Sliding across the battlefield on his stomach, Jim tries to find his company, which has been separated in the black of night while the air thrums with machine-gun fire and corpses lie about in all directions. Jim finds a shell-hole and takes cover, shielding his head with his arms and taking a moment to catch his breath, relieved to have found shelter. Before long, though, he realizes that staying in this shell-hole near enemy lines is more dangerous in the long run than venturing forth and risking getting shot. With this in mind, he moves to leave, but a hand grabs him by the heel. As he turns around, he immediately falls into a deadly struggle with an “unknown assailant,” flailing brutally in the dark.
Malouf provides very little context for this scene, ultimately choosing to throw readers into the middle of a battle sequence in which Jim must try desperately to find his way through the dark. In doing so, he simulates Jim’s confused perspective, encouraging readers to grope their own way through the scene in the same way that Jim must orient himself. When an “unknown assailant” attacks Jim, readers are reminded once again that the violence of trench warfare is muddled and abstract until, suddenly, it reaches out to touch a person in a very direct and tangible manner.
After struggling for several moments with this unknown antagonist in the dark trench, Jim realizes he knows the man. “Wizzer!” he shouts, “it’s me, you mad bugger. Jim. A friend!” Astonished, the two men separate, both of them embarrassed that the other has found him hiding from the battle. Jim insists they get out and find their fellow soldiers, but Wizzer refuses. Jim tries to explain that it is safer to leave, but Wizzer won’t listen. The large man even begins “to quake,” his shoulders shuddering and jaw chattering as an “odd moaning sound” escapes from deep within his body. Jim finds himself wanting to “join Wizzer in making that noise,” but “some sense of shame” keeps him from doing so.
In this moment, Malouf demonstrates to readers that human relationships depend heavily upon the context in which they take form. Although Wizzer and Jim have thus far proved themselves foes, now Jim calls himself “a friend.” Faced with a powerful common enemy, the two men put aside their differences, proving that human connection is malleable and dependent upon a number of contextual factors.
Jim tells Wizzer he’s leaving. Lifting himself toward the lip of the shell-hole, he looks back and says, “I wish you’d come Wizzer,” but the man simply shakes his head. Giving up, Jim leaves the shell-hole and runs partly crouched through the chaos until he finds—to his great joy—Bobby Cleese, who joins him in running for safety. Eventually, the two men find a group of others in another ditch. One of them is an officer, though he looks young and inexperienced. Still, he takes control, telling the group that they’re going to venture forth. “It’s a mistake,” Jim thinks. “This kid can’t be more than twelve years old.” Nonetheless, he follows the boy out of the ditch and watches as the officer is shot in the belly.
After Jim leaves Wizzer trembling in the ditch, he comes upon a true friend: Bobby Cleese. Although Bobby’s presence does nothing to protect Jim, it warms his heart to see a familiar face. Unfortunately, this positive feeling fades when Jim watches the young officer get shot in the stomach, a reminder not only of the violence surrounding them all, but also of the fact that this war is snuffing out the lives of mere children.
After the officer dies, Jim and Bobby Cleese find cover in another shell-hole, and this is when they wind up trapped for an entire night and day. Bobby tells stories about Deception Bay, and the two men listen to the Germans move about in their trenches, which are only twenty feet away. In the daytime, birds fly overhead, and Jim identifies them. Later, the two men fall asleep. Having been able to “put to one side the notion of the danger” they’re in, their sunny afternoon feels almost “idyllic.” In any case, both Jim and Bobby survive this episode. Bobby doesn’t die until June, and by then Jim is a weathered soldier and “a third of the battalion ha[s] disappeared and been replaced.”
Malouf has already mentioned Jim and Bobby’s time in the shell-hole in Chapter 9. Now, he gives readers a more detailed account, suggesting that both men find a way to “put to one side the notion” of “danger.” This, it seems, is what comradery can do: enable a person to set aside their fears. Still, though, friendship doesn’t actually protect a person from danger, a fact that becomes evident when Malouf notes that Bobby dies three months later, when “a third of the battalion” has already “disappeared and been replaced.”
Bobby doesn’t die a swift death. Instead, he is poisoned with tear gas and phosgene, which takes several days to finish him. By this point, Jim’s company has returned to their old post in the support lines. On the day that Bobby dies, Jim visits him in the hospital. On his way through the trenches, he comes upon a group of soldiers crowded around something that has been unearthed: “the fossil of a prehistoric animal, a mammoth, together with the flints that had been used either to kill or to cut it up.” By the time Jim sees it, the fossil has been fully excavated. As Jim looks at it, he reels at the fact that it is “thousands of years dead” and yet has been lying in the ground “among the recent dead.”
When Jim looks at the mammoth, he’s forced yet again to admit the inevitability of death. Here, lying “among the recent dead,” is an enormous reminder that death claims all, no matter how powerful a creature is during its lifetime.
Looking at the mammoth and the flints used to “kill” or “cut it up,” Jim feels as if time is “meaningless.” When he finally enters the hospital tents, where the dying are “kept apart from the rest,” he is horrified to see Bobby Cleese’s “fevered” eyes, and he watches his friend until the man takes a turn for the worse and begins his last moments amongst the living. That night, Jim’s company goes to the frontlines for five days before returning for another eighteen.
Like all humans, Jim is unable to stop the slow march of time, which brings each living thing closer to death. Having watched Bobby Cleese die, he doesn’t even get a moment to mourn before setting off for the frontlines once more, where he must confront mortality in an even more immediate sense. His entrance into the hospital tents also foreshadows his own out of body experience at the end of the novel.
“Half-crazy,” Jim and his fellow soldiers dig through the ground, their shovels scraping against corpses and bones. It is around this time that Jim begins to feel “immeasurably old,” since almost everybody in his company has been killed and “twice replaced” by new soldiers in clean uniforms. He feels as though he has been “living through whole generations,” as even “the names they had given to positions they had held a month before had been changed by the time they came back.”
As the war progresses and more soldiers die, Jim’s emotional health deteriorates. He feels “half-crazy” and realizes that he has outlived two “generations” of soldiers. As such, his perspective takes a turn for the worse, becoming pessimistic and even disoriented as “even the names” of various positions change around him. Simply put, he has no control over his circumstances and no optimism regarding the future.