Robert Graves: War’s path of death, decay and decomposition
From Good-Bye to All That (1929)
We had no blankets, greatcoats or waterproof sheets, not any time or material to build new shelters. The rain continued. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had very few casualties. After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.
The next two days we went in bivouacs outside Mametz Wood. We were in fighting kit and felt the cold at night, so I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. It was full of Prussian Guards Reservists, big men, and dead Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the New Army Battalions, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken. I collected my overcoats and hurried out as quickly as I could, climbing out as quickly as I could, climbing through the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I passed by the bloating and stinking corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close-shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. I came across two other unforgettable corpses: a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of the fighting told me later that he had seen a young soldier of the Fourteenth Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming: ‘In, out, on guard!’