In Sebastian Faulks best-selling novel, Birdsong, we are in the First World War and young Stephen Wraysford is struggling to come to terms with two things: the continuous possibility of death and the responsibility he has to lead his men.
The men went up the line once more, through the long communication trench and into the mired slit of land beneath the sandbags. Apart from raids and patrols, they had not attacked for nine months, and there was nervousness and argument among the men who were detailed to place the scaling ladders against the trench wall. All morning was the sound of hammering and sawing as the wood was cut and positioned at intervals against the parapet. Stephen had the impression that for all their forebodings of the big offensive in Belgium that was reportedly so dear to General Haig, they had somehow thought they would not themselves be involved in another trudge into the hurricane of guns.
Jack Firebrace watched the preparations when he came back from his shift underground, and they brought back memories he had until then successfully closed down. He remembered how he had prayed for the men who would go over on that summer morning and how he had trusted in their safekeeping. This time he had no prayers to offer.
He went into the large dugout at the head of the deep mine where his company was temporarily sleeping. He made tea and drank it with Evans, then took out his sketchbook. Since Shaw’s death there were no more pictures of him. Jack had taken to drawing Stephen instead. From the moment he had pitched into his arms, back from the dead, Jack had been intrigued by him. Now he had made drawings of his large, dark head from many angles and in many poses–with his big eyes open in incredulity or narrowed in determination; of the smile with which he chafed his own officer, Captain Weir; of the blank, remote expression, as if his memory had failed, with which he had dismissed Jack when he had gone to report for sleeping on duty. He could not remember John’s face well enough to draw it. The wait for the attack was short, but no less difficult for that. Stephen talked to the platoon commanders who would go first up the wide-spaced ladders into the uncertain world beyond.
“You mustn’t waver,” he said. “What is waiting for you can’t be changed, but if you hesitate you will needlessly endanger the lives of others.” He saw Ellis licking his lips. There was sweat on his pale forehead. The bombardment was starting up and it was beginning to shake the earth from the roof of the dugout.
Stephen spoke with the calm of experience, but it did not help him. The fact that he had done this before was no guarantee that he could do it again. When the moment came he would have to confront the depths of himself once more, and he feared that he had changed.
The bombardment was only for a day. It was trained, so the artillery had assured them, with scientific precision based on accurate aerial reconnaissance. There would be no uncut wire, no unharmed concrete redoubts spraying lazy waves of death over the turned fields.
Weir came to his dugout at midnight. His eyes were wild and his hair disarrayed. Stephen felt dismayed at the sight. He did not want to catch the other man’s fear. He did not want him to breathe over him.
“This noise,” said Weir. “I can’t bear it any more.”
“You’ve been saying that for two years,” said Stephen sharply. “The truth is you’re one of the most resilient men in the Company.”
Weir pulled out cigarettes and cast his eyes around hopefully. Stephen reluctantly pushed a bottle toward him.
“When are you going over?” said Weir.
“Usual time. It’ll be all right.”
“Stephen, I’m worried for you. I have this foreboding.”
“I don’t want to hear about your foreboding.”
“You’ve been a marvellous friend to me, Stephen. I’ll never forget when we lay in the shellhole and you talked to me and–“
“Of course you’ll forget it. Now just be quiet.”
Weir was trembling. “You don’t understand. I want to thank you. I just have this premonition. You remember last time we did the cards and you–“
“I fix the cards. I cheat. They don’t mean a thing.” Stephen could not bear the conversation.
Weir looked startled and downcast. He drank deeply. “I know I shouldn’t be saying this, I know it’s selfish of me, but–“
“Just shut your mouth, Weir.” Stephen was shouting, his voice caught with the beginning of sobs. He put his face close to Weir’s. “Just try to help me. If you are grateful or something then try to help me. Christ Jesus, do you think I want to do this? Do you think my life was made for this?’