The next morning, Osborne, Trotter, and Raleigh sit in the dugout eating breakfast. When Osborne asks Trotter how things are in the trenches, Trotter replies that he doesn’t like “the look of things” because of the quiet. “Standing up there in the dark last night there didn’t seem a thing in the world alive,” he says. Osborne agrees that it is rather inactive, and Trotter says, “Too damn quiet. You can bet your boots the Boche is up to something. The big attack soon, I reckon. I don’t like it, Uncle. Pass the jam.”
In this scene, the feeling of tension and anticipation continues to mount, even as the soldiers go through their everyday lives. Sherriff juxtaposes the stress of waiting for the German attack with the mundanity of living in the calm dugout, showcasing this dynamic when Trotter swiftly transitions from talking about the Germans to asking Osborne to “pass the jam.” Terror, it seems, sits right alongside the trappings of everyday life, showing the audience just how accustomed these soldiers have become to waiting for death and calamity.
The night before, Trotter tells Osborne at breakfast, he and Raleigh came into the dugout after their shift and saw that Stanhope had gotten up from bed to drink more whiskey. “He didn’t seem to know who I was. Uncanny, wasn’t it, Raleigh?” Trotter says, and Raleigh dejectedly mutters “Yes” with a bowed head. “He just said, ‘Better go to bed, Raleigh’—just as if Raleigh’d been a school kid,” says Trotter, who starts getting ready to go on watch again. Just before he leaves, he says that he doesn’t like this time of day because the Germans have just had their breakfast and like to send “a few whizz-bangs and rifle grenades to show” they haven’t “forgotten” the British. “Still,” he says, “I’d rather ’ave a bang or two than this damn quiet.”
Stanhope’s drunken comment to Raleigh—in which he tells the young officer to “go to bed”—underscores the strange and shifting nature of their relationship. Although Stanhope hasn’t particularly warmed up to Raleigh, in this moment he reverts back to their old ways, acting as if Raleigh is still a “school kid” who needs gentle guidance. This stands in stark opposition to his otherwise gruff attitude, ultimately showing the audience that the terms of Stanhope and Raleigh’s relationship are still in flux.
Once Osborne and Raleigh are alone, they talk about Raleigh’s first night in the trenches, and Raleigh admits that he feels as if he’s already been on the support line for “ages.” “I can’t imagine—the end of six days here,” he says. Osborne asks how the young man felt in the actual trenches, and Raleigh assures him that it wasn’t so bad, though he did find it “frightfully quiet and uncanny—everybody creeping about and talking in low voices.” This is because the Germans are only roughly 70 yards away, which Osborne likes to think of as about the same length as a rugby field. This leads the two men into a conversation about rugby, and Raleigh is thrilled to discover that Osborne used to play professional rugby for the English team.
Once again, Raleigh finds a mentor of sorts in Osborne, delighting in the fact that the older man used to play professional rugby. In this way, Osborne once again proves himself to be the unofficial leader of the company, as he not only takes care of Stanhope, but also goes out of his way to help new soldiers like Raleigh find their bearings at war. He does this by allowing Raleigh to talk about how “uncanny” it is to sit in the trenches and wait for disaster, thereby helping the young man work through some of the fear that comes along with serving in the trenches of World War I.
After talking about rugby, Osborne and Raleigh talk about their German enemies. Osborne tells a story about how one of his fellow soldiers was once shot and injured in the field, and when they tried to go save him, a German officer stood up from the trenches and yelled, “Carry him!” When the British soldiers stood and started carrying their wounded man, the Germans fired Very lights so the men could see their way back. “Next day we blew each other’s trenches to blazes,” Osborne says, to which Raleigh replies, “It all seems rather—silly, doesn’t it?” Osborne agrees, and then after some silence Raleigh decides to go finish a letter.
Osborne’s story highlights the futility of war, since it shows that the Germans saved a British soldier’s life only to actively undo this kindness the very next day. This, he shows Raleigh, is just the nature of war—regardless of whether or not it is “silly,” soldiers have to accustom themselves to a seemingly never-ending cycle of inaction and action, one that doesn’t ever seem to make any progress toward anything other than senseless killing.
As Raleigh leaves, Stanhope comes in and tells him to inspect his platoon’s rifles at nine o’clock. He then tells Osborne that he was recently talking to the Colonel, who told him that a German prisoner let slip that the big attack is set to happen on the 21st, which is just two days away. “Then it’ll come while we’re here,” Osborne says. “Yes,” replies Stanhope. “It’ll come while we’re here. And we shall be in the front row of the stalls.” He then looks down at Trotter’s chart, asking what it is. Osborne explains that it’s “Trotter’s plan to make the time pass by,” and Stanhope asks how many hours there are until “dawn on the twenty-first.” He then starts counting out the hours on the chart, saying he’s going to “draw a picture of Trotter being blown up in four pieces” on the 21st.
Now that the soldiers have a sense of when the German attack will come, the audience might think that they can relax to a certain extent. However, it’s worth noting that Stanhope doesn’t know when exactly on the 21st the attack will happen, nor does he know the specifics of how it will unfold. In this way, he finds himself face-to-face with information that only provides more uncertainty. Indeed, knowing the date of the attack does nothing more than cement the sense of dread that has been mounting throughout the play, and it is perhaps for this reason that Stanhope responds by wanting to ridicule Trotter’s attempt to gain some agency over the passage of time—no matter how many circles Trotter blackens, Stanhope knows there’s no avoiding the inevitable violence coming their way.
Osborne urges Stanhope to not defile Trotter’s chart, saying that he spent a long time making it. Stanhope agrees that Trotter probably wouldn’t “see the point” in the joke anyway, since he has “no imagination.” He then asks Stanhope if he thinks “life sharpens the imagination.” This leads him into strangely philosophical, ponderous grounds. “Whenever I look at anything nowadays I see right through it,” he says. “Looking at you now there’s your uniform—your jersey—shirt—vest—then beyond that—” At this point, Osborne cuts him off, suggesting they talk about something else. Stanhope apologizes, saying that he has developed a habit of looking “right through things, and on and on—till [he] get[s] frightened and stop[s].” To this, Osborne says that everybody in the trenches seems to feel things “more keenly.”
Stanhope’s strange existential musings cement the idea that he is psychologically unhinged. This is not to say that he is crazy, but rather that the stressors of war have impacted the way he sees the world. The repetition and futility of inaction and action have caused him to seek out meaning in his life. This is why he tries to “see right through” things in order to understand how everything fits together: he wants to find meaning in his life. Unfortunately, the war itself can’t provide him with meaning, since it feels to him like one big cycle of anticipation, violence, and then anticipation again. As such, he desperately searches for meaning in other areas of his life, trying to make things adhere with one another in any way he can.
Stanhope admits he sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with him. “D’you ever get a sudden feeling that everything’s going farther and farther away,” he asks, “till you’re the only thing in the world—and then the world begins going away—until you’re the only thing in—in the universe—and you struggle to get back—and can’t?” Osborne says this just sounds like a “bit of nerve strain.” Stanhope is glad to hear this, saying he actually felt this feeling this morning in the trenches. The sun was coming up and he was looking over the decimated land and thinking about the “thousands of Germans” out there, all of whom must surely be “waiting and thinking.” Then, suddenly, the feeling came upon him. Saying this, he barks out for Mason to bring whiskey. “So early in the morning?” Osborne asks, but Stanhope says, “Just a spot.”
The fact that Stanhope often feels he is “the only thing in the world” underlines the ways in which he feels estranged from his environment. This is unsurprising, given that he spends his waking hours drinking himself into oblivion so as not to have to face his fears. When he looks out across the battlefield, it’s no wonder he can’t relate to his environment, since the field is a devastated piece of land upon which humans kill one another—a very unnatural and unrelatable setting. Instead of accepting that war is an inherently alienating environment, though, he drowns himself in liquor.
Stanhope turns his attention to censoring Raleigh’s letters, insisting to Osborne that he’s going to have to do this—especially after last night, when Raleigh came downstairs and saw him in a wretched state and looked at him as if he’d “spat on him.” Just then, Raleigh enters the dugout on his way to inspect his platoon’s rifles. He carries a letter, asking where to put it, and Stanhope tells him to leave it unsealed on the table. Surprised, Raleigh asks why he needs to leave it open, and Stanhope tells him it’s because he has to censor it. “Oh,” Raleigh says, “but—I haven’t said anything about—where we are.” Still, Stanhope doesn’t budge. “Dennis—I’m—,” stammers Raleigh, but Stanhope yells, “Don’t ‘Dennis’ me! Stanhope’s my name! You’re not at school! Go and inspect your rifles!” When Raleigh doesn’t do anything, Stanhope barks, “D’you understand an order?”
Once again, Raleigh underestimates how much his relationship with Stanhope has changed. When he tries to protest Stanhope’s unreasonable determination to censor his letter, he accidentally calls him Dennis, prompting Stanhope to remind him—and rightly so—that he isn’t at school anymore. Indeed, Raleigh is no longer in a context in which it is appropriate to call Stanhope by his first name, and though Stanhope is being rather unfair, Raleigh still needs to behave according to the new terms of their relationship, in which he is Stanhope’s inferior.
Raleigh finally relents and puts the letter on the table without sealing it. When he leaves, Osborne says, “Good heavens, Stanhope!” Still, Stanhope holds his ground, saying it’s his decision whether or not to censor the letters, and Osborne acquiesces. Despite his vehemence, though, Stanhope says, “Oh, God! I don’t want to read the blasted thing!” As such, Osborne offers to read it for him. Reading through it, he tells Stanhope that the last portion is indeed about him, so he reads it aloud. However, it isn’t what Stanhope expected: the content is extremely positive, singing Stanhope’s praises and saying that the soldiers regard him as “the finest officer in the battalion.” The final sentence reads: “I’m awfully proud to think he’s my friend.” Hearing this, Stanhope lowers his head and tells Osborne to seal the letter.
Even Osborne is taken aback by Stanhope’s power trip. As a result, Osborne (like Raleigh) is reprimanded for not respecting Stanhope’s superior role. Of course, when Stanhope actually hears Raleigh’s letter, he’s overcome by shame, since he assumed the worst about his young friend only to discover that Raleigh still looks up to him. In this way, the letter confirms Osborne’s previous assertion that Raleigh will continue liking Stanhope because “hero-worship” is a resilient kind of relational bond.