It was a strange coincidence to find myself reading about the Battle of the Somme just the day before the 100th anniversary, making the two minutes of silence in the office on Friday morning all the more poignant. War seems to have become a theme in my reading over the last month or so; 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks is a moving and beautiful book that gives a very graphic portrayal of life in the trenches of World War I.
Stephen Wraysford is visiting France in 1910 to expand his knowledge about the weaving business but finds himself drawn into a love affair with the enigmatic Isabelle, wife of his host Monsieur Azaire. This brief opening section of the story gives us France in peace time which contrasts very sharply with the jump to six years later when we find Stephen a junior officer in the British army, hardened by his battle experiences and a somewhat cold and distant person. The story follows the lives of both officers and men as they prepare for the big push. The events themselves are so momentous that they overshadow the story; you find yourself becoming like Stephen, unwilling to become attached to any of the characters because you know what is going to happen next. You watch as some people die, others just vanish in the mud. The individual losses become part of a larger loss, they are compounded into a loss for humanity, but Faulks never looses sight of their individuality. Here he tackles the losses on an abstract almost philosophical level:
"Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their father's shattered flesh that lay in stinking hellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference." (p.236)
And then you turn the page and we are back to the reality:
"It was dark at last. The night poured down in waves from the ridge above them and the guns at last fell silent.
The earth began to move. To their right a man who had lain still since the first attack eased himself upright, then fell again when his damaged leg would not take his weight. Other single men moved, and began to come up like worms from their shellholes, limping, crawling, dragging themselves out. Within minutes the hillside was seething with the movement of the wounded as they attempted to get themselves back to the line." (p.238-9)
I was confused to reach the end of that first day and then abruptly find myself in 1978. I did not want to be there. I felt like I had become so involved in the war that I needed time to readjust. This woman with her shallow concerns irritated me. I kept going because I assumed she had some link to Stephen Wraysford, but I found myself impatient for the other story. We return to France a year later, to men still digging tunnels and living in the mud. I found myself very much drawn into the world of the soldiers and the claustrophobia of the underground work. This scene has Stephen and his friend Weir trapped underground after a tunnel collapse, trying to recapture an escaped canary (used to detect gas in the tunnels), it also linked rather strangely back to 'The Yellow Birds':
"Stephen felt Weir's eye boring into him. He reached into his pocket and found his knife. He opened the blade and reached up over Weir's knees. Weir, straining up on his back was able to meet his gaze as Stephen's head appeared between his shins. The two men looked at each other over the tiny yellow head between them. Stephen thought of the lines of men he had seen walking into the guns; he thought of the world screaming in the twilight at Thiepval. Weir looked steadily at him. Stephen put the knife away in his pocket. He fought back the rising tears. Weir might let the bird go. It might touch him." (p.305-6)
It is a peculiar moment of humanity as they struggle in the tunnel. Weir tells him it is a court-martial offence to let the bird escape. It is the second (and not the last) time the threat of death for failure to obey orders is mentioned in the story. (In an early scene Stephen 'lets off' a soldier who had fallen asleep on watch, also an executable offence.) I went (naturally) to wikipedia to find out the truth about executions during the war. It tells me that while over 20,000 men were court-martialled for offences that carried the death penalty only 306 British and Commonwealth soldier were executed. That is still a horrific thing to do to soldiers who were often conscripted, and it was not until 2006 that they were posthumously pardoned.
The world back home does not seem to be affected the way it is during the Second World War and Stephen goes home to find his parents somewhat bored with the whole thing. Dunk said he read that there were attempts to hide the truth about the Somme from the public back home, but as the extent of the losses became apparent they were unable to do so. Here some soldiers are arriving back on leave, and the shock of the people waiting is testament to how little they understood the reality of what life was like for the soldiers:
"When the boat arrived in Folkestone the next day there was a small crowd assembled on the quay. Many of the boys and women waved flags and cheered as the mass of infantry came up the gangplank. Stephen saw the looks on the faces of the crowd change from gaiety to bewilderment: for those come to greet sons or brothers these were the first returning soldiers they had seen. The lean, expressionless creatures who stepped ashore were not the men with gleaming kit and plump smiles who had been played aboard by the regimental bands. Some wore animal skins they had bought from local farms; many had cut pieces from their coats with knives to increase their comfort or to bind their cold hands. They wore scarves about their heads instead of caps with shining buttons. Their bodies and their clothes were encrusted with dirt and in their eyes was a blank intransigence. They moved with grim, automatic strength. They were frightening to the civilians because they had evolved not into killers but into passive beings whose only aim was to endure." (p.354-5)
It is the careless, almost casual, death of his friend Weir that finally brings some real emotional response from Stephen, and as a reader I grieved with him, because where Stephen had been resigned to the war and his almost inevitable death I felt like Weir had continued to refuse to believe it was real:
"All that night and the next day he lay unmoving on the bed. He did not speak when Montford came back to try to rouse him. He turned away the food that was bought to him. He cursed himself for his last act of impatience towards Weir. He hated the selfishness of his feeling, because he was more sorry for himself than for his dead friend. He could not help it. Like all the others, he had learned to dismiss death from his thoughts; but he could not shake off the loneliness. Now that Weir was gone there was no one who could understand. He tried to make himself cry but no tears would come to express his desolation or his love for poor mad Weir." (p.386)
I remained ambivalent about the brief parts set in 1978, I guess they were designed to link the war to the future and to give Stephen a life that went on, but I did not get engaged with any of the people in that world. I will give the last word to Stephen. Elizabeth (his granddaughter) unearths some diaries, written in a strange code that she enlists a friend to help decipher. The story is about the Great War, the war to end all wars. As the song goes ... War ... What is it good for ... Absolutely nothing:
"I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul.
Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is all over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us." (p.421-2)