Richard Aldington: How well the premeditated mass murder of war is organized
From Death of a Hero (1929)
He still clung desperately to Elizabeth and Fanny, of course. He wrote long letters to them trying to explain himself, and they replied sympathetically. They were the only persons he wanted to see when on leave, and they met him sympathetically. But it was useless. They were gesticulating across an abyss. The women were still human beings; he was merely a unit, a murder-robot, a wisp of cannon fodder. And he knew it. They didn’t. But they felt the difference, felt it as a degradation in him, a sort of failure. Elizabeth and Fanny occasionally met after the row, and made acid-sweet remarks to each other. But on one point they were in agreement – George had degenerated terribly since joining the army, and there was no knowing to what preposterous depths of Tommydom he might fall.
The Germans were sending up some rather fancy signal-rockets from their front line, and he was vaguely wondering what they meant, when a huge rat darted, or rather scrambled, impudently just past his head. Then he noticed that a legion of the fattest and longest rats he had ever seen were popping in and out the crevices between the sandbags. As far as he could see down the trench in the dusk, they were swarming over parapet and parados. Such well-fed rats! He shuddered, thinking what they has probably fed upon.
The cottages were rather scattered, and unused as cellar-billets in this direction. The top storeys had gone from nearly all, but in several the ground floor was fairly intact. He looked into each as he passed. The wallpaper had long ago fallen and lay in mouldering heaps. The floors were covered with broken bricks, tiles, smashed beams, laths, and disintegrating plaster. Odd pieces of broken furniture, twisted iron beds, large rags which had once been clothes and sheets, protruded from the mass. He poked about and found photographs, letters in faded ink on damp paper, broken toys, bits of smashed vases, a soiled satin wedding-gown with its veil and wreath of artificial orange-blossom. He stood, with his head bent, looking at this pathetic debris of human lives, and absentmindedly lit a cigarette, which he immediately threw away – it tasted of phosgene. “La Gloire,” he murmured, “Deutschland über alles, God save the King.”
The next cottage was less damaged than the others, and its rough wooden shutters were still on their hinges. Winterbourne peered through, and saw the whole of the inside had been cleared of debris, and was stacked with quantities of wooden objects. He shaded his eyes more carefully, and saw they were ranks and ranks of wooden crosses. Those he could see had painted on them R.I.P.; then underneath was a blank space for the name; underneath was the name of one or other of the battalions in his division, and then the present month and year. with a blank space for the day. Excellent forethought, he reflected, as he filled his bucket and waterbottle. How well the War is organized!