We Shall Not Sleep

By Samuel Walker,2014-11-04 17:26
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Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2008/10/25



    Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; beyours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, thoughpoppies grow In Flanders fields.

    —John McCrae



    Home for Christmas this year, Chaplain?” Barshey Gee said with a wry smile. He turned his backto the wind and lit a Woodbine, then flicked the match into the mud at his feet. A couple ofmiles away in the gathering dusk the German guns fired desultorily. In a little while theshelling would probably get heavier. Nights were the worst.

    “Maybe.” Joseph would not commit himself. In October 1914 they had all imagined that the warwould be over in months. Now, four years later, the situation was dramatically different. Halfthe men he had known then were dead; the German army was in retreat from the ground it hadtaken, and Joseph’s Cambridgeshire regiment had advanced nearly as far as Ypres again. Theymight even make it tonight, so every man was needed.

    They were waiting now, all around him in the gathering darkness, fidgeting a little, adjustingthe weight of rifles and packs on their shoulders. They knew this land well. Before the Germanshad driven them back they had lived in these trenches and dugouts. Friends and brothers wereburied in the thick Flanders clay around them.

    Barshey shifted his weight, his feet squelching in the mud. His brother Charlie had beenmutilated and bled to death here shortly after the first gas attacks in the spring of 1915.Tucky Nunn was buried here somewhere, and Plugger Arnold, and dozens more from the smallvillages around St. Giles.

    There was movement to his left, and to his right. They were waiting for the order to go overthe top. Joseph would stay behind, as he always did, ready to tend the wounded, carry them backto the Casualty Clearing Station, sit with those whose pain was unbearable, and wait with thedying. His days were too often spent writing the letters home that told women they were widows.Lately the soldiers were younger, some no more than fifteen or sixteen, and he was tellingtheir mothers how they died, trying to offer some kind of comfort: that they had been brave,liked, and not alone, that it had been quick.

    In his pocket Joseph’s hand tightened over the letter he had received that morning from hissister Hannah at home in Cambridgeshire, but he refused to open it yet. Memories could confusehim, taking him miles from the present and scattering the concentration he needed to stayalive. He could not think of evening wind in the poplar leaves beyond the orchard, or acrossthe fields the elms motionless against a sunset sky, starlings wheeling up and out, blackfragments against the light. He could not allow himself to breathe in the silence and the smellof earth, or watch the slow tread of the plow horses returning along the lanes after the day’swork.

    There were weeks to go yet, perhaps months, before it was over and those who were left could goback to a land that would never again be as they had left it.

    More men were passing through the shadows. Allied trenches were dug more shallowly than theGerman ones. You had to keep your head down or risk being caught by sniper fire. The earthenfloor was always muddy, though not as bad now as times he could remember when the ooze had beendeep enough to drown a man, and so cold some actually froze to death. Many of the duckboardswere rotted now, but the rats were still there, millions of them, some as big as cats, and thestench was always the same—death and latrines. You could smell the line miles before youactually reached it. It varied from one place to another, depending on the nationality of themen who fought there. Corpses smelled differently according to the food the men had eaten.

    Barshey threw away the last of his cigarette. “Reckon we’ll make Passchendaele again withinthe week,” he said, looking at Joseph and squinting slightly in the last of the light.

    Joseph said nothing, knowing no answer was expected. Memory held them together in wordlesspain. He nodded, looked at Barshey for a moment, then turned to pick his way over the oldduckboards and around the dogleg corner into the next stretch. All the trenches were built in azigzag so that if the enemy did storm them, they could not take out a whole platoon with one

burst. The wooden revetting that held back the crumbling walls was sagged and bulging.

    Joseph reached Tiddly Wop Andrews just below the fire step. The young soldier’s handsomeprofile with its quiff of dark hair was clear for a moment against the pale sky; then he duckeddown again.

    “’Evenin’, Reverend,” Andrews said quietly. He started to say something else, but theincreasing noise drowned it out as a hundred yards to the left the machine guns started tochatter.

    It was time for Joseph to go back to the Casualty Clearing Station, where he could be of use tothe wounded as they were brought in. He passed other men he knew and spoke a word or two tothem: Snowy Nunn, his white-blond hair hidden by his helmet; Stan Tidyman, grinning andwhistling through his teeth; Punch Fuller, instantly recognizable by his nose; and CullyTeversham, standing motionless.

    Like every regiment, the Cambridgeshires had originally been drawn from a small area: These menhad played together in childhood and gone to the same schools. But with so many dead orwounded, remnants of many regiments had been scrambled together to make any kind of force. Morethan half the soldiers now going up and over the parapet into the roar of gunfire were almoststrangers to him.

    Joseph came to the end of the dogleg and turned into the connecting trench back toward thesupport line and the station beyond. It was dark by the time he reached it. Normally thestation would not have been busy. The wounded were evacuated to the hospital as soon as theywere fit to move, and the surgeons, nurses, and orderlies would be waiting for new casualtiesto be brought in. But with so many German prisoners pouring through the lines, exhausted,defeated, and many of them injured, there were still nearly twenty patients here.

    In the distance more columns of soldiers were marching forward into the trenches. At the ratethey were taking ground now, the front line would soon move beyond the old earthworks,abandoned in the retreat. In the open the casualties would be far worse.

    Joseph began his usual work of helping with more minor injuries. He was busy in the GeneralAdmissions tent when Whoopy Teversham came to the open flap, his face frightened and smearedwith blood in the lantern light.

    “Captain Reavley, you’d better come. There’s two o’ the men beating a prisoner pretty bad.If you don’t stop ’em they’re loike to kill ’im.”

    Joseph shouted for one of the orderlies to take over from him and followed Whoopy outside,almost treading on the man’s heels. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark; then hestarted running toward the pale outline of the Operating tent. The ground was rough, gougedinto ruts and shallow craters by gun-carriage wheels and earlier shelling.

    They were ahead of him, a group of half a dozen or so crowded together—lightly wounded men onguard duty. Their voices were sharp and high-pitched. He saw them jostle closer, an arm swingin a punch, and someone stagger. A star shell went up and momentarily lit the sky, outliningthem luridly for several seconds before it faded and fell. It gave him long enough to see thefigure on the ground, half curled over with his face in the mud.

    He reached them and spoke to the only man he had recognized in the brief light. “CorporalClarke, what’s going on here?”

    The others froze, caught by surprise.

    Clarke coughed, then straightened up. “German prisoner, sir. Seems to be hurt.” His voice wasuncertain, and Joseph could not see his face in the dark.

    “Seems to be?” Joseph said scathingly. “Then what are you doing standing around shouting ateach other and throwing punches? Does he need a stretcher?”

    “’E’s a Jerry prisoner!” someone said angrily. “Best put him out of his misery. Bastardsspent four years killing our boys, then think they can just put their hands up in the air, andsuddenly we’ll bust our guts bandaging ’em up and looking after ’em. Oi say the war’s still

    on. Their brothers are over there”—he jerked an arm toward the gunfire—“still troying tokill us. Let’s shoot back.”

    There was a measure of agreement in murmured angry voices.

    “Very brave,” Joseph said sarcastically. “Ten of you kick an unarmed prisoner to death whileyour comrades go into no-man’s-land and face the Germans with guns.”

    “We found him loike that!” The sense of injustice was hot and instant. Others agreedvehemently.

    “’E was escaping!” someone explained. “Going off back to ’is own to tell ’em where weare, an’ how many. We had to stop ’im!”

    “Name?” Joseph demanded.


    “Turner, sir!” Joseph snapped.

    “Turner, sir,” the man replied sullenly. “’E was still escaping.” The resentment in hisvoice was clear. Joseph was a chaplain, a noncombatant, and Turner obviously considered himinferior. Joseph had now compounded that attitude with his holy-Joe interference, interruptingnatural justice.

    “And it takes ten of you to stop him?” Joseph inquired, allowing his voice to rise withdisbelief.

    “Two of us,” Turner replied. “Me an’ Culshaw.”

    “Go and join your unit,” Joseph ordered. “Teversham and I will get him to the dressingstation.”

    Turner did not move. “He’s German, sir—”

    “So you said. We don’t kill unarmed prisoners. If it’s worth bothering, we question them; ifnot, we leave them alone.”

    Someone muttered a remark Joseph did not hear. There was a ripple of jerky laughter, thensilence.

    Whoopy Teversham leveled his bayonet and poked the man nearest him. Reluctantly the group movedaside, and Joseph bent to the figure on the ground. The man was still breathing, but he wasobviously badly hurt. If they left him here much longer, he might die.

    Slowly one of the other men stepped forward and helped lift the prisoner so Joseph could gethis weight onto his shoulders and carry him at least as far as the Casualty Clearing Station.It might offer the man no more than a chance to die humanely.

    The German was not heavy; perhaps hunger had taken its toll. Many people, both army andcivilian, were starving. Even so he was awkward to carry, and the ground under Joseph’s feetwas uneven. He knew it must be painful for the wounded man, but there was nothing he could doto ease it.

    He was almost at the Admissions tent again when an orderly ran out to meet him and helped themboth inside. In the light Joseph was stunned to see the German’s face. He was so badly beatenthat his features were almost indistinguishable. His left arm was broken, and a deep wound inhis thigh bled so heavily, it was impossible to tell if shrapnel or bayonet had caused it. Hiseyes were sunken with physical shock, staring in terror. Joseph could see now that he was veryyoung.

    “You’re all right,” he said to him in German. “We’ll dress the wound in your leg and cleanyou up a bit, then get you back to the proper hospital.”

    “I surrender,” the boy answered thickly, his words blurred by the torn and swollen flesh ofhis face. “I surrender.”

    “I know,” Joseph assured him. “We have lots of you. When we’ve got you bandaged and yourarm set, we’ll put you with the others.”

“You going to ask me questions?” The fear was still there in his eyes.

    “No. Why? Do you have anything to tell me?”

    “No. I surrender.”

    “That’s what I thought. Now be quiet until the doctor comes.”

    Joseph left him with the medical orderlies and went back to assisting others, but the incidentstayed in his mind.

    It was many hours later when he finally found the opportunity to go forward to look for BillHarrison, Culshaw and Turner’s commanding officer. He had known Harrison since 1915, and likedhim. He was a quiet man with a nice sense of humor who had earned his promotion from the ranks.

    It was now gray dawn, with a thin east wind sending ragged clouds across the sky and rufflingthe rainwater pools in the mud. Joseph had to pick his way past lifeless tree stumps, many ofthem scarred by fire, and around craters where rusted guns poked up through the oily surface.The bones of dead men and horses had been buried and uncovered by succeeding shellfire over theyears. Attempts at interring them had become pointless. The stench was thick in his throat, buthe was used to it. He found Harrison crouched in a small dugout in the side of the supplytrench. He had made a cup of tea in a Dixie can and was sipping it. Joseph knew exactly how itwould taste: like sour water and the residue of tinned Maconachie stew.

    “’Morning, Chaplain?” he said questioningly as Joseph crouched beside him. “What are youdoing this far forward?” He searched Joseph’s face, knowing there must be some kind oftrouble to bring him this close to the firing. “We lost Henderson. I’d like to write to hisfamily and tell them myself,” he added, a note of apology in his voice.

    Joseph had known he would. It was the sort of thing Harrison would not leave to others. Suchnews should always be broken by someone who had at least known the dead man. However good theregimental chaplain was, a letter from him was still in a sense impersonal.

    “It’s about Culshaw and Turner,” Joseph told him.

    Harrison frowned but waited for Joseph to continue.

    “Caught a German prisoner trying to escape,” Joseph said, making it as brief as possible.“Boy of around sixteen, thin as a scarecrow. Beat him almost to death. Whoopy Teversham caughtthem and stopped it.”

    Harrison stared at the ruined tree stump ahead of them, with the carcass of a horse beneath it.Joseph knew he loved horses. He even liked the stubborn, awkward regimental mules. “Hard tostop it,” Harrison said after a while. “It just goes on and on, one death after another. Menget angry because they feel so helpless. There’s nothing to hit out at. Culshaw’s father wasin the navy, and his elder brother.”

    “Was?” Joseph asked, although he knew what Harrison was going to say.

    “Both went down last year,” Harrison answered. “His sister lost her husband, too. No ideawhat he’s going home to…if he makes it.”

    “Nobody does,” Joseph said quietly. He thought of his own home, instinctively moving his handtoward his pocket, and then away again. He knew the letter was there. Hannah’s husband,Archie, commanded a destroyer. Would he survive the last few weeks or months of war? Would anyof them? Joseph was still unhurt, except for the dull ache in his bones that cold brought,reminding him of his smashed arm and the deep shrapnel wound in his leg that had invalided himhome in the summer of 1916. He had been tempted to stay in Britain. At his age he could have.Not that he would have been happy. It would have been a betrayal of his men still out here, andof the women at home who loved them and trusted him to sit with the injured, not leave them todie alone.

    “It can’t ever be the same,” he agreed aloud. “The England we fought for is gone anyway. Weall know that.”

    “You used to teach theology in Cambridge, didn’t you?” Harrison asked. “Will you go back tothat?” His face was curious, surprisingly gentle.

    Joseph smiled at the innocence of the question. He had gone to teach at the university as aform of escape. His wife, Eleanor, had died in childbirth, and their son with her. Hisbereavement had been insupportable, his faith too shallow to sustain him. The thought ofministering to the human needs of a congregation had overwhelmed him, so he ran and hid in thepurely cerebral teaching of biblical languages.

    “No,” he said in answer to Harrison’s question. “It’s a little divorced from the realityof living.” What a weight of intellectual dismissal that carried. When you cradled a man inyour arms as he bled to death in the freezing mud, theory was nothing, however beautiful to thebrain. Only being there counted, staying with him no matter what else happened, no matter ifyou were freezing and terrified also, and just as alone as he. That promise—“I will not leaveyou”—was the only one worth keeping.

    Harrison looked sideways at him. The light was broader now, cold and white, and they could seeeach other’s faces. He lit a cigarette, cupping the brief flame in his hands. “Everything’schanged at home. Women do half the jobs we used to have. Couldn’t help it, the men were awayor dead. Or crippled, of course! But it’s still different.” He stared at the dregs of histea. “God, that tastes foul! But how long will clean water and no more guns be enough for us,Chaplain? We’ll be strangers, most of us. We’re heroes at the moment, because we’re stillfighting, but what about in six months, or a year? One day we’ll have to deal with theordinary things. We’ll get used to each other, stop being polite and careful. When I’m homeon leave now people can’t do enough for me. I’m given the best in the house.”

    Joseph said nothing. He knew exactly what Harrison meant, the intended kindness, themeaningless conversations, the silences they couldn’t fill.

    “I still have nightmares on leave,” Harrison said softly, blowing out smoke. “I can hear theguns even when they aren’t there. I think of the men who won’t come back, and I see thatterrible stare in the faces of too many who look as if they’re whole, until you see theireyes. We’re frightened we’ll be killed in the last few weeks, and we’re frightened of goinghome and being strangers and alone, because we don’t fit in anymore.”

    He waited several minutes before answering. Everything Harrison said was true. Joseph tried notto think about the emptiness of going back. He was needed here, desperately needed, so muchthat the burden of it was sometimes crushing.

    “I know,” he said at last. “We’re all afraid of the future, because we don’t know what itwill be. But we can’t let men kick a German prisoner to death, whatever they feel. If we areno better than that, in God’s name, what have ten million men died for?”

    “I’ll talk to them,” Harrison promised. He pinched out his cigarette, then threw the dregsof his tea away. “It won’t happen again.”


    The following day, October 12, Joseph was back in the Casualty Clearing Station as prisonerscontinued to come through the lines. Most were marched back into camps, where they would beheld as the Allied army moved eastward over the old battlefields toward the borders of Germany.The few who were seriously wounded were kept in the clearing stations until they could be movedon without risking their lives.

    There was sometimes information to be gained from them, but it was of little use now. Theterrain had been fought over back and forth and was known intimately, every dugout, everytrench. Only the craters changed as the guns fired ceaselessly, churning up old clay, oldcorpses, the wreckage of armor. The movement of regiments varied too often for yesterday’sprisoners to tell what tomorrow’s deployment would be.

    Joseph spent much of his time translating between the prisoners and doctors. His German hadbeen fluent even before the war. He had spent time there studying, and he cared for both theland and its people. Like any other Englishman, he’d found the idea of fighting Germanytroubling and unnatural. He knew that the soldiers on the other side of the lines were too muchlike the men from his own village whom he talked with every day. It was the governments, the

tide of history, that made one country different from the other.

    He had been behind the lines last year and seen the suffering of the ordinary people, thehunger and fear. He remembered the German soldiers who had helped him. They had shared Schnappsand sung songs together. Hunger, fear, and wounds were the same in any language—and weariness,and the love of home.

    Now he was standing in the Resuscitation tent, trying to reassure a prisoner with an amputatedleg. Rain beat intermittently on the canvas. The man was not much more than twenty, his eyessunken with pain and the shock of being suddenly mutilated, his country beaten, and himselfamong strangers. Nationality seemed an irrelevance.

    Joseph knew that he should attend to the wounded of his own regiment, even though none of themwere seriously ill, but the terror in this man’s eyes haunted him. He looked like Hannah’soldest son, the color of his eyes and the way his hair grew off his brow. Busy with smalljobs—fetching and carrying, running errands—Joseph kept returning to the man lying motionlessin the sheets, the stump of his leg still oozing blood.

    “When will your armies be in Germany?” the young man asked him shortly after midnight.

    “I don’t know,” Joseph said frankly. “There’s still a lot of hard fighting. The war may beover before we actually cross the border.”

    “But you will get there, tens of thousands of you—” He left the sentence hanging as if hedid not know how to finish it. His face was sweating despite the cold, and his teeth wereclamped together so the muscles of his jaw were tight, bulging under the gray-white skin.

    Suddenly, with a sense of shame, Joseph knew that the man’s fear was not for himself. Thedesperation of his fighting had come not from hate or the hunger for a German victory, butsimply from the driving fear of what would happen to his family when enemy soldiers poured intothe homeland of those who had killed their comrades, their friends and brothers, and revengefor it all lay open before them. Perhaps he knew what had happened to Belgium in 1914, and hadbeen repeated over and over in every town and village. It might have appalled him as much as itdid British soldiers to see the beaten and bereaved people, the burned-out farms, and the eyesof the women who had been raped.

    If the tide had gone the other way—and there had been years when it had seemed inevitable thatit would—then German troops would be marching through the little villages of Cambridgeshire:St. Giles, Haslingfield, Cherry Hinton, and all the others. The enemy would walk the cobbles ofthe familiar streets where Joseph had grown up. German soldiers would be sleeping under thethatched roofs, tearing up the gardens, perhaps killing the beasts to provide food, shootingthose people who resisted. Women he had known all his life would be confused and humiliated,ashamed to smile or be seen to offer a kindness.

    He saw the fear in the German’s eyes now, and the bitter knowledge that he had failed toprotect his women, perhaps his children. He would rather have died in battle. And yet what usewas he to them dead? What use was he to anyone, a prisoner, and with only one leg?

    Could Joseph tell him with any honesty that his women would not be violated, or his houseburned? After four years of horror, inconceivable to those who had not endured it, andslaughter that numbed the mind, could he say the victors would not take payment for it in bloodand pain? Some men retained their humanity even in the face of hell. He had seen it. He couldname scores of them—living and dead. But not all the men had done so, not by a long way.

    Should he comfort this young soldier lying ashen and broken-bodied in front of him by tellinghim lies? Or did he deserve the truth? A dubious honor.

    What would he want himself? Would he want to think Hannah was safe, even if it were not true?And her children—the boys and Jenny? What about Lizzie Blaine, who had been such a friend tohim when he was home wounded in 1916? The thought of her frightened and shamed by a Germansoldier was so hideous his stomach churned, and for a moment he was nearly sick.

    He had not heard from her lately. He had tried not to count how long it was, but he knew: sixweeks and two days. He had not expected it to hurt so much, but every mail call without a

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