Later that afternoon, Stanhope speaks to the Sergeant-Major of the company, telling him about the impending attack. He instructs the man to hold ground, telling him that their infantry is not to retreat even under intense pressure. Eventually, the Sergeant-Major asks what will happen if the Germans surround them on all sides, including the backside (assuming that they will likely get through some other part of the British lines). “Then we advance and win the war,” Stanhope states. “Win the war,” says the Sergeant-Major, taking notes in a small book. “Very good, sir.” When he leaves, the Colonel enters and tells Stanhope that the brigadier is almost certain the attack will happen on the 21st. He also says that the general wants them to raid the German trenches before the attack in order to capture a soldier and wring information out of him.
Despite Stanhope’s fear, he sets himself to the task of following his orders. This often means ignoring his good sense so that he can blindly accept his instructions. This is why, when the Sergeant-Major asks what they’ll do if the German forces thrust beyond them, he simply states the absurd notion that they will “advance and win the war,” as if winning the war is simply a matter of gaining ground and not a matter of killing the enemy. However, when the Colonel informs him that his company will have to stage a raid on the German trenches, the audience gets the opportunity to see how willingly Stanhope will accept a dangerous mission.
Stanhope asks the Colonel when the general wants the raid to happen, and the Colonel says tonight, which Stanhope maintains is impossible. The Colonel agrees, saying that he told the general it would have to take place the following afternoon. “I suggest sending two officers and ten men,” he says, explaining that tonight the troops will blow a hole in the German fences, through which the raid members will be able to slip through. “I suggest Osborne, for one,” the Colonel says. When he asks Stanhope who else should go, the only person fit and emotionally stable enough to do it is Raleigh, but Stanhope tries first to send “a good sergeant.” Unfortunately, the Colonel rejects this, instead urging him to choose Raleigh. Reluctantly, Stanhope agrees.
Stanhope’s attempt to spare Raleigh from having to lead the dangerous raid on the German trenches is evidence of his connection with the young man. No matter how hard he might try to act as if Raleigh is just another soldier—no matter how much gruff indifference he shows Raleigh—the fact of the matter is that there is a fondness between them that influences the dynamic of their military relationship, making it hard for Stanhope to send Raleigh into harm’s way.
On his way out, the Colonel invites Stanhope to dine with him that night to further discuss the plans, asking if he likes fish, which has been “sent up from rail-head for supper.” Once he leaves, Hibbert enters and tells Stanhope that his neuralgia has become too excruciating to ignore. “I know,” replies Stanhope. “It’s rotten, isn’t it? I’ve got it like hell.” This shocks Hibbert, but he pushes on nonetheless, saying, “Well, I’m sorry, Stanhope. It’s no good. I’ve tried damned hard; but I must go down.” In response, Stanhope asks where he plans to “go down,” and Hibbert makes it clear that he wants to go to the doctor’s so that he can seek out “some kind of treatment.” After a moment of silence, he moves to leave, but Stanhope blocks him and says, “You’re going to stay here.”
When Stanhope says that he too has neuralgia, the audience understands that he’s trying to manipulate Hibbert into staying. Indeed, he wants to show the cowardly officer that anybody can make up excuses in order to leave. Nonetheless, Hibbert’s fear of war is so overwhelming that he pushes on, insisting that he has “tried damned hard” to put up with the pain but that he can’t bear it any longer. As such, Sherriff demonstrates to the audience just how desperate Hibbert is to escape his fear.
Hibbert claims the doctor will surely send him to the hospital once he sees his condition, but Stanhope claims to have already spoken to the doctor and told him to not send Hibbert anywhere. This angers Hibbert, who begins to yell hysterically about his right to see a doctor and get treatment. With this, he declares that he’s leaving, and he goes into the sleeping quarters of the dugout to fetch his bags. When he returns, Stanhope has un-holstered his revolver. “You’re going to stay here and do your job,” Stanhope says. Still, Hibbert tries to get by, claiming he’s in unfathomable pain. At one point, he becomes so desperate that he swings a walking stick at Stanhope, but Stanhope catches it midair and rips it from his hands. He then tells Hibbert that he has thirty seconds to decide to stay. If he tries to leave, he’ll shoot him.
Once again, Stanhope appears psychologically unstable. If he’s willing to shoot one of his own men, there’s no telling how unhinged he must be. Of course, his aggressiveness in this moment is most likely the result of his own fear—since he himself can hardly handle the fear of life in the trenches, he deeply resents Hibbert’s willingness to lie his way out of the war.
As Stanhope and Hibbert glare at one another, Hibbert breaks into a high laugh, exclaiming, “Go on, then, shoot!” He swears he’ll never again return to the trenches, and he holds his ground even when Stanhope begins counting down from fifteen. When Stanhope reaches zero, Hibbert braces to be shot, but Stanhope merely smiles, saying, “Good man, Hibbert. I liked the way you stuck that.” He then urges Hibbert to stay and “see it through,” but Hibbert says, “Stanhope! I’ve tried like hell—I swear I have. Ever since I came out here I’ve hated and loathed it. Every sound up there makes me all—cold and sick. I’m different to—to the others—you don’t understand.” In response, Stanhope merely pours Hibbert a cup of whiskey and tells him to drink it, admitting that he feels the exact same way.
By threatening to shoot Hibbert, Stanhope proves to Hibbert that he is serious, and by withstanding the threat, Hibbert proves that he’s not as cowardly as Stanhope might think. “I liked the way you stuck that,” Stanhope says to Hibbert, implying that Hibbert can, in fact, withstand great pressure, despite what he might otherwise think about himself. Having proved this, Stanhope then normalizes Hibbert’s fear by admitting that he too can barely get himself to remain in the trenches. In doing so, he makes Hibbert feel like he isn’t so alone, using companionship as a way of inflating his courage. As such, the audience sees that Stanhope is perhaps not as unhinged as one might think, since this scene proves that he can be caring and shrewd as a leader.
Stanhope reveals to Hibbert that the only way he himself can bear the war is by drinking. He then suggests that they go on watch together. He points out that if Hibbert did leave, he’d never be able to forgive himself for leaving behind men like Osborne and Trotter and Raleigh. “Don’t you think it worth standing in with men like that?” he asks. Finally, Hibbert promises to try to stay, asking Stanhope to not tell anybody about their conversation.
Stanhope’s main successful tactic in trying to get Hibbert to stay is to call upon the notion of camaraderie and friendship. Rather than encouraging Hibbert to stay for vague notions of valor or pride, he implores the man to think about what it would feel like to leave good people like Raleigh and Osborne and Trotter behind. The fact that this works only further emphasizes Sherriff’s interest in the powerful dynamics of friendship in difficult circumstances.
When Hibbert leaves, Osborne enters, and Stanhope informs him that he and Raleigh will be leading the raid on the German trenches. The plan, he explains, is that Osborne will direct the procedure (overseeing the pitching of a smoke bomb) while Raleigh and ten soldiers dash into the trenches to grab hostages. Osborne accepts this, and Stanhope leaves. Soon after, Trotter comes out of the sleeping quarters and sits down to have tea with Osborne, who tells him about the raid. “I reckon the Boche are all ready waiting for it,” Trotter says. “Did you ’ear about the raid just south of ’ere the other night?” When Osborne says he hasn’t, Trotter explains that another British company knocked holes in the German trench wires, but by the time the soldiers arrived for the raid, the Germans were waiting for them because they knew where to expect the infiltration.
Trotter’s story about previous raids makes it even more clear that the mission Osborne and Raleigh are about to embark upon is—for lack of a better term—a death trap. As such, the sense of futility that characterizes the war (with its never-ending cycles of inaction and action) once again comes to the forefront, as Trotter frames the raid as something that will do little more than kill a number of good men.
Osborne suggests that Trotter avoid talking to Raleigh about the raid, saying that the young boy doesn’t need to know the mission is so grim. Trotter then asks Osborne what he’s reading, and Osborne shows him the book: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This surprises Trotter, who can’t wrap his head around why a grown man would read a children’s book. “Have you read it?” asks Osborne, and Trotter says, “No!” Osborne then urges him to read the book and reads a passage aloud, leaving his friend somewhat dumbstruck until, finally, Trotter says, “I don’t see no point in that.” In response, Osborne says, “Exactly. That’s just the point.”
The satisfaction that Osborne derives from reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland comes from the fact that the book celebrates—or at least interrogates—the notion of meaninglessness. Whereas Stanhope (for instance) searches desperately for meaning in his otherwise futile and dismal wartime life, Osborne simply accepts the senselessness of war, knowing that searching for meaning in meaningless things only leads to existential unease. Unfortunately, Trotter can’t see this point, which is rather unsurprising, given that he too seeks to add meaning to his wartime life by trying to assert a sense of control over the passage of time.
Stanhope comes into the dugout and fetches Hibbert from the sleeping quarters, and together they go on watch. After they leave, Trotter tells Osborne that Hibbert’s eyes were so red that he thinks he may have been crying. Not wanting to talk anymore, Osborne asks Trotter if he might let him write a letter in peace, and Trotter sets to writing his own. Just then, Raleigh excitedly rushes in and says that Stanhope told him about the raid. “I say,” he says, “it’s most frightfully exciting!” He then asks Osborne if the two of them were “specially” chosen for the job, and when Osborne confirms that they were, he proudly exclaims, “I say!”
Raleigh’s excitement arises from his naiveté. Indeed, he sees being chosen to lead the raid as a great honor, not stopping to consider the fact that this means he must carry out a highly dangerous mission. However, his excitement may also come from the fact that the raid gives him a chance to stop waiting for something to happen. While the other men have all experienced the cycles of inaction and action that take place during trench warfare, Raleigh has only sat in wretched anticipation. As such, the raid gives him something to look forward to, finally allowing him to do something.