Liam O’Flaherty: The foul horror of war
From Return of the Brute (1929)
As the roar died away, swallowed by a more distant roar, lumps of mud and pieces of torn sandbags began to fall. Then the top of the parapet gave way and flopped into the trench. Somebody groaned. Others cursed. There was a horrible stench.
Then there was silence. As if it had effected its purpose, the firing shifted to the right.
“God!” cried a voice. “What’s this lying on top of me?”
“Eh?” said the Corporal. “Come on. Rebuild this parapet. Anybody hit? I heard somebody groaning.”
Nobody answered him. Everybody began to examine his own body. Then the first voice cried out again in horror:
“See? It’s a dead man’s leg. Blimme! One of them blasted Froggies that’s buried here.”
“Whew!” cried another. “I just stuck my hand into somebody’s rotten guts. God! What a stink!”
Grumbling, they began to rebuild the parapet.
The sacks of earth, with which the parapet have been paved, had rotted. The earth in the sacks had been turned to slime by the rain. It was almost impossible to do anything with them. When a man lifted a sack lifted a sack it broke in two and the fragments fell, leaving foul slime on his hands. In the pitch darkness it was impossible for a man to see whether he was lifting a sack or a piece of rotten corpse. They cursed violently.
There was no excitement, no haste, no grandeur, no drums, no banners, no gleaming weapons, no plumes, no terrifying devices, no shouting of war-maddened warriors; just little crowds of dirty, stooping men, with ugly steel hats, gas masks, bags of bombs.
A miserable heat-less sun now shone in the sky. The earth seemed a void, barren of life, the crater of a dead world…
The officer’s face was drawn and still more melancholy than on the previous night. Although he looked well nourished and quite clean, his countenance was even more repulsive than that of the soldiers because it contained the ghost of intelligence that had died of horror.
Only by the grinding of his teeth did he give any sign of the torture he was suffering.
It is such men who give glory to the foul horror of war.