Earlier, the other soldiers came and asked Tommo if he “wanted someone to stay with [him] through the night,” but he refused. He “even sent the padre away” (the military chaplain). Tommo now regrets his decision, and wishes to “have them all here” for company, for “singsongs” and drinking. Instead, he has had nothing but a mouse for company all night.
The reader still has no idea what is happening to Tommo in the present. A padre is a military chaplain, and so when Tommo sends the chaplain away it is symbolic of Tommo’s ultimate rejection of his religious faith.
Tommo remembers how the next time the company were sent up to the front line, it was to the area of Ypres itself, which had been the target of relentless attack for months. There was nothing quiet about this new assignment. The defense around the town was constantly shrinking under the “almost constant bombardment” from the enemy. As they walk through Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British men call it) Tommo “wondered why it was worth fighting for at all.” There was essentially no town left.
Ypres is perhaps the most significant example of the sheer destruction that accompanied the First World War. The town was the center of the fighting between the British and the German forces for years, and was left almost completely destroyed as a result. The town still stands today and is home to a daily remembrance ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the war.
Their new company commander is a man named Lieutenant Buckland. He is straight from England and seems young and inexperienced as a result, and everyone misses Captain Wilkes. Tommo comments that Buckland seems even younger than Tommo does.
Tommo himself is very young: the reader knows that he was only fifteen when he enlisted (and only eighteen when he’s narrating in hindsight), so for him to suggest that Buckland seems even younger than he does is a significant claim.
The new trenches they are assigned to are poorly constructed, in some places “little more than shallow dilapidated ditches affording [them] precious little protection,” and with even deeper mud than in their last trench. The dugout itself is better, but Tommo still finds that he can’t sleep for fear of what lies in store.
Shallow ditches are not enough for a man to live in, especially in a warzone. Morpurgo here illustrates the lack of adequate preparation and provision that was typical of the First World War. Countries and armies simply weren’t aware of what they were getting themselves into, so they weren’t able to prepare sufficiently.
The next morning, Tommo is on stand-to duty, and observes no-man’s land all around him. There is barely anything left but the remains of the dead, some mud, and some barbed wire, but he notices some birds still singing. A corpse on the ground has his hand stretched out “heavenwards.” His hand is pointing towards the birds.
The image of the birds singing is a particularly significant one, because Tommo claimed earlier that his family felt that birds were a promise of heaven. Even in this deadly warzone, then, there is still some promise of an afterlife, which is symbolized by these singing birds.
Soon, a bombardment starts, which lasts for two full days. Everyone wants “nothing more than for it to stop, for the earth to be still again, for there to be quiet.” Tommo knows that when the bombardment stops, the enemy will attack, but he would rather that than have the bombardment last a moment longer. “Let them come,” he says.
Tommo’s willingness to face a full-blown attack from the German forces instead of enduring another moment of bombardment underscores the gravity and hopelessness of his situation.
When the bombardment stops, Tommo sees the enemy approaching in the thousands, with their “bayonets glinting.” Charlie reassures Tommo that Tommo will be fine, and to stay with him. Tommo does “not run,” but “only because of Charlie.” He keeps shooting at the approaching enemy, and eventually the attack is over. Most of the enemy have been killed, and the remaining few have turned around. Tommo feels “a surge of triumph,” “not because [they] have won, but because [he has] stood with the others.” He has not run, and for this he is proud. He thinks back to the old woman calling him a coward, and imagines telling her “no, old woman, I am not, I am not.”
Charlie is the main inspiration for Tommo to be brave and stand by his fellow soldiers. Charlie’s courage has always inspired Tommo, and now Tommo has a chance to prove himself to Charlie. It is not the fact that he has won the battle against the Germans, but the fact that he has won a battle against his own fear that makes Tommo so proud and relieved. He knows now that he has proved himself against the old woman who once called him a coward.
The British troops take the opportunity to start an attack on the German line, but the Germans are nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, the first of many German shells flashes in the air, starting their surprise counter-attack. Tommo looks frantically around for Charlie but can’t see him. Tommo flattens himself into the mud for protection, and is deafened by an explosion. When he manages to lift his head, he sees chaos all around him. The British line is being pushed back, and they are completely surrounded by German guns and shells. Men start to turn back, and Lieutenant Buckland grabs Tommo and shouts at him to retreat. Tommo finds that he can barely move his legs, but the lieutenant stays with him. Buckland is then killed as he helps Tommo. Tommo somehow manages to get back to the dugout, but Charlie is still nowhere to be seen.
Lieutenant Buckland proves that he is not as naïve and insipid as the soldiers had previously believed him to be. He bravely accompanies Tommo when Tommo is injured, just as Charlie earlier accompanied Wilkie when Wilkie was injured. Buckland’s courage, however, ultimately leads to tragedy, as he is killed as he stands beside Tommo. The way in which Buckland’s death is reported in the text is very sudden and brief, which reflects the sudden shock and disbelief Tommo experiences as Buckland is shot down beside him.
Hours pass, and still Charlie does not return to the dugout. Tommo tries to reassure himself, hoping that maybe Charlie is just waiting for the right moment to crawl back, or that he’s gotten lost and ended up in a different trench. Still, he can’t shake the thought that Charlie might not have survived. By morning, Tommo is certain that Charlie is dead. He thinks about how his family will react to the news. He knows Big Joe will find comfort in his religious faith, and Tommo envies him for this. Tommo, in contrast, can “no longer even pretend” that he believes in God, heaven, or religion. He can believe “only in the hell [he] was living in, a hell on earth, and it was man-made, not God-made.”
Tommo’s belief that Charlie has died is the final straw in destroying any ounce of religious faith he might have had left. If Charlie is dead, Tommo cannot believe that there is a god, or any form of afterlife, because Tommo can’t believe that any god would be so cruel as to take his brother away from him. Still, he envies Big Joe and his enduring religious faith, as he feels that religion would be a comfort to him in his grief. Instead, the only reality Tommo can now comprehend is that of the man-made hell of war, and this is of no consolation whatsoever.
Tommo goes on sentry duty. He thinks about Charlie and his father, and tries to imagine them as stars in the sky. He wishes he had told Charlie his secret about causing his father’s death, so he tells the star instead, and feels somehow that it has understood. He imagines Charlie’s voice in his head saying, “Don’t go all dreamy on lookout, Tommo.” Then he sees something moving past the wire, and hears Charlie’s voice again. Only then does Tommo realize that the voice is not inside his head, after all. It is Charlie, returning to the trench, and very much alive. The boys hug (Tommo isn’t sure they’ve ever hugged before) and then they both break down in tears.
Because the narrative is told from Tommo’s perspective, the reader is equally as baffled and amazed by Charlie’s reappearance as Tommo is. Only when Charlie is close to death do the brothers realize just how much they mean to one another. They have never hugged before, or cried together, but they do now. They are so relieved and thrilled to be back together that all of their previous barriers are broken down, and all pretenses with one another are eradicated. They truly realize how much they mean to one another.
Charlie had been shot in the foot, and passed out “in some shell hole.” When he awoke, everyone had left, so he had to wait until night to make his way back. He is taken to the hospital immediately, and Tommo manages to see him a few days later. Charlie looks very happy, and tells Tommo that he will be going home for a while, to recover in a British hospital. Tommo feels like he “should be pleased” for Charlie, but can’t bring himself to be. He feels abandoned by Charlie, and furthermore, he is upset by the fact that Charlie seems so happy to be going home without him. Charlie seems to sense Tommo’s sadness, putting a hand on Tommo’s arm and telling him “I’ll be back before you know it.”
It is understandable that Tommo should feel somewhat betrayed and upset when he discovers that Charlie will be going home without him, especially when Tommo only signed up for war in the first place so as not to leave Charlie on his own. As ever, though, Charlie understands Tommo’s thoughts without Tommo even having to voice them, and reassures Tommo, as he always has done, that he will be back by his side very soon. Tommo seems to trust that Charlie is telling the truth, as he doesn’t say anything more about the matter.
On the night Charlie leaves for England, Tommo goes to the estaminet and drowns his sorrows and his anger at Charlie. He is angry that Charlie abandoned him, and that Charlie gets to go home when he doesn’t. Tommo even considers deserting the army, but decides to go back to camp instead, because “it was the easier choice—you can get shot for desertion.”
Although Tommo feels angry at Charlie, he is really just miserable that he has to stay in the warzone while Charlie will get to experience the joys of returning home. Tommo hates being left behind by Charlie, as was demonstrated earlier in the book when Charlie left school without Tommo and Tommo was miserable.
When Tommo is outside getting some air, the girl from the estaminet comes out and speaks to him, asking if he is ill. Tommo says no, but suddenly feels overwhelmed with sadness and homesickness. She asks if she will see him again, and Tommo says yes; they part ways, and Tommo heads back to camp. He feels calmer, and decides that next time he goes to the estaminet he will be brave and ask the girl her name.
The girl provides Tommo with some distraction and helps him to level his head again. Small things, like talking to girls, probably would have helped soldiers who were so far away from home to feel like they were closer to normality than usual while they were fighting in the war.
Two weeks later, Tommo returns and does exactly that. The girl’s name is Anna, and they talk for a while. Tommo tells her he worked on a farm at home, so she shows him her father’s horse. While they are in the stables, Anna kisses him on the cheek. When Tommo heads back to camp, he sings “Oranges and Lemons” “at the top of [his] voice” all the way.
Tommo and Anna’s visit to the stable is a comforting reminder of home for Tommo, and makes him feel much happier. When Anna kisses him, Tommo expresses his jubilation by singing the Peaceful family’s favorite song: “Oranges and Lemons.”
When he arrives back at camp, Tommo’s good mood is shattered when Pete tells him that their new sergeant will be Sergeant Hanley. When Hanley arrives, every day becomes miserable. He is constantly breathing down the soldiers’ necks and punishing them endlessly for the smallest offences. Tommo claims that everyone “hated him like poison, a great deal more than we had ever hated Fritz.”