SOME DESPERATE GLORY
The marks his hand command leak from the point of the pencil onto the virgin paper. As they appear they remind him of a trail of blood, grey in the light of a phosphor flare, instantly drying. A shape forms on the paper, takes on the proportions of a human head, acquires depth, solidity through shading and weight of line. Then the face, the character of Private Stephen Dowling - Dozy to his mates, even at times to his commanding officer - half asleep as usual, as his acquired moniker suggests, his body jack-knifed against the opposite wall of the trench, heels lodged against the duckboards to keep him from slipping down into the mud, his helmet tipped forward to shade his eyes, an unlit dog-end hanging from his lips. All this the moving hand replicates on the paper. The weight of the body, the folds and textures of fabric, leather, webbing, the enclosing earth, the planes of shade and light; the fictitious drift of cigarette smoke; this still-hung moment among so many.
Dowling looks up, as though he knows he is being surveyed, captured. He smiles, winks at Napier, his captor - it is better his soul be taken this way, by a friendly hand and eye than to be annihilated by one unseen - and returns to his dormant state.
“Hope you’re getting my good side there, Leo,” he mumbles around his cigarette. They call Napier Leo, not his given name George. Leonardo da Vinci is the only artist most of them have heard of.
“I would, if you had one,” George replies. The others close enough to hear laugh. Lancashire, two down the line, throws a spent shell-case at Dowling. It clanks off his helmet, flashes yellow in the late autumn sun, splashes into the duller yellow mud below.
“You know what they say, Lanky, about not hearing the one what gets you,” Dowling says, not moving or looking up, then makes a vibrating whistling sound with his tongue behind his teeth.
As one, they fall silent.
Lance Corporal George Napier has a quick and certain eye, a facility he has possessed almost since he was first able to hold a crayon and make marks on whatever surface he could find. It can detect and record the invisible boundaries that create a physical object in the mind, those limits of form which others daily comprehend yet cannot separate out from the ongoing impressions of reality: the unseen lines that define a curvature in an object, in the flesh - the inflexure of a nostril, the transitions of light and shadow on a forehead, the declension of a cheek bone, the shadow beneath the brow. He knows there are no such lines, or at least very few, certainly not in the human body, but he has the artist’s aptitude to express them, and his hand, despite the ever-present tremor it has acquired over the past months, can faithfully echo his vision. When he is drawing, he has found, the tremor is less pronounced. When he leaves this battlefield, if he leaves, if he still has hands and eyes and an undamaged brain to deploy them effectively, he will be an artist; this he has decided. His aim: to record life, its vigour and diversity, as a simple record, and as celebration, but also as palliative to the monotony of death and decay he has witnessed here for the past five months. Following William Morris’s dictum to surround yourself only with things of use or that you believe to be beautiful. And to convince himself that contrary to all he has seen there is still beauty to be found in the world, in human lives, and in their smallest endeavours. In the meantime, if for no better reason than to demonstrate to himself that he is still alive, he sketches what he sees, what each day brings.
Sometimes, though, he does not want to see, much less record what he has witnessed. There is only so much the spirit can see and take in and still maintain its integrity. After that it simply shuts down. Refuses to look, or at least to see or feel. Nothing is registered, the whole world - both its pleasures and its pains - regarded eventually with indifference. This is what he would take away with him, from these killing fields dotted at times with blood-red poppies (such an ironic token of life, he finds, amidst so much death, wishing he had the pigments to capture their colour accurately), to plant its aberrant seeds in the green and fertile lands of wherever he decided he would call home once this was over.
As if ‘home’ was still a place that could be defined. Or found.
Five months he has been here now. It has gone by so quickly, despite the overarching monotony of most of their daily existence. The hours spent doing nothing, waiting for the next command to advance or to withdraw, both events senseless, both predictable. The next gas attack or barrage of enemy fire. Oddly, after a while, that very predictability has become a kind of reassurance, an assertion of order, however illogical and potentially fatal, giving their existence a perverse sense of meaning. Otherwise, there is nothing, just life and death, doled out to one man or the next in a seemingly arbitrary manner. The man next to you cut in two by shrapnel while you ‘soldier’ on.
The malice of time and consciousness is how he terms it for himself; seconds passing like the slow tick of the burnt-out carcass of a half-track cooling to ambient. Time here slowed and meandered haphazardly, acquired new units of measure. Not only minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, but too the uncountable rattle of machine-gun fire, the slower cadence of a rifle volley; the singular, drawn-out scream of a passing - thus safe - shell’s trajectory, the ordered heartbeat of the heavier German guns, each pulse pumping an alien vitality through the ground; the screams and cries of men and horses dying, in terror, in the mud, alone in the non-dark of the flare-lit night.
And in between those moments of graduated turmoil, the snatched hours, often only minutes of sleep before the next barrage rattled you into wakefulness, the daily drudge of cleaning weapons, of drying boots and puttees as best one could in the damp and cold; the endless chores of laying razor-wire and field cables, cutting, building, repairing, dismantling, rebuilding trenches, foxholes, gun emplacements. And then the worst detail - removing a body, or what parts of it remained to be retrieved from among the wider ruin of a shell-blast; sometimes, most painfully, those of someone you knew, at others those of a nameless stranger, a man from another company, or a new arrival to the front, uniform still factory-bright and sharp with creases, yet still a companion, still felt as a personal loss for all that. Sometimes, gruesome as it was, when assigned to such details, he finds himself hoping their faces have not remained intact. Death is easier to handle when it is anonymous. Just meat. Just damage to the fabric of the world to be repaired and smoothed over. No name, no person, no memory or feelings attached.
These are the things he has no wish to draw, and he doubts anyway whether he possesses the skill to capture them truthfully. How to portray figuratively something so abstract, so in defiance of human sensibilities? Anyway, sketching is his only escape; why tarnish it with images of the very thing he is trying to evade? Neither does he feel the need to record such sights for Posterity, as if such a vaunted entity could survive this great war. After this, he knows, nothing would be the same again.
He fears such things will stay with him always, the images, the sounds, even the tastes and smells, the feel and texture of it, spliced irretrievably into the memory like frames in an endlessly revolving loop of film.
And anyway, he asks himself, who else, what sane person would want to see or know?
"You had training then, Leo?" Dowling mumbles drowsily from the shadow of his helmet.
"Just over a year, the Slade School, in London." Bryant, the next along the line to his left makes a sound of amusement.
"Slayed? Good training for this mess, then!" he says. George looks across at him and smiles.
"It's a good school. The one you really want to get accepted at if you’re serious about becoming an artist. I’m not sure anything could train you for this."
“At least it’s given you something to keep you busy,” Lancashire calls out. He is the fourth man in the section that George leads. “Wish I had something to do to end this frickin’ boredom. George makes a gesture of offering his pad and pencil, though no one is watching.
“There is that I suppose,” he says.
“D’you think you’ll be able to sell any of them?” Bryant asks. “When you get back.” He sounds sincere in his asking. The others all treat George’s pastime as a joke.
“I doubt it. Would you want a picture of Dowling hanging on your wall?” Again, they all laugh, savouring every passing moment of levity.
Had the Slade provided him with a good training, for anything? Whatever he had learned there nothing could prepare a man for this, other than provide the skills to capture the reality, the terrible beauty of it all. He had managed two years there but had had little stomach for the politics of the place, the competitive arrogance of some of the students, and Tonks, the Principal, had made it clear from the start, in his usual disparaging way, that George would never make the grade as a serious artist, or acquire an individual and characteristic voice. Compared to the brilliance of some of the others - Nash, Gertler, Roberts, Nevinson - George had been inclined to agree. They were explorers, seeking new ways to express themselves, a new language, an appropriate modern vernacular for a modern world. He had simply wanted to represent as faithfully as he could the world he saw around him. He had studied alongside those adventurers - they had tolerated what they saw as his lack of artistic ambition - and had occasionally joined their discussions, often heated, occasionally inebriated, about the merits and demerits of Modernism, of Post-Impressionist spontaneity against the traditional values of accurate draughtsmanship advocated by the Slade, but he had never really been part of their ‘gang’.
At the time it had often felt to him that the experimentation of Nash and Roberts was in danger of turning the creative act into little more than an exercise in colour palette and composition; that they were sacrificing the actuality of the object or view in favour of artistic experiment. Now, five years on, he could see that theirs had been perhaps the right path. In the here and now of the battlefield, he could see how abstraction would be a more apt mode to express its brutal reality. Here, the very fabric of the world was being constantly fractured, rent and reshaped. These fields of mud and gore and shattered vegetation were not just the graves of men, trees, metal, horses; they were the graveyard of dreams. The dreams of men and nations; the better dreams of all mankind. Torn and twisted like the threads of flesh abandoned in the mud. A new vernacular was required to portray that sense of fracture accurately. How better to depict it, both for yourself as an artist, and for those who had no first-hand experience of it than through a similar fracture of crafted paint?
Another day. A so-called fighting day, although the only fight most experience is against themselves. Against the urge to flee, to cry out, to weep. To lie down and surrender to whatever Fate has in store for you. Men are lined up, ready to go over. A whistle blows, its siren call echoed by other blasts, increasingly more feint on either side along the line. The men climb ladders, enter the slow walk towards the enemy lines. Voices stretched thin by tension shout encouragement, to themselves, to each other. Some fall straight back, struck by bullets before they even set foot on the fields of mud beyond.
As George walks, jagging across the rutted ground, negotiating its churns and cavities, seeing only the ground ahead, almost blinded to all else by fear, someone close beside him falls, the man’s forward surge abruptly converted to a passive, declining arc. As the man falls, he lets out a sound, a brief, plaintive exclamation barely audible above the shouts and whistles. But George hears. It sounds to him like a question. Why?
Other questions whistle by, cutting air, potentially cutting flesh. To be or no longer to be? Or if still being then reduced to something less human, to some less whole or dignified form. He feels the heat of it coursing through his body, this moment when his life might suddenly end. Or irredeemably change. All the similar moments that will follow, all equally lethal, all merged into one extended stanza of time that will unravel of itself until he is either dead or returned to the comparative refuge of the trenches. To do it all again another day.
And then, just as he begins to feel it is no longer feasible his luck should hold, another whistle blows, the enemy lines still some way ahead. Retreat! Back across the ground stumbled across but moments before, moments that had seemed like an eternity, or mere microseconds, littered now with more bodies of his comrades, some whole, others not. Some with no visible sign of injury, as though they had chosen to simply lay down in the field and sleep. Still, he knows the bullet with his name on it can strike from behind. He pushes the thought away, his focus snapped onto the distant line of wire marking his own trenches: safety. Another day survived.
What dismayed him most - beyond the lives pointlessly lost, the bodies and minds butchered and deformed, the senseless human and material waste of it all - were the trees. Mankind had chosen this for itself; the trees, the wreckage of them, were caught here, rooted and earth-bound, unable to escape.
“If this is the answer, mate, someone must have asked a pretty fuckin’ stupid question!” Dowling had commented to him one day in a moment of reflection.
It had been early May when he arrived, the skies still grey and overhung, the air cool and damp, late spring struggling to make the transition to summer. He had expected to find many shades of green - trees, shrubs, grasses, hedgerow plants, crops growing in the fields. Flowering splashes of colour. He had not expected the battlefield to be so overreaching, to have attained such a random and utter appropriation of Nature. What remained now were little more than patches of stubborn resistance, Nature pushing back valiantly against the relentless onslaught of war. It is autumn now, and there is no longer any green to be seen. Blacks, ochres, browns are the only registers; white scars of the underlying chalk seeping, shell-churned through the yellow mud. Ivory flashes of bone. Only the poppies had managed to resist the wash of monotony, and that all too briefly. Grasses and whatever else once grew in this ground have long been ploughed over into their own decay. All leaves are gone from the trees, branches mostly too. Only shattered trunks remain, staggered like exclamation marks across the landscape. Some of them, he knows, are not even real; dummies, fabricated, made to serve as look-out posts. Disguised as such to confound enemy snipers. The snipers take shots at everything anyway, genuine trunk or dummy. Just in case.
Yet another day. Not so different from any other. This one is almost windless, and rain is falling, again, still, near-vertical traces threading the air, drifting like a gossamer veil across the landscape, a weighty sky of weathered bronze pressing down from above. Whistles have blown, men have risen from the trenches, and some have fallen, as on every other day. Come rain or shine they rise and fall. It makes no difference. Others, including George, have fought on against the cloying, rutted ground, avoiding death or injury. As if, or so it always feels to him afterwards, by magic, each man making physical progress in their own heightened here and now, although on the maps of the generals - as they all know from experience - nothing will change. They will move in one direction, a direction, a goal prefigured by those inert maps, and those who are able to will return. That is how it is. There is nothing more to say. No reason, other than the will of God and country, the impenetrable orders of the generals. The constraint of the King’s Shilling binding them to an oath few of them would have sworn if they had known.
Then the retreat is called. Again. They turn. Nothing has been gained. Again. Much has been lost however, but such losses do not seem to figure in whatever calculations determine the balance sheet of this war. As he stumbles back across the wreckage of the land, seeking shelter from the barrage of enemy fire, a shell lands, no more than thirty feet from him. He is crouched low but still running as the blast envelopes him. One of his feet catches under some twisted iron fragment half-buried in the ground. The force of the explosion throws his body sideways. His foot remains trapped. His femur snaps, with a sound so loud he can hear it, as though it happens in an exceptional moment of silence… Or he simply imagines it, the sensation of breakage translated into sound in his head. His body is rolled across the ground by the blast then tumbles down the face of an older crater.
He comes to a halt sitting up, his back against the remnants of a tree trunk half submerged within a bank of earth. He looks at his leg. The break is just below the bulge of the calf muscle; the limb has acquired an additional joint. The jagged end of the lower portion of bone pushes out through the binding of his puttees. Other than that, from what he can tell, he has received few injuries. Cuts and scratches to his hands and face; some impact injury to his shoulder, merely felt now, caused by some object driven at him by the explosion - a root-bound sod of earth, a branch, a piece of timber, human flesh or bone - some object not too hard or penetrating that would have killed him or at best removed his arm and shoulder.
He is trapped; there is nothing he can do, nothing but wait until help or death comes to him. He cannot make it back on his own. Hopping through the mud on one leg, he would be an easy target. Keeping his balance too would be impossible, and once fallen, how would he rise again? Resigning himself to the situation, and to distract himself from the pain, he reaches down to the small satchel on his belt and takes out his sketch pad and pencil. His eye scans the crater for something to draw, some noteworthy shape or feature. A stark burr of razor-wire is silhouetted against the sky opposite, a snaggle of frozen steel hanging at the rim of the crater, held suspended by a tilted wooden post still rooted in the disrupted soil. He has seen and drawn similar things too often before. His eye, his focus moves on. At the deepest part of the crater a pool of water has formed. The water is dark, its surface tinted by a thin, multicoloured skim of oil. In the pool a helmet floats, an English helmet, its inverted dome three-quarters submerged. The helmet is itself three-quarters full. How long before it would sink, he wonders, before it is sucked back into the earth from which its metallic ores had been mined?
He quickly sketches in the outlines of the pool, the surrounding earth slopes, the oblique parabolas of the helmet’s rim and dome. As he continues to create the lines and shading to give the helmet form, tracing in the threads of camouflage webbing, now rotted and frayed, a shallow dent in its rim, adding a few broken lines to indicate the shimmer of oil on water around it, a recollection comes to him. A few days before his embarkation, his military training completed, he had travelled to London to see an exhibition of Nash’s drawings at a gallery in Leicester Square. The exhibition had been named The Void of War. One of the drawings had born the title Desolate Landscape, Ypres Salient, made during Nash’s tour of service there in 1917. A small drawing, no more than ten inches by eight, it had been done in ink with watercolour washes of blues, pinks and yellow greens. The landscape it depicted had indeed been desolate - field-guns and gun carriages abandoned in sodden, deeply pitted ground, fence posts strung with severed strands of wire, shattered and fallen tree trunks, pools of fetid looking water, threads of rain driving obliquely across a darkened sky. Had Nash exaggerated the image for effect? Created a montage from individual elements witnessed in isolation then assembled to create a seemingly coherent image of destruction? A personal, inherently false vision of an imagined Armageddon; or perhaps a coded statement of Nash’s feelings about how this supposedly just war was being waged? The thickened ink outlines he had used had added to its unearthly quality, and the drawing had possessed a formality of design - a discernible framework of receding lines, intersecting diagonals and triangles designed to catch and lead the eye - such that he had found it hard to believe Nash could have encountered such a scene purely by happenstance, or that the drawing had been made at one singular place. Its order had certainly not matched anything he had personally seen.
In the bottom right-hand corner of Nash’s drawing a discarded, blue grey, hence German greatcoat had draped from a broken fence, below the coat, a clouded pool of water. In the pool, an inverted German helmet had floated. Was that why he had chosen that element from his current circumstance to draw? Had the sight of the helmet in the pool provoked an initially unrecognised recollection of Nash’s drawing, it’s silent, mordant motif? He realises then that he is not simply making a drawing of a lost helmet in a pool of water. It is more than that - it is a memorial, a signifier of the death of a singular man. A memento mori; a reminder to all men. And too, a testament to his own now likely imminent passing. He wonders whether Nash had harboured the same thoughts, the same intention. A person had worn that helmet, Nash’s German victim too. Like George’s fellows, they too would have joked and laughed with their companions, passed the weary hours of tedium as best they could; had marched fearfully, run recklessly perhaps, no longer fearing death, inured to its constant threat by familiarity, faces honed toward the enemy lines, like compass needles drawn to a magnetic pole; and then had retreated on command, experiencing disappointment perhaps to have not been given the opportunity for revenge - to savour blood, to feel its alien heat wash over their own skin, to relish fear in the enemy’s eye - and had run and retreated again. And again, and again…, until there was nowhere left to run. And now they were gone. Maybe the rotting remains of his own victim lay embedded in the mud and stones of the crater, themselves returning to the earth from which they had come. This, his forlorn final resting place, George’s drawing the only acknowledgment of a life that had once been.
Suddenly, he is disturbed by the sounds of troubled breathing approaching. A face appears at the rim of the crater, followed by a body, khaki-clad, sliding down its slope. A familiar face, though he cannot immediately find a name to fit. Mud-streaked. Blood too? Then the bottom half of the face cracks open. Teeth, white. Gums, blood-red against smears of mire. A smile. A gaping grin. Dowling: recognised, named at last. Laughing as ever. A friendly face. A face lightly etched with something touching lunacy.
"Fuckin’ hell, George! You still drawing? Even in this?" Dowling shouts against the noise, glancing around the sweep of the crater, meaning too the frenzy of the barrage still raging above. George attempts a smile in return. The pain in his leg, shock setting in, is starting to freeze out all finer sensations. He offers a tentative nod, though it feels more like the mass of his head simply conceding to the pressure of gravity, resisting what he knows would be an endless fall. It is all his body can manage; its energies diverted elsewhere.
He says nothing about what he has been drawing, the helmet, his thoughts, and puts the pad and pencil back in the satchel.
"Can’t see why you'd want to, though! You’ll never forget this, hard as you try. There’s no going back now, eh Leo? Not to how it used to be. Not after this."
The smile is gone from Dowling's face; thin-drawn lines of madness linger. No, not after this. Not now the promised honour and glory - for King and Country! - has bled away into the mud and offal. There is no honour here, none that George has seen, only shattered bodies, shattered lives. Including now his own. Dreams of what might have been. No going back to an ordinary life - work, family, love, children, a home, old age, a peaceful death in a familiar bed. A country, the country of your birth, that shaped you, your identity, yet governed you have come to understand over the past months by people you can no longer trust, who have only their own unfathomable and seemingly perverse interests at heart, not yours. You, who are laying down your life for them, for their vanity, their belief in an old order that can no longer be justified or sustained.
"Maybe this is what’s needed. Maybe this will bring about change," he offers to counter Dowling's desperation. Not that he believes it. He can but hope. These men, hundreds of thousands, millions of them, those who would survive and return, he cannot believe they will not want some form of recompense for all they have sacrificed. These men who fight and die daily for no discernible or justifiable purpose, will they also stand and fight - and die if need be - on the streets of the Kingdom for the rewards and freedoms and justice they are owed?
“Anyway, what are you doing in this shithole? Trying to hide?” Dowling eventually says, crawling closer and raising himself from his melancholy state to assume his habitual flippancy. George nods towards his shattered leg.
“Shit, Leo! That doesn’t look good. Best get you out of here. Don’t want you ending up like your friend back there.” Dowling nods towards the face of the crater behind where George is sitting. George turns his head to follow his gesture. A pair of legs protrude from the earth, only a few feet above him; the lower trunk of a man. The boots, puttees and trousers are caked in mud. The rest of the body, the torso, the head and arms are invisible, buried within the earth. Or, George realises, may not even be there. He wonders whether the body and the helmet in the puddle he had been drawing had once been conjoined, until Dowling’s voice draws him back to his own situation.
“Well, at least his legs weren’t broken.” The legs of the corpse are splayed out, one bent casually at the knee, as though the man had just laid down to rest, and a playful wind had covered the rest of his body as he slept.
“Yeah, lucky bugger, eh?” George says. Dowling manages a smile, but cannot conceal the concern in his face.
“Come on, you unlucky bugger. Let’s get you home and mended.”
Memory can at times be an unreliable faculty, or a welcome friend. He has little memory of the pain he must have experienced as Dowling helped him stand, hoisted him onto his shoulders in a fireman’s lift, and carried him, his damaged leg trailing, its lower half swinging powerlessly to his rescuer’s every step, his torso bouncing precariously to their stumbling passage over the churned-over ground, his arms wrapped across Dowling’s chest, as he was carried over the several hundred yards back to safety, to where orderlies stretchered him to the field hospital, and then on to the operating theatre. He does remember though the sounds of Dowling’s rasping breath, tobacco tainted, the cold rim of the man’s helmet sliding against the side of his face; this last, a blessed distraction to focus on. Morphine had sheltered him from all that had happened next.
About the Creator
I write and publish historical novels, set in various periods, as Ian Pateman. After many near misses, still looking for that one chance to break through to a wider audience. Any support or input greatly welcome.