?” he whispered, his eyes looking appealingly into mine. And when “Nobby” Clarke, onetime loafer and pickpocket, passed away, I am not ashamed to own that there was a queer sort of lump in my throat.

And he was only one of many, was “Nobby” Clarke. There was Bennett, the tramp, who was always ready with a song to cheer up the weary on the march; there was a Jewish money-lender who was killed while trying to save a man who was lying wounded in No Man’s Land; there was Phillips, who had been convicted of manslaughter he became a stretcher-bearer, and was known all over the battalion for his care of the wounded.

In every regiment in every army you will find a little group of men who were tramps and beggars and thieves, and, almost without exception, they have “made good.” For the first time in their lives they have been accepted as members of great society, and not driven away as outcasts. The Army has welcomed them, disciplined them, and taught them the elements of self-respect a quality whose very existence they ignored before the war.

There is an Italian proverb “Tutto il mondo e paese” which means, in its broadest sense, “All the world is ruled by the same passion and qualities.” In the old days it needed a Dickens, and, later, a Neil Lyons to discover the qualities of the criminal classes; now war has brought us all together the erstwhile city merchant warms himself before the same brazier as the man who would have picked his pocket three years before and we suddenly find that we are no better than the beggar, and that a man who stole apples from a stall is no worse at heart than the inhabitant of Mayfair.

It is not that our ideas of greatness have degenerated when we call these men heroes; it is not that war is entirely a thing of evil, so that the criminal shines as a warrior it is that these “outcasts” have changed. Statistics prove that crime has decreased since the war began, and crime will continue to decrease, for that indefinable instinct we call patriotism has seized on all classes alike, so that the criminal can make the supreme sacrifice just as magnificently as the man who has “kept straight” all his life.

And the best of it is that this reform among burglars and beggars is not for the “duration of the war only.” War has lost us our sons and our fathers, it has brought appalling sorrow and suffering into the world, but it has given the very poor a chance they have never had before. No more are they outcasts; they are members of society, and such they will remain. If this were all the good that war could do, it would still be our ultimate gain that the great scourge is passing over the world.