Translated extract from Le Feu, the novel by Henri Barbusse
The vast pale sky is filled with bursts of thunder. The red flash of each explosion reveals a column of fire in what is left of the night, and a huge plume of smoke in the awakening sky.
High up, so high and far away they are invisible to the eye, the erratic piercing cries of a flight of fearsome birds can be heard circling upwards to look down on the earth.
The earth! In the long and desolate dawn, the immense and waterlogged desert becomes slowly visible. Craters full of water, caught by the bitter wind and quivering in the extreme cold of the morning; tracks left by the troops and night convoys in this barren landscape, scarred with ruts that gleam like steel rails in the watery morning light. Here and there, splintered stakes, dislocated forms of broken trestles stick up out of the mud along with twisted rolls of barbed wire like rusty thickets of briar. The mud banks and watery puddles give the impression of a vast grey sheet floating half submerged on the sea. It is not raining, but everything is sodden, oozing, waterlogged, cast adrift, and the pale light seems to be sinking.
You can see the last traces of night like dark pools in the maze of long ditches. This is the trench. A thick viscous layer sits at the bottom sucking noisily at your boots with every step. There’s a foul smell of the night’s urine around each dugout and if you bend down as you go by, these holes stink like sewers. Emerging from these horizontal wells, I can see shadows, huge formless lumps, like bears, lumbering around, muttering. This is us.
We are all bundled up like inhabitants of the Arctic; we are wrapped up, smothered and strangely plump in blankets, woolens, sacking. Some stretch and let out a yawn, their livid reddened faces streaked with dirt, grimy and unshaven, or with bushy unkempt beards and gimlet eyes half open, still sticky with sleep.
Crack! crack! boom! Gunfire, continuous shelling. Above us, all around us, the cracking, the booming in long bursts or separate shots. This grim firestorm never stops, never. For the last fifteen months, five hundred days, in this corner of the world we are in, the shooting and the bombardment have been endless, from dawn till dusk, dusk till dawn. We are buried in a perpetual battlefield, but like the clock ticking in our homes, back in the almost legendary past, you only hear it when you stop to listen.
A chubby face with puffy eyelids and cheeks so ruddy it looks as though someone had pasted on discs of red paper, emerges from the ground, opens one eye then the other; it’s Paradis. His fat cheeks are striped with the imprint of the groundsheet that he had wrapped about his head to sleep. He casts his gaze around about him, sees me, makes a gesture in my direction and says, “That’s another night over with then’ old chum.”
“I know lad. ‘Ow many more of those will we ‘ave to go through, eh?
He raises his pudgy arms skywards. With much heaving, he has scraped himself up the ladder out of the dugout and is standing beside me. Paradis stumbles over the formless heap of a man who is sitting on the ground in the darkness scratching himself vigorously and grunting, then waddles off flip-flop like a penguin into the watery gloom.
One by one the men emerge from the depths. A dark mass forms in the corners, then the shadowy human forms start to move apart, become more distinct, until they are each individually recognisable. Someone emerges, with his blanket over his head like a hood. He looks like a wild man, or rather a wild man’s bivouac, swaying from side to side as he wanders about. Then, close up, you can see a face framed by some thick knitted garment, a square iodine-yellow face, smeared with black, a broken nose, narrow slanting pink rimmed eyes and a little moustache damp and bristly like a grease-brush.
“Ah ‘ere’s Volpatte. ‘Ow’s it going, Firmin?”
“Goin’ goin’…gone, ah reckon,” says Volpatte.
He has a heavy drawling accent made worse by a bad cold. He coughs.
“Ah’ve gone an’ caught me death of cold this time. D’ye hear that show last night, t’were one ‘ell of a pounding! A proper dose, if ye ask me.”
He sniffs and runs his hooked nose over his sleeve. He dives one hand inside his greatcoat and jacket to get to the skin beneath and scratches himself.
“Ah killed thirty of the little buggers with a candle,” he mutters, “down in the big dug-out near the tunnel, blimey, they’re like breadcrumbs on legs, you can see ‘em all runnin’ about in the straw…”
“ Who was it, the Boche?”
“An’ our lot, over near Vimy, counter attack. Didn’t ye hear it?”
“No,” Lamuse replies for me, he’s a big bull of a man. “I was snorin’, but that’s ‘cos I was on night work before.”
“I ‘eard it,” pipes up Biquet, the little Breton. “I slept somethin’ terrible, got no sleep at all, truth be told and I’ ve got me own private shelter, look at this bloody thing!”
He points to a shallow ditch lined with a thin layer of manure, where there’s just enough room for one body to lie down.
“It’s nigh on hopeless!” he remarks, shaking his funny lumpy little head that only looks half finished. “I ‘ardly got any shuteye, I dropped off alright, but then I got woken up when the 129s were changing over. It wasn’t the noise so much, it was the smell of ‘em. Ugh! All them blokes trampin’ their feet right past me face – the stench got right up me nose, that’s what woke me up!”
I know what he meant. In the trenches, I’ve often been woken by the malodorous trail that follows soldiers on the move.
“It’d be alright if it killed off the bugs,” says Tirette.
“That’s the trouble, it gets ‘em all worked up,” observes Lamuse, “the dirtier y’are, the more yer stink, the more they like yer!
“Well, I’m glad they woke me up with their stink, ‘cos, as I was telling this great lummox ‘ere, I opened me peepers just in time to grab the sackin’ I put over the ‘ole…one of those bastards was about to nick it off me.’
“They’re all a bunch o’ crooks that lot.”
At our feet in the bottom of the trench, we could just make out a human form in the gloom where the morning had not yet cast its light. He sat on his haunches, grabbing and clawing at his clothes, and fidgeting. It was Old Blaire.
His eyes beamed out from layers of filth. Above his toothless mouth, his moustache sat like a huge yellowish slab, his hands dreadfully black, the backs of his hands so encrusted with grime that it looked like fur, his palms grey and hardened with dirt. His body bent double and daubed with mud gave off a whiff of old stockpot.
Although he was busy scratching, he was chatting with Barque, a big man who was leaning towards him, albeit from a little way away.
“I ain’t dirty like this in civvy street.”
“Well, it must be a shock for you then, you poor bugger,” says Barque.
“Just as well,” Tirette adds for good measure, “else, if you ‘ad kids, they’d all come out black as coal- your poor missus!”
Blaire was angry now. He frowned, grimy black furrows lining his forehead. “ You bloody piss me off you do! An’ what about you, monkey chops, d’you think the war ain’t done for you too. Look in the mirror, bum face. You must be half stupid, comin’ out with stuff like that.”
He wiped his hand over the layer of grime that covered his darkening face, which, even after the last few days of rain, proved to be totally indelible. Then he added “An’ I am what I am an’ I like it that way. For a start, I ain’t got no teeth. The major’s been on at me for ages —You haven’t got a single tooth to your name… it’s not good enough, next leave, he says, go and see the stomachological van.”
“Tomatological, you mean,” says Barque.
“No, stomatological,” corrects Bertrand.
“It’s ‘cos I really want to go that I ain’t been,” Blaire went on, “ it’s free an’ all.”
“Why haven’t you gone then?”
“I don’t know, ‘cos it’s different.”
“You should’ve been a cook. They’re all like you.”
“I know,” replied Blaire innocently.
We all laughed. The dirt-black man was offended now. He got up.
“You make me sick you lot, I’m off to the carsey.”
When his black and gloomy figure had gone, the others re-established amongst themselves the long held truth that, down here in the trenches, cooks really are the filthiest of men.
“If you see a bloke covered in muck from ‘ead to toe, the sort you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, you can say ‘e must be a cook, the more dirty ‘e is, the more he’s prob’ly from the cook’ouse!”
“That’s the truth an’ nothing but!” said Marthereau.
“Ay, ay! ‘Ere comes Tirloir! Hey! Tirloir!”
He approaches them, preoccupied, sniffing around to left and right. His head, small and pale as bleach, wobbles around in the great wide neck of his greatcoat several sizes too large. He has a pointed chin, and buck teeth. A fold of skin encrusted with dirt surrounds his mouth like a muzzle. As usual he is angry and, as ever, grumbling about something;
“Some one nicked my bag last night.”
“Must’ve been the relief for the 129s. Where d’you leave it?”
He pointed to a bayonet stuck in the trench wall near the entrance to a dugout.
“There —hanging on that toothpick over there.”
“Daft bugger!” came the chorus. Just where any passing bloke can grab it! “You must be crazy!”
“Even so, it’s a crying shame,” moaned Tirloir.
Then suddenly he is seized by a fit of rage, his face crumpled, livid. He brandishes his fists, knotted hard and tight.
“Anyways, if I get my ‘ands on the rotten bastard that did it, I’ll smash ‘is ‘ead in, you see if I won’t, I’ll ‘ave his guts — I ‘ad a Camembert in there, ‘adn’t even ‘ad a taste of it, I’m goin’ to keep lookin’.”
He rubs his fist up and down on his stomach as if playing a guitar, then scowling and proud he goes off, swallowed into the grey of the morning, his figure like an invalid bundled up in a huge dressing gown.
“Crazy bugger,” says Pépin.
The others laugh,
“He’s round the bend and barmy,” declares Marthereau, who is in the habit of reinforcing what he thinks by using two synonyms one after the other.
Tulacque arrives. “ ‘Ere old man, take a look at this,” Tulacque is magnificent. He is wearing a loose sort of tabard, bright yellow, made out of an oilcloth sleeping sack. He has made a hole in the middle for his head to go through, then over the top of this carapace he has managed to fit his braces and his belt. He is tall, bony. He walks with his eager squint-eyed face thrust forward. He is holding something in his hand.
“Found this knickknack when I was diggin’ last night at the end of the new communication trench, when they changed all them rotten duckboards. I took a shine to it straightaway, it’s an axe, one of the old models.”
It certainly is an old model: a pointed stone with a brownish bone handle. To me, it looks just like some prehistoric tool.
“It ‘andles well” says Tulacque, turning and feeling it in his hand, “that’s a fact. Not so daft, W’oever made this. Balances better than them regulation axes. It’s brilliant. ‘ere, try it and see… Watch it! Give it back now, I’m ‘angin’ on to this, it’ll come in ‘andy, you mind it will…”
He wields his quaternary axe looking like the original caveman swathed in animal skins, holed up in the bowels of the earth.
One by one, those of us in Bertrand’s squad and in the half–section gathered at the corner of one of the trenches. It was a bit wider here than on the right flank where, for two people to pass, you had to throw yourself back against the wall, your back rubbing against the mud and your stomach rubbing against that of your fellow soldier.
Our company occupies a parallel of the second line, the reserve. No night watchmen here. At night, we are all set for digging, maintaining trenches up at the front, but all day long we have nothing to do. Crammed in against each other, elbow to elbow, we can do nothing but wait until the evening the best we can.
Daylight finally filters into the endless crevasses that run through this part of the world; it just skims the edges of our dugouts. Sad Northern light, narrow, muddy sky that also appears to be laden with smoke and factory smells. In this pale light, the motley rags of the inhabitants of these squalid depths appear in the raw, in all the immense and desperate poverty that created them. But like the monotonous rat-tat of gunfire and the whoosh of canon fire, this great drama we’re in has been going on too long, and we are no longer surprised by how it has made us look, or by the sort of get-up we have invented to protect ourselves against the rain from above, the mud from below, against the cold, and the utter relentlessness of it all. Animal skins, piles of blankets, cloths, balaclavas, woolly hats, fur hats, mufflers, scarves wound round as turbans, padded layers of pullovers, jackets, layers of cladding, hoods of tar and rubber in black or all the —washed out — colours of the rainbow, envelop the men, concealing their uniforms and their flesh making them seem enormous. One of them has attached a piece of red and white checked oilcloth on his back that he picked up in a dining room somewhere in some temporary billet. It’s Pépin, and from a long way off his harlequin placard makes him more recognisable than even his pale apache face. Here’s Barque with his puffed out chest, decked out in a quilted eiderdown that was pink, but which is now mottled and faded by the dust and the night. Over there, Lamuse stands enormous like a ruined tower hung with the tattered remains of old posters. A carapace of moleskin gives little Eudore the waxed back of a beetle, and amongst them all Tulacque like a Big Chief with his orange thorax.
The helmets provide a certain uniformity to our heads, but then again… some, like Biquet, have got into the habit of wearing their helmet on top of their képi or over a balaclava like Cadilhac, or over a cotton cap like Barque, which results in a miscellany of complicated guises.
And then there are our legs…! Just now I went down, bent double, into our shelter, a small low cave that smelled mouldy and damp, tripping over empty cans and rags and where two long bundles lay asleep, while in the corner, in the feeble light of a candle, another figure was rummaging in his haversack… Coming up again, in the rectangular light of the opening I noticed all the legs. Horizontal, vertical, leaning, spread, folded, all jumbled up —cursed by passing men for being in the way, they offered a multicoloured collection of all shapes and sizes: gaiters, leggings black and yellow, long, short, leather, oiled canvas or any waterproof material: woolen puttees in dark blue, light blue black, khaki, beige, yellow… Only Volpatte, a law to himself, had kept the gaiters he was issued with. For the past fortnight Mesnil André has been showing off some thick green ribbed woolen socks, and Tirette has always been known for his grey and white striped leg-wraps, taken from a pair of civilian trousers that were hanging out to dry somewhere or other at the beginning of the war…As for Marthereau, he has an odd pair, each a different shade, because all he could find to tear into strips were two pieces of greatcoat, each as worn and filthy as the other. Then there are legs wrapped in rags, even newspaper, kept in place by spirals of string, or even more practical, telephone wire…Pépin likes to dazzle his mates and passers- by with a pair of fawn gaiters he annexed from a corpse…as for Barque, who prides himself on being resourceful, a wily so-and so, (and God knows that he can be a pain because of it) full of bright ideas, his calves are white: he has wrapped bandages round his gaiters to protect them; this white on his bottom half matches the cotton cap that sticks out from underneath his helmet, and protruding from it all, a tuft of his clown-red hair. Poterloo has been walking around for a month in a pair of German infantryman’s boots, a fine pair of boots with metal-tipped heels. Caron gave them to him when he got evacuated because of his arm. Caron had taken them from a Bavarian gunner shot near the Pylônes road. I can still hear him telling the story:
“I’m tellin’ you, there ‘e was, doubled up, his arse stuck in the ditch, lookin’ up to ‘eaven, legs in the air, ‘e was showin’ his boots off as if to say they were worth nickin’. I said to myself ‘Just the ticket!’ But Jesus, what a palaver, trying to get them off ‘im. I was there for ‘alf an ‘our— pullin’, turnin’, shakin’ —I’m not kiddin’, with ‘is legs all stiff and that, Fritz wasn’t goin’ to ‘elp me out. Then, after all that pullin,’ his legs came clean off at the knee, ‘is clothes ripped an’ the ‘ole damn lot came at once, whoosh! Suddenly there I was with a bootful in each ‘and. I had to empty ‘em out , legs, feet n’ all.”
“Blimey, you don’t mess about!”
“Ask Euterpe , ‘e’ll tell you. ‘E ‘elped me. We shoved our mits into the boots an’ pulled out the bones, ‘alf the socks an’ bits of foot. But look, it wasn’t ‘alf worth it !”
So while he was waiting for Caron to come back, Poterloo was using the boots that the Bavarian gunner hadn’t had time to use.
And that is how we manage, fighting against the terrifying hardship of it all, using all our wits, our resources, our cunning. Every one of us seems to be saying, “ Look at me, this is how savvy I am, what I could— what I dared to do in this miserable hole we’re in.”
Mesnil Joseph is dozing, Blaire yawns, Marthereau is smoking, blankly staring. Lamuse is scratching himself like a gorilla and Eudore more like a little marmoset. Volpatte coughs and says, “I’m not long for this world.” Mesnil André has got out his mirror and his comb and is tending to his chestnut brown beard as though it were a rare plant. The monotonous calm is interrupted now and then by surges of frantic activity provoked by the endemic, chronic and contagious presence of lice.
Barque, who is an observant type, surveys the scene, removes the pipe from his mouth, then winks and says, “What do we look like, I ask you!”
“Well, we ain’t ourselves, that’s for sure, “says Lamuse, “it’d be a miracle if we was.”
How old are we? All ages. Ours is a reserve regiment that has been successively reinforced partly with fighting units and partly with Territorials. In the half-section, there are some from the Territorial Army reserves, and some new recruits. Fouillade is forty. Blaire could be the father of Biquet, a fresh faced youth from Class 13. The corporal calls Marthereau “Granddad” or “Old Rubbish, ” according to whether he is joking or being serious. Mesnil Joseph would be in the barracks if the war hadn’t come along. It feels strange to be given orders by our sergeant Vigile, a pleasant young lad with the mere trace of a moustache on his upper lip. The other day at our billet he was playing at skipping with some of the kiddies. In this motley group of ours, a family without a family, a home without a home, there are three generations living side by side, living and waiting, at a standstill, like posts or unformed statues.
Where do we come from? All over the place. The two men nearest to me for example: Poterloo, the miner from the Calonne pit is pink faced, his eyebrows straw yellow, his eyes flaxen blue; it took a long time to find a helmet big enough to fit his huge golden head, it’s like a vast blue soup tureen. Fouillade, a boatman from the Mediterranean shores of Sète has a long thin musketeer’s face with darting, fiendish eyes and sunken cheeks the colour of an old violin. My two neighbours are truly as different as night from day. And not least, Cocon, a skinny, dry, bespectacled character with a complexion chemically eroded by the smog of urban life; he is in stark contrast to Biquet, a rough hewn Breton with his grey skin and thickset jaw, and Mesnil André, the well-to-do pharmacist from a country town in Normandy, with his fine beard; he speaks well and often, but has little in common with Lamuse, the stout farmer from the Poitou with his cheeks and neck as raw and red as underdone beef. Then Braque the Parisian, whose long legs have walked every street and quarter of that city; his accent clashes with the sing-song almost-Belgian accent of the 8th Territorials from the North; with the resonant vernacular of the 144s with their syllables rolling as if over cobblestones; with the patois coming from the tight groups that form stubbornly apart from the others, like colonies of ants swarming together, the 124s from Auvergne… I remember the first thing that that funny chap Tirette said when he introduced himself, “ I, my boys, am from Clichy-la-Garenne! So beat that!” and the first complaint from Paradis, who came to me saying ‘Them’s takin’ the piss ‘cos I ‘m from up Morvan.”
What were our occupations? A bit of everything. In times long obliterated, when we had a place in society, before coming to bury our fate in these muddy warrens pounded by rain and shells, and having to do it again and again, what were we? Workmen and labourers for the most part. Lamuse was a farmhand, Paradis, a carter. Cadilhac, with his child size tin hat perched on top of his pointy skull—like a dome on a bell tower, says Tirette — had some land of his own. Old Blaire was a tenant farmer in the Brie. Barque, with his tricycle, was a delivery boy artfully dodging the trams and the taxis in the streets of Paris, and royally cursing, he says, the pedestrians as they scattered like chickens on the squares and avenues. Corporal Bertrand, who always remains slightly aloof, upright and taciturn with his fine strong masculine features and direct gaze, was a foreman in a leather goods factory. Tirloir was apparently quite happy daubing carriages with paint for a living. Tulacque owned a bar in the XIIth arrondissement and Eudore with his kind, pale face had a roadside estaminet not far from where the front is now — the place was destroyed by shell-fire, of course — Eudore never has any luck, everyone knows that. Mesnil André, the man who still remains vaguely distinguished and well groomed, used to sell bicarbonate of soda and other infallible remedies in the main square of his country town; his brother Joseph sold newspapers and illustrated novels in one of the big railway stations; in Lyon, the bespectacled Cocon, kept himself busy behind the counter of an ironmonger’s shop, while Becuwe Adolphe and Poterloo were up at dawn, wielding the pale star of their lamps and haunting the collieries of the North.
There were those whose trades we never remembered and mixed them up with others, and then the tinkers and handymen who managed to carry the tools of ten trades in their bags, not to mention Pépin, who probably didn’t have a job at all (what we do know is that after his convalescence he got married… so he could claim the allowance for soldiers’ wives.)
Not many of the liberal professions amongst the men here. Schoolteachers are often NCOs or nurses. In the regiment, a Marist brother is now a sergeant in the medical corps, a choir tenor the Major’s cyclist; a man of independent means is a corporal in the hors-rang, the company outside the line. There is nothing of that sort here; we are all fighting soldiers, and there are hardly any artists, intellectuals or wealthy men who would have risked sticking their heads above the parapet in this war, unless they were just passing or wearing a képi with a gold stripe on it.
No, it’s true. We are profoundly different.
But we are also very alike.
In spite of the differences in age, origins, culture, situation, and all that went before, in spite of the chasms that separated us then, we are fundamentally all the same. With the same rough profile, we hide or reveal the same habits, the same ways, the same simplified character of men reduced to their primitive state.
The same way of speaking— a mixture of barrack–room and working mens’ slang, of patois too, peppered with some neologisms— unites us, a dense multitude emptying France of its men month on month to amass them here in the northeast of the country.
And then here, bound together by an unalterable fate, borne along the same road, in spite of ourselves, on the same enormous adventure, we are forced throughout the weeks, the nights, to carry on being the same, to resemble each other. The terrible cramped conditions of communal life crush us, adapt us and efface us, so that we become one and the same. It is a sort of fatal contagion. Every soldier seems so much like another and the similarity can be seen up close —no need to look from a distance, from far away where we are merely specks of dust rolling over the plain.
We wait. Tired of sitting, we get up. Joints creak like warped timber and old hinges: the damp causes the men to rust like it does their rifles; it is slower but more penetrating. And then, having changed position, we start the waiting all over again.
In war, we are always waiting. We have become waiting machines.
Right now we are waiting for the soup. After that it will be the letters. But everything in good time: when we have finished the soup, we will think about the letters. Then we will begin to wait for something else.
Hunger and thirst are powerful instincts that have an intense effect on the mood of my companions. The soup is late and they begin to complain and become irritable. The need for food and drink comes out as gripes and moans.
“That’s eight hours now. What’s happened to that scoff –is it comin’ or not?”
“I’m starvin’ since yesterday,” moans Lamuse, his eyes are moist with longing and his cheeks blotched wine-red.
Their disgruntlement sours by the minute.
“ I bet Plumet’s gone and swigged down that ‘ooch he was s’posed to bring me, an’ more besides, an’ now he’s gone an’ fallen down pissed somewhere.”
“That’s for sure and no mistake,” endorses Marthereau.
“They’re a no good bunch of vermin, those spud-peelers!” Tirloir bellows.
“ Disgusting lot! All of them, greedy good for nothings! They lounge around behind the lines all day and can’t even be arsed to get up ‘ere on time. If I was boss, I’d make ‘em take our place in the trenches, then they’d ‘ave to graft a bit! An’ first I’d say everyone’d have to take their turn in the cook’ouse. Them as want to… o’ course an’ then…”
“I bet it’s that swine Pépère what’s makin’ the others late! ‘E does it on purpose — ‘e can never get out of the sack of a mornin,’ poor sod! A proper softie, ‘e is! ‘E needs ‘is ten hours kip, an if ‘e don’t, Monsioor ‘ardly lifts a bloody finger all day.”
“ I’d give ‘im fucking what for!” gripes Lamuse, “ If I ‘ad half the chance, you’d see, I’d turf ‘im out of ‘is bloody sack. I’d have ‘is brains on toast an’ ‘is guts for garters.”
“The other day,” Cocon went on, “I counted. ‘E took seven hours an’ forty seven minutes to get from 31 Shelter. Shou’nt take more ‘n five hours.”
Cocon is a numbers man. Precision is his great love, his obsession. He winkles out statistics on any subject and squirrels them away, biding his time until he can dish them up to anyone who’ll listen. At the moment he is wielding his statistics like a weapon; with his thick round glasses perched on his sickly looking face, all bony and angular, he is taut with resentment.
He gets up on the fire step, from the time when this was the front line, and raises his head furiously over the parapet. In the pale ray of light that skims the ground, you can see the glass of his spectacles shining, and a drip hanging from his nose like a diamond.
“An’ then, Pépère, ‘e leaks like a bloody sieve — ‘alf of it goes over the side. I can’t believe ‘e can lose so much grub in one day!”
Old Blaire is “fuming” quietly in his corner. You can see his big grey comb of a moustache quivering.
“I’ll tell you this. Those spud-peelers, they’re a filthy lot. They do bugger all, they don’t give a bugger, in fact they’re lazy buggers all round.”
“ They’re a heap ‘o shite,” sighs Euterpe convincingly. He is slumped on the ground, with his mouth half open and a glazed look as he watches Pépin pacing up and down like a hyena.
The hatred and resentment against the latecomers keeps on rising.
Tirloir, the inveterate grouser, builds up a head of steam. He is in his element. He spurs on the ambient fury with little stabbing gestures, “If only we could say it’ll be good scoff, but it’s bound to be more pigswill for us to force down our gobs.”
“Yeah, what about that bully they threw at us yesterday, eh lads? Tough as old boots! Call that beef? Shoe leather more like. I said to me mates, Oy, careful you lot! Don’t chew too ‘ard or you’ll break yer nashers — s’more than likely the bloody cobbler forgot to take the nails out!”
In other circumstances this spiel from Tirette, an old travelling cinema hand, would have made everyone laugh. But everyone was too wound up and his patter was echoed with a groan all round.
“Or else, so yiz don’t give out about it bein’ too hard, dey give yiz bully dat’s all soft like a sponge, no taste on it at all, like frogspawn. Sure ‘tis like chewin’on water, that’s a fact.”
“There’s nothin’ to it. says Lamuse. “Just slop. It don’t fill you up at all. You think you’ve eaten, but your stummick’s still empty. Then after a bit, you end up kickin’ the bucket, poisoned wi’ starvation.”
“Next time,” proclaims an exasperated Bicquet, “I’m goin’ to ask to see the old man, “Captain sir’ I’ll say…”
“I’m goin’ to go sick,” says Barque, “I’ll tell the Major…”
“It ain’t no good, what’ever you come up with, they’re all of a mind. Us privates, we’re just here to do their donkey work.”
“Yep, they’ve got it in for us!”
“It’s like the hooch. In the trenches we’re s’posed to get a ration, given it was voted on somewhere, dunno when or where, but it was — but we’ve been ‘ere three days and ain’t seen a bloody drop!”
“What a bleeding shambles!”