Tommo realizes that it is nearly morning now, and reflects upon the fact that all of his mornings since he’s been a soldier have been a case of waking up with “the same dread in the pit of [his] stomach, knowing that [he] will have to look death in the face again.” The only difference on this particular morning is that he knows “whose death it will be and how it will happen.” He thinks to himself that if he considers it in this way, it doesn’t seem so bad.
The fact that Tommo is able to consider death as being “not so bad,” just because it is pre-meditated, is quite a shocking realization for any reader. The uncertainty of war, rather than the certainty of death, seems to be the phenomenon that has most traumatized Tommo as a solider.
After Charlie left, a new batch of recruits joined Tommo’s company. Many of the original company were either dead or wounded or ill by this point, so the new men were desperately needed. Tommo describes how the original soldiers seemed like “battle-hardened” warriors to the new recruits, and they all held Tommo and the others in high esteem because of this. Tommo quite enjoyed his new status, as it distracted him from his own fears.
The experiences of war are enough to make even young boys such as Tommo seem like experienced and hardy veterans. It seems that age loses meaning when fighting the war, and experience becomes more of a marker of maturity instead. This harks back to the soldiers earlier claiming that Buckland seemed “young” just because he had arrived straight from England.
Life at the front line is fairly quiet for a while, with few attacks. The spring sun has started to come out, and the men have a rare chance to get dry and warm. There are still rats and lice, but Tommo describes it as a “picnic” in comparison to what they had been through before.
Simple pleasures that would have been taken for granted at home, such as the spring sun warming their backs, become invaluable to the soldiers fighting in the war.
After this period of quiet comes a horrible and sudden awakening. Tommo is writing a letter when someone suddenly shouts, “Gas!” Everyone freezes momentarily in terror, even though they’ve trained countless times for a gas attack. Eventually Tommo gets his gas mask on and finds his rifle, and then looks out to see the gas cloud looming towards them. Tommo sees it coming straight for him, and starts to panic, even though he knows he should trust his gas mask. Someone told him once that a gas mask can work miracles, but he claims that he doesn’t believe in miracles anymore. In just a few moments, the gas is all around him. He tries not to breathe, and runs, but finds that he can’t run without breathing. He falls and accidentally knocks his mask off, and feels the gas in his eyes and lungs, and desperately tries to escape it.
This gas attack is one of the most terrifying experiences of war that Tommo has faced. Even countless hours of training are not enough to prepare him for the panic and terror he feels as the gas is looming towards him. It is particularly interesting that a gas mask is described here as being miraculous. This language seems almost religious, and suggests that one has to place near-religious faith in the mask for it to work. Tommo’s claim that he doesn’t believe in miracles aligns with the recent decline in his Christian faith. Because he doesn’t have faith and fully trust the mask, he panics and falls, knocking the mask from his face and rendering it useless.
At last, Tommo runs clear of the gas, only to find himself at the feet of an enemy soldier, who has a gun pointed at Tommo’s head. Tommo knows that he is about to be killed, but instead, the soldier tells him to run, and lets him escape.
This act of mercy from a kind German soldier endears the German soldiers even more to Tommo and the reader. They do not seem like much of an enemy at all.
Later at the hospital, Tommo realizes how many men were injured and killed in the gas attack. He got off lightly, and is dismissed from the hospital, but as he leaves he sees Nipper Martin’s body lying on the floor, along with countless other men.
This scene is one of many illustrations in the novel of the sheer scale of lives lost in the First World War. The loss is made even more personal to Tommo by the fact that his friend from home is included amongst the dead.
Tommo returns to camp to find Pete alone in the tent. He, too, was very lucky in the attack. Pete gives Tommo two letters from home. Pete tells Tommo that he never gets any himself, and asks if Tommo can read his out to him instead. Mrs. Peaceful’s letter contains news of Molly’s newborn baby boy, who has been named Thomas, or Little Tommo, in honor of Tommo. Tommo’s mother adds that Charlie is at home, and has told them all that he and Tommo are having a “fine time together over in Belgium.” At this, Pete becomes angry. He can’t understand why Charlie would lie about the conditions of the war, and says Charlie “should be ashamed of himself.” Still, Tommo treasures the letters from his family, and keeps them safe. They buoy him through the tough times ahead.
Neither Pete nor Charlie have anything to be ashamed of in this passage, but Pete can’t seem to understand that what Charlie has done is an act of bravery and kindness. It is understandable that Pete should want everyone to know about the horrors the soldiers are facing in the war, but it is also noble that Charlie should want to shield his family from these horrible details. Charlie wants his family to be reassured and happy, so he tells them a lie so that they won’t worry about him. The story implies that it is admirable of Charlie to keep his pain to himself for the sake of sparing his family this burden.
The company soon discovers that Sergeant Hanley will never let up on them. He claims they “shamed the regiment” by acting like cowards in the gas attack, and he keeps finding ways to drive them into the ground as punishment. One soldier is caught sleeping at his post, and receives Field Punishment Number One, just as Charlie had before him. Tommo claims that these were the “darkest days we had ever lived through. Sergeant Hanley had done what all the bloody attrition in the trenches had never done. He had taken away our spirit, and drained the last of our strength, destroyed our hope.”
Sergeant Hanley is an awful man who is presented as being worse than the enemy or the war itself. It seems completely illogical that a commander should want to punish his company and destroy their morale for hardly doing anything wrong, as it will make the soldiers far less inclined to fight well or to respect Hanley’s orders. When Wilkes and Buckland were in charge, the soldiers went above and beyond the call of duty because they wanted to please their superiors, but no one has any desire to please Hanley.
The company is given one night off before they are sent back up into line, so they head to the estaminet again. Tommo hopes to see Anna, but can’t find her anywhere, so he goes to her house. When the door opens, Tommo finds Anna’s father, the owner of the estaminet, looking like a shadow of his former self. He is no longer “dapper and smiling,” but “unshaven and disheveled” and reeking of alcohol. Tommo asks for Anna, and Anna’s father informs him that Anna is dead—she was caught in a stray explosion as she was collecting eggs. Anna’s father asks Tommo why he came to fight the war, and then says “you can go to Hell, all of you, British, German, French, you think I care? And you can take your war to Hell with you.” He slams the door in Tommo’s face.
Anna’s death is a reminder of the arbitrary tragedies of war. She was just an innocent young girl who never wanted to be involved in the war, just as her father was an ordinary man who never dreamed that thousands of soldiers would descend into his village and turn it into a battlefield. The effect that Anna’s death has had on her father is palpable enough to have completely changed his appearance and his personality. The pub owner Tommo had previously known would never have dreamed of shouting at Tommo, but the war has had its tragic and destructive way with him.
Tommo goes to visit Anna’s grave. He wants to believe that she is in heaven, which he calls “Sunday-school Heaven” and “Big Joe’s happy Heaven,” but he finds he can only believe that Anna is “lying in the cold earth at [his] feet.” He kisses the earth, and then heads back to camp. By the time he arrives, he has “no more tears left to cry.”
Anna’s death further consolidates Tommo’s loss of religious faith. He can no longer pretend that he believes in heaven, and feels instead that all that is left of Anna is buried in the earth beneath his feet. The terms “Sunday-school Heaven” and “happy heaven” also go so far as to make the idea of an afterlife seem naïve and foolish.
The next day, the company is sent back into the trenches, and Charlie returns. Everyone feels “suddenly safer” having him back. Hanley on the other hand is not at all pleased to have Charlie back, and warns him that he’s got his eye on him.
Charlie is clearly loved by the men in his company. In fact, he generally seems loved wherever he goes, except by arrogant people like Hanley and the Colonel, who can’t stand the fact that Charlie isn’t afraid to stand up to them.
A huge bombardment of shelling starts, which lasts for days. Tommo describes it as a “titanic duel.” All the soldiers can do is huddle in the dugout and hope that they don’t take a direct hit, as they know this would kill them all. To cope, they don’t mention the bombardment, and instead try to carry on life as “normally” as possible. At one point, Tommo lies screaming on the ground for it to stop, only for Charlie to lie next to him and start singing “Oranges and Lemons.” Soon, everyone is singing the song, but eventually they realize that even “Oranges and Lemons” cannot “drive away the terror.”
The most effective means of coping for Tommo’s company is just to carry on as normal, and to deny to themselves that anything bad is happening. This is why singing “Oranges and Lemons” is such a powerful tool for Tommo and Charlie: it allows them to pretend for a little while that they are back at home with Big Joe and their family, and nothing bad has ever happened. In this instance, though, even singing can’t help the boys for long.
Eventually, the German troops attack, though they are mostly gunned down by the British before they can even make it to the trenches. All at once, Tommo and the others receive orders to go over the top of the trench. Tommo follows the others obediently, but suddenly finds blood pouring down his face and a “burning pain” in his head. He feels himself being “beckoned into a world [he has] never been to before, where it is warm and comforting and all-enveloping.” He knows he is dying, and “welcome[s] it.”
Tommo is an obedient soldier and always seems to follow orders even when they put his life in danger, such as is the case here. After Tommo is injured in this instance, he feels himself dying. The prospect of death is a surprisingly and perhaps alarmingly inviting one for Tommo. Although he has feared it constantly throughout the war, now that it has arrived, it seems like a relief.