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Wounded Souls

Philip Gibbs

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
It is hard to recapture the spirit of that day we entered Lille. Other things, since, have blurred its fine images. At the time, I tried to put down in words the picture of that scene when, after four years’ slaughter of men, the city, which had seemed a world away, was open to us a few miles beyond the trenchlines, the riven trees, the shell-holes, and the stench of death, and we walked across the canal, over a broken bridge, into that large town where—how wonderful it seemed!—there were roofs on the houses, and glass in the windows and crowds of civilian people waiting for the first glimpse of British khaki. Even now remembrance brings back to me figures that I saw only for a moment or two but remain sharply etched in my mind, and people I met in the streets who told me the story of four years in less than four minutes and enough to let me know their bitterness, hatred, humiliations, terrors, in the time of the German occupation.... I have re-read the words I wrote, hastily, on a truculent typewriter which I cursed for its twisted ribbon, while the vision of the day was in my eyes. They are true to the facts and to what we felt about them. Other men felt that sense of exaltation, a kind of mystical union with the spirit of many people who had been delivered from evil powers. It is of those other men that I am now writing, and especially of one who was my friend—Wickham Brand, with the troubled soul, whom I knew in the years of war and afterwards in the peace which was no peace to him. His was one of the faces I remember that day, as I had a glimpse of it now and then, among crowds of men and women, young girls and children, who surged about him, kissing his hands, and his face when he stooped a little (he was taller than most of them) to meet the wet lips of some half-starved baby held up by a pallid woman of Lille, or to receive the kiss of some old woman who clawed his khaki tunic, or of some girl who hung on to his belt. There was a shining wetness in his eyes, and the hard lines of his face had softened as he laughed at all this turmoil about him, at all these hands robbing him of shoulder-straps and badges, and at all these people telling him a hundred things together—their gratitude to the English, their hatred of the Germans, their abominable memories. His field-cap was pushed back from his high furrowed forehead from which at the temples the hair had worn thin, owing to worry or a steelhat. His long lean face deeply tanned, but powdered with white dust, had an expression of tenderness which gave him a kind of priestly look, though others would have said “knightly” with perhaps equal truth. Anyhow I could see that for a little while Brand was no longer worrying about the casualty-lists and the doom of youth and was giving himself up to an exultation that was visible and spiritual in Lille in the day of liberation.