Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1756
First published: 1930
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Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of work: 1916-1917
Locale: France and England
George Sherston, an infantry officer
David Cromlech, his friend
Aunt Evelyn, his aunt
Spring arrived late in 1916 in the trenches near Mametz. Sherston had made up his mind to die; under the circumstances, there seemed to be little else to do. The battle of the Somme had exhausted him. Colonel Kinjack could see that Sherston was looking for trouble. To forestall any unpleasantness, he sent Sherston to the Fourth Army School at Flixecourt for a month’s training.
The beds at the school were clean and comfortable, and the routine was not too onerous. Sherston settled back to forget the war. He attended a big-game hunter’s lectures on sniping and practiced with a bayonet. He felt that it was incongruous to listen to advice from civilians and army men who had never been close to real war. All the instructors concentrated on open warfare; they were sure that the trenches would soon be abandoned.
One hot Saturday afternoon, he went back to his outfit, where the talk was all of an impending raid. There seemed to be some jealousy involved, for a Canadian raid a short time before had been a great success.
Sherston was sure he would accompany the raiders and wrote a farewell letter to his Aunt Evelyn, a letter in which he slyly assumed the attitude of the “happy warrior.” Entering a dugout, he was a little surprised to see the raiders putting burnt cork on their faces. Their appearance reminded him ridiculously of a minstrel show. Requested to take the raiders up to headquarters, he jumped at the opportunity to present his plea to the commanding officer.
To his disappointment, Colonel Kinjack brusquely told him he had to stay behind to count the raiders when they returned. Therefore, he was condemned to stand in the trench and wait.
As soon as the raiders were well over the parapet, the explosions began. The men struggled back defeated when the second belt of German wire proved invulnerable. They had all tossed their bombs and retired. Sherston began to go out into No Man’s Land to bring in the casualties. A gray-haired lance corporal was glad of his wound, for he had been waiting eighteen months for a chance to go home. O’Brien, the major, was killed, and Sherston had to drag him out of a shell crater. Luckily the Germans, perhaps out of pity, stopped firing.
The result of the raid was two men killed and ten wounded. In the newspapers, the account was somewhat changed. Aunt Evelyn read that the party entered the German trenches without difficulty, displayed admirable morale, and withdrew after twenty-five minutes of hand-to-hand fighting.
The big push, the summer offensive, was in the air. Before Sherston really had time to think much about impending events, he was given a leave. At first, it was strange to be back in England, where everyone seemed to know about the projected onslaught. Out of deference to one who would take part in it, however, they seldom mentioned it. Aunt Evelyn soon found out about the raid when Sherston grandly announced that he was due for a military cross. She was horrified, for she thought her nephew was still in the transport service.
On his way back to France, he stopped in the Army and Navy Store and bought two pairs of wire cutters. Then, because he was late in returning from leave, he bought a salmon and two bottles of brandy to appease his colonel.
When the offensive began, Sherston’s company advanced fifteen hundred yards in four hours. Then the guides became confused, and all forward progress stopped. According to the General Staff, the Germans were supposed to be out of the Mametz Woods, but they were still there. The company waited.
Sherston was going along a communications trench when his companion, Kendle, was killed by a sniper. Furious at the unexpected killing, Sherston took a mills bomb in each hand and went over the top. After a while, he was looking down into a well-ordered trench filled with Germans. Fortunately, they were just leaving, and he jumped into Wood Trench, until lately the German front line. Then he lost his perspective. Not knowing what to do with the trench, he returned to his own lines. His colonel reproved him severely for not “consolidating” the trench or even reporting the incident.
During the battle of Bazentin Ridge, Sherston was kept in reserve in the transport lines. In this brief respite, he met his old friend, David Cromlech. For a while they shared experiences, but both were reluctant to talk about the battle of the Somme. David irritated the other officers greatly by his habit of making bold pronouncements about sacred things. For example, he said that all sports except boxing, football, and rock climbing were snobbish and silly.
When Sherston was finally recalled to his battalion, it was with the expectation that he would go into action at once. As it turned out, however, he came down with enteritis before he arrived in the front lines. It was an escape, really, for he was removed to the base hospital and eventually was sent back to England.
At the military hospital in Oxford, Sherston recovered enough to go canoeing occasionally. By the end of August, he was back with Aunt Evelyn on a month’s sick leave with a possibility of extension. Several letters from fellow officers kept him informed about his battalion, mostly reports on men killed. He remained fairly cheerful, however, by riding in the local fox hunts. In February, he went back to Rouen.
The Germans were retreating from the Hindenburg Line, and the British were on the offensive in the battle of Arras. To his surprise and gratification, Sherston was put in charge of a hundred bombers who were clearing the trenches. He carried out his task with great skill and bravery. When the mission was nearly accomplished, he was struck by a rifle bullet.
Back in England again, he rebelled against going into action a third time. With the help of Tyrrell, a pacifist philosopher, he composed a defiant letter to his colonel, saying that he refused to take part in the war any longer because he was sure it was being unnecessarily continued by those in power. He was sure, above all, that the Germans would surrender if the Allies would publish their war aims. Expecting to be court-martialed for this breach of discipline, he was resolved to accept even execution.
To his chagrin, the superiors refused to take him seriously. He went before a board, which investigated his sanity. Then David Cromlech was called in to talk to him at Clitherland Camp. Unable to persuade him to recant by any other means, David finally told Sherston that if he refused to retract his statements, he would be confined in a lunatic asylum for the duration of the war. Sherston knew David was only telling a friendly lie, but he did not want to see his friend proved a liar. He decided to admit his mistake and see the war through to its finish.
This novel—the second of a series which also includes MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN and SHERSTON’S PROGRESS—is almost a caricature of what many people regard as typical English behavior. The war is a very casual, very personal thing, almost devoid of import and strategy. The officers who meet Sherston briefly are men who exhibit just the right amount of detachment and regard for good form. Underneath the well-bred tolerance for the real discomfort and danger of trench warfare there is a thread of revolt, which culminates in Sherston’s letter informing his colonel that the war is needlessly being prolonged. Even the authorities, however, are too well-bred to take the letter seriously, and Sherston falls back into nonchalance. The book is quiet but effective satire on upper-class English life.
The irony occasionally employed by Siegfried Sassoon in his previous volume, MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN, gains in both frequency and power in this second book. An unmistakable authenticity gives an added power and poignancy to Sassoon’s understated descriptions of the front lines during World War I. His simple yet detailed narrative of what actually happened in the trenches is accomplished with a mastery that recalls the descriptive prose of early Hemingway. George Sherston is no more impressed by the tunes of glory than Frederic Henry. Both of them soon believe that the war is little more than a bad, not very funny, joke; the difference is that Sherston, because of upper-class British conditioning, feels that he has no choice but to carry on to the unknown end. He would not consider deserting.
Sherston feels safer, somehow, carrying Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels in his haversack, as he prepares for the Big Push. Hardy’s England symbolizes to Sherston everything that he is fighting for—even as he becomes aware of the incompetence among those running the war. At times, the narrative seems almost to be a series of snapshots, quick impressions randomly collected and hastily sketched; but the book’s sequences fall into a pattern calculated to lead the reader to certain implied but never forced conclusions about war, society, and life. The wire cutters that Sherston bought while on leave in London become a symbol of the army’s incompetence, but Sassoon never underlines his point. He lets the events speak for themselves.
The plotless narrative becomes exhausting in its detailed piling up of incident after incident, but this seems to be part of the author’s design: to convey the boredom as well as the horror of war. To the soldier, the trivia of life in the trenches looms as important as the grand moments, which come few and far between, and are seldom as grand as the newspaper accounts make them sound. The important consideration for Sherston seems to be that he never fall for the lie, never let that part of himself which he always holds aloof be touched by the foulness of the war. Only by maintaining his control in this way can he carry on and perform as expected of him—and as he expects of himself. After all, he concludes, since his peacetime existence has been idle and purposeless, the “big thing” was to “have been in the thick of a European War.”