During the first months of the Great War, Reginald loved to run to the edge of the white cliffs of Dover and lie panting on the grass, staring out over the English Channel. He loved listening to the rumble of guns and the flashes of light from France, where there were always ashen clouds, even on sunny days. His father Quentin lived in those clouds, and Reginald truly believed he was a species of thunder-god, who strode miles at a step and bit down on white lightning with tobacco teeth.
Reginald did not really remember his father being home, home in the way his mother was, sitting and knitting and sighing and, from time to time, wandering with the other mothers, from house to house, with tears in their eyes and handkerchiefs to their faces.
Home was a large, rambling house, a very English house, which was cold in the endless rain and spacious and creaky and covered with doilies crocheted by dead grandmothers and walled by pictures of chilly men who never smiled, not from any angle. The cabinets were glassy, glossy, containing plates and cups that were never used. It was a very quiet house. There were servants, but they were all very old, or women. It was a world without men.
Reginald hated spending time alone, and so spent a lot of time with his friends. Mostly they fought elaborate wars with sticks and old tennis balls. They aimed and boomed from the corners of their mouths, fell in heaps, dragged each other to safety, healed with a touch and argued over wounds and accuracy. They strove mightily to send their small braveries over the Channel to shore up the resolves of their fathers.
When his father left, Reginald was the ‘man of the house,’ and he did press-ups and tried to run without panting, half-expecting to receive a tiny gun and a little helmet and to be sent to France to run with the feet of the giant soldiers.
Reginald had a younger brother, Tom, born shortly before the War, in 1912. Reginald believed that his brother was dangerous, that he was confused and strong-willed and over-emotional. His random affections spread like a spring flood, which Reginald constantly tried to dam up with teasing and scorn.
Tom seemed indifferent to noise or light or jostling; he was a perfectly self-contained sensual fortress. He lay in the garden; when a maid came out to beat the rugs, he fell asleep, right under the cracking ripples of rising dust. Reginald was quite the opposite. When Reginald was an infant, he did not seem to notice the household; he was insensitive to moods. When Reginald wanted milk, he wanted it, even when his mother was drawn and dark-eyed and everyone else asleep. His mother did not like that very much. Reginald cried without conscience, it seemed. Without pity, or consideration. Reginald was indifferent to people and terrified of nature. Thunderstorms which bolted Reginald upright in his bed did not disturb Tom. Disapproval which bored Reginald caused a great, sickening pit to open up in Tom’s tummy.
Their mother, Ruth, was a very attractive – but not quite beautiful – woman. This fact brought down on her all the nail-biting tension of the world of almost. With enough work, she could turn almost every head in the room – male and female – but the care and maintenance and passing nature of her beauty – combined with the feeling that this beauty should be put to work somehow, like a glistening slave, gave her no small portion of daily discontent. She was almost beautiful; her cheeks high, her lines good – the hair was thin, but could be teased into volume. Gray eyes, not too striking, but different. No breasts, but long legs. No bottom, but a flat stomach. She was almost, almost… Ruth spent a good deal of time gazing and turning in front of the mirror, trying to find the perfect angle, where everything came together, and all flaws were just over the horizon of flesh, and she almost wished that she could become a statue in that shape, or send her reflection around to do her business.
Female beauty is a snare, designed to catch a man and his sperm. Its greatest value is on the auction block; once bought and fertilized, what is the point? Its purpose fulfilled, it becomes like a trophy of teenage athleticism, good only for nostalgia and fond memory. But the great vanity of physical beauty – like wealth – is the belief that it has value in and of itself, like food, and should outlast its real purpose. Ruth pampered herself, and built a nicely gilded cage out of her own beauty, and from within this cage she gazed at her sons, disliking them in her core, because they made the point of her beauty moot, vain. Staring through the bars, their eyes said: your beauty has already made us, why cling to it now? But Ruth wanted more, much more than that. She wanted to be art, poetry, fantasy. She wanted a train of men to trail her, sighing and playing ‘rock-paper-scissors’ to determine who could speak to her next. She wanted to throw her head back and laugh as tuxedoed men refilled her champagne glass. She wanted to enter a party and be the only woman – a woman who was kind to other women, plainer women, to be sure, as a Queen is kind to her subjects. A magnetic women, who could draw men’s eyes from their sockets and gather them, flying, to her skin, in squishy little thumps. A radiant woman, who made senators stammer and Lords loosen their neckties. A lovely woman, who could never be pictured naked (except as the center of a mythological painting), who responded in soft tones or rebuked in ringing ones and had a strange consistency to her random whims, which men stayed up all night trying to figure out. A giggler, a sylph of little joys, who could turn serious in a flash.
Reginald inherited his mother’s vanity, and developed a great love of little suits and well-slicked hair, even as young as five. He was pompous, insistent, always demanding to sit at the adults’ table, always pretending to listen with great seriousness, venturing forth unformed opinions and blushing fiercely at their quick dismissal.
Tom did not really like the adults’ table. Most of his mother’s friends seemed quite silly; the women were very breathy and wore frilly things that made no sense. They never appreciated offerings of chocolate or knelt down to play. They chattered constantly, talking over each other, and all had the same hair and ate very little and always frowned while talking to him (indeed, until he was older, he though that the sharp ridge between the eyebrows was a physical trait common to all women). They also had little interest in fairness, which was a topic that fascinated Tom immensely.
Fairness is the natural obsession of the younger sibling, a defense planted by Mother Nature to ensure that the older children do not get all the food or attention. The runt of the litter is always the loudest – the other option is, all too soon, to become the quietest, and decompose in a corner. Tom was consumed by questions of fairness, but found, to his everlasting sorrow, that his mother was little help in that area. Her forehead crease would sharpen visibly if a conflict with Reginald was brought to her attention, and would be ceilinged by a row of further ripples along her forehead. This would be followed by a rubbing of the eyes, a sighing, a stiff, useless commandment, and then a lie-down.
Tom also learned that his mother had little sense of time or repetition. She would groan: “why are you and Reginald always fighting?” – even if it were the first fight in two days. Her pronouncements on the best way to resolve conflicts had absolutely nothing to do with causes; both of them were always in the wrong, and she never cared who had started it. A toy would just be taken away, or they would both be denied supper, or sent to their room and told to lie on their bunkbeds and think about what they had done.
This was just plain confusing. What was the point, thought Tom, of thinking about what we’ve done if she doesn’t? Is the problem that we bothered her? Or that we came to her for fairness? Or that I should have just given in when Reginald snatched my toy?
Blind, indifferent punishment always encourages misbehaviour, and Reginald was not slow to grasp this. Knowing that no matter what, they would both be punished, Reginald would grab or push or punch or tease. Tom could do little about this, other than submit to mutual punishment if the provocation grew too severe. This occurred if Reginald did something pointlessly destructive, like stepping on Tom’s model airplane, or unmaking his bed, or flicking his earlobe for no reason.
It could be pointed out that Tom could have come to the same conclusion as Reginald, and launched unprovoked attacks, knowing that Reginald would be unwilling to submit to Ruth’s unjust arbitration, but oddly enough, this thought never crossed his mind. His perspective was, perhaps, the same as that of a prisoner of war, who finds ways to deal with unjust treatment at the hands of his guards, but does not consider launching his own retaliation.
Their father, Quentin, could be quite funny with the children. Sometimes, when he was home on leave, Reginald and Tom would begin screeching about some biting or snatching or falling, and their yowling would grow between them, like arcs of electricity, and they would whip themselves into an operatic frenzy. Quentin would stand in front of his howling offspring with a pencil in his hand, pretending to conduct them, like some musical devil before a symphony of the utterly damned. Ruth, on the other hand, took unhappy children as a personal insult; her compliant nature could not really weather the grim storms of toddler-hood, and she would rush between Tom and Reginald, her tension rising, her soothing touch turning cold and jabbing in her growing rage.
Tom developed language early, but it was his own language. Only Reginald could understand him, and for almost a year, he had to relay everything back and forth.
Proving the axiom that power corrupts, Reginald also developed a kind of under-the-table cruelty. He would deliberately misinterpret Tom’s requests; he knew perfectly well that ‘gee a eh’ meant ‘give me an egg,’ but would convey this to mother as ‘I want more brussel sprouts,’ and would feign confusion at Tom’s subsequent tears of frustration, leaning in and asking him to just be a little clearer, as his younger brother’s wet mouth worked, and his cheeks grew red-hot with tears.
Tom’s tears, however justified in his own world, were soon swept away by a maternal monsoon that threatened to drown the entire family.
Ruth’s family had been in the military ever since 1066; they came over in the Battle of Hastings, and took God, Christianity and Empire very seriously indeed. In the heyday of nineteenth-century British optimism, when the tiny island seemed almost larger than the whole world, the men of Ruth’s family fought long and hard to bring civilization to the savages of the world. When Ruth was ten, and had started asking questions about the far-flung world, her father had sat her on his knee and delivered the following speech:
“Ruthie girl, it is believed by the men of this family that England has been chosen by God to bring the light of civilization to the darkened areas of the world. When you spin this globe, you see all the colours of the Empire – all the places where the civilized rule of law has finally appeared among tribes who have warred, murdered and pillaged for tens of thousands of years. And there was no original colour to these countries – before the Empire came along, they were simply coloured black; they had in them no God, no Parliament, no justice, only endless war and slaughter.”
He smiled and swirled his brandy glass; the rippled colour rolling over his face. Ruth touched his faint stubble delicately, in love with the scent of cigars. The tip of a servant’s shadow flashed past, in the hall. Ruth’s father grunted and shifted his knees under her, like a wobbly raft.
He took a sip from his brandy glass, then lowered his hand and let her sniff it. “Now,” he said softly, “if you were going to school and you saw a girl picking on another girl, what would you do?”
“Get a boy to help me.”
He nodded slowly, from his high wise pedestal. “And if there were no boys?”
“I would stop it myself!”
“That’s right. Now, the Bible says that a man who walks a road and sees another man who needs his help – and passes him by – is committing a mortal sin. No honourable Englishman is willing to commit that sin. In India, they burn their dead, and if a husband dies before his wife, she has to throw herself on his body as it burns, and burn with him. And if she doesn’t want to, they tie her up and throw her on anyway. Even her own brothers. It’s called a suttee, and it’s a vicious, barbaric murder, and no sympathetic soul can pass that by and do nothing, if helping is at all within his power. And they have what is called a caste system, where people are born into ranks, and can never change them, except by marriage, and if someone from a lower rank is leaving a room, he has to sweep the floor so that his dust does not offend his so-called superior. And because this caste system can only be broken by marriage, young girls from higher castes are constantly being kidnapped and forced into marriage and to have children, with men they don’t even know. It is an awful, awful place. Like we were a few hundred years ago, I suppose. You see, Ruthie, there are so many people in the world who cannot protect themselves from evil – and it is up to good men to come to their aid. That is why the men of this family study war. To protect the helpless, and enforce justice and the rule of law. Every town has its policemen; the world has the soldiers of the British Empire.”
Little Ruth nodded slowly. In her mind, she saw her father and uncles on a beach, where small brown children played, and they were holding an onrushing black tide at bay with fierce eyes and strange gestures.
When war came in 1914, Ruth’s three brothers, uncle and father were all assigned to the Western Front. There was much excitement in the household in the summer and early fall. The men were all worried that the war would be over by Christmas, and that they might miss the fighting, the greatest test and best story that their generation might have to offer.
However, as the reality of the Great War became clear, perceptions began to change. War, formerly thought of as dangerous but glorious, now stood revealed as dangerous and squalid. The Fronts formed early, and seemed immovable. The Generals, all trained in a time of wild charges and the supremacy of the horse, seemed unable to comprehend the waste of sending wave after wave of men against machine-gun nests. Only after the guns had overheated was any progress made. After the general European peace of the past hundred years, the appetite of the god of war seemed to have increased sharply, probably because he’d had so little to eat.
The letters Ruth received from her brothers were full of love, courage and hope, but there was something between the lines that spoke of bewildered, almost bitter hopelessness. And sometimes, this was not so between the lines. Her youngest brother (how often the youngest have so little to lose from telling the truth!) wrote:
“I used to think that being in a war was charging up a hill with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other. But war is nothing like that. War is sitting in the mud, waiting for someone twenty miles away to push a button and blow you to smithereens.”
The Fronts were always just about to break. They had to, for even by 1915, no war had ever lasted so long without a breakthrough, or cost so many lives. The shocking truth was that, between 1914 and 1915, more British soldiers were killed than had died in the previous thousand years combined.
Then, in 1915, the second year of the War, Ruth lost three brothers, her father and an uncle, all within three weeks. After two deaths, the Army tried to get the others out, but was too late each time. Ruth was awarded a medal, which she fingered in fundamental disbelief.
Two brothers succumbed to the new mustard gas, and another died of a small foot wound which became infected. Ruth’s father stepped on a mine, and her uncle just disappeared under a hail of shells. His body was never even found, let alone identified.
Ruth was shocked almost into her component atoms, and instantly merged with the growing herd of bereft women, who seemed to lose their sex at the same time as they lost their men. An entire generation of men, raised from squalling infancy, cleaned and cuddled and loved and trained and filled with all the warm expectation of companionship into their mothers’ old age – all wiped out, gone. Twenty years’ labour, a lifetime of anticipation and hope – all destroyed. The women saw this, and their wombs seemed to falter and dry up. Why breed sons for this kind of slaughter? they wondered, staring out their windows, their fingertips leaving red welts below their black eyes.
And the myth of male leadership – which was also a central pillar of these women’s perceptions of the world – also took a blow from which it never truly recovered. Not only had men not anticipated the slaughter of the Great War, but they had done very little to end it once it started. Idiotic generals threw their troops at withering bullets like a spiteful child hurling disobedient lead soldiers into a roaring fire. Women began to realize the truth. Men are not as smart as they seem, or claim, or pretend…
And Ruth – well, after all five of her closest male relatives were wiped out, Ruth gave up on the idea of having more children. So might cows, if they knew the abattoir which awaited their calves, shy away from bulls. She turned away from her husband, because she could not bear another loss – or consider having another child – and fell into herself.
In the time between the deaths and the details, Ruth became obsessed with the horrible question: how had they died? (This was a mere cover for the far more terrible question of: why?) The thought of them suffering was utterly unbearable. She preferred to imagine their ends, which were cloaked with fog and shrouded with flags. The reality of blood, bullets and bowels was beyond her, and that made her afraid to read the letters of their comrades, those who had survived.
One of them came, a sergeant, and they sat in the tea-room, in August of 1915. It was a bright day, but she had no love of the sun; it gave her headaches and made the world look happy. She was there with her children, who sat – for once! – still and silent, staring at the visitor, who was a stoop-shouldered man of twenty-four, who had cut himself shaving, and kept mopping his throat with a red-spotted handkerchief.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Eldred,” said Ruth, staring at her teacup. Mr. Eldred ate slices of poppyseed cake two at a time.
“Well, I thought that it was proper,” he said, and Ruth noticed that his voice had a delicate, whispery sound, and she imagined him in a fetal position, running in a slippery circle in the mud, choking on gas. “Now, I only knew your father… He was our Division Commander, and I know that we’re all very brave when we write home. We try to be – jaunty, you know, like we’re having a little adventure…”
“‘It’s taking a tad longer than we first thought’,” she murmured, from one of her father’s early letters.
“Yeah, that sort of stuff. Rot really. You don’t have anyone out there anymore, do you Missus?”
Ruth shook her head, hanging in the balance of telling him that all five men in her family were dead. But she changed her mind. That would be most unkind, to give him a sense of the odds…
“That’s good,” said Mr. Eldred, nodding slowly. “It should be all at once or not at all.” Then he shuddered slightly, and she thought of dreams, where you are almost falling, and jerking back wakes you up. “But,” he continued, “I know what the telegrams say. Nothing, really, but where and when. And the letters are brave. Well, not brave – we wanted to believe them as much as anyone, I suppose. So, there’s nothing – nothing that you can hold onto, you know, as you get older.”
Will you get older, Mr. Eldred? she wondered, another fissure appearing in the rubble of her broken heart. Probably not much…
“And there was a letter,” he said, “but you should read that when I’ve gone.” He reached into his pocket, took out an envelope and handed it over. Ruth turned it over in her hand. The ink was washed, faded; the paper was abraded, as if it had been rubbed repeatedly. She lifted it to her nose and sniffed. Fields. Fog. Blood. Almost, almost, the black symphony of war…
“It’s been washed,” she said.
“Just – wet,” he murmured, glancing away. A finger on his right hand twitched, there on the knee of his woolen trousers, and Ruth saw him opening her father’s ragged coat and pulling the envelope – this envelope – out of his breast pocket, out from the widening wound that was swallowing him whole, and later, by the light of a candle, rubbing it with water. The handwriting had to be kept; the blood had to be washed away. So tricky… And it was doubtless happening throughout the front, on either side of no-man’s-land, in thousands of dugouts and trenches. And some soldiers would be shot through their letters, and the letters could no more be stitched back together than they could… The proverbs are all wrong: in this new world, the pen mostly bows to the sword.
“I’ll read it later,” said Ruth, touching the paper to her forehead for a guilty moment.
“He was a brave man,” said Mr. Eldred, leaning forward. “It was a mine; he knew it when he stepped on it. That click, almost no-one hears it. He told us to get back. He was very firm. I would have given my right arm to save him. He was a good man. He threw the letter to me. He looked at the sky. He closed his eyes. He folded his hands in prayer. He took a step, and was no more.”
Ruth did not flinch. She felt as wide as water, as empty as a spent cloud. “He could not save himself?”
“There was nothing to do. But Missus – Missus, it is important to know that he had a chance to square things with – with his Maker. That’s more than most get. I don’t know if I want to know when I have to go. But that’s… Well. I wanted to tell you a little about him. I mean, you have a right to know, so you can mourn. His death was just a moment, and there were a lot more, before that. Moments. After you, I mean, but before that. He saved – I made some notes, and asked around. He saved many men. He covered one when a shell came. He sent another one back behind the lines, just before his dugout was shelled. There was a cook who was going to – kill himself, sorry Miss, but your father wrestled him to the ground and saved him. And once he held us back from a raid where most everyone was killed, because it made no sense, like a lot of things. And he would send boys back for a rest, when they’d had too much, and he sent men home when they had small injuries, and could have stayed. He was a good man, Missus, and many sons will be named after him. Mine, certainly, you know, if I…”
Mr. Eldred trailed off, and another pair of poppyseed slices went into his mouth. He wiped his eyes.
“You have been very kind to come,” she said slowly. The room seemed enormous; she half-expected a distant, tinny echo.
He shrugged and smiled. “I’ve got a tongue of stone, Miss. I can’t do anything justice. Certainly not your father. But I wanted to let you know.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, that’s fine. I thank you for the food. I never get used to… I was a stout man, before all this. I weighed 22 stone when I was 22. I hope to weigh that again.”
After Mr. Eldred left, Ruth opened the envelope. There were a number of other envelopes inside. One for her mother, one for herself. Some more… She turned the envelope over, and three other envelopes came out. With a kind of dread, she picked them up and turned them over. They were addressed to her brothers. Her dead brothers. With a wet thud of her heart, Ruth knew that, very soon, she would be holding letters from her dead brothers to her dead father, and it would be like holding out her pale hands and being received into a circle of ghosts, where there was no sun.
She opened her letter and read:
So, I have come to a bad pass after all. As I write these words, I feel with all the faith in my being that I will come back to England and be near you all for all my remaining days. Thus, I hope that this letter will never be read, and I am looking forward to taking all these grim scribbles and consigning them to a fire – I see us all doing this, as a family, while Jack plays something lively on the piano, cheering as each one goes into the flames.
But you are reading this now, so it has not come to pass. Do not fear for me, or grieve for me longer than is absolutely necessary. I have been a tremendously lucky man. I have had the love of a good woman, the reward of a good career, and all the tender joys of happy and boisterous children. I have lived with a clear head and full heart, and mortal man can ask for no more.
I am sure that my end was unpleasant, but I don’t want you to think of that. Death is just the shadow of the Doorway as we step from this world of sorrows to a better realm. I believe that an angel has been watching over me through all my days of peril, and if I am snatched at some point, it is doubtless for the best. However much it must hurt those who remain, the unfolding of the Ineffable Plan, while beyond the capacity of reason to fathom, will all be clear after we pass through that Doorway.
Dearest Ruthie, I hope that you live a long, happy life – which is most unselfish of me, of course, for I yearn to see you again; when you come through that Door, I shall be the first to fall upon you with kisses, even if I have to elbow a thousand angels aside to do so. When I went to war, we knew that we would be parted for a time. Now that I have fallen, our reunion is but delayed for a little longer. In the face of infinity, it will seem as nothing.
Thus, my dearest daughter, I have only one thing to ask of you. Please, if you live for a hundred years, never think of me as dead.
I am not dead. I am only waiting.
With all the love in my heart,
A hard cannonball had formed in Ruth’s chest. It was a sweet, sentimental letter, which should have sent her sprawling on the carpet in an Italian orgy of grieving. She felt her father’s courage, his gentleness, his love… But the letter simply said to her:
His mind, in this letter so tender, is nothing now but broken meat…
Ruth tried to return to God after the shattering of her family. She imagined His angels swooping over the battlefield, like darting white kites, snatching away the suffering soldiers, flowing through the hands of priests, cutting the threads of dying lives, easing their passage to better things, but it all seemed like so much childish nonsense, all of a sudden, and there was nothing above the battlefield but smoke and burnt hair and droning planes.
This ending of God was accomplished without struggle. He was there, and then he was not. One moment he was Capitalized, the next he was not. One moment, her priest was telling her what God wanted her to do; the next, it was just her priest telling her what he wanted her to do. The Germans were praying to the same God as the British. Everyone wanted to be saved. If God listened to prayers, why were they there at all? If God did not, why pray?
The hardness in her chest did not allow for negotiation. She was not angry with God; she was weary of the idea of gods and devils and angels and ghosts. The world was empty; nothing shone beyond bland matter; there was nothing but what was. A sparrow fell because a sparrow fell. The War was nothing more than caged animals striking at each other.
Ruth was not constituted to bear great pain. Her early religious faith was too sentimental to absorb a loss of such magnitude. Her faith in a planned universe left her completely, in a single wilting blow, and she was shocked back to a more primitive state, to a kind of Stone-Age hunger to – to almost reabsorb her own children. She clutched them to her breasts as she sobbed or stared or, sometimes, fainted dead away. Reginald was uncomfortable in her embrace, twisting and looking at her with a suspicion which seemed far beyond his years, as if he thought she were malingering. Tom, though, wound himself into her, trying to sooth her twisting nerves, but she always cried harder when he kissed her, and he became dismal and confused.
As the War ground on, Ruth developed night terrors, and began to have awful, recurring dreams. Night after night, she breast-fed all the dead men of her family, and as the dream continued over the following months, they continued to decompose. They suckled at her milk, and it dribbled out through the growing holes in their cheeks, over their rotting and falling teeth.
Ruth awoke from these terrible visions and needed Tom so badly that it would have taken great force to prevent her from going to his room, scooping him up, staring at his smooth cheeks and perfect hair in the moonlight, and then stealing him back to her bed, and falling asleep, finally, after drinking in his youth, health and innocence in a midnight vigil of staring and weeping.
When Quentin returned on his next leave, he did not like this at all.
“You’re going to turn that boy soft, Ruth!” he hissed, waking up for the second time with Tom’s form lying between them.
Ruth gazed at him; she had developed a disconcerting thousand-yard stare. There was no fight left in her – no fight, but no negotiation or compliance either.
Quentin could not reason with her. He found his wife’s dead stare enraging – I’m fighting to save this? he would snarl to himself. Ruth, on the other hand, felt the need for an almost supernatural tenderness. She had lost not only tangible men, but intangible masculinity. She had no father, no brothers, no uncle, and now no God. Such rawness can only be tended with rose petals, and there were none to be found in Quentin. Like most practical men, he seemed empty of flowers, but full of fertilizer.
He felt – and perhaps not unjustly – that he needed some of the comforts of home, some feminine tenderness and sympathy. The endless war of those who are experiencing terror – versus those who have been touched by it – entered the very foundations of the Spencer household. Quentin needed love because he was in danger of dying every day. Ruth needed love because she had lost – or was in danger of losing – every man she had ever loved.
Quentin was not stationed on the Front. Before the War, he had been a fairly competent businessman, and so was employed as a supply sergeant. He was close enough to the Front to feel some danger, to feel the vibrations of shelling, but it was rare that anything exploded anywhere near him. Once, a plane had crash-landed within a hundred yards of where he worked; once a stray shell had felled a bare tree that fell on his shadow, but other than that, the war was little more than a background rumble and a foreground stench.
While he did not see the slaughter first-hand, the Front seemed to him like a brutal disassembly plant, where whole men were sent to be separated into their component parts. The courage of the soldiers was beyond belief. They knew that their chances of survival were marginal at best, and that surviving was not always preferable to death. Efforts were made to shield the incoming soldiers –mostly Colonials, and, towards the end, Americans – from the endless tents of the wounded, but the smell was impossible to shield. Extreme maiming returns the body to an infantile state, and the reek of feces, urine and blood hung in the air like the scent of a medieval nursery.
There was no part of the body that was immune to injury; shells got the extremities, magnesium got the eyes, mustard gas and bullets the innards, and cold or infection the fingers and toes.
Nature, it seemed, conspired with war to empty the planet of young men. Anaesthetic was in short supply, and deaths from shock were common. The body simply did not contain enough natural pain-killers to survive shrapnel, blood loss and amputation. Doctors could only save a few who came along; even those they saved were subject to the most horrible infections; it seemed that every species of bacteria had flown to France on the promise of an endless feast. And those boys who had left small towns for the excitement of seeing a foreign country soon found their only view to be the inside of their own minds; their eyes, taste, touch, all stripped.
And there was a deadening in the hearts of those who survived as well, and it was born of a rational hopelessness.
Previously war, a dangerous, bloody business, was nonetheless a career of sorts, where training, skill and fitness played significant roles in determining victory. Success was never guaranteed, but horsemanship, marksmanship and skill with a sword certainly swayed the odds. And the Generals basically fought the same war that had been fought since the Battle of Agincourt, when the high, armour-piercing arrows of the long bow had begun to unseat the power of the mounted knight. There were no planes, no tanks, no submarines, no chemical warfare (there was, on occasion, biological warfare, as plague-ridden corpses were catapulted into towns under siege, but this did not affect strategy).
But the Army, since it dealt with life and death and the fate of nations, was very, very conservative. Quentin had been told one story which seemed to capture this problem perfectly. A bunkmate of his had joined the Army in 1911, a few years before the war, and had been painting the road leading into the base when he had spilled his entire can of paint. Rather than cleaning it up, he had simply painted the edges into an enormous square. In 1915, he had returned to the base as an infantry instructor, and driving in, he had noticed that his huge white square had been faithfully repainted in the six years since he had first spilled it.
The Great War required wrenching changes in Army leadership, in thinking, creativity and innovation, but originality seemed such a sickly, faltering plant, that it failed to grow no matter how many men’s veins watered it.
There was so much destruction, and so little innovation, that the individual skill of the men in the trenches had almost nothing to do with their survival. The best cavalry in the world could be defeated by a sixteen-year-old farm boy with a Tommy gun. Sheer luck separated the living from the dead. A soldier forgot his ammo, ran back to retrieve it, and his companions in a foxhole took a direct hit. Another bent down to tie up his shoe and a bullet took his best friend behind him. A cigarette was passed to a brother; a sniper found the glow and shot him dead. There was no rhyme, no reason.
This irrationalism affected everyone. Quentin was not a particularly moral man, but he was not actively immoral either. He was part of the general herd: he went with the prevailing current so naturally that it felt like personal momentum. Sooner or later, amoral people in positions of power will crumble. Quentin seemed to know this about himself, and decided against pointless shows of resistance.
Unless a major campaign was on, there was very little rationale behind the distribution of goods from his depot. There was never enough for everyone, and rarely good reason for favouring someone over someone else, so Quentin just let the needs of others determine his allocations. It was not that he was innately corrupt, or gained an enormous amount from bribes or kickbacks – it was just that there could be no real reasoning behind any of his decisions, and payoffs certainly helped him prioritize.
Everyone knew that base preference determined the allocation of resources. Even the most moral person in the world would be hard pressed to explain exactly why this brigade got bullets while that division got porridge. (The only rationale – that a certain division needed to be strengthened because of an upcoming battle – could not be used, since everyone knew that Quentin was not privy to such information until the day before the attack.) Every man who put requisitions in for goods was loyal to his own group, and would clean out the supply depot if he could. They stopped at nothing to get all they could, and the first time Quentin gave extra cigarettes because a certain corporal had grown up in the same neighbourhood, was the thin edge of an endless wedge. Through some kind of subterranean military jungle drumming, the knowledge spread that Quentin was the kind of supply officer who was ‘friendly’ and could be persuaded. Endless hordes of desperate men descended on him; his office was full from morning to night. In an awful way, he had never been so popular. And he genuinely wanted to help; this was the part of him most susceptible to corruption. Tearful requests from combat veterans always moved him; his office was sometimes more awash with tears than the Veterans hospital.
There were some men who started off friendly, but turned vicious when Quentin hesitated, and he had them immediately thrown out with one call to the military police. They vanished at first, and Quentin was quite relieved, and returned to the mere currying of favours. But these men were merely regrouping and gathering evidence. Soon they returned, one at a time, and then in groups, and Quentin began to get a sense of the secondary nervous system of the Army. The first was supply men like himself; the second was a network of contacts, bribery, extortion, blackmail and friendships that actually controlled the supply chain. It turned out that all his favouritism had been recorded, and was against policy, and was now turned against him. The hints were not subtle; he was asked how he would like being shot, or spending twenty years in military prison, or never seeing his family again. And what was proposed was not extreme – or, at least, not as extreme as the threats. No one was out to put him out of business. He could retain his favouritism; all that was required was that this or that group have first dibs on everything he had.
This caused Quentin some sleepless nights. Great sins are the heart attacks of ten thousand fatty immoralities; he had allowed his independent judgement to be swayed, and now its weakened base was being hacked at. But, he reasoned, we are all on the same side. It’s not as if ammo sent to a certain division will be used against us. These men are just trying to look out for themselves. And what if their threats are harsh? It’s nothing compared to what they are going through…
And, of course, there was nothing to be done. The number of his transgressions had mounted so high that he was beyond the scope of the law. The gun of justice would just go off in his hand. And what was the point of that? All these decisions were arbitrary anyway…
In the end, he decided to go along with the requests, on one condition. He would never keep ammo from a division about to go into battle. This condition was accepted with many toasts and much back-slapping, as the natural response of an honourable man.
It lasted exactly nine weeks. One evening, as he sat slaving over the endless paperwork of requisitions, a man named Uxbridge came to see him. A major offensive was slated for the following night. This was in 1915, when the Army had temporarily given up on day attacks.
“Evening, Quentin,” said Uxbridge, lighting a cigarette. While not a smoker himself, Quentin had gotten so used to the stale tang of second-hand smoke – like every Army man who worked indoors – that fresh air now smelled strange to him. Empty.
“Evening, Uxbridge.” It was unusual – and against protocol – for a senior officer to address an underling by his last name while the underling used the officer’s first name, but it was not exactly the Army proper at this moment; it was the army within the army.
“Big push tomorrow,” said Uxbridge, hacking up a chunk of road-tar throat-phlegm, leaning forward and spitting it on the floor. Quentin almost expected it to roll. Or bounce.
“How is the second battalion?” asked the man, pulling over a worn canvas chair and creaking into it.
“They need more grenades.”
“Yeah,” said Uxbridge, taking his cigarette out of his mouth and flicking the ash on the back of his hand. He always contained his evidence. “Now, it’s a night attack, so grenades are as likely to brighten a friendly as a Jerry. What they really need is flares.”
“They’ve got their flares.”
“That’s good. But they’re not going to get their grenades.”
“Well,” grunted Uxbridge, shifting in his chair. “’Cause you’re out of ’em.”
Quentin paused. “And why am I out of them?”
“Because if you weren’t out, then the Second would be tossing those grenades around like cricket balls, and my division would be right under them.”
“What about your division’s grenades?”
“We’re not going to use any. Me and my men agreed. The Second is of a different opinion, which is why you’re all out, you see.”
Quentin paused. How am I going to pretend that I’m out? He knew better than to ask Uxbridge, who cared little for paperwork.
“I need some empty boxes.”
“Got ‘em,” grinned Uxbridge, cocking his head at the door. “Sausages.”
“All right. And I’ll need some help.”
“You’n me. All night, if it has to be.”
“There are more than a hundred crates of grenades back there,” said Quentin, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder at the packed warehouse. “And they’re explosive, I don’t have to tell you.”
Uxbridge just stared at him. Quentin scowled.
“All right, let’s bring them in.”
It took them two hours to bring all the empty ‘Sausage’ crates into the warehouse, then another eight hours to transfer the grenades into them and seal them up. They put the ‘grenade’ boxes outside as they worked; there wasn’t enough room for everything.
Uxbridge left just after dawn, spiriting the empty grenade crates away in three trucks. Quentin sat down heavily at his desk, then began filling out the ‘Missing Inventory’ form. He had searched all night, but could not find the hundred crates of grenades. Then he fell asleep in the warehouse, on a pile of rough blankets which smelled of potatoes.
When the supply sergeant from the Second Division screamed up on his horse, demanding to know where the hell the grenades were, a very ugly scene developed. Quentin tried to ally himself with the natural disgust for Army inefficiency common to all supply sergeants, but it didn’t work. The man was livid that the grenades needed for that night’s battle were missing, and he hadn’t been informed until that moment. The battle could not be called off, the Jerries were well-dug in, and there were almost fifty machine-gun nests, which had to be taken out by grenades, or their would be a slaughter.
The man was very persuasive, but then they all were. Everyone’s story was airtight; everyone’s need was paramount, every disaster imaginable would occur if they were not given what they needed. Quentin spent the afternoon on the phone trying to find other grenades, the man stalking and smoking in front of his desk. None were to be found. Three experimental flame-throwers were available, but the Supply Sergeant was not interested.
Finally the man left, hoping to go over Quentin’s head. Quentin locked the front door to his office, crawled under his desk, and wept.
It was the last true emotion he was to feel for some time. That night, the Second Division was cut apart by machine-guns during their charge. Uxbridge’s division, which was supposed to follow twenty minutes after the Second, was never even called out of their trenches.
Over four hundred men were killed. Another six hundred wounded.
Now, Quentin faced a problem – or, more accurately, a problem faced Quentin, for it was much larger than he was. It was a sky-high problem, with many roots, which went down past his own soul, deep into the class he inhabited.
Quentin had been raised in a boarding school, which meant that he was contemptuous of weakness. All warrior classes have to overcome the influence of the mother; this is usually achieved by separating boys from maternal power and subjecting them to such base humiliation that all tender feelings are utterly destroyed. This is all for the best, of course. It is impossible, after all, to rule unjustly if one feels for one’s subjects.
Quentin was schooled in power early and hard. He arrived at boarding school at the age of seven, and was immediately plunged into the ghastly world of brutal hazing, hysterical sports, prefect servitude, upper-class slavery, and like all the other boys, buried his sobs for his mummy in the rough cloth of dormitory pillows.
Motherhood was fine for the early years, it was believed, but too long an exposure to the ‘original tit’ weakened a man, left him soft, squeamish, and prone to debilitating empathy. Men of action could not over-consider the feelings of others. Men of action were informed by lofty goals, decisive measures and a relentlessly classical education.
Quentin was a classical product of this kind of system. He was pragmatic, but only in the short-term. He was moral, but only in form, not content. True ethics arise from empathy; the only ethics which can arise in the absence of empathy is conformity, which does no-one any good in the long run. Conformity looks almost good, which is worse than just being bad, because it is camouflaged.
The possibility that Quentin had been responsible for the death and maiming of almost a thousand men did not intend to leave him alone – and he did not want it to. Quentin’s honour required that he come to terms with his own actions.
After the aborted attack, Quentin applied for, and was granted, two days leave, which he used to visit a bed-and-breakfast in Calais, on the French coast. He spent these days walking the length and breadth of the beaches of Normandy, forever glancing at the distant white cliffs of England, as if at a magical kingdom that he was banished from. Only once did he come close to tears, imagining Reginald gazing back.
The primary difficulty was in the ‘what if.’ As a pragmatist, Quentin did not judge his actions by their content, but by their effect. And his thinking ran along these lines:
The figure of a thousand men must be disposed of at once. It is an illusion. First of all, no number of grenades could have eliminated all the casualties. Second of all, the General in charge of the attack is well-known for his high casualty lists. Thus, even if the lack of grenades contributed to casualties in the first wave, it is quite possible that the second wave, which would have surely gone if the first wave had been successful, might have suffered casualties in excess of a thousand.
But what if the attack, with grenades, had been successful? Well, this same General has a history of taking positions and abandoning them within a few weeks. This has happened at least seven times, each with great casualties. Thus it is also possible that more lives were saved by the withholding of the grenades than the provision of them.
Also, what if Uxbridge was right, and the first wave did not agree to restrain their use of grenades, and the second wave had lost men both due to the success of the first wave, and their indiscriminate use of grenades?
Quentin sat on the hard, cold sand. The Channel churned like rolling iron. For two reasons, it was important not to pursue all these speculations to their final conclusions. The first was that there were no final conclusions, since they were pure speculation. The second was the importance of restraint when examining past actions. If I pursue this self-examination with too much eagerness, he thought, I will surely destroy myself, for I will put too much stake in this or that answer, and so lose my objectivity.
War was an uncertain business. Casualties were inevitable. He had pulled no trigger. Uxbridge had been reliable in the past. Quentin put his face into his hands. There was a kind of churning black sea in his soul, a terror at the root of things, but he was resolved to be strong. Despair is the first and final enemy of the soldier. A thought persisted, though, which was that wrong actions needed no context, and could not be judged by their effects. Wrong is wrong, he thought, but shook his head violently. Wrong in wartime? It was inconceivable. War itself was wrong. One just did the best one could.
And I did not benefit materially at all. I made a command decision, based on the best information I had… The fact that the decision had not been his to make rankled at him, but he felt strong resentment at the Army for putting him in that position to begin with. If they gave me enough supplies for everyone – or concrete rules on how to distribute everything – then I would not be put in the position of making these kind of judgements…
There was also the soothing balm of good decisions he had made. He rifled through his memories. There was the time I sent extra ammo to the brigade under siege, without express orders. That saved – what, fifty lives? Easily. And there was the time I withheld horse feed from the cavalry about to charge, who would have been slaughtered. What, two hundred men? Even if giving grenades to the first wave would have saved one out of ten men – a most generous estimate – I still have saved more than twice that number, just in those two decisions alone – and there are more, I’m sure, many more…
By the end of his leave, he had reached a precarious position of self-justification, which he hoped would strengthen over time.
It did, of course, but like all self-justifications which harden through being ignored, it was to have terrible consequences…