After three weeks of rain, the communication trench has become a flooded “cesspool.” In the poor conditions, Stephen Wraysford is beginning to feel differently about his men, and at times he feels love for them. They are resilient and he finds this “endearing,” but he now believes that there is no line that they won’t cross.
Much of Stephen’s original unit is dead, and a few have had to return home to England. Some of the men are missing and presumed dead, and many rest in mass graves. There are also those who have been “reduced to particles so small” that they have blown away in the wind.
This passage highlights the constant turnaround of soldiers during the war. When Stephen speaks of “his men,” he is talking about several men over the course of four years.
Arriving on the front line, new boots are distributed—of course, the boots are one-size-fits-all and stuffed with “putrid rags.” A new subaltern, Ellis, arrives and tells Stephen that he would like to go to Amiens on their next leave. Stephen declines to join him. “It’s just a railway junction,” he says.
Stephen attempts more self-preservation by not acknowledging the importance of Amiens in his life. This passage also illustrates the meager supplies and uniforms the soldiers are equipped with.
Ellis tells Stephen that the tunnel head is nearby, and that Captain Weir is there. When Stephen goes to see Weir, the men behave awkwardly and don’t shake hands. Weir says that the men have received a new shipment of canaries—they have been worried about gas underground—and he asks Stephen if he has any whiskey. Weir has run out of whiskey and his hands are shaking.
Weir acts awkwardly in Stephen’s presence because he believes that his interaction with the prostitute has made him less of a man, and Stephen senses this too. The canaries are used to detect toxic gases underground—if the bird dies, this signals a warning to the soldier. Ironically, the death of the bird allows the soldiers to live.
Weir has just returned back to the Front from England. At home in Leamington Spa, Weir’s father had barely looked up from the large toad he was feeding when his son arrived unexpectedly. His mother had been at choir practice, and Weir had missed tea and the ripe tomatoes from the garden. His clothes no longer fit him, and there were only leftovers to eat.
Life has continued without Weir back in England, and his visit with his parents is a cruel reminder of this. They make very little fuss over his visit (he is even made to eat leftovers), and much like his clothes, Weir doesn’t seem to fit into his life anymore. Weir represents the tragic homecoming of many World War I soldiers.
Weir tried to tell his parents about the war; however, his father interrupted him. “We’ve read about it in the papers,” he said. They didn’t seem to understand the war at all, and there was no beer in the house. After his parents went to bed, Weir downed a two-thirds-full bottle of sherry.
Weir’s father can’t possibly understand the war just because he read about it the papers. Weir’s homecoming also sheds light on alcoholism and veterans’ use of drinking to cope with the aftermath of war.
Back on at the Front, Weir asks Stephen to tell his fortune. Stephen orders one of the men to bring him a rat, and then he lights candles and grabs a deck of cards. He cuts the rat from open, disemboweling it in the candlelight, and lays out the cards. “For Christ’s sake,” says Ellis. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
It is highly ironic that Ellis protests the senseless killing of the rat. Presumably, Ellis has killed many men, yet he thinks that Stephen should be ashamed because of the rat—or because of indulging the men’s superstitions.
Stephen tells Weir that his horoscope is wonderful—only he should stay away from priests and women. Weir’s cards also represent peace, power, and stability. “You fixed it,” Weir accuses Stephen.
Stephen tells Weir what he wants to hear, but more than that, he gives his friend something to believe in during the senselessness of war.
Stephen denies fixing the cards and asks Weir why he wants to survive so badly. Weir tells him all he has is his life. “Perhaps I will do something with it later,” he says.
Sadly, this interaction foreshadows Weir’s death and it highlights an obvious, but great, tragedy of war—Weir never gets the chance to do something with his life.
Weir tells Stephen about his visit to England and the disappointment that is his family. Weir wishes they understood the war better—that they had a better idea of what he is going through. He says his father was “bored,” and that he wishes a bombardment would kill them.
This passage is extreme, but it nevertheless relays Weir’s true feelings. Only in their own violent death could Weir’s parents possibly understand what he is going through.
As the men talk, Stephen tells Weir that he continues to fight not for England and those living back home, but for the soldiers who have died and disappeared. Weir then mentions that Tyson was killed at Beaumont-Hamel.
Tyson’s death is significant to Stephen because he has saved his life in the past. Stephen keeps fighting to stay alive so that the men who died for him have not suffered in vain, and this is evidence of his growing love for them.
Stephen becomes “drunk and confessional” and tells Weir about using magic and superstition as a child. He tells Weir that he wanted to live in a make-believe world because reality was unbearable. Stephen wanted to believe that he had an important destiny. Now, all he believes in is “a room, a place, some self-grounded place.”
Weir clings to Stephen’s superstition for the same reasons that Stephen did as a child. Weir’s own reality of the war is unbearable, and as he has already said, he would like to do something positive with his life. The card game makes him feel like he has more of a chance.
In another dugout, Jack and Shaw try to get some sleep. In the small hole, the men curl up together, and Jack has become very familiar with the curves of Shaw’s body. He notes that he can sleep as well with Shaw in the dugout as he has ever slept in bed with Margaret at home in London.
Once again, Faulks’s tender and intimate description of Jack and Shaw’s love and comradery challenges popular images of men and masculinity. This overtly sexual representation is unexpected and powerful.
Meanwhile, Weir’s company is working on a shallow tunnel, and they hear German activity nearby. He orders the tunnel evacuated, but men must remain to man listening posts. Of course, no one volunteers, and they turn to a duty roster. Suddenly, the Germans blow the tunnel.
This passage stresses the extreme danger of working in the tunnels. The Germans are clearly aware of their location, and it is only a matter of time before they blow the tunnel.
“I knew this would happen,” Weir says. Stephen agrees to go in the tunnel with him. Not even the stretcher-bearers will go down to get injured men until an officer tells them where to go. Weir grabs a new canary, and they head underground.
The canary infuses a bit of optimism into an otherwise dire situation. Again, it is evidence of nature’s indifference to their suffering.
Weir and Stephen quickly come upon the end of the tunnel. There should be at least another thirty feet, but the tunnel has been blown completely. Weir takes a stethoscope and listens at the wall. “Nothing.” He tells Stephen that two men, including Shaw, are on the other side, but there is no way to get them out. Stephen and Weir say a prayer.
Of course, this passage is significant because of the death of Shaw. Also notable is that despite the additional loss of his son, John, Jack’s love for his friend and the time that they have already been blessed with is enough to sustain him. Again, Faulks continues to argue for the power of love even in the face of death.
The two men must turn around to exit the tunnel, but there is not room, so Weir crawls over Stephen to get ahead of him. His pick dislodges the disturbed dirt and a large chunk of earth falls on Weir, breaking his arm and ribs.
This is the worst possible injury for Weir. Soldiers often purposefully broke limbs to avoid fighting, and injuries of this nature are always looked upon with suspicion.
In the small collapse, the bird is lost. Weir begins to panic; letting a canary go free in a tunnel is an automatic court-martial. The men go about looking for the bird and Stephen sees it nearby. He lunges at it and screams, missing it. Weir is able to grab it but with a broken arm he won’t be able to both crawl and carry the canary. Stephen suggests they just kill it.
The loss of the bird symbolizes Stephen and Weir’s loss of optimism. Still, the fact that both men are unable to kill the bird represents at least some residual optimism (and morality) even in this dire situation.
Neither man can kill the bird, so Stephen is forced to carry it. He ties it in his handkerchief and must hold it in his mouth in order to crawl from the cramped tunnel. With the bird flapping in his face, they finally make it out of the tunnel and to the surface.
Stephen is forced to overcome his fear of birds. If he lets the bird go, Weir will be court-martialed and possibly even executed. Stephen loves Weir, and because of this love, Stephen is able to overcome his lifelong fear.
In the following days, Gray gives Ellis and Stephen permission to go to Amiens for a few days on leave. Stephen agrees to go, and when the two arrive in the city, they find it nearly destroyed and buried under a pile of debris.
This passage serves to emphasize the civilian loss and suffering that occurred during the war.
Stephen asks Ellis what he plans to do on leave. Since Ellis has never been on leave, he’s really not sure. Stephen says most men get drunk and visit a brothel. Ellis doesn’t like the sound of a brothel, but Stephen reassures him that it is expected. The army thinks that it is healthy to visit women during leave and encourages it—the brothels are even sanctioned by the military police. Stephen further tells Ellis that he is not interested, but the option is open. Ellis declines.
This passage again highlights how the military encourages sex as a coping mechanism and morale-booster. The fact that both Stephen and Ellis decline to partake in this is expected activity is further proof of Faulks’s greater argument that sex is actually an adverse coping mechanism for the stressors of war.
Stephen takes Ellis to the café where he had once seen Isabelle walking past the window, but it has changed and is a sad sight. The new proprietor tells Stephen that the previous owner was sent to a German prison, like many of the men in town.
This passage also shows the effects of war on civilians. Innocent people are rounded up and sent to prison camps.
Later, Ellis and Stephen share a few drinks in a rowdy bar before Stephen excuses himself for a walk. Leaving Ellis, he finds a quiet bar and orders a drink. As he sips, a woman enters and buys a bottle of liquor. She looks familiar.
The fact that Stephen recognizes this strange woman is a testament to his love for Isabelle. He has never met Jeanne, yet he instinctually notices her.
As Stephen approaches the woman in the street, she appears to know him as well. It is Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne, and she agrees to talk with Stephen. He asks about Isabelle, and Jeanne claims she is “all right.” She tells Stephen that she is loyal to her sister and won’t be giving him much information.
Jeanne’s loyalty to her sister is also a testament to the power of love. She fears that Stephen’s presence will cause Isabelle more pain, and she wants to spare her.
Stephen is suspicious of her presence in Amiens, and Jeanne admits to coming to care for Isabelle. After Isabelle left Stephen, Jeanne says, Isabelle returned to Rouen and eventually went home to René. After the German occupation, when René was led away by the Germans, Isabelle was injured in a heavy bombardment. She is better now, but Jeanne has come to town to care for her.
Isabelle’s injury in the bombardment is a representation of the many civilian casualties of war. It is not only soldiers who are injured, but innocent citizens as well.
Stephen tells Jeanne that he wants to see Isabelle. She won’t take him to her, but she agrees to tell her about his request. They plan to meet at the same bar the next night.
Again, this is further evidence of Jeanne’s love for Isabelle. She will only help Stephen if Isabelle is in complete agreement.
After leaving Jeanne, Stephen walks down to the boulevard du Cange. The landscape is familiar and memories rush back and overwhelm him. As he approaches the house, he sees that most of the rear of the house has been destroyed—including the servants’ quarters and the red room.
The red room symbolizes Stephen and Isabelle’s love, and like the physical structure of the room, this love has been destroyed. This serves as a physical representation of Stephen’s broken heart.
The next night, Stephen meets Jeanne as planned, and she tells him that Isabelle has agreed to see him, and she is to take him to the apartment they share. Jeanne leads him to a nearby apartment, which is dark and modest with fresh daisies in a vase.
The dark atmosphere of the apartment mirrors the sisters’ dismal lives in Amiens during the war. The daisies show the sisters’ attempt at some normalcy during the war.
Isabelle waits for him in a darkened room, and as Stephen enters he is shocked. Isabelle’s face is greatly disfigured. A large scar runs from her hairline to her jaw, and it is clear that her ear has been surgically repaired. The left side of her body appears slack and paralyzed.
Isabelle’s outward appearance matches her inner shame and turmoil. She is ashamed of the choices she has made, and she continues to keep their child a secret from Stephen.
Isabelle tells him not to worry; it looks bad but doesn’t cause any pain. She tells Stephen that she was twice injured by a shell—first at the house, and then while living in a small apartment in town. “It was unlucky,” she says.
Isabelle subconsciously views her bad luck as punishment for loving Stephen. After all, she has the found more traditional routes of penance “unsatisfying.”
Isabelle tells Stephen what came of her after she left him. While she did go home to Rouen, it was not long before her father arranged her move back to Amiens, and after Lisette and Grégoire begged her to return, she finally agreed. René had become an “ashamed” and “diminished” man.
René became “ashamed” and “diminished” because his power within the patriarchy had been disrupted. René is emasculated by Isabelle’s affair and subsequent pregnancy, and he has lost face within the community because of it.
It was not long before the war broke out, Isabelle says, and after Amiens was occupied by the Germans, René was taken as a prisoner. He was eventually released, but then the Germans ordered all men of service age to report for duty. Over four thousand townsmen agreed to willingly fight for the Germans, and the Germans, surprised by the men’s cowardice, were unable to handle that many prisoners. They let them all go but five hundred men, and René was one of them.
The Germans are surprised by the men’s cowardice because their willing agreement to fight for the Germans effectively makes them traitors. They will be expected to fight against the French cause, but they do this willingly to save their lives.
The house on the boulevard du Cange was taken over by the Germans, and Isabelle met a Prussian soldier named Max. Max was kind to Isabelle, and while his nationality made her feel like a traitor, she has nevertheless fallen in love with him.
Isabelle engages in multiple sexual relationships throughout Birdsong. As a woman, Isabelle is expected to be loyal to one man, but instead she follows her heart and her desires.
Isabelle does not tell Stephen about the child. She had fallen in love with Max in large part because he had taken such good care of the child during the occupation, and while she wants Stephen to know about Max, she leaves this information out of her story. She does, however, tell Stephen that she had received his letter from the Front.
Isabelle wants Stephen to know about Max so that she will appear more unavailable to him, and will never have to tell him about their baby. Notably, Isabelle does not fall in love with Max because of his love for her; she falls in love with Max because of his love for her child, which is the very thing she fears is lacking in Stephen.
Isabelle goes on to tell Stephen that Grégoire will join the army next year and that Lisette is happily married to Lucien Lebrun, who is also serving in the army. Stephen thinks he hears the sound of a child, but Isabelle claims that Jeanne has two cats.
Of course, Lucien is the same man whom René accused Isabelle of having an affair with. Ironically, Lucien becomes a large part of their lives anyway.
Stephen asks Isabelle if he may touch her, and when she answers yes, he gently runs his hand along her mangled face. She is immediately struck by her desire for him, and he turns without speaking and exits the room.
This again underscores the physical nature of Isabelle’s attraction to Stephen. She does not feel desire until he touches her. If Isabelle’s love was true (like Stephen’s is), it seems appropriate that she would feel this desire immediately.
Back at headquarters, Gray tells Stephen that he is going back to the front line tomorrow. Gray is being pressured to send Stephen for a staff job on account of his fluent French, and he can’t put off his promotion much longer. He assures Stephen that the post will only last a few months, but first he must take home leave and go back to England.
Again, this passage emphasizes the fact that Stephen has no one in his life and no true home to speak of. He has just left Isabelle, the only love he has ever known, and she is clearly unobtainable.
Gray tells Stephen about a company that had killed some enemy prisoners after a long bombardment instead of marching them to the camp, which was five miles away uphill. Stephen feels that they should be charged. While he hates the Germans and has come to value his men, he has “learned to love the rule book.” He believes that some space must be left “for dignity to grow again.”
The killing of the German prisoners is exactly the kind depravity that Faulks repeatedly argues against in Birdsong. Of course, Stephen hates the Germans, yet he despises the violent nature of the war more, and he objects to this open and unapologetic form of killing.
Gray asks Stephen if he is still performing card tricks. He admits to entertaining Weir, but no one else. Gray asks him if he believes in it himself, and Stephen tells him about fixing the cards. He tells Gray that he believes in war and in “the possibility of an explanation.
Despite the depravity of the war, the fact that Stephen believes in the possibility of an explanation suggests some optimism.
Meanwhile, as the miners bury Shaw’s recovered body, Jack throws a handful of dirt into the mass grave. He wasn’t surprised when he received the news. He had no reason to think that his dear friend would survive when even John was dead. Still, Jack is determined to honor him, and he tips a glass in his memory and spends the evening telling the other men jokes and singing songs.
Jack’s faith in love is unshakable, and in this way, Faulks continues to argue the power of love even when it appears hopeless. Other than Margaret, Jack has lost everyone he holds dear, yet he is driven by their memory.
In the following days, Jack and the other men are given the rare opportunity to bathe. They hand in their putrid, lice-covered clothing and climb into the communal tub. The water is still warm, although there is filth floating on top, but Jack is still thankful. He was never offered a bath digging the tunnel for the Underground in London. After, he is issued clothing that passes for clean, and by the time Jack reaches his billet, he is crawling with lice again.
This passage again emphasizes the terrible living conditions of the men during the war. They are covered in constant filth and disease. Surprisingly, Jack finds something to appreciate in even these squalid conditions.
The next day, Stephen receives a letter from Jeanne in Amiens. Isabelle has left for Munich to be with Max (he was injured in enemy fire), but Jeanne has decided to stay in Amiens. She invites Stephen to visit the next time he is near.
Presumably, this is the first letter Stephen has received the entire war, underscoring his loneliness and the absence of love in his life.
Ellis stops by Stephen’s dugout and tells him that he has ordered the men into a working party to bring back bodies for burial, but they have refused to go without him. Stephen suggests they all go. He orders Weir to come along and bring an extra man. Both Ellis and Weir are angry and don’t want to go. “It’s only death,” Stephen says, as he entices Weir with rum.
Again, this passage serves to highlight the absolute horrors of the war and the mass number of casualties. They are literally surrounded by death, and this leads to a considerable amount of psychological stress and suffering.
The men sift through piles of dirt and miscellaneous body parts. One man named Brennan even uncovers the body of his brother. After they return, Weir asks Stephen if this is what his father has in mind when he says that the men are all “doing their bit.” Stephen is just glad to be back—he was scared of finding one of them still alive. It’s been known to happen, he says.
For Weir and Stephen, collecting dead bodies is all in a day’s work, and this passage reflects this particularly bloody reality.
In the following days, Stephen arrives in Boulogne to catch a boat home to England for his forced leave. He stops and writes a letter to Jeanne, telling her that other than Weir, she is the only friend he has. He tears it up and instead sends her a short letter about his train ride to Boulogne.
Again, this emphasizes the emptiness of Stephen’s life. Other than Stephen’s letter to Isabelle and the letters he writes to the families of dead soldiers, this is the first personal letter Stephen has written during the war.
Once in England, Stephen realizes that he has nowhere to go, and in the end, he decides to head toward Norfolk, a place that Weir talks about occasionally. His first stop is to shop for clothes—most of what he had has been lost in transit from the Front. The attendant in the store looks at Stephen with disgust when he notices his uniform and rank, and can barely wait for him to conclude his business and leave.
The civilians treat Stephen badly because he is a soldier, representing the difficult homecoming of millions of men after the war. Men often returned disabled and traumatized, and they were frequently met with contempt and poor understanding of their conditions.
Stephen decides to take a walk through the English countryside. While walking aimlessly, he notices the early moon and the pale blue of the sky. He can see a cathedral in the distance, and alone in nature, Stephen feels a deep connection to all of creation. He is “overtaken by a climactic surge of feeling,” and for the first time in years, Stephen does not feel numb.
Stephen believes that the war is a crime against nature, but he is metaphorically cleansed by the nature of the English countryside. This provides Stephen with a final push of optimism going into the final stages of the war.
Stephen heads back to France a day early so that he can visit Jeanne in Amiens. He arrives to the dark apartment and finds that in Isabelle’s absence, the curtains have been opened and a brightness fills the rooms.
Now that Isabelle is gone, much of the darkness and pain is likewise gone from the apartment. By comparison, Jeanne is bright and unburdened, and the apartment now reflects this instead.
Stephen asks Jeanne if she will be returning home to Rouen now that Isabelle no longer needs her. Jeanne is undecided, but is “drawn to the idea of independence” from her father and family. She offers Stephen a drink.
Like Isabelle, Jeanne has been oppressed by her father’s sexist ideals. It is expected that Jeanne will take care of her family; however, she would rather take care of herself.
Jeanne makes Stephen a nice meal, and as they eat she displays a “pleasant shyness.” In her presence, Stephen feels a “sense of tranquility” and becomes quiet. “Can I come here again?” he asks. Jeanne tells Stephen that he is always welcome, and he begins to break down. “I can’t do it. I’m so tired,” he cries. “Don’t make me go on.” Jeanne holds him as he cries and encourages him to be strong.
In Jeanne, Stephen is finally finding the love and support that he needs in order to be a great soldier. Stephen breaks down in Jeanne’s presence because her strength makes him feel vulnerable, and this is a marked difference from his relationship with Isabelle.
Back at the Front, Gray tells Stephen that his new appointment has been delayed and instead he will lead a raid on the enemy trenches. He is tasked with attacking the canal to the left so that the company can get a foothold. Stephen agrees. “Good man, Wraysford. Keep going. I knew you would,” Gray says.
Just like his men, Stephen continues to endure, and Gray likewise finds this endearing. Ironically, he considers Stephen a “good man” because he continues to kill.
Meanwhile, Jack has finished digging and rests in a dugout. Since Shaw’s death, Jack has begun to doodle pencil drawings of Stephen. He can’t bring himself to sketch Shaw, and he can’t “remember John’s face well enough to draw it.”
Jack is preoccupied with Stephen because he spared his life when he was court-martialed for sleeping at his sentry post. In this way, Jack owes his life to Stephen, and because of this Jack frequently thinks about him—especially in the absence created by John and Shaw’s deaths.
As Stephen waits to launch the raid, Weir comes to visit him. As usual, Weir is upset and scared. He tells Stephen that he has a “foreboding.” Stephen tries to change the subject, but Weir is persistent. He begins to talk about the last time Stephen read cards and Stephen cuts him off, yelling, “I fix the cards. I cheat.”
Weir’s “foreboding” is a harbinger of death. Stephen senses this as well, and this is why he becomes so angry. Stephen’s extreme anger and overreaction to Weir’s feelings are also a direct reflection of his love for Weir. Stephen becomes so angry precisely because he fears to lose his friend.
Weir is “startled and downcast,” and he attempts to tell Stephen how important he has been to him during the war—just in case. Stephen responds angrily, shoving him to the ground. “Fuck off, Weir, fuck off out of my way and leave me alone,” Stephen says, leaving Weir alone in the dugout.
Stephen can’t bring himself to say goodbye to Weir. Stephen’s love for Weir is largely what has kept him going through the war (other than his hate for the Germans), and if Stephen says goodbye, he will also have to admit his true feelings, which he is unable to do.
In the morning before the raid, breakfast comes to the trenches and Stephen is pleased to see bacon. The men quickly eat and prepare to enter No Man’s Land.
Again, this harkens back to Bérard’s belief that English folk eat meat daily, and it seems just as silly now.
The soldiers storm No Man’s Land as the machine guns give them cover. The enemy begins to fire as well, and the men start to fall. Company B lends fire power, and Stephen and the soldiers are able to make it through a hole in the German wire. They jump into the trench full of German prisoners and quickly run underground. There is fighting throughout the trench.
This passage again shows the dangers of running through No Man’s Land and the need for proper planning and communication. Had Stephen and his men found the German wire uncut, they would have been killed, just as many were on the previous raid.
Stephen looks across No Man’s Land and doesn’t see any troops. A platoon commander arrives and asks when reinforcements are arriving. “There are none,” Stephen says. “They’re not coming.
This passage again reflects Stephen’s dire circumstances, and it drives home the hardships and terror of war.
Ellis begins to panic. With Company B gone, they are trapped on the German side of No Man’s Land. “What do we do?” he cries. “We hold the line,” Stephen replies, “we hold the fucking line.” The fighting continues for hours until a new regiment regains control of the far trench.
This scene emphasizes Stephen’s extraordinary bravery. He is consistently the only cool head in battle.
A commanding soldier approaches Stephen and orders him to withdraw. Something has gone wrong—another problem in planning. As the regiment covers their retreat, Ellis is killed by machine gun fire.
Proper planning seems like an obvious necessity, but the soldiers are treated like they are dispensable.
Later, at his new desk job, Stephen writes Ellis’s mother and tells her of her son’s bravery. Stephen has grown tired of writing letters.
These notices are almost the only letters Stephen writes.
Meanwhile, Jack and the other miners remain in the trenches. As Weir approaches them, Jack notices that the sandbags have not been properly placed. Before he is able to warn him, a sniper’s bullet hits Weir in the head, and he falls dead, unaware of what has happened.
Of course, this passage is significant because it relays the death of Weir; however, it is also evidence of the miners’ constant work. The artillery soldiers are resting in a billet, but Jack and the others are still in the trenches.
When word reaches Stephen of Weir’s death, he is struck by a profound sadness. He thinks of the last time he spoke to Weir and the way he had treated him. Stephen had loved him; “Weir alone had made the war bearable.”
Stephen begins to recognize his love for others, marking his greatest evolution as a character. Because of love, Stephen is able to make it through to the end of the war.