Finally alone in the darkness of a dugout, shaking hands feeling for cigarettes, Bourne has returned alive, delivered somehow, as if by some unseen force. Delirious and dazed, he is mixed in with the other survivors, men he sees to be “almost as spent and broken as he”.ii Bourne is joined by one of his officers, Mr Clinton who on locating a water bottle filled with whiskey, offers some to the hapless Bourne with the words, “I don’t go over with a skinful, as some of them do, but by God when I come back I want it”.iii This is much the same case for Bourne and most of the other men who rely on the liquor to forget the torturous experience of battle. The two men drink before heading back toward their rendezvous point to see who else has come through the attack alive. It is here that the men speak of the lost and fallen comrades “with anxious, low voices, still unsteady and inclined to break… all that pity carried with it a sense of relief that the speaker, somehow, but quite incredibly, had himself managed to survive”.iv
But first they must sleep and traverse their nightmares. “I have not slept, between the acting of a fearful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream.” Shakespeare’s words, words which echo ever present at the beginning of every chapter, seem to be there to remind the reader that these men are characters upon a stage.
In the first night’s slumber following the battle, the men rest fitfully, the darkness of the tent around Bourne is filled with “the shudderings of tormented flesh.” Awake, his mind is simply unable to resist “groping among obscure and broken memories,” from the battle of the previous day. Suddenly he is propelled back into this furious nightmare where the “air is alive with the rush and flutter of wings,” and he passes once more over the battlefield where there lie “men smashed, obliterated in sudden eruptions of earth”.vi The battle has torn whole swathes of men from existence in the most hideous fashion, and their fellow soldiers, their friends and chums, while bearing witness to this carnage had no choice during the battle but to carry on. Now as they sleep or lie awake, what they have witness returns to them as irresistible visions. Bourne while drawn back into the battlefield raging once more within his mind, is left to pause and reflect on the inner workings of fates watching over them all during the mayhem of battle:
“He neither knew where he was nor whither he was going, he could have no plan because he could foresee nothing, everything, everything happening was inevitable and unexpected, he was an act in a whole chain of acts; and, though his movements had to conform to those of others, spontaneously, as part of some infinitely flexible plan, which he could not comprehend very clearly even in regard to its immediate object, he could rely on no one but himself”.vii
The major theme of this novel which emerges slowly is that of the invisible workings of fate such as that found in archaic Greek universe, the domain of the Moirai pulling at the metaphoric strings of life from on high. These white robed incarnations of destiny are those who ultimately maintain the universal equilibrium of forces throughout the world and in this great work, set upon the battlefields of The Western Front, they have returned to decide who is to remain alive and who dead. In the above passage Bourne reflects as to the fate of so many of his companions in arms, on the battlefield. The inevitability of death is contrasted against that which is unexpected, life’s continuation. Bourne must act and rely only upon himself, even against the backdrop of a stage in which the final outcome seems inevitable.
The dead and missing become a major preoccupation of the returned men, but recalling their fate becomes one of the final acts before they disappear into nothingness. “At roll-call it was found that there were thirty-three men left in the company”.viii (In The Great War a full strength company contained 227 men, made of four platoons and HQ) “It was a long business. They had gauged the extent of the losses suffered by the company as soon as they went on parade. Name after name was called, and in many cases no particulars were available. Then for a moment the general sense of loss would become focused on one individual name, while some meagre details would be given by witnesses of the man’s fate; and after that he, too, faded into the past”.ix
Bourne has been the final witness to the wounding through the knee of one of the NCO’s, Mr Halliday who he last saw in the German outpost line. Captain Malet questioned Bourne very closely but finally giving up on the mystery, concluding that “The problem of Mr Halliday’s fate seemed insoluble”.x
Throughout the course of the novel, each individual man is inevitably taken by the fates of war. Slowly, almost casually, the soldiers enter and exit, as actors on a stage. For a great length of the book, the narrative of Bourne’s day to day existence is driven by the presence of Captain Malet who has it in mind to promote Bourne from a private, where he feels most at home, into the officer class. Captain Malet admired greatly by all those men who come in contact with him is described as someone whose “physical presence was remarkable” yet “the impression he left on the mind was not one of mass, but of force, and speed”.xi For a time the narrative is focused on the promotion of Bourne to the officer ranks and his attempts to avoid it, in preference for the anonymity of the ranks. Yet once the outcome is decided, and the process of the promotion is under way, the Captain shifts off stage, his part in the theatre having been played. His exit comes in the form of a message in dry terms spelling out his fate; “dug out blown in; a beam fell on him and broke both his legs”.xii Captain Malet, that personality of such force, is unceremoniously removed from the stage.
And it is this mechanism of fate which will finally swallow Bourne as well and the interlocking chains of action which seem to lead him to the inevitable. Captain Malet’s replacement, Captain Marsden, after confirming that he’ll become an officer, asks Bourne to volunteer for the trench raid from which Bourne will not return.
This exit from the stage becomes the fate which slowly but surely befalls most of the characters of this play. So often men go up the line and all that returns is word that they’ve been lost. There is often no body to bury, no ceremony to be observed. We see it again as Bourne is the only one of his close friends Shem and Martlow to come through the final battle at Ancre, where underneath the heavy fog and maelstrom of shelling and destruction, Bourne’s two closest friends exit the stage. Later, Bourne reflects on the way these two men with whom he’d spent so much time, suddenly disappeared from world around him:
“He had heard nothing of Shem. Shem was in a hospital somewhere, recovering from his wound; but he had vanished completely, so completely that Bourne did not even expect to hear from him again. Men passed out of sight like that, and seemed to leave very little trace. Their term had been completed. Martlow, for some reason he could not grasp, persisted in his memory, seemed to be only out of sight, behind the hut, as it were, or even just on the point of coming through the doorway.”
Martlow who Bourne has seen killed some days earlier is the one who seems still to be on the stage, for in the finality, one sees that death is the central character in the theatre of the first world war, the fates hover above this scene, waiting for the moment when one’s fortune is to be decided.
To read more writing by Robert Lewis on World War 1, you can order a copy of his recently published book titled Murphy’s War. The book is available through the Picnic Press Bookstore. You’ll also find more extracts from the soldiers of Murphy’s War here.
Robert Lewis is a writer, editor and web designer. You can read more about him at his profile here.
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.2
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.3
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.13
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.4
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.7
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.8
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.20
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.21
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.22
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.22
Frederic Manning, ibid, p.177
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The A.I.F at The Battle of Fromelles by Robert Lewis