Alice encouraged her son to become an actor and at the age of seven he appeared with his mother in Coriolanus during the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford-on-Avon. He also appeared in several other plays during his school holidays.
A friend, Sidney Dark, later pointed out: "He loved wandering about the country, filled with an insatiable and detailed curiosity. He was a tiring companion when he was quite little, for he had to stop every other minute to examine a new stone, to prod down a hole to discover where it led, to pick an unfamiliar flower, to gaze at a spider or a toad. In London he would explore mean streets and little-known alleys, observing and remembering. One of his boyish characteristics was a deep and gentle love of animals."
In 1903, Chapin joined the Vincent Crummles' Company and had roles in Jane Shore and the The Murder in the Red Barn. While on tour he wrote poetry and in 1905 he completed a comic opera which he called the Kings in Ireland.
Chaplin continued to act and during the next three years he appeared in The Prodigal Son at Drury Lane, The Bondman at the Adelphi, and Her Love Against the World, The Midnight Wedding, The Christian and Romeo and Juliet at the Lyceum.
In 1908 he joined the management team of Charles Frohman at the Duke of York's Theatre. During this period he met two men who were to play an important role in his development: Harley Granville Barker and Lewis Casson. Chapin, who had been brought up as a Unitarian, like Barker and Casson, wanted to use the theatre to stimulate the desire for political reform.
Chapin's first significant acting role was in What Every Woman Knows, a play by J. M. Barrie at the Duke of York's Theatre. The play was a great success and ran for 384 performances. Produced at a time when women's suffrage was a major issue, the play suggests that "every woman knows" she is the invisible power responsible for the successes of the men in her life.
The following year he appeared in Strife, a play by John Galsworthy. The play is about a strike at the Trenartha Tin Plate Works. According to the critic, Barrett H. Clark: "Strife is an eminently fair and just arrangement of acts, facts, motives, and opinions, focusing up to a spire of meaning, bearing upon the struggle between capital and labor. Galsworthy's first care was to set before his audience a clear statement, without taking sides with one party or the other."
Sidney Dark later pointed out: "With all this hard work he never for a moment forgot his ambition to write plays. That was to be his real work. He always carried in his pocket a little notebook in which he would write down lines and situations as they occurred to him. He continued his voyages of discovery, often in the middle of the night and after a long day's work at the theatre."
In February 1910, Lewis Casson directed Chapin's play, The Marriage of Columbine at the Royal Court Theatre. Casson's wife, Sybil Thorndike, played the main role. William Archer later commented: "Several of its lines were of that subtle quality which takes an appreciable time to get home to the apprehension of the audience, so that one can actually watch their effect kindling from row to row, as it were, through the house."
Chapin worked for a season with the Frohman Repertory Company. On 4th June, Chapin married the actress Calypso Valetta. They were both members of the same company. Later that year he returned to the Duke of York's to act in A Bolt from the Blue. When the play ended its run Chapin joined the Glasgow Repertory Theatre as one of the producers. His wife went to Glasgow with him and acted with him in several plays.
Chaplin combined acting with writing. He appeared in The Father by August Stringberg. In December, 1911, his son was born, and soon afterwards he joined up with Harley Granville Barker as stage manager at the Kingsway, where Fanny's First Play was then being performed.
Probably his best play, Art and Opportunity was produced in the autumn of 1912 at the Prince of Wales's Theatre by Marie Tempest. This production made him known to a wider public and he was recognized as one of the most promising of the younger men writing for the British theatre. However, it was not liked by everyone. William Archer argued: "It was brimful of cleverness; but in adapting the heroine's character to Miss Tempest's vivacious, showy talent, Chapin sacrificed some of his sincerity. He created for her a new type of adventuress who, from a sort of sporting instinct, makes a system of playing with her cards upon the table."
In September 1912, his four-act play Elaine, written while he was in Glasgow, was performed at the Gaiety Theatre. The play was directed by Lewis Casson and produced by Annie Horniman. Casson's wife, Sybil Thorndike played the lead role. According to Jonathan Croall, the author of Sybil Thorndike: A Star of Life (2008), the play was a "witty, gently satirical comedy about attitudes to love and money in marriage."
This was a prolific period for Chapin. The Dumb and the Blind had a long run at the Prince of Wales (1912-13). William Archer described it as "a veritable masterpiece in its way - a thing Dickens would have delighted in. There is not a single false note in the little play: it is as restrained as it is touching."
This was followed by his one-act play, It's the Poor that 'Elps the Poor. The critic Sidney Dark thought it was one of his most successful plays: "Chapin's best and most characteristic work is, unquestionably, to be found in his one-act plays, in most of which he is concerned with the life of the very poor. He never gushes or sentimentalizes. He always writes with critical sympathy. His touch is sure, and his line is clear."
In 1913 he appeared in several plays including Every Man for His Own, Dropping the Baby, Susan in Search of a Husband, by Jerome K. Jerome, and two plays by Israel Zangwill: The Melting Pot and Plaster Saints.
The First World War was declared on 4th August 1914. Once the conflict began Chapin found it impossible to write or act. Chapin eventually decided to support the war in the hope that at the end of the conflict the people would be rewarded by the government introducing large-scale political and social reforms. One of his mother's old friends wrote her a letter in which she said how noble it was of her son "to fight for king and country." Harold laughed when he was shown the letter. "I'm fighting for no king," he said, "and the best of this king is that he knows we are not fighting for him."
On 2nd September 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Chapin was sent to St. Albans where he met up with Lewis Casson, the man who directed several of his plays and had appeared with him several times on the stage. Chapin was initially given the job in the Cook House. He wrote to his wife: "This is good because it is as useful a job as is going and one that demands conscientious hard work still it does not involve going into the actual firing line - a thing I have no ambition to do. Stray shell fire and epidemics are all I want to face thank you, let those who like the firing line have all the bullets they want."
In January 1915 Chapin moved to an army hospital camp in Hatfield. The following month he wrote: "Things are much more comfortable now. Got into a nice billet, 6 of us in two empty rooms opening off each other - good fireplace and windows. I have also - with 4 others - taken a front room in a cottage, furnished, wherein we can write letters, wash, talk and get our teas in privacy." Chapin was now in the stretcher bearers subdivision of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
While based in England he was convinced that the war would be over in a few months. On 8th February, 1915, he wrote: "Things seem to be going tremendously well, don't they? I expect we shall finish the war up this Autumn easily now... What Germany will have to say to the Kaiser is a question. I suppose you know that we shall probably be on Garrison duty for a couple of months after the War."
Lance-Corporal Chapin arrived in France on 18th March, 1915. It was not long before he was reassessing the idea that the war would soon be over: "The general impression is not one of a victorious army - or indeed an army at all - but rather of a great industrial district, rather unsuitably housed - a more or less improved industrial district perhaps. The impression also soaking into me is that, unless a miracle occurs, it harbours an industry that will go on forever."
Chapin reached the Western Front in May, 1915. Soon afterwards his unit suffered their first casualties: "Mayhew - who knew the two dead very intimately - is fearfully down: seems to think he should have been with them. Curious how people feel, isn't it? I feel most for their mothers. Chick - the younger of the two - was only nineteen and such a child; though very tall. They were all smashed by a shell."
A stretcher-bearer was one of the most dangerous jobs on the front-line. Captain Charles Hudson of the 11th Sherwood Foresters, later argued: "Stretcher-bearers were wonderful people... They were always called to the most dangerous places, where casualties had already taken place, yet there were always men ready to volunteer for the job, at any rate in the early days of the war. The men were not bloodthirsty. Stretcher-bearers were unarmed and though they were not required to do manual labour or sentry-go, this I am sure was not the over-riding reason for their readiness to volunteer."
Chapin quickly became aware that the realities of trench-warfare meant that the war would continue for some time. He shared the views of General Douglas Haig that the conflict could only be won by war of attrition. "If you at home could only see and hear the enormous concentration of force necessary to take a mile of German trench; the terrific resistance we have to put up to hold it; the price we have to pay over every little failure - a price paid with no purchase to show for it - if you could only see and realize these things there'd be some hope of you all bucking in and supplying the little extra force - the little added support in resistance - that we need to end this murderous, back and forth business."
Harold Chapin was killed on Sunday, 26th September, at the battle of Loos. A fellow soldier, Richard Capell, wrote to his wife about what happened: "Our line that afternoon wavered for a moment, before the counter-attack. There was a short period of confusion, and some of our men were caught in the open by German rifle and machine-gun fire. You may possibly one day get an exact account from an actual eye-witness, but from what I can piece together, your husband went over the parapet to fetch in some wounded man. He was certainly shot in the foot. It appears that he persisted and was then killed outright by a shot through the head."
We are getting if possible busier and busier. A Brigade Order arriving last night fairly late involved getting breakfast for all troops at 7.30 instead Of 7.45 and 8 (two batches) which meant up before 5 and out in the rain (it was pouring) by 5.30 all the wood sopping: the fire trench half full of water and the carts and waggons being loaded and got out all over the shop.
We are being sorted into jobs. I fancy I shall stay on cooking. This is good because it is as useful a job as is going and one that demands conscientious hard work still it does not involve going into the actual firing line - a thing I have no ambition to do. Stray shell fire and epidemics are all I want to face thank you, let those who like the firing line have all the bullets they want.
Talking of epidemics we are suffering from an epidemic of minor misfortunes. Willson the healthy has got a sort of boil on his leg which I dress for him nightly. Lion and Fisher have got bad feet - very bad feet. Roff (you don't know him but he is of the decumvirate) started flu but thought better of it - Galton the Scot has started acute pains in his inside - on the site of an old operation. Many others have bad feet or festering fingers and I have got an inflamed eye - a sort of pimple under the lid which exudes matter occasionally - also I have sliced my thumb beside the nail. Eye and thumb both mending though. Willson dresses the latter nightly: curious how people pal up under these conditions I don't believe he and I have been fifty yards apart since we came down here except on last Saturday when you came down.
Things are much more comfortable now. Got into a nice billet, 6 of us in two empty rooms opening off each other - good fireplace and windows. I have also - with 4 others - taken a front room in a cottage, furnished, wherein we can write letters, wash, talk and get our teas in privacy. The danger is that others may find out our "Club" and take to calling. It's a great comfort at present. Also I have found a little baker's shop where I can get a good breakfast for 6d. in the charming company of Mrs. Baker and her daughter, when breakfasting in the Mess becomes unendurable - as it frequently does. The ten shillings has been a Godsend---really one needs a little over and above the net pay if one is to be comfortable. The food supplied is so unappetising and monotonous, besides not always going quite round in an eatable state.
Though I am in the stretcher bearers subdivision - and doing the very difficult "extended order" drill with them - I have been attached to the nursing section for lectures on dispensing medicine etc. - so I look like remaining always with the Tents either as cook (the Sergeant Cook wants me back as soon as I'll come to him) or Nurse.
I'm quite willing to write, but I find it increasingly difficult. This life is so monotonous and all privacy so unknown that letter writing is a disappearing art. I think I told you that Lion, Roffe, Capell, Willet and myself have rented a sitting room in a house here wherein we have our tea and make ourselves fairly comfortable but even here there are generally four of us in the evening - sometimes plus a couple of visitors and conversation is generally going on-just at present there is none - but Roffe is mending an allarum clock.
Keep me well posted concerning Vallie won't you? I am not unduly worried about him - you and Joan with your dozen odd certificates between you ought to be a match for his bronchy - but I might worry if I did not hear.
We - the 6th - continue to receive compliments from the Authorities. Colonel Burt the D.M.S. says our Hospital is clean and Codrington says we march well, and Sir Ian Hamilton has said we were not so dusty - and certain sneering gentlemen in khaki in St. Albans meeting some of us there on Sunday said: "Hullo here come some of the smart sixth." So we seem to be getting known.
I am at work - a line a day about - on a one act play for the 6th Field Ambulance which would also be useful for the Halls.
Things seem to be going tremendously well, don't they? I expect we shall finish the war up this Autumn easily now... What Germany will have to say to the Kaiser is a question. I suppose you know that we shall probably be on Garrison duty for a couple of months after the War. If we do we shall have a perfectly scrumptious time of it - those of us who are looking after Belgium and France - and if I'm one of them somebody'll have to find the money for you and Vallie to come out and stay with me. If we are in Germany the temper of the people will be a consideration. I doubt if - outside Prussia - they'll give much trouble.
Does Mummy tell you how we are getting on with the War? I think everything is going awfully well. The Germans have done another very silly thing. They have said they are going to blow up all the ships that try to come to England. This is just as silly as it can be because, for one thing, it's wrong to blow up ships and if they do they'll get into trouble with more people even than they are in trouble with now, and everybody will go for them, and for another thing they can't blow up one quarter of the ships they say they will, so they are pretending that they will do things they can't - which makes them look ridiculous and - well it's as if you were to lose your temper and say that you were going to throw Mummy out of the window. You couldn't and it would be wrong if you could. Well the Germans are being told now how silly and wicked they have been and I think they'll be sorry one of these days. We have sunk a lot of the ships they sent to sink ours.
My news is - I have done my second week as Hospital Orderly (We do one in three). A fearful field day covering 30 miles and lasting (without a meal) from 6.45 a.m. till 8.25 p.m. The last four hours in soaking rain through which we (a small detached band of Stretcher Bearers - not the whole 6th) marched the ten miles home at a pace which left the shorter legged several paces in the rear, until a staff-officer overtaking us blew the Lieutenant in charge of us up severely. The Lieutenant in question had been previously thrown from his horse and was covered with mud. We had to march down a road - a bad side lane really - along which all the Artillery of the Division had preceded us. It was a muddy road at best and flooded in places. You can only faintly imagine the foot deep surface of clay we had to splash through for over a mile. Every footstep flung mud higher than our waists. Some times higher than our heads. It was a creamy job. The whole day - wet and muddy and tiring, (we were in full marching order all the time) was most fascinating though. It ended by the stretcher bearers, of whom I was one being marched straight into the sergeant's mess and there served with dinner (rabbit stew) and a glass each of the sergeants' beer, the Sergeant Major himself presiding and forcibly preventing any of the over weariest of us from turning from the food and slipping off to his billet and turning in unfed, and the rest of the Sergeants acting as waiters and bar keepers. I believe our little party did as hard a day's work, as has been done in this part of the country, and not one fell out. Of course it was an accident that landed such a task upon us. We should have either gone to the concentration point by train as the Battalion did or returned from St. Albans by train and motor as the rest of the Field Ambulance did, but - true to the conditions of actual warfare - (by chance) - we went out as a Field Ambulance Stretcher bearers sub division and returned as auxiliary stretcher bearers to a battalion of infantry, a change of character which may easily occur in a real engagement if the S.B. sub div. follows the Batt. reserves until they become supports and still further until they become first line and the rest of the Field Amb. being threatened or otherwise compelled to move off, the communications between S. B.s and Tent sub divisions are broken.
You are all wrong about Russia. She knows her game. The conditions in the East are absolutely unsuited to the digging in policy we have followed in the West. Trenching in East Prussia and Northern Poland would cost more men every week from pneumonia, frost-bite and possibly drowning--than even a retreat like this last one. Russia has ample money---more than all the rest of Europe is the general belief. Make up your mind to this: a retreat means nothing unless it is an entire line that is withdrawn or unless the retreat leaves one end of the line "in the air" and within striking distance of the enemy. Retirements here or there in a line may lead to something but they are in themselves nothing but evasions of blows; sometimes at a cost in men and guns; but that cost is generally about equal to the losses inflicted upon the attacker who fails to bring his blow home. Russia is being attacked much more vehemently than the Allies in the West are, and the greater swaying backwards and forwards of her line is very like the dodging and "footwork" of a clever boxer when his opponent tries to finish him quickly."
How do you like the Dardanelles touch? And Russia's retirement ending in a strategically stronger front for her and a very much worse supplied front for Germany? If I am not very much mistaken, November will see the end of it. I am willing to bet on it. The Dardanelles must make a tremendous impression on Greece and the Balkan States and Italy: and that counts for a lot. I am tremendously pleased over the whole situation - including the, German blockade failing to account for even one ship per day on the first ten days.
Here we are in France - journey not finished yet. We had an ideal crossing - and a most amazing one. I believe every square yard of the: Channel has its own British T.B. Destroyer - queer black shapes with rectangular outlines, hard and well drawn against the dark sky or streams of light from more distant warships. I never saw one in detail with the light upon it, always in silhouette against the light. We steamed with lights out nearly all the way. I slept on deck - not over warm - but I kept getting up to see the latest sight as one or other called me and so kept warm.
We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, "duff" and coffee - having scraped an acquaintance with some of the engine room artificers who invited me to sup in the fo'castle. It was very hot in there but we supped in low neck. Great fun!
Bye bye. Love to my blessed boy. Try to read him as much of my letters as he will understand. I do miss him so and I want him to hear about me all he can so's we shan't be strangers when we meet next. Rubbish I know, but still I'm not quite joking. He's growing so fast.
An unfortunate officer has got to read this and a hundred more letters, so I'll cut it short. Bless you.
From the port we came here by train, travelling in cattle trucks which, with plenty of straw laid down, are much more comfortable than ordinary carriages for a long journey - twenty-two and a half hours. Don't try to guess from that where we are because you'll never do it. We wander all over the map.
Between the night on the boat and the night on the train, we had a night at a camp half a dozen miles outside the port. That - Tuesday - night and last night were the only decent nights' sleep I have had since 1 saw you last Saturday. I feel amazingly fit never the less. Certainly I am a little sleepy this afternoon and we are all going to turn in early but, with the rest, I am feeling as fit as possible. Quite fit in fact.
We are rather drastically treated here: forbidden to go into cafés which - as the water is not to be taken unless boiled and the Army tea is quite undrinkable - is rather hard. Still we hope that the order is only temporary. We went into cafés up to yesterday - and very nice café-au-lait they give - or gave us too. A surprisingly large number of us are teetotallers. My Billet of eight contains six, and the remaining two - of whom I am one are T.T. for the duration of the War.
We had the good fortune for three days to have our tea and sugar issued to us dry which enabled us by obtaining hot water to make our own tea in our mess tins, but that's over now and the stewed dixie tea is all we can get. Au reste the food is excellent when one gets it. We are not yet established here of course. Still even our worst spell - about 40 hours without meat - was quite endurable as we had unlimited biscuits, jam, and cheese, and were able to get good tea and chocolate and cakes at a buffet run for soldiers at the station at the port.
We are much nearer the firing line than I expected we would be in the first few weeks in France, but far enough away for the war still to seem incredibly remote. Some Indian Cavalry whom we saw almost convinced me it was in India.
We are cut off from all news here. Latest is Tuesday morning's announcement of fall of Przchemysl. We live on rumours. The general impression is not one of a victorious army - or indeed an army at all - but rather of a great industrial district, rather unsuitably housed - a more or less improved industrial district perhaps. The impression also soaking into me is that, unless a miracle occurs, it harbours an industry that will go on forever. The other side of the German lines is spoken of by the peasants as if it were separated by an English channel or a Pyrenees rather than by a destructible barrier of men and guns. I am not pessimistic, but I do wish England would buck up. You see no young men here not one. The women are doing all those things the men in England seem to think can't be done without them; and doing them well. The farms are thriving - the threshing, long delayed, is now being done. Cattle, poultry and rabbits are everywhere in spite of many losses.
Certainly this usually poor and squalid part of France looks poorer and squalider than ever, but in the essentials of livestock it is not greatly so. I have seen some - to me - very distressing sights of farm machinery---threshing machines, seed droppers, ploughs etc., left to rust and ruin, but not by the smaller peasants, by the more important folk who departed for safer neighbourhoods when the war broke out.
I was corporal of the guard night before last. The night watches are very strange. The sun sung down by a crowd of our men half a mile away in a barn, warbling music hall ditties; then a slight shower and a crescent moon crossed by many clouds, a curious murmuring, gabbling chant - women with candles, praying to the Madonna at a shrine near by - then long hours of silence broken by the occasional whirr of a motor or motor ambulance - one bearing a case of "Pottermain Poisoning" so the A.S.C. driver told me. Towards dawn faint guns in the distance - so far off that a loud snore in the guard room drowned them easily even to me standing outside. I've no idea where they were. Forty miles away probably. Still they were real guns and most impressive therefore.
There are soldiers all about here all busy shoving the Germans back and shoving the Germans back and shoving the Germans back, and sooner or later we shall shove the whole lot of them right back into Germany over the Rhine - which is a big river - bigger than the river at Maidenhead - RIGHT back into Germany and off their feet, and then we shall sit on their heads severely until they have had enough, and then the war will be over, and we shall just have to tidy up and come home and I shall come home to you my Darling and the Blessed Mummy and the nice flat at St. John's Wood, and oh, I do hope it will be soon because I want to see you and Mummy most awfully.
Good bye my precious, please give my love to Gram and tell her I wish I could have some English Turkey. And please Vallie send everybody you can out here to help shove, because the sooner the Germans are shoved over and the more of us there are to sit on their heads, the sooner I shall see you all again.
Aeroplanes are every day - almost every hour - occurrences, and bombs are dropped here and there about the country in general in charming profusion. They seem to do amazingly slight damage - especially to the military (either men or works). The civil population suffer slightly but apparently no more than does the London public from traffic and fires.
We can hear the guns nightly, when the troops keep quiet. They cheer me up enormously - dispel the feeling that there's no progress being made. "Surely a noise that can be heard all those miles away must do some good" ses I. I want to get the damned war over and get home to certain people - our mutual acquaintances - and to work. I'm sick of being out of it at home without being really in it out here. Still I suppose we are some use - we must be or they wouldn't pay us and feed us - feed us very well too as army food goes. It gets monotonous at the best. My chief objection is the Thé-à-la-chloride-of-lime. I am longing for a good cup of tea again. The chloride of lime in ours comes from the watercarts. In theory it sterilizes the water and then settles, leaving no perceptible flavour. In practice, it may sterilize the water all right, but it resolutely declines to altogether settle. Sufficient remaining in solution to flavour tea very strongly.
The advanced dressing station was run by men who have been out here since the beginning; reinforced by drafts of ex-R.A.M.C. men from the Reserve. I was taken for a personally conducted tour of the dug-outs and trenches by a ginger moustached old sergeant with a D.C.M. who maintains in a strong Aberdonian accent that shrapnel is absolutely harmless. I have since seen three men newly struck by shrapnel and I disagree with him. On the other hand I have watched shrapnel bursting for a whole afternoon over the com-trenches and fields, across which reliefs were passing to and from the trenches - and going up later with stretchers I have heard "No Casualties", and I can't help saying that shrapnel must be a very expensive way to take life. A shell burst in the back of the house wherein the advanced Dressing Station is, a few days before we arrived there. It smashed into the kitchen and exploded forward into the front room - the Officers' Mess. The kitchen happened to be empty and the officers were, by chance attending to a case in another room at the time. That sort of thing happens every day.
Of course I saw and experienced nothing very hot in the way of either rifle or shell fire - just the trench warfare of everyday of the month. We should have been in the commodious cellar and "funk holes" of the station if the shelling had developed into a serious bombardment. The men all slept in the cellar. We (five) elected to sleep above ground in a room next to the sergeants. Somehow their proximity made us feel that the danger wasn't so very great. The room was in the front of the house - the side remote from the German lines.
I had a nasty spell last Monday, stood by at a long (hour and a half) operation on the skull and braintrephining it is called. I nearly fainted twice but pulled myself together and went back as soon as I had got a breath of fresh air and a drink of water outside the room. The blood did not affect me at all. The infernal snoring and groaning of the poor devil under the anesthetic seemed to hypnotise me. Moreover the room was very hot and I was holding a bowl of Mentholated spirit - the smell from which is no help to a faint-feeling man.
It was touch and go with the man. A piece of shell and some fragments of hat had penetrated the skull. After the operation hope was expressed that he would be only paralysed. The next morning he was reading "Punch"! I felt better than I've felt for years when I saw him holding the paper in both hands.
The surgeons and doctors here are first class and, outside rush times when the cases come in in dozens, a man stands as good a chance here as he would in England.
Patients arrive at all hours; generally in twos and threes - frequently in fives and sixes (the last invariably at meal times). They are carried into the dressing room where boots etc. are removed (this saves the operating theatre from dirt), and then transported to the operating theatre where their wounds are inspected and dressed and where every man receives an injection of antitetanus anti-toxin. Septic wounds never go into the theatre at all but are dressed in the dressing room. Nasty things they are. We evacuate our cases pretty fast. The medical wards are quite independent of our surgical. B section looks after them---they get a lot of work. We have a so-called infectious ward but the more infectious cases, like measles, diphtheria, etc. go to a special hospital by special "yellow" ambulances. I fancy our "infectious" ward contains nothing more dangerous than scaby cases. It didn't a day or so ago anyway.
My chief work to-day has been unbooting wounded heroes and giving them beef tea. Though this afternoon I donned the white gown of a grand inquisitor, sublimated my hands and assisted with a couple of dressings; shrapnel (beastly stuff) wounds all over the place.
I have been up to my eyes in work (at the main dressing station in " ----- ") since Sunday morning when the British and French attack began (or rather when its fruits in wounded began to reach us. The actual attack began on Saturday night). Nominally I have been on night duty in the operating tent, but naturally with wounded and wounded and wounded flowing in neither night nor day duty means anything. I had had eight hours sleep in three days, when heavy fighting out here developed and the message came down for more bearers, so out I came with a dozen others by horse ambulance (time two a.m.) and going on on foot just as day was breaking, found a Regimental M.O. in a room in a gutted house with some half dozen wounded and two or three dead on the floor about him. His own regimental stretcher bearers were carrying and carrying the long mile down to a spot where an ambulance could meet them, in comparative safety. I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone blessé a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in " ----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.
It clings and sucks at your boots; weighs you down; chills you and, drying in upper garments, makes them chafe. The dead lie in it in queer flat - jacent - attitudes. They nearly always look flung down rather than fallen, their feet turned sideways lie flatter than a living man's could, and the thighs splayed out lower the contours of the back. An unrelieved level of liquid mud seems to be the end of war.
I have digressed from the history of to-day. We carried two poor devils down and I got our advance dressing station M.O. to allow me to take a horse ambulance up - right up to Welsh Chapel for others - whom we did not wait long for. It was a sporting gallop up the torn road. I don't know when the last four wheeled vehicle had been so far up but the Germans are falling back steadily now and unless a shelling of the road occurred we were quite safe.
Oh the din I am writing this in dear! There ought to be thousands of wounded on both sides if noise counted for anything, but here I have been for over an hour without a call. We are supposed to be relieving the regimental stretcher bearers until noon so that they can get some rest. They have been carrying for about two days with only cat naps between jobs.
We are rather crushed to-day, Darling, casualties - our first. Two killed, one injured. (slightly), one suffering from shock. All C. Section men, but not great friends of mine - though I liked them. Mayhew - who knew the two dead very intimately - is fearfully down: seems to think he should have been with them. Curious how people feel, isn't it? I feel most for their mothers. Chick - the younger of the two - was only nineteen and such a child; though very tall. They were all smashed by a shell. I wish to God England would come into this war and get it over! I told you I thought November. It won't be November twelvemonth unless England drops attacking Kitchener, attacking the Daily Mail, attacking defenceless Germans in London, striking and all the rest of it and devotes all its attention to attacking the German Army out here. If you at home could only see and hear the enormous concentration of force necessary to take a mile of German trench; the terrific resistance we have to put up to hold it; the price we have to pay over every little failure - a price paid with no purchase to show for it - if you could only see and realize these things there'd be some hope of you all bucking in and supplying the little extra force - the little added support in resistance - that we need to end this murderous, back and forth business. Every man not engaged in supplying food and warmth and order - bare necessities - to those at home should be directly engaged in supplying strength toward the ending of the war. If he isn't doing so he is contributing by neglect to that killing and maiming of our men out here, which he might be preventing. I am not exaggerating an iota. This is mere truth which cannot be gainsaid. There can be only one reason for not serving: selfishness. And selfishness at this time is not the commonsense quality it is in ordinary times, since no man is now looking after himself or could look after himself entirely. He is part of the crowd which those of its complement who are serving are looking after, and he can no more look after himself than any one of the men out here can look after himself, but each can help to look after the crowd and be looked after in return. The Devil of it is that so many have slipped into the crowd and are being looked after in return for nothing. That is the weakness.
I am not shouting for men only to enlist. Enlist if possible - but at least to register at Labour Exchanges as willing to do such work as may be needed - and to learn to do it: to do the rottenest sort of work if necessary so long as it's useful. There should be a glut of labour on the market now instead of a shortage.
Things have quieted down now - only aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns with occasional, very occasional, five minutes of shelling disturb the town. After the inferno which raged "out there" for the last two weeks the result of which you have seen by the papers, (it looks little enough but has cost both sides the most enormous efforts and really signifies much), the comparative calm is almost uncanny. Men of this or that battalion are wandering aimlessly about the streets, getting arrears of food into them, and losing slowly the strained and distrait manner that their experiences have engendered...
But oh, my dear, the men who have been buried out here! Such splendid chaps. Why do the best ones all get done in? I met a man a friend, after their charge - two days after it - I had been hearing of this man and that one gone of those I had known best in the battalion and I believe I shook hands with him for five minutes - which surprised nobody. The little ginger headed chap whose hand gave me so much trouble at Hatfield was first to go in the charge of that battalion. A bomb finished him. Other old patients and friends went - or came back here with greater or lesser wounds. One with his breath whistling in and out of a hole between his shoulders - I saw him out delirious and comfortable with plenty of morphia in him. I can stick anything but depressed fracture of the skull. A man died in one of the wards here of that, Galton watching him. He had the ward to himself (they make such a noise) and a mouse came out and ran back and forth under the stretcher he was tied to. Galton called me to watch; he was quite fascinated. These things almost please one by their very perfection of eeriness and horror. Do you understand? They are like the works of some gigantic supernatural artist in the grotesque and horrible. I shall never fear the picturesque in stage grouping again. Never have I seen such perfect grouping as when, after a shell had fallen round the comer from here a fortnight ago, three of us rushed round and the light of an electric torch lit up a little interior ten feet square, with one man sitting against the far wall, another lying across his feet and a dog prone in the foreground, all dead and covered evenly with the dust of powdered plaster and masonry brought down by the explosion! They might have been grouped so for forty years - not a particle of dust hung in the air, the white light showed them, pale whitey brown, like a terracotta group. That they were dead seemed right and proper - but that they had ever been alive - beyond all credence. The fact that I had seen them "mount guard" was in another department of experience altogether and never occurred to me till some days after...
By the way, let me assure you of one thing. I am taking the greatest care of myself - no collecting souvenirs under fire for me. I am not particularly nervous - in fact I have not yet been badly frightened, but I have been struck cautious - if you know what I mean - every time I have been anywhere where caution was necessary. I do not even share the rather popular (with the infants) desire for a slight wound "just enough to get you a fortnight at home." I want to stick the war out usefully and unostentatiously - but, oh, I hope it'll end this year. It will - or not - just according to the energy concentrated by you people at home on the one job of piling up shells, guns., clothes, food, men, bombs, motors, horses, and delivering them to the right spot at the right moment. Oh, and you can devote some energy too to inventing a gas ten times as beastly as the German product and a means of projecting it four times as far.
Another day and no letter - I am awfully distressed. I keep picturing all sorts of horrors, I never did trust Brighton as a place for a young grass widow. Do write and tell me Vallie is alright and you are still as usual etc. I don't like your going to seaside towns at all - and now not hearing from you for all these days. Oh for goodness sake write! I am so miserable. You have lengthened the intervals between letters steadily two letters in seven days while I was at the caretaking job, two in nine now. It'll be two in ten if you don't write to-morrow. Do you think I shouldn't have joined?
I am returned to hospital - my rash is the only trouble now but it is persistent. I am to be isolated until it makes up it's mind what to be. I know what it is. Too much meat not enough vegs, and no exercise, beside rough flannel shirts and perspiration.
I am sorry I was a pig in my letter. It wasn't premeditated. Of course without actually experiencing it you cannot realise the misery of home sickness one can feel out here. It's want of you, want of Vallie, want of all my friends, want of my books and work, all rolled into one and aggravated by intense discomfort and constant annoyance and the haunting uncertainty as to when it will end. I think in November, but in bad moments I can find ample reason for thinking not perhaps till November twelve month or perhaps-for me-never.
Don't be alarmed - I am only excusing my grumpyness by telling you my worst humps which I assure you always afflict me on days when I have had no letter...
I am chock full of ideas for plays of all shapes and sizes, and the old habit of lying awake and getting quite excited over the working out of a plot is coming back to me. I haven't done it since we left Shaftesbury Avenue - not since "Elaine" was on the stocks. If only this war will end before I am quite abruti (is that how you spell it), I believe I shall come home to work. One thing I am getting thinner and I'm sure I work best thin. You mustn't overfeed me when I come home. I don't long to be over fed - but oh I do long for nice food and well served food - pillaff, rairogli, macaroni dishes, vol-au-vents, sweetbreads, your omelettes, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberry fool, ices, sole Dieppoise, salmon, turbot, kippers (Oh for a kipper!) soups. Also I'd love an oyster or two - or twenty. I've told you we can get excellent wine here at sixpence a litre haven't I? Very light wine of course, but none the worse for that. We are no longer offered that confounded rum issue, and I'm glad of it. It always meant a noisy night.
We have had some very welcome rain but the sun puts in a good many hours a day and flies are increasing. We do everything possible to keep them down. It is a punishable offence to leave food about or throw it away except on to the incinerator, and we use heaps of lime and disinfectant fluid. The health of the troops is really marvellous - but the bad months are to come. I shall be glad to see August over. Wherever we advance the enemy leave us a filthy mess. I suppose we don't give them time to tidy up before clearing out. Moreover they always shell any trenches they evacuate so fiercely that we can't do much more than get the wounded out. There are several No Man's Lands about behind our lines but almost unapproachable. One at "........" we call Smelly Farm will be a plague centre if it isn't cleared up soon. I believe we have done something in the burying and lime strewing line there since I personally smelt it last. You can bet on one thing: the authorities are awake and doing all they can, and - what is even more important - the men appreciate the importance of all the precautions possible. This is what counts. However fine the authorities and however energetic they cannot watch all the men all the time. I am disposed to hope that the Germans (who seem to be much less clean habitually in spite of all their discipline and experts) will suffer some in the hot weather.
I beg you to accept my heartfelt condolences. I would not so much as hint at the word consolation to you after this unutterably cruel blow, - even to us, his chance friends of less than a year, it seems too cruel to be realisable, - were it not that I can give you some account, at first hand, of the splendid work of your husband on those days, September 25th and 26th. It must surely be, eventually, a consolation to you to think that he died no mean, casual death, but that he was shot down (on the afternoon of Sunday a week ago) when actually on an errand of help, and after giving himself up for hour after hour to heavy and perilous toil for the wounded.
I have been at some pains to get for you some details of that fatal afternoon, but I cannot - the reason will be obvious - now tell you quite all there is. The essential is that on Sunday morning an appeal came to our station for stretcher-bearers to assist a battalion, seven of whose bearers were out of action. Your husband and two other men set out for the trenches in question, which were to the south-west of Loos. The journey, itself, had its perils. Over the distance of two miles or thereabouts, the Germans, who were rallying after their defeat of the day before, could enfilade our ground. One day I will explain the position with precision. The three of them eventually reached the series of trenches at a moment when the Germans were counter-attacking, and were told by an officer that stretcher-work was impossible at such a moment. It was suicide to show one's head above the parapet. This was, of course, one of the old German trenches, and the enemy fire came both from front and right flank. Chapin consequently told the two others to wait for him while he reported to the medical officer who had appealed in the morning, his intention being to return to collect the wounded after dark, as we did during the week as a matter of routine. The two never saw him again.
Our line that afternoon wavered for a moment, before the counter-attack. There was a short period of confusion, and some of our men were caught in the open by German rifle and machine-gun fire. You may possibly one day get an exact account from an actual eye-witness, but from what I can piece together, your husband went over the parapet to fetch in some wounded man. He was certainly shot in the foot. It appears that he persisted and was then killed outright by a shot through the head.
Our work was so exacting at that moment, that hours passed before Chapin's absence was noticed at our station, and it was not till the following morning that we felt anxious.
I pass over a series of extravagant adventures that befell me as I made my way, then, to your husband's destination of the day before, with the idea of getting first-hand information. I found myself on the scene when the English were making a further attack. It was impossible, in daylight, to go into the open, but I found from a medical officer that a lance-corporal of the R.A.M.C. had, the night before, been seen dead over the parapet. The English attack, that afternoon, improved the position. The next morning, we had a run out there; your husband had been buried in the night near where he fell. I went down on Wednesday to the trenches, saw the officer who had been in charge of the burial party, and eventually got the papers, watch, etc., which were found on his body. These you will have received by now, I suppose. There can be no harm in telling you that he lies with six other London Territorials, within a few hundred yards of Loos cemetery.
If I have the pleasure of seeing you again, when this ghastly business is over, I will tell you something of Chapin's fine work on the Saturday, collecting wounded on the wire before the first captured German trench. For many hours I was out there with him; heartbreaking conditions, twenty appeals for help where one could only heed one; rain for hour after hour, and no little annoyance from crossfire. On one journey, three of us (your husband was one) came in for a tempest of fire. Two of us lay low with the laden stretcher on the grass, while your husband volunteered to go ahead into the village, using a communication trench to bring back the "wheels," by which we get stretchers along at a good pace over roads. Eventually the tempest ended, and the whole day ended without casualties for us. We went to bed at midnight for two hours. Before daybreak I joined a party that was going to Loos, and so began the fatal Sunday.
If, dear Mrs. Chapin, you succeed in getting more detailed information of your husband's death it will be from some one or another in the 17th Battalion London Regiment.
The name of Harold Chapin is one of which America may well be proud; for, though English bred, he was born in America, of American parents. The occasion to which I refer was a presentation of four of his one-act plays, given in honour of his memory. For he is dead: he fell in battle before Loos; and with the single exception of Rupert Brooke, no English-speaking man of more unquestionable genius has been lost to the world in this world-frenzy. Chapin was more fortunate than Brooke, for he died in active and devoted service.
Can you wonder at the emotion with which I, who had watched Chapin and believed in him from the outset of his career, saw the four little plays which remain perhaps the best witness to the promise so sadly unfulfilled?
The outset of his career as a dramatist, I ought to have said. His career as an actor began when he was a child; for he came of a theatrical stock. As an actor, however, he made no great mark. Like Granville Barker, he was much more interested in producing plays - and in writing them. A queer semi-fantastic comedy, "The Marriage of Columbine," brought him into notice some five years ago. A good play it was not, yet it was full of unmistakable talent and originality. Several of its lines were of that subtle quality which takes an appreciable time to get home to the apprehension of the audience, so that one can actually watch their effect kindling from row to row, as it were, through the house. But it was not like the play in "Le Monde où l'on s'ennuie" in which "il-y-avait un beau vers." It had vitality throughout, and was never commonplace, either in its merits or its defects. A year or two later Chapin got his one chance of a regular production at a West End theatre. "Art and Opportunity," a three-act play written for Miss Marie Tempest, did not show him at his best. It was brimful of cleverness; but in adapting the heroine's character to Miss Tempest's vivacious, showy talent, Chapin sacrificed some of his sincerity. He created for her a new type of adventuress who, from a sort of sporting instinct, makes a system of playing with her cards upon the table. Her half-real, half-affected candour is so successful that a hostile critic says of her: "Why, Henry, she's as transparent as a jellyfish;" to which Henry replies: "Do you know why a jelly-fish is transparent? So as not to be seen too clearly." Not only wit, but real insight, went to the making of these lines.
His one-act plays, however, show his talent at its best, and were rightly chosen for the memorial performance. The first, entitled "It's the Poor that 'Elps the Poor," is a low-life sketch of extraordinary poignancy. Ted Herberts has been sent to prison for assaulting the police. During his absence his child has died, and the curtain rises upon the funeral party of neighbours, returned from the cemetery. In clumsy and grotesque ways, they show their sympathy with the bereaved mother; but it is evident that in reality the funeral is an occasion of pleasurable excitement to them. Then the husband, released from prison before his time, bursts in upon the party. He has read the report of the inquest and has seen that the child practically died of starvation. To the consternation of the mourners, who are revelling in the consciousness of their own goodness of heart, he turns upon them and asks what the sympathy is worth which can "wake" a dead child, but cannot make the trifling sacrifices that would have kept it alive. They allege various excuses; it is evident that they have been thoughtless rather than actually callous; and at last the father's bitterness of spirit is swamped in a burst of natural human grief. Though there is something of the French comédie rosse in the play, its humour is not in the least cruel. It leaves no bad taste behind it, but simply a poignant sense of the hard conditions of life for those on the margin of subsistence, and of the prevailing shiftlessness of the very poor.
Simpler and more delicate is the second little play, "The Dumb and the Blind." The avocations of Joe Henderson, bargeman, have been such as to permit of his spending only two nights a week in his domestic circle. But now he returns, accompanied by his pal, Bill, to announce to his wife, Liz, that he has been promoted to a post that will give him an additional ten shillings a week and enable him to come home every night. In an opening scene between Liz and her sharp daughter, Emmy, we have gained the impression that Mr. Henderson's household is more agreeable without his bodily presence; and this impression is confirmed when we find him treating his wife, not with actual brutality, but with captious and blustering harshness. At last he sends her out for the indispensable jug of beer, and sits gossiping with his crony. Impatient of her delay, he goes to the door and looks out, when it is evident that he sees something - we know not what - that somehow impresses him. He calls "Liz!" and she comes in rather guiltily, with the jug still empty. He asks Bill to fetch the beer, and meanwhile questions his wife. "Wot was you a-doin' of?" "Puttin' on me 'at." "No, you wasn't... I see you kneelin' wiv your head on the bed." With great reluctance she confesses that she was saying her prayers. "You don't 'ave to say yer prayers before fetching a drop of beer, do you?" No; but it just came over her, like, that she wanted to. Why? Because she felt grateful like - she wanted to sort o' thank Gawd. The domestic tyrant can scarcely believe his ears. He questions her closely to make sure that this is not merely a mechanical habit of hers, and gradually yields to the strange conviction that she is positively glad to have him at home for good. The realization induces in him a mood of such solemnity that when Bill returns with the beer Joe declines his share of it - a phenomenon which leaves Bill, in his turn dumfounded. This rough summary does great injustice to a veritable masterpiece in its way - a thing Dickens would have delighted in. There is not a single false note in the little play: it is as restrained as it is touching. We feel that the dumb has spoken and the blind has seen; and we hope, without too much confidence, that a new era is dawning on the Henderson household.
The third play, "The Philosopher of Butterbiggens," was acted for the first time on any stage. It is in the Barrie vein, and yet is no mere echo of Barrie. Its delightful humour would lose too much in narration, so I shall not attempt it, but will only say that it is as good in its lighter way as "The Dumb and the Blind," and that the audience was charmed with it. A more commonplace comedietta, "Innocent and Annabel," brought the programme to a close. It was very amusing, but not markedly individual.
The general impression left by the performance was deep and memorable. It was no mere respectful solemnity: the audience vividly enjoyed every word of it. Something was due to the excellent acting; for many of our best artists had come forward to do honour to their lost comrade. But what one realizes most keenly in retrospect is the abounding vitality of Chapin's talent. There was not a moment when one did not feel one's self in touch with a living spirit, bounteously endowed with thought, observation, humour, craftsmanship. It filled one with a sort of dumb rage to think that such rare promise had been extinguished, on the threshold of fulfilment, by the brute hazard of the battlefield. It was a youth in his twenties who had done all this fine work - what might we not have expected from the ripened man?