The “trench system” that leads to the frontlines, Jim discovers, is intricate and hidden. The trenches are so close to the farmers that you could be in a ploughed field on minute, “and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards.” Jim observes that he can even “still see farmers at work” from the trench system; “there was all the difference between your state and theirs.” As Jim’s company moves along, the planks on the ground lead “straight to the war,” and the closer they get, the muddier and more awful the conditions become. The smell of death increases as they advance, and bloody, empty-faced soldiers pass them on their way out.
Once more, Jim notes a distinction between two worlds: the muddy and desperate world of the trenches, and the calm quotidian world of the farmland surrounding this intricate system. As he marches toward violence and mayhem, he looks back and feels a profound “difference” between his “state” and the “state” of the farmers whose fields he has marched through so shortly before. In the same way that he can look back on his old life and observe it with something like objectivity, now he gains a fresh perspective on the lives of people who aren’t in the war.
Jim recognizes some of the soldiers who pass him on their way out of the trenches, but they all look different, as if the war has “transformed” them in the eleven days they’ve been in the frontlines. As Jim himself begins to serve his time in the trenches, he slowly gets used to the horrid smell of rotting corpses. Strangely enough, he never even sees a German soldier, though he knows they’re nearby, since snipers so often shoot at them. At one point a fellow soldier gets “too cocky” and peeks “over the parapet twice,” only to have “ his head shot off.” When Clancy tells Jim the name of this unfortunate soul, Jim is horrified to discover he can’t “fit a face to the name.”
When Jim sees the “transformed” faces of soldiers who have just been on the frontlines, he gets his first glimpse at how profoundly and quickly war changes people. On another note, Jim’s desire to name and identify things holds strong in the trenches, and his inability to do this when a fellow soldier is shot in the face thoroughly distresses him. After all, this is how he usually makes sense of life. In these circumstances, though, it’s not always so easy.
Although the violent conditions of the war are certainly distressing, the true enemy is the ghastly state of the trenches themselves. Water seeps out of the ground and into everything, rising above Jim’s boots and creating “cave-ins” in the walls, which bring “old horrors to light” because so many bodies have been hastily buried in the premises. One night during a torrent of rain, Jim feels a hand on the back of his neck. “Cut it out, Clancy,” he says, but when he turns around, he sees a bloodless hand hanging out of the trench walls. Then, all at once, an entire corpse falls out and lands on him—an experience Jim is unable to banish from his memory and dreams.
Death surrounds Jim in the trenches. Everywhere he looks there is a grave or, at the very least, some kind of threatening condition. In this context, he has no choice but to recognize life’s impermanence by contemplating the inevitability of his own end.
Worse even than the water and the corpses in the trenches are the rats, which feast on the spoils of dead men and then run over the living soldiers’ faces at night. These creatures, Jim feels, stand in stark opposition to birds; he thinks, “To come to terms with the rats, and his disgust for them, he would have had to turn his whole world upside down.”
Yet again, Jim draws a delineation between two things. In this instance, he separates rats from birds, seeing each animal as a symbol. Birds, of course, represent life and freedom, and rats represent death. In order to “come to terms with the rats,” he realizes, he would have to completely invert his perspective, essentially turning “his whole world upside down.”
In the support lines one day, Jim sits down and has some toast while he and his company unload boxes of ammunition, which will be taken into the trenches. As he eats, he waits for Clancy to come above ground with some water. Without warning, he feels as if his breath has been “knocked out of him,” and his body is sent into the air. At first, he’s unable to hear, but when the ringing in his ears dies, he hears Eric Sawney screaming. Eric is nearby, and his legs have been blown off. Suddenly, Jim is “aware” that he himself is covered in blood.
This is the first truly violent experience Jim has in World War I. It’s worth noting that, despite the intensity of this event, Jim’s enemies remain unseen. In fact, neither Jim nor any of his fellow soldiers are even engaged in a fight when they’re suddenly plunged into violence and horror. This kind of abrupt eruption of pain, it seems, is the true experience of somebody engaged in trench warfare, where violence is removed and abstract right up until it’s overwhelmingly immediate and tangible.
Jim is sure the blood on him must belong to Eric, but the boy is too far away for this to make sense. He then wonders if it’s his own blood, asking himself if he’s dead and wondering if this is “the beginning of another life.” He thinks the “body’s wholeness” may just be “an image a man carried in his head,” and “might persist after the fact.” But then Jim wonders where Clancy is and, in a shock of horror, realizes that his friend has been shot and that the blood belongs not to him or Eric, but to Clancy—the blood coating his skin is all that’s left of his friend.
The idea that “the body’s wholeness” is an “image that a man carried in his head” aligns with Malouf’s interest in time and impermanence. If a human’s life is contained in the “head,” then there might be some form of continuity between life and death, assuming that consciousness persists after the end of a person’s life. Unfortunately, though, death seems overwhelmingly permanent from the other side, which is what Jim experiences when he realizes that the only thing of Clancy that remains is a spattering of blood.
Jim visits Eric in the hospital and finds it difficult to keep himself from staring at the place where the boy’s legs should be. “Listen, Jim,” Eric says, “who’s gunna look after me?” Eric says that, because he’s an orphan, he has nobody to care for him. Jim is unable to respond, since “faced with his losses,” he thinks his friend has “ hit upon something fundamental,” a question “about the structure of the world.” Jim lies, trying to assure Eric that someone is bound to look after and that everything will be all right. When he turns to leave, though, Eric asks if Jim will visit again, His voice reaches Jim as he walks away, and though at first it sounds like “the voice of a child,” it turns into that of “a querulous old man,” and the sound haunts Jim.
Though Eric may once have seemed like a naïve young boy dressed in the clothes of a soldier, now he’s faced with a difficult predicament, one that emphasizes both his youth and his maturity. Who, he wonders, will help him in life, now that he can’t even get around by himself? This question might seem childish, but Eric is correct about the fact that he will need assistance for the rest of his life—in effect, he will never become independent, and is instead stunted by the traumatic experience of war both physically and mentally. Jim seems to sense that Eric is a mere child who has been flung into a harrowing kind of maturity before his time, and this is perhaps why Eric’s voice takes on the quality both “of a child” and of an “old man,” a tension that troubles Jim.