While eating lunch today I was reading Churchill’s memoir A Roving Commission (which I got here.)(The American edition is called My Early Life.) (It was made into a fine movie called Young Winston, very well cast, with Simon Ward, Anne Bancroft and Robert Shaw.)
Every single page of this book is so good it is like eating chocolate cake. If I did not restrain myself, I could end up quoting huge slabs of it. I’ll offer you just one slice here.
I ran across a passage where Churchill’s regiment is going to play polo at a very major tournament. As it happens, Churchill’s 4th Hussars scored a surprise victory over the champion team from “the famous Golconda Brigade, the bodyguard of the Nizam himself.” Soldiering as a British cavalry officer in India in those days was mostly about polo.
The match was preceded by “a review of the entire garrison”. The troops were paraded, then:
At the end came a score of elephants drawing tandem-fashion gigantic cannon. It was then the custom for the elephants to salute as they marched past by raising their trunks, and this they all did with exemplary precision. Later on the custom was abolished because vulgar people tittered and the dignity of the elephants or their mahouts was wounded. Later on still, the elephants themselves were abolished, and we now have clattering tractors drawing far larger and more destructive guns. Thus civilization advances. But I mourn the elephants and their salutations.
I am one of those who is possessed by a book-derived sentimentality for the doomed world that existed in the years before 1914. Too bad the men of that age could not have just carried on sensibly with their soldiers playing polo, polishing their pickelhaubes, shining their boots, and marching briskly to the town square for band concerts on Sunday afternoons. But no. They had to set them to killing each other instead. Scarlet tunics, red trousers, cuirasses, gold epaulettes, plumes, braid, swords — all were doomed to disappear into the mud of World War I. War was revealed as a stern business indeed, of spade-work, of deep, muddy trenches, showers of machine gun bullets, and very large explosions, all ingloriously deadly. Not an affair for dabblers. As Churchill says elsewhere in the same book, “war which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid.”
And I for one mourn with him for the elephant-drawn artillery of those lost and (in some ways) better times.