Flanders. Part 3

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 8 September, 1917

Indigestion is troubling the battalion at the present hour. One day we scouted down a flat valley bottom, along a tree-shadowed road, across a spare wood, to a square copse. In the wood, an orchard of rosy crab-apples was discovered. We spent an hour replenishing stomachs and filling balmorals with the sweet, acrid fruit, and lay in a shallow trench sunning ourselves for an afternoon. From that time there has been a constant succession of fruit-patrols to all parts of the compass, each armed with a sandbag, which is always filled either with apples or pears. The child-natural element revives in war : prejudices, social veneers, little delicacies of taste and manner of life, choice actions dictated by a particular regard to decorum, become merged in a quiet comfort-seeking in the slightest gift, even a crab-tree studded with minute apples.

A morning-wash in the green water of a shell-hole, a thankful moistening of lips in a vile water drawn from a chlorinated tank, an attempt at china-cleaning by a handful of dewy grass, a sharpening of razors on a rife-sling show how casual is the whole business. I have admired a fine sunrise between my legs as I bent over a shallow dish of muddy liquid to wash a grey physiognomy. If everything were cut and carved, measured out nicely for us, and arranged to suit, lethargy would overcome us (it does set in, in a most deadly fashion, and one of war’s worst hardships is to defeat it) and we would be a sorry set of lifeless automatons. There is such a wealth of insect life on French soil that no one lies long on grass without being uncomfortable. A long afternoon’s sleep in the sun appears to my mind entirely out of the question, and the best one can do is to peer out the printed page in a semi- obscure billet.

This morning was dreamy with mist. An incessant low-toned pattering of drops from the trees gave it a voice, an utterance strangely at variance with the booming of trench-mortars practising in the vicinity. The landscape died away to dim milky shadows vaguely suggested, only a pair of wheels painted green, astride a trench, lent detail. At the top of an elm a jay was cracking; uncertainly, dreaming still of warm nights then, impatient of my examination, flew away, with long tail shaking, like a wagtail grown gigantic. A frail beauty dwelt there : tall trees with the foliage gleaming a pale note of colour, wild grass with heads grown filmy in suspended shadow, hedges a bar of opal across the tree-trunks, long, low valleys a woolly swathed indefiniteness, vaguely smiling with the promise of sun, and above all a great bowl of sky, flashing with an infinity of subdued tints and gracious veiled forms. Like a drawing of Raphael’s, the more intently it was viewed the finer became the lines, and the shadows more tender, until its loveliness gleamed exquisite as a dream. No clear colour anywhere, no broad glintings, but a soft diffusion of opal light resting lightly on the high places and brooding in a tenuous shadow, background for a fine conception.