Wow, already at the halfway point. Or it will be by the time I finish this chapter. To be frank, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so episodic. I mean, so far it could be seen more as a collection of a short stories that happened to feature the same cast. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just a bit surprised. Anyway, last chapter was pretty much a stop-gap chapter, with a bit of mocking at Himmelstoss’ expense and a stolen goose.
So we start off a couple days before they go on an offensive, and things aren’t looking good. From what they can gather from the sounds from the other trenches, the British and French have increased their artillery, which is never helpful, plus their superiors haven’t exactly made morale any easier to keep up by piling up hundreds of new coffins. Subtle guys. To make things worse, shoddy upkeep on their own artillery means that they accidentally get shelled by their own side. I don’t see this going well somehow.
There’s a short discussion/monologue about chance and how you can never tell when you’re going to die. It’s all rather depressing, really.
We then get a section where the soldiers try to protect their bread rations from the rats, which sound absolutely repulsive in all honesty. They end up gathering scraps of bread together, then when the rats come to eat them, beat the little beasts to death with shovels. I really hope that imagery is gone soon so my stomach can settle.
The next day, they’re all given big chunks of Edam cheese and issued liquor, which is presumably their superiors’ idea of a decent last meal should anything go wrong. Again, hardly comforting. They check their weapons and prepare themselves for the possibility of a gas attack. Despite all this, it’s quiet for a few days, all except for the constant rumbling of vehicles bringing more artillery to the British and French line. Ominous. They eventually hear that the British and French will be using tanks, aircraft and, most ominously (if you watched that episode of Time Team, you will know exactly what I’m talking about), flame-throwers. In the middle of the night, the shelling starts and all they can really do is stay in the dugout and hope for the best. It extends well into the day, pulverising their trench and preventing them from getting more food down there. So yeah, they might still be alive, but the situation is still pretty grim.
The night is difficult, especially when the rats invade. I had been hoping that we wouldn’t see the rats again. Then the recruits start to go crazy and try to escape. I was waiting for that to happen, it seems to be a staple of war fiction. They get some more bread, but that’s not much help for the recruit that managed to escape the dugout, then get blown up. So overall, a pretty horrific experience for all.
The shells eventually stop, but that was just the beginning of the offensive, as now they have to defend against the other side raiding their trenches. The French are now advancing, but even they’re taking casualties, such as this gruesome bit:
“I see one of them run into a knife-rest, his face lifted upwards. His body slumps, and his hands stay caught, raised up as if he is praying. Then the body falls away completely and only the shot-off hands and the stumps of the arms are left hanging in the wire.”
No bloody wonder so many of them came back with no idea how to function in society. After seeing things like that I’m surprised they weren’t all carted off to mental asylums. But at this point it seems that they’ve all fallen back on instinct and are fighting to survive. It’ll hit them later. In any case, they abandon the front trenches, seeing as it’s a lost cause.
They get back to the reserve trenches and eventually begin to fight their way back, so that they actually manage to get back to the front trenches again. They actually get to the enemy trenches, which was unexpected. That offensive didn’t work too well for the French really. There’s some fighting in the French trench, but by this point, the fighting has pretty much stopped. Which is why there’s an odd change of subject where they still the French food supplies. Fair enough.
So now we’re in the post-offensive bit, and for whatever reason this means our narrator has flashbacks to his home and youth. They’re all characterised by absolute quiet, devoid of the sounds of the front line, which must be very odd. It’s quite a melancholy passage, as there’s an understanding that even if he goes back to the places in his memory, it won’t be the same and he won’t know how to handle it.
There’s a short paragraph that summarises the night that goes by while our narrator is on look-out, which sounds generally unpleasant, but otherwise not too bad.
This pattern of attacks and counter-attacks goes on for a few days, with them occasionally going out to try and recover their wounded from no-man’s land. There seems to be one guy who they can hear, but because he’s on his front they can’t pinpoint where he is, so he stays out there for days, just getting weaker and weaker. It’s even worse than the French guy I quoted about before.
As it gets quieter, they start collecting parachute silk and copper from the used French shells, for no real reason that either I or the narrator can think of. Haie tries to give a reason for collecting the copper bands, which is to send home to replace his girlfriend’s garter. Not a bad reason in all. The parachute silk seems to be of more actual value. There’s still some shelling, but nowhere near the same amount. Although, that said, the recon planes still make things difficult, causing another batch of casualties.
Another set of attacks and counter-attacks start up and there are more new recruits being sent straight to the front. But they don’t really seem to be doing anything other than getting in the way to be quite honest. It’s rather sad, but the overall feeling I get from this is frustration at the stupid tactics the superior officers seem to be using constantly. It’s especially irritating to know that a change of tactics could have prevented all the casualties suffered in the First World War. Quite why I’m raging at people who aren’t even alive anymore, I’m not entirely sure. Oh well.
There’s now a short section where Himmelstoss acts like a coward and tries to avoid the fight while there are all these young recruits dying, and is beaten up to get him outside again. I’m not sure which feeling is greater: disdain for this pompous idiot, or satisfaction that he’s been beaten up. Probably disdain.
There’s another section of fighting and more men dying. Mostly recruits still, even though the older hands try to show them the ropes a bit. Haie is carried off with a big enough wound in his back that you can see lung through it; my medical knowledge is pretty patchy, but I think he’s not making it back alive. And after it’s all done? They lost about 200 yards. That’s a pathetic amount of ground compared to the amount of people they must have lost along the way.
They’re finally pulled back from the front and replaced with relief troops and things have not gone well. They went out with 150 men in their company and came back with 32. I can’t imagine losing that many people in such a short amount of time. And it’s where the chapter ends. How depressing.
Wow. That was an absolutely brutal chapter. I thought it wouldn’t get much worse than the shelling scene from earlier, but was I ever wrong. Again, I can’t imagine how they didn’t just become a bunch of gibbering wrecks after all that.