Home > Uncategorized > Richard Aldington: All the decay and dead of battlefields entered his blood and seemed to poison him

Richard Aldington: All the decay and dead of battlefields entered his blood and seemed to poison him


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Richard Aldington: Selections on war


Richard Aldington
From Death of a Hero (1929)

NPG x10305,(Edward Godfree) Richard Aldington,by Howard Coster

Winterbourne felt sleepless. He was so much accustomed to being alert and awake at night and sleeping by day, that he found a difficulty in breaking the habit. He spent the night aimlessly wandering about the streets and sitting on Embankment benches. He notice that there were very few occupants of the benches – the War found work for every one. Odd, he reflected, that in War-time the country could afford five million pounds sterling a day in trying to kill Germans, and that in peace-time it couldn’t afford five million a year to attack its own destitution…

There was very little to do in Etaples, even with the more extended opportunities of an officer. They messed in a large, draughty marquee, but there was a camp cinema where he spent part of each evening. There were numbers of women at the Base, and he noticed that some of them were pregnant. Apparently there was no attempt at concealment; but then the birth-rate was declining rapidly in England, and babies were urgently needed for the Next War…

The days passed into weeks, the weeks into months. He moved through impressions like a man hallucinated. And every incident seemed to beat on his brain Death, Death, Death. All the decay and dead of battlefields entered his blood and seemed to poison him. He lived among smashed bodies and human remains in an infernal cemetery. If he scratched his stick idly and nervously in the side of a trench, he pulled out human ribs. He ordered a new latrine to be dug out from the trench, and thrice the digging had to be abandoned because they came upon terrible black masses of decomposing bodies…

For three days in succession Winterbourne’s company formed the advance-guard, and he led it in the darkness over unknown ground, by compass-bearing, in a kind of dazed delirium. Pressing on through falling shells in a blank night, with the ever-present dread of falling into a machine-gun ambush, became an agony. They fought their way into inhabited villages, which had been held by the Germans for over four years. The terrified people crouched in cellars or ran distractedly into the fields. They took the village of F-, after a brief but fierce bombardment, an hour after dawn. The roads leading in and out were encumbered with dead Germans, smashed transport, the contorted bodies of dead horses. Dead German soldiers lay about the village street, which was cluttered with fallen tiles and bricks. In a garden a war-demented peasant was digging a grave to bury his wife, who had been killed by a shell-burst. In a ruined village school Winterbourne picked up a book – it was Pascal’s Thoughts on Christianity.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 19, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Quite a poignant passage. Worthy of this day in the empire…

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