Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

At the Somme: A Reflection on Death

Whether a man be killed by a rifle bullet through the brain, or blown into fragments by a high-explosive shell, may seem a matter of indifference to the conscientious objector, or to any other equally well-placed observer, who in point of fact is probably right; but to the poor fool who is a candidate for posthumous honours, and necessarily takes a more directly interested view, it is a question of importance.  He is, perhaps, the victim of an illusion, like all who, in the words of Paul, are fools for Christ's sake; but he has seen one man shot cleanly in his tracks and left face downwards, dead, and he has seen another torn into bloody tatters as by some invisible beast, and these experiences had nothing illusory about them: they were actual facts.  Death, of course, like chastity, admits of no degree; a man is dead or not dead, and a man is just as dead by one means as by another; but it is infinitely more horrible and revolting to see a man shattered and eviscerated, than to see him shot.  And one sees such things; and one suffers vicariously, with the inalienable sympathy of man for man.  One forgets quickly.  The mind is averted as well as the eyes.  It reassures itself after that first despairing cry: "It is I!"

"No, it is not I.  I shall not be like that."

And one moves on, leaving the mauled and bloody thing behind: gambling, in fact, on that implicit assurance each one of us has of his own immortality.  One forgets, but he will remember again later, if only in his sleep.

Dead German Soldiers, Mametz Wood, Somme Battlefield
After all, the dead are quiet.  Nothing in the world is more still than a dead man.  One sees men living, living, as it were, desperately, and then suddenly emptied of life.  A man dies and stiffens into something like a wooden dummy, at which one glances for a second with a furtive curiosity.  Suddenly he remembered the dead in Trones Wood, the unburied dead with whom one lived, he might say, cheek by jowl, Briton and Hun impartially confounded, festering, fly-blown corruption, the pasture of rats, blackening in the heat, swollen with distended bellies, or shrivelling away within their mouldering rags; and even when night covered them, one vented in the wind the stench of death.  Out of one bloody misery into another, until we break.  One must not break.  He took in his breath suddenly in a shaken sob, and the mind relinquished its hopeless business. The warm smelly darkness of the tent seemed almost luxurious ease. He drowsed heavily; dreaming of womanly softness, sweetness; but their faces slipped away from him like the reflections in water when the wind shakes it, and his soul sank deeply and more deeply into the healing of oblivion.

From:  The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 by Frederic Manning (1882-1935)


  1. What a beautiful writer in the midst of incomprehensible horror. For anyone interested in more on Manning, here is a recent short blog post:

  2. I have just finished reading The Middle Parts of Fortune (1977 edition?). The life of the trenches and behind them, the boredom and then the attack and then back to the boredom, till the heartbreaking end. Manning very skillfully "got" the broad North Yorkshire accent-this is a book that calls for careful reading out loud. Bourne, the protagonist, is a good friend to his chums, and a "question mark" to his superiors. There are lessons in kindness and "the pity of war" in this book that stay with me.