The Somme. Part 6

ROYALCOURT, 15 August, 1917

I am writing this from a dug-out made by cutting a square recess in a sloping bank and covering it with corrugated iron and earth. A rabbit existence, sleep all day, and a modicum of work at night. Entrance is gained by crawling on all fours through a low opening, slithering painfully over legs and bodies to a fixed place. War appears to be a matter of listening to a few whistling shells exchanged at long intervals, of marking out minute figures on a dull-brown hill-side crowned with trees and a phantom-like hedge of poplars. Not a movement anywhere ; even the sun lingers more drowsily here than elsewhere, and the grass bends but seldom to uncertain winds. The old conception of a violent strife of combatants or even the modern of an inferno of bursting shells dies down to quiescence, and there dwells a sober touch about the whole landscape, as if it were alone given to droning bees, fluttering butterflies, and flitting swallows.

Last night the desolation received a quiet haunting beauty, the moon dreaming through haze from a dewy earth, mist lying in long swaths in every hollow and below the trees. There dwelt no foundation in anything, a barred nocturne of pearl-grey with dark shadows of foliage floating uncertainly like weed on water. The Vèry lights gleamed but faintly, and shells fell only after hours, as if unwilling to disturb a great peace. Along the road, emptiness, except for a visionary sentry motionless, like a statue or a tree-stump frozen into harmony with the surroundings : several ghosts were bending and rising to the right, a working-party laying out wire. They seemed to be digging their own grave.

In that junction of mysterious man and nature rests the unique interest of this type of war, the only feature of a monotonous life. And this junction is not confined to night, but to day also : men living and working on a hill-side so completely screened by adaptive colour that only movement betrays ; a deserted village housing unnoticed a whole brigade, or even half a division or a farm-house, almost completely ruined, covering a company. Trenches may be occupied in daylight by a battalion marching along sunken roads for miles, or through communication trenches, and the observer may look across country, see nothing whatever, and report no movement anywhere.

But the land is so flat, so unlike my own country. Even if it had the joy of murmurous existence, a patter of tongues and feet, voices of men and children along busy roads, under shadowy eaves vibrating with hidden life even if it were a hive of subdued activities and a home of happy domesticity, the hills are not striding across, and their breath does not sweep it. I was reading Buchan’s Salute to Adventurers when I met this passage “And I”  said Elspeth, “would be threading rowan berries for a necklace in the heather of Medwynglen. It must be about four o’clock of a midsummer afternoon, and a cloudless sky, except for white streamers over Tinto. Ah ! my own kind countryside” ‘ You know the sudden sickness that comes when the old place glides into vision again and there is no possibility of satisfying desire. Buchan sums up the beauty I liked above all, a cloudless sky beyond Tinto, when the Pentland hills and Tweeddale glimmer and darken to jewelled turquoise, catching a primrose cloud and tossing it from peak to peak until the lower sky gleams emerald and distance is a wonderfully delicate gradation of lemon and gold. There is no such gliding of fine colour to a finer horizon here, but a sudden fall of cloud before a ridge.

Like the others, I have learned to gourmandize on a sprat, and find a day’s contentment in a mere shadow of comfort. I can believe myself on Sandilands Moor when I read Dumas’s lines : – 

Mais tout cela ne vaut pas l’air des vastes campagnes Et les chansons du soir dans le fond des bosquets.

I am beginning to understand from my own experience the miseries of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, who could catch lice in handfuls. Here we scratch all day and all night, or sit like rabbits in front of our warren examining shirts. A facetious gentleman termed it “hunting on the lawn”.  A great and lasting benefit of trench-life, just like living in a marble palace attended by devoted slaves ! It arouses wonder and develops philosophy. Diogenes had a real martyr’s life in a barrel ar on the bare ground the lice are legion, inside anything comfortable they surpass in number the sands on the shore.

I have taken a new interest in beetles, especially when wakened at midnight by an inquisitive gentleman exploring my chest. They crawl up and down the walls  of the dug-out, strange jet monsters dear to Scarabeaus, shaped to inspire terror in a child soul. Caterpillars are very constant with their attentions, dear little playfellows escorted by earwigs and huge spiders. Ladybirds preen themselves on your knees and go to sleep in boots ; ants delight to scamper up one leg and down the other, get lost sometimes and emerge at your neck in a great state of bewilderment. Greenflies and bluebottles utter dulcet melody all day long, strange buzzers hover on the face and tickle the ears and nostrils. There is a constant interchange of courtesies between the grasshoppers on the banks, and crickets rattle lugubriously by the road-side at night.

Strange bedfellows always seem the most romantic, and we have enough of them here to inspire a new kind of epic : – 

Sweet to me, o ant, are thine eyes in the morning,

Gazing calmly at me from the promontory nose,

And thy shaggy hair rustles delightfully o’er me

Like wind on the plains tressing the corn.

Then the poet could continue and string a lot of beautiful images round this fairy-like Shakespeare with Queen Mab, touching the sublime a little and avoiding the trivial as not in keeping with this great subject. I can see Virgil becoming jealous and Æneas fading away to a very shadowy character indeed beside this wonderful creation.

“It is romance that holds the two-edged sword, the sharp ecstasy and the severing scythe stroke, the expectancy and the disillusioning, the trance and the clearer vision”  (Some Irish Yesterdays). If one could govern life, feeling, perception, spirit, desire, experience, to that definition, the old feeling of Paradise would appear tame beside the most ordinary, and the richest delight of existence or nature gleam eternally on the deserted and desolate. Sometime it might come to me and make me forget those things, holding the vision to the rainbow at the world’s end and leading, as it led Ralph in The Wood Beyond the World, through pain, temptation, misery, voluptuous crime, to a quiet world, peaceful in a pure happiness, settled at last in a great consummation.

“Ainsi T’homme est si malheureux qu’il s’ennuierait même sans aucune cause d’ennui, et il par l’état propre de sa complexion : est si vain qu’ étant plein de mille causes essentielles d’ennui, la moindre chose, comme un ballon ou une balle qu’il pousse, suffit pour le divertir”  (Pascal). Pascal got the  idea all right. The least thing delights us here, and the only sop to weariness is a constant expectation of meeting little things out of the ordinary, things no one else might notice but are all the world to us.