Category Archives: War

John Ploughman’s Letter on the War

In early 1870 tensions were sizzling between Napoleon, emperor of the French, and William, King of Prussia. On April 1, 1870 an open letter was published by John Ploughman, aka C. H. Spurgeon. The following excerpt is not intended to be a political statement about war per se as much as a fine example of Spurgeon’s literary gifts, his wit, and his punchy prose (Spurgeon once said “soft words are for soft heads”). Here’s an excerpt from that open letter to Napoleon and William:

If you must have a fight, why don’t you strip and go at it yourselves as our Tom Rowdy and Big Ben did on the green; it’s cowardly of you to send a lot of other fellows to be shot on your account. I don’t like fighting at all, it’s too low-lived for me; but really if it would save the lives of the millions I would not mind taking care of your jackets while you had a set-to with fisticuffs, and I would encourage you both to hit his hardest at the gentleman opposite.

I dare say if you came over to Surrey the police would manage to keep out of your way and let you have a fair chance of having it out; they have done so for other gentlemen, and I feel sure they would do it to oblige you. It might spoil your best shirts to have your noses bleed, and I dare say you would not like to strip at it, but there are plenty of ploughmen who would lend you their smock frocks for an hour or two, especially if you would be on your honour not to go off with them.

Just let me know, and I’ll have some sticking plaster ready, and a bason of water, and a sponge, and perhaps our governors will let Madame Rachel out of jail, to enamel your eyes, if they get a little blackened.

I’ve just thought of a capital idea, and that is, if you will both drop a line to the keepers of the Agricultural Hall, where they have those Cumberland wrestling matches, they would let you have the place for a day, and give you half the takings, and I’ll be bound there would be a crowd, and no mistake. So you see you could get glory and ready-money too, and nobody would be killed. …

Why you, the king of the Germans, want to go into the butchering line I don’t know; but if you are at the bottom of this it shows that you are a very bad disposed man, or you would be ashamed of killing your fellow creatures. When war begins hell opens, and it is a bad office for either of you to be gate-opener to the devil; yet that’s what one of you is, if not both.

Did either of you ever think of what war means? Did you ever see a man’s head smashed, or his bowels ripped open? Why, if you are made of flesh and blood, the sight of one poor wounded man, with the blood oozing out of him, will make you feel sick.

I don’t like to drown a kitten; I can’t bear even to see a rat die, or any animal in pain. But a man! Where’s your hearts if you can think of broken legs, splintered bones, heads smashed in, brains blown out, bowels torn, hearts gushing with gore, ditches full of blood, and heaps of limbs and carcasses of mangled men? Do you say my language is disgusting? How much more disgusting must the things themselves be? And you make them!

How would you like to get a man into your palace-garden, and run a carving-knife into his bowels, or cut his throat? If you did that you would deserve to be hanged; but it would not be half so bad as killing tens of thousands, and you know very well that this is just what you are going to do. Do you fancy that your drums and fifes, and feathers and fineries, and pomp, make your wholesale murder one whit the less abominable in the sight of God?

Fourteen weeks later, on July 19, 1870, the long-expected Franco-Prussian War erupted. Over 230,000 soldiers would die.

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