Robert Graves: When even war’s gallows humor fails
From Good-Bye to All That (1929)
The Company had seventeen casualties yesterday from bombs and grenades. The front trench averages thirty yards from the Germans. Today, at one part, which is only twenty yards away from an occupied German sap, I went along whistling ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, to keep up my spirits, when suddenly I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.
…If a German patrol found a wounded man, they were as likely as not to cut his throat. The bowie-knife was a favourite German patrol weapon because of its silence. (We inclined more to the ‘cosh,’ a loaded stick.) The most important information that a patrol could bring back was to what regiment and division the troops opposite belonged. So if it proved impossible to get a wounded enemy back without danger to oneself, he had to be stripped of his badges. To do that quickly and silently, it might be necessary to cut his throat or beat in his skull.
About saving the lives of enemy wounded there was disagreement; the conventions varied with the division. Some divisions, like the Canadians and the Lowland Territorials, who claimed that they had atrocities to avenge, would not only avoid taking risks to rescue enemy wounded, but go out of their way to finish them off…