The War! How long ago was it? Which war? Why, the Great War, the War against Germany. Something a little more than three years ago hostilities came to an end along the far stretched "fronts". The guns stopped their clamour then; machine guns ceased their reaping; men no longer winced to the shrilling scream of the close-coming shell; there came to be no more need of stiffening nerves and unruly muscles under a relentless will to "stand the gaff" of the War three years ago. Three years. But today our generation is "fed-up" on War stories. There is no market for tales of the grim days of 'seventeen-'eighteen. Unless indeed the author have something startling, something sensational, something preening itself on what is wellnigh sacrilege. Then indeed the public buys. Then articles are written a guing, pro and con, the merits and demerits of the publication. Yet in most cases it is the facts that are criticized or applauded, the technique that is judged flawless or faulty, none estimates the spirit in which the subject was approached, the ideals of the writer, or the purpose of the writing. So comes the fame of some War best-sellers.
It must be with reverence that one opens the covers of the volumes of the Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany as, carefully gathered and tenderly compiled by M. A. De Wolfe Howe '88, they appear from time to time. There can be no question here of "market" or "popularity". In its very subject the work justifies its existence. The composite subject is one to move us deeply whether or no we be of Harvard's sons. It is a tale of adventure, a tale of heroism, suffering, of death, dingy, in unlit corners or flaming gorgeously in battle. It is a story of human beings who were tested by the fires, but more, it tells of bright youth winning to brief glorious achievement and of riper age, which, having labored well, finds its highest accomplishment in dying for a cause believed-in. We have not forgotten. Those in the world who truly felt deeply in wartime, whose innermost beings were stirred, did gain something from the years of trial which time cannot wipe away. But we have glossed over the marks, a protecting covering has grown over the wounds, so that not all prying eyes about us may see. We guard our sorrows, our losses, for ourselves. They are hot things for public show. So we take this second volume and read it in silence, away from the rattle-and-bang of everyday. Perhaps we pause in reading and our eyes are misty for a moment as we see dusty roads with cheery grinning boys' faces under their "tin-derbies", faces of boys marching, or we see sprawled figures by a wayside ditch, or stunted twisted forms on stretchers, awful, hidden under their khaki blankets, and we think of a greeting in a voice we have not heard for three long dulling years. We do not cry the praises of this book. But we are grateful to the man who made it for us, the man whose care, whose understanding, and whose taste, bring us in touch again closely with those young men and old we knew, and with those we wish humbly we might have known. There is nothing in all this volume to cause anyone to regret the writing, and to some it has seemed our dead would not relish being put too often between the covers of books. In this case all is done in fairness, and with every regard for the ideals of the men themselves.
One cannot read without a sense of appreciation that Mr. Howe has approached his task in that perfect spirit of tribute which can immortalize without exaggerating. His purpose has been not only to commemorate these boy-men, but to picture for us the traits of boyhood, those facets of character which make us see the boy in the man, and in the boy judge what the man would have been--had there been only time. The ideals of the writer are the ideals which led the men of whom he writes, the ideals we like to claim as cherished by Harvard.
This volume is thicker--and we realize it with a pang--than the preceding one. It concerns the men who died within the year after the United States entered the war. Again there is no strict holding to prescribed limits, which is admirable. Every story is living and filled with sympathy in treatment and selection. Whether, as in the case of that of Every Jansen Wendell the biography is mainly in the words of a classmate, or as in that of Harmon Bushnell Craig told in his own writings, or as with Wainwright Merrill worded by Mr. Howe himself, the stories are characteristic and breathe truth and sincerity.
The book is one to be treasured beside its brother volume. If faults there are they are in details such as color of the binding, which is a matter of personal preference. And they have no place in their pettiness in what must needs be an expression of obligation to all those who helped in the making of this second volume. It is a tribute and the feeling of the author cannot be better phrased than by the words of Kipling which are quoted at the beginning of this book:
"They willingly left the unachieved purpose of their lives in order that all life should not be wrenched from its purpose, and without fear they turned from these gates of learning to those of the grave."