Englishman Jack Firebrace is digging forty-five feet below the French soil, excavating the trenches of World War I with Evans, a fellow miner. The men are attempting to brace the tunnels for the infantry soldiers, and Jack and Evans have lost track of how long they have been underground; however, the fighting is so intense aboveground that they don’t mind.
The fact that Jack and Evans would rather work endless hours forty-five feet beneath the ground than be on the surface is a testament to the horrors of war. Underground work is terrifying and dangerous—and the mines are notoriously full of deadly toxic gas—yet it is still safer than being exposed to the fighting.
Evans tells Jack to back out of the hole he is chipping away at. Turner, another miner, has heard enemy sounds further back and Captain Weir, the miners’ commanding officer, has called on Jack’s impeccable hearing to identify the noise—he is adept at discerning normal shellfire from enemy digging near their trenches.
This passage illustrates how the deck is stacked against the soldiers. Their safety relies on Jack’s hearing and his ability to discern threatening noises. Of course, this is insufficient, and several men are killed.
Turner claims that the sounds seem to be German digging, and Jack asks Weir to turn off the air-feed so that he can listen more closely. Jack determines the sounds to be surface shellfire and nothing to worry about. He is “as sure as he can be,” and Evans and Jack quickly return to their own digging.
Jack can’t be sure that the Germans are not planting explosives near their tunnels. Listening posts in the trenches consist only of men with stethoscopes, and are nowhere near accurate.
Evans tries to light a candle, but there is not enough oxygen. The two men finish their shift of digging, and as Evans helps Jack out of his hole, a sudden blast rocks the earth and collapses much of their tunnel. As Jack, Evans, and Weir are blown to the sides of the tunnel, broken and destroyed bodies are thrown through the center of the remaining shaft, including a portion of Turner’s face and skull. The three men quickly exit the tunnel before the rest of it collapses.
This passage is exceedingly violent. Birdsong is a realistic depiction of the horrors of war, and Faulks explicitly describes the blood and carnage involved in the blast. Broader history tends to glorify war by ignoring or glossing over the human lives that are lost, but Faulks brings this loss of life to the forefront in order to highlight the true cost of war.
Back on the surface, Jack receives a letter from his wife, Margaret, but he is unable to read it. It is difficult to think of home during the toil of the war, and Jack puts the letter away until he can better concentrate on it.
This reference to Jack’s life before the war serves as a foil for the horrors of battle. The terrible state of the war is heightened in relation to Jack’s life during peacetime.
Jack informs the other miners that Turner has been killed. Jack shares a small dugout with Bill Tyson and Arthur Shaw, and the muddy hole serves as their home during the fighting. They have been together for nearly a year, each enticed by the promise of the six shilling pay for experienced miners and the likelihood of a quick war. Jack has reluctantly surrendered to the men’s friendship—with the rate at which the men die, Jack is weary of growing attached to anyone.
The calm way in which Jack informs the other miners of Turner’s death is indicative of the death that they see on a daily basis. Death was seen at unprecedented levels during World War I; on average, 6,000 soldiers were killed daily for the duration of the war—over nine million men in total.
Weir approaches the men and orders Shaw and Tyson into the tunnel. Tyson had been previously ordered to sentry duty, but the platoon is short of men and Weir orders Jack to the post instead. Jack tries to sleep before his watch starts but the day’s events keep him awake. He doesn’t blame himself for misidentifying the sounds in the tunnel; he had done his best and explosions are common enough underground.
The fact that the platoon is short of soldiers is also a reflection of the high number of casualties. There are not enough men to fight the war, and at the rate that they are all dying, Jack is forced to pull double duty. Furthermore, Jack isn’t a soldier. The men who dig the trenches are miners, and they lack the full military training of the soldiers.
Abandoning sleep, Jack reads the letter from Margaret and learns that his son, John, has fallen ill with diphtheria. Margaret was nearly forty when the boy was born, and he is physically frail and simple of mind. Jack rarely thinks of his family on the front, and their life in England feels a world away—even though gunfire can be heard in London if the conditions are right.
Jack’s letter from Margaret establishes his deep love for his son, John. Jack finds strength in his love for John, and it helps him endure through the war. Jack may feel far away from his family, but the fact that they can hear the fighting in London implies not only the war’s severity, but its closeness and danger to civilian life as well.
At his sentry post, Jack is exhausted and falls asleep without realizing it. Captain Weir walks by and discovers Jack’s dereliction of duty. “It’s a court-martial offence. See me tomorrow at six. Your sergeant will bring you. You know the punishment,” Weir says.
A court martial is a judicial court used to try offenses against military law. Technically, Jack is not a soldier, yet he is still subject to military law.
After he is relieved by another miner, Jack sits quietly under a tree undamaged by shellfire. If he is found guilty by court-martial, it is possible he will be shot. The members of his own unit will line up with guns, some loaded with blanks, others not, and no one will know who actually fired the killing shot. Jack prays to God for his life and awaits to hear his fate.
The undamaged tree is another painful reminder of nature’s indifference to the horrors of war and the actions of men. Jack may be killed for falling asleep (an act which seems counterproductive, since there are already not enough men), yet the tree grows, unaffected.
Soon, Jack’s sergeant collects him to go before Lieutenant Wraysford, one of the “strangest officers” the sergeant has known. When Jack arrives in the muddy hole that serves as the Lieutenant’s home, he finds Weir is already there.
Stephen is now a lieutenant in the war, and his failed love with Isabelle has resulted in a deep and widespread hatred. Stephen is standoffish to the men he fights alongside, so they think him “strange.”
Lieutenant Wraysford declines to charge Jack and Weir doesn’t see the point in any further action. Wraysford tells Jack that he would like to go down into the tunnels, and he agrees to take him. Jack suspects that the two men are drunk, and while he has come to think of Weir as dependable, he knows little about Wraysford. He decides he doesn’t care; he is just happy that his life has been spared.
Both Stephen and Weir drink excessively during the war (as do other men) to ease the pain and cope with the daily horrors. During WWI, soldiers were issued approximately one pint of alcohol per day, and it was used as the initial treatment for shellshock.
Later, Jack and the other miners are finally relieved and allowed to march to a billet for rest. Jack is exhausted and the long march feels unbearable. He suffers under the weight of his pack and twice falls asleep. He notices green grass growing on the side of the road and flowers blooming in the trees.
This passage again highlights nature and its indifference to the suffering caused by the war. Grass and flowers grow as the men die, and nature seems to mock Jack as he struggles to stay awake during the march.
The miners arrive in a small French village and Weir negotiates with a local farmer to secure them a barn to sleep in. In the barn, Tyson finds a clean corner and invites Shaw and Jack to join him. While the men do grow tired of each other’s habits, they are “familiar with them and fear worse.”
This passage illustrates the miserable existence the men lead as soldiers. They must convince civilians to allow them a place to sleep, and even then they are given only a barn and hay. Despite fighting on behalf of the civilians, the soldiers are treated quite poorly by them.
Later in the day, Jack wakes and walks outside as an infantry battalion arrives in the village. Jack notes that none of the infantry men “would admit that what they saw and what they did was beyond the boundaries of human behavior.” It is hard to believe that these same men are responsible for so much killing, and that likewise, so much killing has been done against them. Jack too joins “the unspoken conspiracy that all is well, that no natural order has been violated.
Jack believes that the war is a crime against nature and humanity. The war has long since crossed any line of what could be considered moral or humane, and there is no going back. Jack knows that the war is wrong, yet he does not protest. This mirrors Stephen’s failure to protest René’s abusive treatment of Isabelle, and in that same vein, Jack’s silence also illustrates how power and rank are maintained during the war.
The company food wagon arrives to feed the men, and Jack is too ashamed to admit that the meager meals supplied on the front are better than what he can afford at home. Next, the men line up naked near the washerwoman to bathe, and Jack notices Shaw’s “huge back” and muscular shoulders, along with the “dimple of the coccyx and the fatty swell of his hair-covered buttocks.” The men are issued clean clothes, although even these are covered with “immovable lice.”
Jack’s thoughts about Shaw and his body are overtly sexual, and his description is intimate and vaguely feminine. This description of the two men during a bath challenges stereotypes about men and masculinity. Both men are obviously brave and masculine—they are fighting in a war after all—but they are also tender and vulnerable.
The night before they leave to go back to the trenches, the men gather for singing. Weir plays the piano and Jack tells jokes, and Weir finds it difficult to enjoy the men’s company knowing that they are personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. The men “know no shame,” and they sing on into the night.
This passage illustrates the cruelty of war, and places the soldiers in the worst possible light. Many of the men, including Weir and Jack, do believe that the war is wrong; however, the alternative is death if they are caught shirking their duties.
Meanwhile, Stephen Wraysford’s section of the trenches have been shelled off for three days. He is exhausted, but his body is compelled by “some nervous chemical supplied by unknown glands.” Stephen is not a popular officer, and he doesn’t believe that there is a purpose to the fighting, nor an end in sight. It is Stephen’s education which has seen him through the ranks, and his own commanding officer, Captain Gray, constantly encourages him to become closer with the men.
The “nervous chemical” that compels Stephen to keep fighting for three days straight is hate. Isabelle has turned him cold, and he hates the Germans and even the men he commands. Stephen is good to his men—he fights alongside them and holds them as they die—but he doesn’t love them, and the men know it. Gray is convinced they will all fight better, and win the war, if they love more.
Stephen has developed a close friendship with Weir, and because of this, he knows more about the miners than he does about his own men. His favorite soldiers, Reeves, Byrne, and Wilkinson are at their normal post, and just as Stephen approaches them, a young soldier named Tipper runs along the dugout.
Despite his general coldness and hatred, Stephen grows to love Weir, and they help each other endure the hardships of war. The intimacy and closeness of Stephen and Weir also challenges popular gender stereotypes, as well as highlighting the power of love even in the darkness of war.
Tipper screams as he runs, confused and lost, and the other men can “see the contortions of his facial muscles beneath the skin.” Tipper screams for his home and for his mother, and Stephen orders Reeves to get him out of the dugout. Stephen is left shaken, thinking about how “unnatural” their existence is.
Tipper represents the horrors of shellshock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and he illustrates the unimaginable trauma that the soldiers endure during times of war. Tipper should have been hospitalized long ago, be he continues to fight, further injuring himself.
Later, Weir arrives in Stephen’s dugout. He has run out of whiskey and he knows that his friend will have some extra. Weir is constantly afraid; afraid of the war, of the killing, and of dying, and he asks Stephen to talk to him as a distraction. “Talk to me, Wraysford,” he says. “Talk to me about anything you like.”
Weir’s fear also challenges typical assumptions about gender and masculinity. As a man, Weir is expected to be courageous, but he is constantly afraid.
Stephen agrees and begins talking. He tells Weir that if the people back home in England saw some of the things they have done, “they would not believe their eyes.” Stephen sees the war as “an exploration of how far men can be degraded,” and he believes that the war has “barely started.”
Like Jack, Stephen too believes that the war is a crime against humanity and nature, and his choice of conversation highlights humankind’s potential to commit unspeakable acts.
Weir is disturbed by Stephen’s choice of topic and he quickly changes the subject. “I’ve never been with a woman,” Weir says. At thirty-two years old, Stephen can hardly believe his ears.
Weir’s confession that he is a virgin again disrupts society’s basic assumptions about gender and sexuality. As a man, Weir is supposed to be experienced with women, yet he is afraid of them too.
Weir admits that he wants to know what sex is like but now it has “become such an issue.” Stephen suggests a prostitute, but Weir isn’t interested. He assumes Stephen has been with many women, but says that for him it’s not that easy. Stephen corrects him, denying much experience, but admits to once being in love.
Stephen hasn’t had much experience with women either. Of course, there was Isabelle, but he was in love with her, and to him, it was never about the sex—although it was largely about sex for Isabelle.
Weir engages the topic of love, and Stephen tells him about Isabelle. He says that after she left, he didn’t pursue her. Instead, he “let her go.” Weir asks him if he thinks of her often, and Stephen answers, “No. Never.”
When Stephen lets Isabelle go, he finally respects her position as he said he would that day in the rose garden. He lets her go because he loves her, and he respects her decision—even if that decision is to leave him.
Their conversation turns to their men, and Stephen claims that his men don’t respect him. “I’m irrelevant to them,” Stephen says. “Sometimes I think that I despise them,” he adds. Just then, another soldier appears and tells Stephen that he is needed in the trenches. There are multiple casualties, he says. “Reeves, Wilkinson, I think.”
This is a further reflection of Stephen’s hate. Stephen has felt irrelevant his entire life, first to his parents and then to Isabelle, and now he is irrelevant to his men. However, Stephen still risks his life to save theirs, and this speaks to his inherent goodness.
Weir and Stephen run out to the trenches and begin digging through blown rock and dirt, trying to exhume their men. They pull Reeves from the rubble, “his rib cage missing on one side,” and nearby, they uncover Wilkinson, who had just been married. Another soldier, Douglas, has also been hurt, and while he is still alive, he is in bad shape.
This passage is another example of the extreme violence present in Birdsong. Through this violence, Faulks argues that remembrance of the war must include the war’s horrific aspects as well. This violence too is part of history, and it must be observed so that it might be avoided in the future.
Stephen comforts Douglas, whose femur is protruding from his leg. He asks about Douglas’s wife, and reminds him that he will see her again. He is covered in Douglas’s blood, and as the soldier loses consciousness, another blast rockets Stephen against the side of the trench. When the dust settles, Stephen is unhurt, and he calls for his men to take away Douglas’s body. “Get this man’s blood off me,” he yells to the other men in the trench.
Later in the novel, when Elizabeth asks if her grandfather was a good man and a good soldier, Brennan tells her about Stephen holding the dying Douglas. For Elizabeth, this story is confirmation that her grandfather was a good man, and Stephen’s actions as Douglas dies illustrate the breadth of humankind’s potential for both good and evil.
In the following days, Stephen’s company is relieved for rest, and he is billeted in a doctor’s home on the edge of the town of Béthune. The house boasts a formal, overgrown garden, and he reflects on the last few days. At one point, the gunfire quiets and a blackbird is heard singing. In the house, Stephen soon falls asleep.
The overgrown garden represents nature and its continued growth and life despite the war. The blackbird is also a sign of nature, and is symbolic of optimism in the face of constant death.
In the morning, Stephen thinks about breakfast and wonders if there will be meat. He thinks of Bérard and his theory that English people eat meat every day for breakfast, and the house on the boulevard du Cange feels a world away.
This passage serves to illustrate how trivial Bérard and René’s opinions were. Now, surrounded by death and hunger, the ridiculousness of this conversation is clear.
He thinks of Isabelle, and while Stephen can still taste her flesh, he remembers little else about her. “What had gone completely was the memory of what made her human, her ways and her thoughts.”
This passage highlights the effect of pain and trauma on memory. Between his broken heart and the stress of war, Stephen has forgotten about his own love for Isabelle.
Stephen had remained in St.-Rémy for an entire year after Isabelle left, in case she needed him, and when she never returned, he boarded a train for Paris. “The strain of his anguish lasted for another year, then went cold in him,” and when the war broke out, Stephen was glad for the distraction.
This passage illustrates Stephen’s deep love for Isabelle, and it also highlights his loneliness. Isabelle has Jeanne to temper the sting of her pain, but Stephen, an orphan, has no one to run to.
Stephen had considered joining the French army. After all, they would all be fighting the same enemy, but he felt a strange pull to fight alongside other Englishmen. He returned to London, and while he lacked the training to join immediately, the sergeant “turned a blind-eye” and Stephen found himself an instant soldier.
Like many during World War I, Stephen feels the pull of patriotism and nationalism. The war brought out a deep sense of pride throughout much of Great Britain, due in large part to widespread propaganda posters.
Stephen had assumed that the war would be “fought and concluded swiftly in a traditional way,” but over a year later, he had grown “used to the sight and smell of torn human flesh.” Since he couldn’t protest, “he turned himself to killing.”
Stephen has no idea what he is getting himself into. The scale of death and inhumanity during World War I was unprecedented. For the first time ever, military efforts targeted civilians, and in the end, over ten million civilians were killed. Officially, the death count of civilians outnumbered those of the military by some three hundred thousand.
Later that morning, Stephen meets with Captain Gray, an odd Scotsman who spends most of his time reading. He asks Stephen how his platoon is fairing, and he tells him of the widespread death. “Yes of course,” Gray says, and then asks if he is getting along with the men. Stephen replies “yes,” although he is not sure that they really respect him.
Gray receives the news about Stephen’s platoon as commonplace, underscoring the extensive death during the war. Gray frequently reads psychological texts, and this helps him to understand his men.
Gray asks if the men obey Stephen, and when he answers in the affirmative, Gray questions, “do you think that’s enough?” Stephen thinks so, but Gray insists that he make his men love him, so that they fight better. He then asks Stephen if he loves his men, and he replies, “No, I suppose not.”
Gray’s line of questioning emphasizes the power of love; if the men love Stephen, they will better endure the hardships of war. Jack Firebrace and his love for his son is apparent proof of Gray’s theory.
Stephen claims not to look down on the men, but because he doesn’t value his own life, he has “no sense of the scale of these sacrifices. I don’t know what anything is worth,” Stephen says. Gray reminds him that he could be a great soldier. “You aren’t yet,” he says, “but you could be.”
Essentially, this is the same fear Isabelle had regarding Stephen and his past affecting his ability to love. Gray implies that great soldiers also have a great capacity for love.
Meanwhile, Jack Firebrace has applied for leave to visit his sick son, but Weir denies him and instead orders him to begin a new tunnel. This time Jack will dig at a depth of seventy feet, but the shaft will be only three feet wide. Even Jack is uncomfortable under these conditions, and he tries not to think about the earth above him. He doesn’t “think of the roots of trees, stretching down through the soil.”
Faulks’s imagery of the tree roots reaching down to Jack is another reference to nature, and it also illustrates how far Jack has fallen from righteousness during the war. Faulks argues that nature is indifferent to humankind, but Jack is so deep underground that he is even beyond the reach of indifferent tree roots.
That afternoon, Weir goes to see Captain Gray and requests for increased defense underground. Weir’s men are not soldiers, and he fears the enemy will dig through their tunnels from the other side of No Man’s Land. Gray agrees and promises to put Wraysford in charge.
The men working underground do not adhere to the same requirements as the infantry soldiers. Historically, miners were often older than soldiers, at times as old as sixty, and Weir’s men cannot be expected to fight with the same skill as the infantry soldiers.
Stephen later asks his men for volunteers. “We’ll take a sewer rat to show us the way, but I need two others. We’ll be in a fighting tunnel. We won’t have to crawl.” When no one steps up, Stephen randomly selects two men.
Stephen’s reference to the miners as “sewer rats” underscores the hierarchy of the men within World War I. Miners were often treated as second-class citizens by the infantry soldiers, and since the miners were often paid more than the soldiers in an effort to lure them away from their jobs at home, there was hostility between them.
Jack meets them underground and leads the soldiers through the dark underworld of the war. “I’ve heard German movement coming this way. We need to protect our men laying the charge and also the lower tunnel,” he tells them. The men in Stephen’s charge are terrified of the deep tunnel, and Stephen feels their “fear begin to infect him.”
During the month of June of 1916, British miners laid miles of explosives throughout the French mines and tunnels. Their efforts resulted in a total of 227 mine explosions for the month, or approximately one detonation every three hours.
One of the men refuses to advance deeper into the tunnel. Afraid that the soldier will get them all killed, Stephen asks him, “You hate the Germans don’t you?” When the man responds “yes,” Stephen orders, “Get in there.” Together, they move forward.
This is an example of Stephen’s hate fueling his actions and the actions of his soldiers. The underground is a terrifying place, and Stephen finds courage in his hatred.
Jack tells Stephen that the men laying the mine are worried that Germans are tunneling through into their chamber. Stephen looks at his frightened men who are sitting down to rest. “We’re going to kill some Germans,” he says. “Get up.”
Stephen motivates his men with the prospect of taking lives, and this again underscores the blind killing and depravity that takes place during war.
The men come across a section of the tunnel where German soldiers have obviously broken through, and a sudden explosion rocks the earth. They take off running, intending to cut the Germans off before they can reach their men, when gunfire erupts behind them. Stephen’s men throw grenades and fire their guns back down the tunnel, when Stephen is suddenly struck by the “sensation of having been hit by a falling house.”
This close, underground combat is pure chaos. Dust and darkness make it nearly impossible to see, and ricocheting rocks and ammunition seem likely. Because of this, Stephen’s survival is pure luck, suggesting that perhaps his superstitious card game is more accurate than even Gray would like to admit.
The men evacuate the tunnel, dragging Stephen behind them. The regimental aid post has been blown up too, and the men do their best to apply field dressings to his wounds. Stephen is impaled with shrapnel and a rifle bullet is lodged in his neck. He is concussed and unconscious.
This early in the war, the military does not have an established medical corps, and much of the provided care occurs on the front lines. Death from infection and gangrene is common, and chances of survival are slim.
As he awaits medical attention in the mud, Stephen is aware of “a profound weariness” when infection sets in. By the time he reaches a dressing station, Stephen is delirious. He begins to hallucinate and calls out for his mother. “They always do,” notes the medical officer as he peels back the makeshift dressings.
This passage is particularly effective in representing the horrors of war. For all intents and purposes, Stephen doesn’t even have a mother, yet he still calls for her in his suffering. This is a heart-wrenching image.
After the bombardment, Jack and Shaw sit smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. Shaw asks Jack if he knows anything about the injured lieutenant. When he answers no, Shaw tells him to go find out and offers to cover for him if needed.
This passage too underscores how terrible the war is. Jack and Shaw sit smoking and drinking as if this is just another day, because it is just another day—they frequently see this level of death and destruction.
Down the trench line, Jack finds a medical tent and asks an orderly about Stephen. “They put him over the wall,” the man says. Jack asks if he is dead, and the man confirms, “It was only an hour ago.”
With the high number of causalities, bodies often pile up before the soldiers are able to properly bury them.
Jack wanders down to the ploughed field that holds the endless sea of decaying corpses and torn uniforms, and stands back to assess the death. Suddenly, a figure moves, and Stephen struggles naked to the surface. “Get me out,” he manages, and as Jack climbs into the pit of bodies, Stephen falls into his arms.
Dead bodies are a frequent sight for Jack and Stephen; however, the psychological effects of being left for dead in this way are unimaginable, and this highlights the psychological trauma that the soldiers endure.
Meanwhile, at his usual billet, Weir tries not think about Stephen. He has heard nothing about his condition but he believes he is alive. To Weir, Stephen has an “untouchable quality of good fortune about him.” He decides that if Stephen is dead, he will write to his next of kin, “if such a person exists.”
Of course, Stephen does not have a next of kin, and this passage reminds the reader of this. There is no one to send a telegram to or present a flag to; Stephen’s life is completely empty outside of Isabelle and the war.
One day while walking outside, Captain Gray comes to visit Stephen. He tells him he is being given a two-week furlough home to England when he is discharged from the hospital, and that he is being promoted to a desk job. Stephen refuses, and begs to stay. “Everyone knows we’re going to attack.”
Stephen does not have a home in England to return to, and this sense of emptiness fuels his hatred. He would rather stay and fight, since at least that way he has an outlet for his negative emotions.
Stephen continues, “I have no home in England. I wouldn’t know where to go.” He implores Gray to speak to the commanding officer. The company will soon be heading to Albert, and Stephen reminds Gray of his fluent French. “Indispensable,” Gray says.
The troops’ move to Albert is significant in that Stephen has spent time there during peacetime. Albert is where Stephen goes fishing with the Azaires, and this comparison of the location before and during the war helps to relay the effects of war on society.
Gray promises to advocate for Stephen’s place in the company if he agrees to “toe the line a bit more.” Gray continues and warns Stephen about the superstitious card games he plays with the other men. “I’ve seen that rubbish in your dugout,” Gray says. “Officers are not superstitious, Wraysford. Our lives depend on strategy and tactics, not matchsticks or card games.”
Stephen’s card game implies that all things, including life and war, are left up to chance and no amount of planning or effort can change an outcome. Obviously, as Grays suggests, this can be damaging to soldiers, who need to believe that their superior officers have a solid plan.
Stephen claims to not truly believe in the card games but simply does it for the men. Gray tells Stephen he does believe because of what happened to him as a child. When Stephen protests, Gray says, “If I help keep you here at the Front, God help you, you will do things my way in the future.”
Stephen certainly believes in his card game on some level, as he is known to play it alone. His life has been terrible and lacking in love, and it is easier for him to believe that his pain has been random, rather than something he deserves.
Back at the Front, Stephen and Weir prepare to move out to Albert on Friday, and Stephen promises to take him into town on Thursday night before they leave. Weir guesses that Stephen is looking to find him a woman, and there is a mother/daughter team who will “work through a whole platoon,” but the thought fills him with anxiety. Weir knows these acts are natural, but he is in no hurry to have sex.
Weir’s frightened response to women and sex disrupts gender stereotypes. He would rather avoid sex, and this runs counter to typical assumptions about men. The prostitutes also disrupt typical stereotypes. Through sex these women are able to independently support themselves, and in the opinion of the military, the prostitutes fulfill a valuable service to the solders.
The previous heavy bombardment has led to “relative quiet,” and Stephen can hear the sounds of the German soldiers nearby. He hates them and feels “nothing but an urge of violence.” He harnesses his hate “as a means of saving his own life and those of his men.” In the starless night, Stephen hears the song of a nightingale.
Again, the nightingale is a cruel reminder of nature. Nightingales are typically associated with violence within Greek and Roman mythology, and as such, this birdsong is often interpreted as a lament.
Meanwhile, Jack Firebrace finds solace in thoughts of his son. The love he feels for John “redeems his view of human life and gives substance to this faith in God.” The next day, a letter arrives from Margaret, but Jack decides to open it later.
Jack’s devotion to his son and the effects of their relationship on Jack’s endurance and ability to cope with the war is another testament to the power of love. Jack needs this love to counteract the rampant hate of the war.
Later that evening, Stephen and Weir take a motorbike into town, and when they arrive outside the brothel, Weir becomes uncomfortable. “I don’t think I want to go on with this. Look at this place, it’s pretty squalid,” he says. Stephen urges him on. “It’s a woman,” he says, “not someone with a gun.”
This passage underscores the terrible living conditions of the soldiers. They often live with rats and miscellaneous body parts fortifying their trenches, and they are perpetually covered in lice. The brothel also puts Weir’s fear of women and sex into harsh perspective when compared to the literal danger of the war.
An older woman arrives and leads Weir to the back of the establishment, and Stephen is left alone. When Weir returns, he looks “shaken and pale,” and Stephen begins to worry about the woman. “What have you done, you raving idiot?” he questions.
Stephen fears that Weir may have hurt one of the women as a symptom of shellshock. Soldiers suffering from PTSD can quickly become disoriented and slip into combat mode, even in nonviolent circumstances.
The older woman appears and leads Stephen to the back bedroom. He claims he isn’t interested; he only wants to make sure that everyone is okay. The woman begins to fondle Stephen, and then she kneels and takes him in her mouth. Once Stephen becomes excited, she stands and leaves him alone with a young girl on the bed. “Take you clothes off,” she orders.
Again, the explicit sexual nature of this passage disrupts popular stereotypes of women and sexuality. Here, the women are assertive and in control of their sexuality.
Stephen does exactly as he is told, and he notices how beautiful the girl is. As he lays on top of her and enters her, he feels a tenderness towards her, and then, suddenly, nothing. Her naked body reminds him of the mangled bodies in the trenches, and he is filled with a “shuddering revulsion.”
Stephen is experiencing symptoms of shellshock (PTSD), which are worsened by his broken heart and profound hate. He can no longer separate his life as a soldier from his life as a civilian.
Looking at the young prostitute, Stephen does “not know whether to take the girl or kill her,” and he removes his knife from his pocket. He trails the knife down her body and between her breast, and to the terrified girl, it is clear that he doesn’t know what he is doing. She gently slides the knife from his hand and throws it in a far corner, tenderly touching his hand.
Stephen’s potentially violent interaction with the prostitute not only brings the seriousness of shellshock to light, but it also highlights the misogyny present in mainstream society. In his right mind, Stephen is angered by violence against women, and his actions in the brothel make this tragedy much more profound.
Stephen looks at her, confused. She says only, “It is very difficult. The war.” Stephen apologizes. “I understand,” she says. He gathers his belongings and runs from the room.
Historically speaking, there was a spike in domestic violence in the aftermath of WWI. War glorifies violence and simultaneously strips men of power in numerous ways, which results in an increase in abuse at home. Birdsong emphasizes the problem of violence against women, and Stephen’s experiences illustrate how this violence is further confounded by the war.
The next day Weir receives new orders. They are to march to an unspecified billet, and move on to Albert the next day. At last, the attack is upon them. Weir “resigns to it.” His life is out of control and he is humiliated. “The guns [can’t] be much worse,” he thinks.
Weir’s sexual experience at the brothel has had the opposite effect that Stephen intended. Instead of empowering Weir, it has led to an increased feeling of powerlessness. In this vein, Faulks is critical of sex as a means of wartime empowerment or coping for soldiers. Not only has this route been ineffective for both Stephen and Weir, it also serves to increase violence against women.
After his shift, Jack Firebrace takes out Margaret’s letter. Reading it, he discovers that his son has died. A part of Jack dies along with him, but he vows not to let it shake his faith. He prays to thank God for the time he had with John, but no words come. He sobs.
Conversely, Jack finds much-needed solace in love (even in the face of his son’s death). In this way, Faulks again argues for the motivating nature of love during war.
Once in Albert, the miners are dispatched to the Front and the artillery is allowed some downtime. Captain Gray takes Stephen to dinner at the house the Colonel is billeted at. Colonel Barclay tells the men he intends to “go over the top” himself, and when Gray introduces him to Stephen, Barclay refers to him as “the Somme expert.”
To “go over the top” refers to the act of exiting the relative safety of the trenches for the open air of No Man’s Land. While Barclay may knowingly send his men to certain death, he at least has the integrity to go with them.
Colonel Barclay tells Stephen that they will be “the first wave of attack.” As they enjoy dinner in the elaborate dining room, Stephen thinks of his men in the trenches with lice and cups of tea, and he immediately feels guilty. He smiles, “aware that his brief flight from reality will soon end.”
This passage again serves to underscore the horrible living conditions of the soldiers. Lice is a minor nuisance compared to bullets, but the insects have major effects on the soldiers. Lice are responsible for trench fever, which plagues the soldiers with headaches, fever, and muscle pain.
The battalion marches into the village of Colincamps, and the men find a local billet for the night. With darkness comes gunfire, and the barn Stephen is trying to sleep in rocks and shakes throughout the night. Without sleep, the men set out for Auchonvillers in the morning, singing “marching songs with banal, repeated words of home.”
The soldiers singing as they march into Auchonvillers harkens back to Stephen’s discussion with René and Bérard about French soldiers returning from war with Prussia. Faulks’s use of the word “banal” underscores the “essential loss of purity” that Bérard once argued.
Stephen sees a group of men digging a mass grave, and the battalion moves on in silence. When they arrive in Auchonvillers, Stephen sees Colonel Barclay rallying the troops. “You are going to attack,” he yells. “The enemy will be relieved to see someone to whom he can surrender.”
The constant digging of graves is a significant cause of psychological stress for the soldiers. On average, about 57% of enlisted soldiers will not return home, and many of the men simply wait their turn to die.
The men cheer Barclay, but their enthusiasm is hampered by the military police shouting instructions. “Any man shirking his duty will be shot on the spot,” they are told. For effect, the MPs read from lists of names of men who have been “executed for cowardice.”
Faulks again highlights how unspeakable acts are committed during war, seemingly without protest by the soldiers. The men are essentially bullied into doing what they know is wrong in exchange for a slightly greater chance of survival.
Stephen notices Tipper “smiling madly” in the sea of men, and he notices Weir standing with the miners. Stephen yells to ask Weir if he will be with them tomorrow during the attack. “Watching from a safe distance,” he laughs. “Our work is done.” Weir tells Stephen that a few of his men have volunteered to carry stretchers, but for the most part, they have all cleared out.
Again, Tipper is the personification of shellshock, and this is why he smiles “madly.” This passage also highlights the vital role miners played. Not only do they make it possible for the soldiers to fight, but they often volunteer to care for the wounded in the absence of a medical corps.
Gray calms the men and recaps the battle plan with them. They will be covered by artillery fire as they advance, and once they take their objective, the artillery will continue. “It provides protection for you all the way,” he says. “The German wire is already cut and many of their guns destroyed. Causalities will be ten per cent.”
The German wire is the area of fencing and barbed wire that protects the German trenches on the other side of No Man’s Land. If the wire is not cut beforehand, the British soldiers cannot get through to the German trenches, and they become sitting ducks out in the open of No Man’s Land.
Gray looks to Stephen and tells him that he wants him to take charge of the company should he be killed in the attack. “Because you are a mad, cold-hearted devil and that is what we are going to need.” He further tells Stephen that the German wire isn’t cut. A “staff cockup,” Gray says. “Don’t tell your men, Wraysford. Don’t tell them, just pray for them.”
Ironically, Stephen is not the “mad, cold-hearted devil” Gray assumes him to be. He constantly questions the morality of his actions and is deeply affected by the “staff cockup” that fails to cut the German wire. Stephen cannot protest, though, which makes his pain all the more significant.
That night, the men write letters home. Tipper writes to his parents and tells them that they “have been the dearest Mum and Dad,” and Stephen writes Isabelle, even though he knows the letter will never reach her. He tells her that “some crime against nature is about to be committed,” and he is scared that he will be killed.
Through the soldiers’ letters, Faulks highlights the human element of the war. The letters have the effect of giving nameless, faceless soldiers real identities with mothers and fathers who will miss them.
The guns go quiet to reserve shells eight hours before the attack, and the men are told to go in at seven-thirty. They are surprised that they are waiting until daylight, and the men begin to drink. They hear German guns fire and, thinking that most of the guns have been disarmed, they are surprised to hear it.
The silence of the guns serves to amplify the continuous gunfire that the men endure. Soldiers grow accustomed to the constant barrage of gunfire, and this is only fully appreciated once it stops.
The British shoot back and part of their trench explodes. Fire shoots into the sky, and Stephen thinks something must be wrong. “We must go now,” he thinks, but he receives no word to advance early.
Faulks’s countdown of the moments before the charge serves to emphasize Stephen’s anxiety and apprehension.
There is still ten minutes to go before seven-thirty. When his watch finally reads the correct time, Stephen steps out of the trench and an eerie silence falls, cut by the song of skylarks.
The skylark, which also is symbolic of daybreak, represents the normal course of nature in the face of war.
Stephen presses on and a man missing half his face wanders by, his gun still drawn. Just as Gray had warned, the wire is not cut, and countless men are stuck, entwined in the barbed-wire, vulnerable in the open space. Stephen notes a gap in the wire and makes his way toward it.
Again, the extreme violence of Birdsong gives the reader a realistic understanding of the experience of war, including the disturbing images that the public is often spared in typical historical accounts.
Surprisingly, Stephen makes it through the barrage of gunfire, and he begins to laugh to himself. He enters the German trench and looks around. It is well crafted and clean, and when he moves further down, he finds one of his men firing toward the Germans.
Stephen’s continued survival does not make sense. Statistically speaking, he should have died long ago. Stephen’s luck gives credence to his superstitious card game.
A couple of hours pass, and they continue firing. They are trapped; they can’t move forward much towards the Germans (their defenses have barely fallen) and going back across No Man’s Land is impossible. Stephen senses movement under his feet and notices a badly injured man. His eye socket is blown out and he begs Stephen to kill him. He is from a different regiment, and Stephen hesitates. He thinks, “no one will know,” and he shoots the man twice. It is his first kill of the day.
The image of Stephen killing another British soldier further brings the horrors of war to light. It is expected that Stephen will kill enemy soldiers; however, the mercy killing of his fellow soldier amplifies the horrific nature of his predicament. Additionally, because of the poor planning that results in this massacre, the soldier’s death is in vain.
Jack and Shaw watch from a distance and can’t believe the carnage. They expected a swift attack, and now they stand watching the men die. The hole they had blown earlier in the day has done little good, and they “clutch each other’s arms in disbelief.” Jack “thinks of meat, the smell of it.”
Faulks’s comparison of the smell of battle to the smell of meat is a strong descriptive tool that elicits the reader’s senses in relaying the horrors of war.
As Stephen looks out of the German trench he thinks, “Nothing is divine anymore; everything is profane.” He hears the roars of the Lewis guns, but he is driven to go on. First he must drink, and he has lost his canteen in the chaos.
This passage highlights the depravity of war and the lengths the men will go to win. Death and dying has replaced religion and goodness in the world.
As he searches for water, Stephen sees more of his men cut down, and he prays for night to fall. Once it is dark, he thinks, “the earth might resume its natural process, and perhaps, in many years’ time, what had happened during daylight could be viewed as an aberration, could be comprehended within the rhythm of normal life.” But this seems impossible now, and to Stephen, war is the “new reality.”
Stephen believes that war is unnatural and a crime against humanity, so it stands to reason that it will never be comprehended in the “rhythm of normal life.” The war is his new reality, and he will have to live with the pain and death long after it is over (if he survives).
Stephen is finally is able to stagger down to the river for a drink, and while satisfying his thirst, he stumbles and is swept downstream, surrounded by German soldiers. As they are all helpless in the water, Stephen “tries to hate them now as he had hated them before.” He sees a British soldier standing on a bridge upriver, and he safely pulls him out.
Washing down the river and headed for certain death, Stephen finds it difficult to hate the German soldiers. In that moment they cease to be enemies; rather, they are helpless fellow humans headed for the same fate.
An impact comes from nowhere and strikes Stephen in the temple. He wakes sometime later to Tyson, one of Weir’s miners, bandaging his wounds. “They stopped attacking,” Tyson says. He tells Stephen he has only a flesh wound and runs to get Weir.
Again, it is not a doctor or nurse who cares for Stephen, but a miner. This underscores their importance during the war.
The remaining men have gathered for roll call. The names of eight hundred men are called into the night, but only one hundred and fifty-five answer.
Clearly, this number is way over the estimated 10% casualty rate falsely claimed by Gray.
Weir starts to shake. The guns have stopped, yet he still asks Stephen if he can hear them. Stephen hadn’t noticed before, but in the silence is the low continuous moan of countless men dying. To Stephen, it sounds as if “the earth itself is groaning.” “Oh God, oh God,” Weir cries. “What have we done, what have we done?”
Once again, Faulks’s descriptive and disturbing depiction of violence highlights the unspeakable circumstances of the war. In this way, Faulks argues that future generations must have in-depth knowledge of all the aspects of war in order to fully grasp the cost to humanity.
As Weir cries, he asks Stephen to hold him and call him by his name. Stephen pulls him close. “It’s all right, Michael. It’s all right, Michael. Hold on, don’t let go. Hold on, hold on.”
Stephen’s tender treatment of Weir not only continues to upset gender stereotypes, but it also speaks to his inherent goodness. Stephen loves more deeply than he realizes.