Pipe and Book
Few dare these days to wax rhapsodic on the
pleasures of smoking. But writers of the past had
no such qualms. Here are some of my favorite
pieces devoted to Lady Nicotine.
"Enchanted Cigarettes" by Arthur Gleason from Golden Lads (1916)
Where does the comfort of the trenches lie? What solace do the soldiers find for a weary life of
unemployment and for sudden death? Of course, they find it in the age-old things that have always
sufficed, or, if these things do not here altogether suffice, at least they help. For a certain few out of
every hundred men, religion avails. Some of our dying men were glad of the last rites. Some wore their
Catholic emblems. The quiet devout men continued faithful as they had been at home. Art is playing the
true part it plays at all times of fundamental need. The men busy themselves with music, with carving,
and drawing. Security and luxury destroy art, for it is no longer a necessity when a man is stuffed with
foods, and his fat body whirled in hot compartments from point to point of a tame world. But when he
tumbles in from a gusty night out of a trenchful of mud, with the patter from slivers of shell, then he turns
to song and color, odd tricks with the knife, and the tales of an ancient adventure. After our group had
brought food and clothing to a regiment, I remember the pride with which one of the privates presented
to our head nurse a sculptured group, done in mud of the Yser.
But the greatest thing in the world to soldiers is plain comradeship. That is where they take their comfort.
And the expression of that comradeship is most often found in the social smoke. The meager happiness
of fighting-men is more closely interwoven with tobacco than with any other single thing. To rob them of
that would be to leave them poor indeed. It would reduce their morale. It would depress their cheery
patience. The wonder of tobacco is that it fits itself to each one of several needs. It is the medium by
which the average man maintains normality at an abnormal time. It is a device to soothe jumping nerves,
to deaden pain, to chase away brooding. Tobacco connects a man with the human race, and his own
past life. It gives him a little thing to do in a big danger, in seeping loneliness, and the grip of sharp pain.
It brings back his café evenings, when black horror is reaching out for him.
If you have weathered around the world a bit, you know how everywhere strange situations turn into
places for plain men to feel at home. Sailors on a Nova Scotia freight schooner, five days out, sit around
in the evening glow and take a pipe and a chat with the same homely accustomedness, as if they were at
a tavern. It is so in the jungle and at a lumber camp. Now, that is what the millions of average men have
done to war. They have taken a raw, disordered, muddied, horrible thing, and given it a monotony and
regularity of its own. They have smoked away its fighting tension, its hideous expectancy. They refuse to
let mangling and murder put crimps in their spirit. Apparently there is nothing hellish enough to flatten the
human spirit. Not all the sprinkled shells and caravans of bleeding victims can cow the boys of the front
line. In this work of lifting clear of horror, tobacco has been a friend to the soldiers of the Great War.
"I wouldn't know a good cigarette if I saw it," said Geoffrey Gilling, after a year of ambulance work at
Fumes and Coxyde. He had given up all that makes the life of an upper-class Englishman pleasant, and I
think that the deprivation of high-grade smoking material was a severe item in his sacrifice.
Four of us in Red Cross work spent weary hours each day in a filthy room in a noisy wine-shop, waiting
for fresh trouble to break loose. The dreariness of it made B—— petulant and T—— mournfully silent,
and finally left me melancholy. But sturdy Andrew MacEwan, the Scotchman with the forty-inch barrel
chest, would reach out for his big can of naval tobacco, slipped to him by the sailors at Dunkirk when
the commissariat officer wasn't looking, and would light his short stocky pipe, shaped very much like
himself, and then we were all off together on a jaunt around the world. He had driven nearly all known
"makes" of motor-car over most of the map, apparently about one car to each country. Twelve months
of bad roads in a shelled district had left him full of talk, as soon as he was well lit.
Up at Nieuport, last northern stand of the Allied line, a walking merchant would call each day, a basket
around his throat, and in the hamper chocolate, fruit, and tobacco. A muddy, unshaven Brittany sailor,
out of his few sous a week, bought us cigars. The less men have, the more generous they are. That is an
old saying, but it drove home to me when I had poor men do me courtesy day by day for five months.
As we motored in and out of Nieuport in the dark of the night, we passed hundreds of silent men
trudging through the mud of the gutter. They were troops that had been relieved who were marching
back for a rest. As soon as they came out of the zone where no sound can be made and no light shown,
we saw here and there down the invisible ranks the sudden flare of a match, and then the glow in the cup
of the hand, as the man prepared to cheer himself.
A more somber and lonely watch even than that of these French sailors was the vigil kept by our good
Belgian friend, Commandant Gilson, in the shattered village of Pervyse. With his old Maltese cat, he
prowled through the wrecked place till two and three of the morning, waiting for Germans to cross the
flooded fields. For him cigarettes were an endless chain that went through his life. From the expiring stub
he lit his fresh smoke, as if he were maintaining a vestal flame. He kept puffing till the live butt singed his
upturned mustache. He squinted his eyes to escape the ascending smoke.
Always the cigarette for him and for the other men. Our cellar of nurses in Pervyse kept a stock of pipes
and of cigarettes ready for tired soldiers off duty. The pipes remained as intact as a collection in a
museum. The cigarettes never equaled the demand. We once took out a carful of supplies to 300
Belgian soldiers. We gave them their choice of cigarettes or smoking tobacco, and about 250 of them
selected cigarettes. That barrack vote gives the popularity of the cigarette among men of French blood.
Some cigars, some pipes, but everywhere the shorter smoke. Tobacco and pipe exhaust precious
pocket room. The cigarette is portable. Cigars break and peel in the kneading motion of walking and
crouching. But the cigarette is protected in its little box. And yet, rather than lose a smoke, a soldier will
carry one lonesome cigarette, rained on and limp and fraying at the end, drag it from the depths of a kit,
dry it out, and have a go. For, after all, it isn't for theoretical advantages over larger, longer smokes he
likes it, but because it is fitted to his temperament. It is a French and Belgian smoke, short-lived and of a
light touch, as dear to memory and liking as the wines of La Champagne.
Twice, in dramatic setting, I have seen tobacco intervene to give men a release from overstrained
nerves. Once it was at a skirmish. Behind a street defense, crouched thirty Belgian soldiers. Shrapnel
began to burst over us, and the bullets tumbled on the cobbles. With each puff of the shrapnel, like a
paper bag exploding, releasing a handful of white smoke, the men flattened against the walls and dove
into the open doors. The sound of shrapnel is the same sound as hailstones, a crisp crackle as they strike
and bounce. We ran and picked them up. They were blunted by smiting on the paving. Any one of them
would have plowed into soft flesh and found the bone and shattered it. They seem harmless because
they make so little noise. They don't scream and wail and thunder. Our guns, back on the hillocks of the
Ghent road, grew louder and more frequent. Each minute now was cut into by a roar, or a fainter
rumble. The battle was on. Our barricaded street was a pocket in the storm, like the center of a typhoon.
Yonder we could see the canal, fifty feet away, at the foot of our street. On the farther side behind the
river front houses lay the Germans, ready to sally out and charge. It would be all right if they came
quickly. But a few hours of waiting for them on an empty stomach, and having them disappoint us, was
wearing. We wished they would hurry and have it over with, or else go away for good. Civilians
stumbling and bleeding went past us.
And that was how the morning went by, heavy footed, unrelieved, with a sense of waiting for a sudden
crash and horror. It was peaceful, in a way, but, at the heart of the calm, a menace. So we overlaid the
tension with casual petty acts. We made an informal pool of our resources in tobacco, each man sharing
with his neighbor, till nearly every one of us was puffing away, and deciding there was nothing to this
German attack, after all. A smoke makes just the difference between sticking it out or acting the
Each one of us in a lifetime has a day of days, when external event is lively, and our inner mood dances
to the tune. Some of us will perhaps always feel that we spent our day on October 21, 1914. For we
were allowed to go into a town that fell in that one afternoon and to come out again alive. It was the
afternoon when Dixmude was leveled from a fair upstanding city to a heap of scorched brick and
crumbled plaster. The enemy guns from over the Yser were accurate on its houses.
We received our first taste of the dread to come, while we were yet a little way out. In the road ahead
of us, a shell had just splashed an artillery convoy. Four horses, the driver, and the splintered wood of
the wagon were all worked together into one pulp, so that our car skidded on it. We entered the falling
town of Dixmude. It was a thick mess into which we rode, with hot smoke and fine masonry dust
blowing into the eyes. Houses around us crumpled up at one blast, and then shot a thick brown cloud of
dust, and out of the cloud a high central flame that leaped and spread. With the wailing of shells in the
air, every few seconds, the thud and thunder of their impact, the scattering of the shattered metal, it was
one of the hot, thorough bombardments of the war. It cleared the town of troops, after tearing their
ranks. But it left wounded men in the cellar of the Hotel de Ville. The Grand Place and the Hotel were
the center of the fire. Here we had to wait fifteen minutes, while the wounded were made ready for our
two cars. It was then we turned to tobacco as to a friend. I remember the easement that came when I
found I had cigars in my waistcoat pocket. The act of lighting a cigar, and pulling at it briskly, was a
There was a second of time when we could hear a shell, about to burst close, before it struck. It came,
sharpening its nose on the air, making a shrill whistle with a moan in it, that gathered volume as it neared.
There was a menace in the sound. It seemed to approach in a vast enveloping mass that can't be
escaped, filling all out-doors, and sure to find you. It was as if the all-including sound were the missile
itself, with no hiding place offered. And yet the shell is generally a little three-or-four inch thing, like a
flower-pot, hurtling through the scenery. But bruised nerves refuse to listen to reason, and again and
again I ducked as I heard that high wail, believing I was about to be struck.
In that second of tension, it was a pleasant thing to draw in on a butt—to discharge the smoke, a second
later, carelessly, as who should say, "It is nothing." The little cylinder was a lightning conductor to lead
away the danger from a vital part. It let the nervousness leak off into biting and puffing, and making a
play of fingering the stub, instead of striking into the stomach and the courage. It gave the troubled face
something to do, and let the writhing hand busy itself. It saved me from knowing just how frightened I
But what of the wounded themselves? They have to endure all that dreariness of long waiting, and the
pressure of danger, and then, for good measure, a burden of pain. So I come to the men who are
revealing human nature at a higher pitch than any others in the war. The trench-digging, elderly chaps are
patient and long-enduring, and the fighting men are as gallant as any the ballad-mongers used to rime
But it is of the wounded that one would like to speak in a way to win respect for them rather than pity. I
think some American observers have missed the truth about the wounded. They have told of the
groaning and screaming, the heavy smells, the delays and neglect. It is a picture of vivid horror. But the
final impression left on me by caring for many hundred wounded men is that of their patience and
cheeriness. I think they would resent having a sordid pen picture made of their suffering and letting it go
at that. After all, it is their wound: they suffered it for a purpose, and they conquer their bodily pain by
will power and the Gallic touch of humor. Suffering borne nobly merits something more than an emphasis
on the blood and the moan. To speak of these wounded men as of a heap of futile misery is like missing
the worthiness of motherhood in the details of obstetrics.
It was thought we moderns had gone soft, but it seems we were storing up reserves of stoic strength and
courage. This war has drawn on them more heavily than any former test, and they have met all its
demands. Sometimes, being tired, I would drop my corner of the stretcher, a few inches suddenly. This
would draw a quick intake of the breath from the hurt man and an "aahh"—but not once a word of
blame. I should want to curse the careless hand that wrenched my wound, but these soldiers of France
and Belgium whom I carried had passed beyond littleness.
Once we had a French Zouave officer on the stretcher. He was wounded in the right arm and the
stomach. Every careen of the ambulance over cobble and into shell-hole was a thrust into his hurt. We
had to carry him all the way from the Nieuport cellar to Zuydcoote Hospital, ten miles. The driver was
one more of the American young men who have gone over into France to pay back a little of what we
owe her. I want to give his name, Robert Cardell Toms, because it is good for us to know that we have
brave and tender gentlemen. On this long haul, as always, he drove with extreme care, changing his
speed without the staccato jerk, avoiding bumps and holes of the trying road. When we reached the
hospital, he ran ahead into the ward to prepare the bed. The officer beckoned me to him. He spoke with
some difficulty, as the effort caught him in the wound of his stomach.
"Please be good enough," he said, "to give my thanks to the chauffeur. He has driven me down with
much consideration. He cares for wounded men."
Where other races are grateful and inarticulate, the French are able to put into speech the last fine touch
My friend kept a supply of cigarettes for his ambulance cases, and as soon as the hour-long drive began
we dealt them out to the bandaged men. How often we have started with a groaning man for the ride to
Zuydcoote, and how well the trip went, when we had lighted his cigarette for him. It brought back a little
of the conversation and the merriment which it had called out in better days. It is such a relief to be
wounded. You have done your duty, and now you are to have a little rest. With a clear conscience, you
can sink back into laziness, far away from noise and filth. Luck has come along and pulled the pack off
your back, and the responsibility from your sick mind. No weary city clerk ever went to his seashore
holiday with more blitheness than some of our wounded showed as they came riding in from the
Nieuport trenches at full length on the stretcher, and singing all the way. What is a splintered forehead or
a damaged leg compared to the happiness of an honorable discharge? Nothing to do for a month but lie
quietly, and watch the wholesome, clean-clad nurse. I am not forgetting the sadness of many men, nor
the men hurt to death, who lay motionless and did not sing, and some of whom died while we were on
the road to help. I am only trying to tell of the one man in every four who was glad of his enforced rest,
and who didn't let a little thing like agony conquer his gaiety. Those men were the Joyous Wounded. I
have seldom seen men more light hearted.
Word came to my wife one day that several hundred wounded were side-tracked at Furnes railway
station. With two nurses she hurried to them, carrying hot soup. The women went through the train,
feeding the soldiers, giving them a drink of cold water, and bringing some of them hot water for washing.
Then, being fed, they were ready for a smoke, and my wife began walking down the foul-smelling
ambulance car with boxes of supplies, letting each man take out a cigarette and a match. The car was
slung with double layers of stretcher bunks. Some men were freshly wounded, others were
convalescent. A few lay in a stupor. She provided ten or a dozen soldiers with their pleasure, and they
lighted up and were well under way. She had so many patients that day that she was not watching the
individual man in her general distribution. She came half way down the car, and held out her store to a
soldier without looking at him. He glanced up and grinned. The men in the bunks around him laughed
heartily. Then she looked down at him. He was flapping the two stumps of his arms and was smiling. His
hands had been blown off. She put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it for him. Only his hands were gone.
Comradeship was left for him, and here was the lighted cigarette expressing that comradeship.
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