Stephen Graham was born in 1884. A freelance journalist, Graham was in the Altai Mountains, Russia at the start of the First World War. His articles about the war appeared in The Times and in the books, Russia and the World (1915) and Through Russian Central Asia (1916).
Graham returned to England where he joined the Scots Guards. He arrived on the Western Front in April, 1918. A book about his experiences of the war, A Private in the Guards was published in 1919.
In 1921 Graham revisited the battlefields and his observations appeared in The Challenge of the Dead (1921).
Other books by Graham included Tramping with a Poet (1922), an account of American immigrants and an autobiography, Part of the Wonderful Scene (1964).
Stephen Graham died in 1975.
I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, a most verdant resting-place with a majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out of the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, and folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers, and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops.
At 4 a.m. on 31st July the first telegram came through; an order to mobilize and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, "have you heard the news? There is war." A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, "War! War!"
Who was the enemy? Nobody knew. The telegram contained no indications. All the village population knew was that the same telegram had come as came ten years ago, when they were called to fight the Japanese. Rumours abounded. All the morning it was persisted that the yellow peril had matured, and that the war was with China. Russia had pushed too far into Mongolia, and China had declared war.
Then a rumour went round. "It is with England, with England." So far away these people lived they did not know that our old hostility had vanished. Only after four days did something like the truth come to us, and then nobody believed it.
"An immense war," said a peasant to me. "Thirteen powers engaged - England, France, Russia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, against Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Turkey.
Two days after the first telegram a second came, and this one called up every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-three.
There is scarcely a town or school in Russia from which boys have not run away to the war. Hundreds of girls have gone off in boys' clothes and tried to pass themselves off as boys and enlist as volunteers, and several have got through, since the medical examination is only a negligible formality required in one place, forgotten in another; the Russians are so fit as a whole. So among the wounded in the battle of the Nieman was a broad-shouldered, vigorous girl from Zlato-Ust, only sixteen years old, and nobody had dreamed that she was other than the man whom she was passing herself off. But not only boys and girls of sixteen and seventeen, but children of eleven and twelve have contrived to have a hand either in the fighting or in the nursing.
The fascination of going from dead to dead and looking at each, and of going to every derelict tank, abandoned gun, and shattered aeroplane was so great that inevitably one went on further and further from home, seeking and looking with a strange intensity in the heart. I saw a great number of the dead, those blue bundles and green bundles strewn far and wide over the autumn fields.
The story of each man's death was plainly shown in the circumstances in which he lay. The brave machine-gunners, with resolute look in shoulders and face, lay scarcely relaxed beside the oiled machines, which if you understood you could still use, and besides piles of littered brass, the empty cartridge-cases of hundreds of rounds which they had fired away before being bayoneted at their posts.
On the other hand, facing those machine-gunners one saw how our men, rushing forward in extended formation, each man a good distance from his neighbour, had fallen, one here, another there, one directly he had started forward to the attack, and then others, one, two, three, four, five, all in a sort of sequence, here, here, here, here, here, one poor wretch had got far, but had got tangled in the wire, had pulled and pulled and at last been shot to rags; another had got near enough to strike the foe and been shot with a revolver.
In other parts of the field one saw the balance of battle and the Germans evidently attacking, not extended, but in groups, and now in groups together dead. One saw Germans taking cover and British taking cover in shell-holes inadequately deep, and now the men stiff as they crouched. I remember especially two of the fellows in a shell-hole, fear was in their faces, they were crouching unnaturally, and one had evidently been saying to the other, "Keep your head down!" Now in both men's heads was a dent, the sort of dent that appears in the side of a rubber ball when not fully expanded by air.
This Ypres is a terrible place still. There is no life when night comes on but tavern life. Those who live and work here have lost their sense of proportion. They are out of focus somehow. "You looking for dead soldiers," says a Flemish woman to you with a glaring stare, wondering if you are one of the exhumers. Death and the ruins completely outweigh the living. One is tilted out of time by the huge weight on the other side of the plank, and it would be easy to imagine someone who had no insoluble ties killing himself here, drawn by the lodestone of death. There is a pull from the other world, a drag on the heart and spirit. One is ashamed to be alive.
You try to sleep in a little bed in a cubicle with tiny doll's house window. You lie listless, sleepless, with Ypres on the heart, and then suddenly a grand tumult of explosion, a sound as of the tumbling of heavy masonry. You go to the little window, behold, the whole sky is crimson once more, and living streamers of flame ascend to the stars. An old dump has gone up at Langemark. Everyone in Ypres looks out and then returns to sleep - without excitement. The lurid glare dies down; stertorous night resumes her sway over the living and the dead. For a moment it was as if the old war had started again.