Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

It was the indignity, the ignominy, the squalor, to which war reduced a wounded man that most ate into me. Men in agony, smashed so that they will never be whole again even if they live, ought not to be something one ignores; but we learned to ignore them, and I have put my foot on many a wretched fellow and pushed him even deeper into the mud, because I had to get over him and onto some spot that we had been ordered to achieve or die in trying.

This was fighting, when at least we were doing something. But for days and weeks there was not much fighting, during which we lived in trenches, in dung-coloured mud into which dung and every filthiness had been trodden, in our dung-coloured uniforms; we were cold, badly fed, and lousy. We had no privacy whatever and began to doubt our individuality, for we seemed to melt into a mass; this was what the sergeants feared, and they did astonishing work in keeping that danger at bay, most of the time; occasionally the horrible loss of personality, the listlessness of degradation, got beyond them and then we had to be sent to the rear to what were called rest camps; we never rested in them, but at least we could draw a full breath without the lime-and-dung stench of the latrines in it.

In spite of the terribly public quality of a soldier’s life, in which I ate, slept, stood, sat, thought, voided my bowels, and felt the dread of death upon me, always among others, I found a little time for reading. But I had only one book, a New Testament some well-meaning body had distributed in thousands to the troops. It would never have been my choice; if it had to be the Bible I would have taken the Old Testament any day, but I would rather have had some big, meaty novels. But where could a private soldier keep such things? I have read often since those days of men who went through the war with books of all sorts, but they were officers. Once or twice on leaves I got hold of a book or two in English but lost them as soon as we had to fight. Only my Testament could be kept in my pocket without making a big bulge, and I read it to the bone, over and over.

This gained me a disagreeable reputation as a religious fellow, a Holy Joe, and even the chaplain avoided that kind, for they were sure trouble, one way or another. My nickname was Deacon, because of my Testament reading. It was useless to explain that I read it not from zeal but curiosity and that long passages of it confirmed my early impression that religion and Arabian Nights were true in the same way. (Later I was able to say that they were both psychologically rather than literally true, and that psychological truth was really as important in its own way as historical verification; but while I was a young soldier I had no vocabulary for such argument, though I sensed the truth of it.) I think Revelation was my favourite book; the Gospels seemed less relevant to me then than John’s visions of the beasts and the struggle of the Crowned Woman, who had the moon beneath her feet, with the great Red Dragon.

The nickname Deacon stuck to me until, in one of the rest camps, word went out that an impromptu show was being organized, and men were called on to volunteer if they would do something to amuse the troops. With a gall that now staggers me, I forced myself to offer an imitation of Charlie Chaplin, whom I had seen exactly twice in film shows for the troops behind the lines. I managed to get the right kind of hat from a Frenchman in the nearby village, I cut myself a little cane from a bush, and when the night came I put on a burnt-cork moustache and shuffled onto the platform; for twelve minutes I told the dirtiest jokes I knew, attaching them to all the officers — including the chaplain — and all the men who had some sort of public character. I now blush at what I remember of what I said, but I drew heavily on the repertoire of Milo Papple and was astonished to find myself a great hit. Even the former vaudevillian (who could sing If You Were the Only Girl in the World and I Were the Only Boy in a baritone-and-falsetto duet with himself) was less admired. And from that time forth I was called, not “Deacon”, but “Charlie”.

What really astonished me was the surprise of the men that I could do such a thing. “Jesus, the old Deacon, eh — getting off that hot one about the Major, eh? Jesus, and that riddle about Cookie, eh? Jesus!” They could hardly conceive that anybody who read the Testament could be other than a Holy Joe — could have another, seemingly completely opposite side to his character. I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him. Their astonishment was what astonished me. Jesus, eh? People don’t look very closely at other people, eh? Jesus!

I did not philosophize in the trenches; I endured. I even tried to make a good job of what I had to do. If I had not been so young and handicapped by lack of education — measured in school terms, for the Army did not know that I was a polymath and would not have cared — I might have been sent off for training as an officer. As it was, I eventually became a sergeant; casualties were heavy — which is the Army way of saying that men I had known and liked were exploded like bombs of guts almost under my nose — and my success in hiding my fear was enough to get me a reputation for having a cool head; so a sergeant I became, as well as a veteran of Sanctuary Wood and Vimy Ridge, before I was twenty. But I think my most surprising achievement was becoming Charlie.


My fighting days came to an end somewhere in the week of November 5, 1917, at that point in the Third Battle of Ypres where the Canadians were brought in to attempt to take Passchendaele. It was a Thursday or Friday; I cannot be more accurate because many of the details of that time are clouded in my mind. The battle was the most terrible of my experience; we were trying to take a village that was already a ruin, and we counted our advances in feet; the Front was a confused mess because it had rained every day for weeks and the mud was so dangerous that we dared not make a forward move without a laborious business of putting down duckboards, lifting them as we advanced, and putting them down again ahead of us; understandably this was so slow and exposed that we could not do much of it. I learned from later reading that our total advance was a little less than two miles; it might have been two hundred. The great terror was the mud. The German bombardment churned it up so that it was horribly treacherous, and if a man sank in much over his knees his chances of getting out were poor; a shell exploding nearby could cause an upheaval that overwhelmed him, and the likelihood even of recovering his body was small. I write of this now as briefly as I may, for the terror of it was so great that I would not for anything arouse it again.

One of the principal impediments to our advance was a series of German machine-gun emplacements. I suppose they were set out according to some plan, but we were not in a position to observe any plan; in the tiny area I knew about there was one of these things, and it was clear that we would get no farther forward until it was silenced. Two attempts were made at this dangerous job, with terrible loss to us. I could see how things were going, and how the list of men who might be expected to get to that machine-gun nest was dwindling, and I knew it would come to me next. I do not remember if we were asked to volunteer; such a request would have been merely formal anyhow; things had reached a point where pretence of choice disappeared. Anyhow, I was one of six who were detailed to make a night raid, in one of the intervals of bombardment, to see if we could get to the machine-guns and knock them out. We were issued the small arms and other things we needed, and when the bombardment had stopped for five minutes we set out, not in a knot, of course, but spaced a few yards apart.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson