Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

In time my call came. I climbed on the train, proud of my pass to the camp, and waved from the window to my almost weeping mother, and my father, whose expression I could not interpret. Leola was in school, for we had agreed that it would not do for her to come to the station — too much like a formal engagement. But the night before I left she had confided that in spite of her best efforts to keep the image of Percy bright in her heart she had discovered that she really loved me, and would love me forever, and wait until I returned from the battlefields of Europe.


I Am Born Again


I shall say little about the war, because though I was in it from early 1915 until late 1917 I never found out much about it until later. Commanders and historians are the people to discuss wars; I was in the infantry, and most of the time I did not know where I was or what I was doing except that I was obeying orders and trying not to be killed in any of the variety of horrible ways open to me. Since then I have read enough to know a little of the actions in which I took part, but what the historians say throws no great light on what I remember. Because I do not want to posture in this account of myself as anything other than what I was at the time of my narrative, I shall write here only of what I knew when it happened.

When I left Deptford for the training camp, I had never been away from home alone before. I found myself among men more experienced in the world than I, and I tried not to attract attention by any kind of singular behaviour. Some of them knew I was desperately homesick and were kindly; others jeered at me and the other very young fellows. They were anxious to make men of us, by which they meant making us like themselves. Some of them were men indeed — grave, slow young farmers and artisans with apparently boundless resources of strength and courage; others were just riffraff of the kind you get in any chance collection of men. None of them had much education; none had any clear idea what the war was about, though many felt that England had been menaced and had to be defended; perhaps the most astonishing thing was that none of us had much notion of geography and thought that going to fight in France might involve almost any kind of climate, from the Pole to the Equator. Of course some of us had some geography in school and had studied maps, but a school map is a terribly uncommunicative thing.

I was a member of the Second Canadian Division, and later we were part of the Canadian Corps, but such descriptions meant little to me; I was aware of the men directly around me and rarely had a chance to meet any others. I might as well say at once that although I was on pretty good terms with everybody I made no lasting friends. There were men who formed strong friendships, which sometimes led to acts of bravery, and there were men who were great on what they called “pals” and talked and sang loudly about it. Those now living are still at it. But I was a lonely creature, and although I would have been very happy to have a friend I just never happened to meet one.

Probably my boredom was to blame. For I was bored as I have never been since — bored till every bone in my body was heavy with it. This was not the boredom of inactivity; an infantry trainee is kept on the hop from morning till night, and his sleep is sound. It was the boredom that comes of being cut off from everything that could make life sweet, or arouse curiosity, or enlarge the range of the senses. It was the boredom that comes of having to perform endless tasks that have no savour and acquire skills one would gladly be without. I learned to march and drill and shoot and keep myself clean according to Army standards; to make my bed and polish my boots and my buttons and to wrap lengths of dung-coloured rag around my legs in the approved way. None of it had any great reality for me, but I learned to do it all, and even to do it well.

Thus, when I went home for my leave before going abroad, I was an object of some wonderment. I was a man, in appearance. My mother was almost silenced, so far as her customary criticism went; she made a few attempts to reduce me to the status of her own dear laddie, but I was not willing to play that game. Leola Cruikshank was proud to be seen with me, and we got a little beyond the kissing stage in our last encounter. I desperately wanted to see Mrs. Dempster, but it was impossible, for in my uniform I was unable to go anywhere without being noticed, and though I would have died rather than admit it, I was still too much afraid of my mother to defy her openly. Paul I saw once, but I do not think he knew me, for he stared and passed by.

So off I went on a troopship, lectured by officers who were anxious to harden us with tales of German atrocities. These Germans, I gathered, were absolute devils; not winning campaigns, but maiming children, ravishing women (never less than ten to a single victim), and insulting religion were the things they had gone to war to accomplish; they took their tone from their Kaiser, who was a comic, mad monster; they had to be shown that decency still ruled the world, and we were decency incarnate. I had by that time seen enough of Army life to think that if we were decency the Germans must be rough indeed, for a more foul-mouthed, thieving, whoring lot of toughs than some of the soldiers I met it would be hard to imagine. But I was not discontented with soldiering; I was discontented with myself,

with my loneliness and boredom.

In France, though my boredom was unabated, loneliness was replaced by fear. I was, in a mute, controlled, desperate fashion, frightened for the next three years. I saw plenty of men whose fear found vent; they went mad, or they shot themselves (dead or badly enough to get out of service), or they were such nuisances to the rest of us that they were got rid of in one way or another. But I think there were many in my own case; frightened of death, of wounds, of being captured, but most frightened of admitting to fear and losing face before the others. This kind of fear is not acute, of course; it is a constant depleting companion whose presence makes everything grey. Sometimes fear could be forgotten, but never for long.

I saw a good deal of service, for I was strong, did not break down, and miraculously suffered no wounds. I had leaves, when it was possible to grant them, but for months on end I was at what was called the Front. What it was the Front of I never really knew, for there were always men who were ready to tell — God knows how accurately — where the Allied troops were disposed, and where we were in relation to the British and the French, and from what they said it seemed the Front was everywhere. But certainly we were often only a few hundred yards from the German lines and could see the enemy, in their cooking-pot helmets, quite clearly. If you were such a fool as to show your head they might put a bullet through it, and we had men detailed for the same ugly work.

It seems now to have been a very odd war, for we have had another since then, which has set the standard for modernity of fighting. I saw things that now make my pupils regard me as comparable to one of Wellington’s men, or perhaps Marlborough’s. My war was greatly complicated by horses, for motor vehicles were useless in Flanders mud; if one was among the horses during a bombardment, as I once chanced to be, the animals were just as dangerous as the German shells. I even saw cavalry, for there were still generals who thought that if they could once get at the enemy with cavalry the machine-guns would quickly be silenced. These cavalrymen were as wondrous to me as Crusaders, but I would not have been on one of their horses for the earth. And of course I saw corpses, and grew used to their unimportant look, for a dead man without any of the panoply of death is a desperately insignificant object. Worse, I saw men who were not corpses but who would be soon and who longed for death.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson