Tommo finds himself falling asleep, but wills himself not to. “After this night is over,” he tells himself, “you can sleep forever, for nothing will ever matter again.” He then decides to keep himself awake by singing “Oranges and Lemons” the way Big Joe always used to.
It is still unclear what has happened to Tommo in these opening passages of each chapter, but “Oranges and Lemons” here reminds Tommo of his home and Big Joe, and comforts him because of this.
Back at training camp, the company are told that they will be going up “to the front”; they are all relieved because this means that they will be leaving “Etaples and Sergeant Hanley forever.” Their new captain is called Captain Wilkes, and he often encourages the men to sing to boost their morale. Wilkes was a choirmaster at home. As they march to the front line in Belgium, the boys become almost cheery from the singing. Soon Tommo and Charlie start singing “Oranges and Lemons,” and everyone else joins in. Tommo can’t believe the contrast between Wilkes and Hanley. Wilkes is very considerate and kind to the men, so they treat him with equal respect.
It is deeply ironic that the soldiers are so happy to be going into the battlefield because they know it will be better than facing Sergeant Hanley one day longer. Captain Wilkes, in contrast to Sergeant Hanley, brings the best out of the soldiers, demonstrating that a strict regime is not always the most effective one. Instead, Wilkes demonstrates that respecting and nurturing his subordinates can actually be a much more positive approach to leading. No one disobeys Wilkes—not even Charlie—because they all respect him.
The company are heading for a quiet sector, so everyone is quite relieved. In fact, all Tommo has seen of the enemy so far is a group of disheveled German prisoners. He claims they “seemed much like us, only dirtier.”
Tommo already sees the similarities between himself and the German soldiers he is fighting, showing his capacity to empathize with others.
The company are released from camp one evening, and they head to the nearby village of Poperinghe (“Pop”) to an estaminet, which is like a pub. Wilkes claims it serves “the best egg and chips in the entire world,” and all of the boys have a wonderful time there, eating and drinking “like camels filling up at an oasis.” The daughter of the owner smiles at Tommo as she serves him, and the others tease him for it, but he continues to think about the girl that night. Still, he finds that her face keeps turning into Molly’s in his mind.
The visit to the estaminet provides a rare treat for the soldiers, but Tommo seems most excited about the beautiful girl he meets there. It is significant, of course, that when he tries to think about the girl, her face keeps turning into Molly’s in his mind. It is clear that Molly is the girl whom Tommo really can’t stop thinking about, and the girl he truly loves.
The next night, the company go up to the front line. They have to be silent as they crawl through the mud towards their dugout. Other soldiers are heading back the other way, and the “haunted, hunted look in their eyes” says everything that Tommo needs to know about what he is going up against.
Tommo can understand the other soldiers just from looking into their eyes, just as earlier in the novel the Peaceful family all seem very good at guessing what each other are thinking without even having to ask.
Tommo’s experience on the front line is, at first, a quiet one. Day after day, his company waits for a sign of German shelling, but it never seems to come. Tommo is “almost disappointed” by the lack of action.
It seems somewhat ridiculous that Tommo could be “disappointed” at not seeing any enemy attacks, and demonstrates how naïve Tommo is in his attitude towards war.
The trench and dugouts are a mess from their previous inhabitants, so Captain Wilkes sets the men to work cleaning them up to avoid rats. The rats inevitably arrive anyway, and Tommo is the first to discover a nest of them. Luckily, Little Les from their village was a rat-catcher at home, and he easily kills the rats until they stop coming so frequently. Lice are another problem in the trench, and one which no one can seem to get rid of. The men try to burn them off, but the only thing that would really help would be to have a bath: a luxury that they are not entitled to. Most of all, though, the rain is the men’s “greatest scourge.” They are always wet and cold, every one of them has trench foot (a condition in which the foot begins to rot away due to being constantly wet), and the mud never dries out, so they can barely walk through it. Only “sleep and food” bring any “real relief.”
This passage illustrates just how dreadful life in the trenches in the First World War would have been. Even small, seemingly basic requirements, such as being able to get dry and have a bath, are luxuries the men can only dream of. Most people would shudder to think of living amongst rats and lice, but this was the everyday reality for most of the soldiers fighting in this war. Only the most basic of human needs, food and sleep, can offer the men any consolation. Most of these men would probably have taken sleep and food for granted in their lives at home.
Captain Wilkes and Charlie also help to keep morale up with their positive attitudes, and Tommo claims that there isn’t a “man in the company who doesn’t look up to” Charlie after how he handled the field punishment in Etaples. Tommo is prouder of his brother than ever before.
Just as everyone looked up to Charlie in school for being brave as he was punished, people still look up to Charlie for braving his punishments now. The soldiers cannot help but admire his courage.
The men eventually return to the rest camp, but even there they are kept busy. Nevertheless, there are a few comforts. The Peacefuls have received letters from their mother and Molly, who have also sent “knitted woolen scarves and gloves and socks.” The men also have “communal baths in great steaming vats in a barn down the road and, best of all, egg and chips and beer at the estaminet in Pop.” Tommo particularly enjoys these visits because he gets to see the “beautiful girl with the doe eyes” who smiled at him before.
A warm bath, food, and some knitted scarves and gloves make the soldiers incredibly happy. This makes the reader realize just how terrible life in the trenches is. Even the simplest of treats seem like a luxury. Tommo is even happier, of course, because he has also met a beautiful girl in the local pub.
Winter arrives and brings snow with it. Tommo is actually pleased about this, as the snow is no colder than the rain, but at least allows the men to stay relatively dry. The company have still faced little action: only a few men have been injured, but none so far have been killed. Tommo suspects that they are in “just about the luckiest sector” they could possibly ask for.
Tommo actually welcomes the chance to live in the freezing snow, proving how awful living in constant rain must have been. For most people, the thought of living in snow would not be an especially appealing one, but for Tommo it is actually a relief.
Eventually, an order arrives that the company must go out and investigate the German regiments that have just arrived in the trenches opposite them. Tommo points out that this seems fairly pointless as there “are spotter planes doing that almost every day,” but the men obey their orders, and every night a few go out on patrol to try and reach the German side in secret.
This is one of many examples in this book of a military order seeming pointless and arbitrary. If there are spotter planes already assessing the area, it seems pointless for men to risk their lives in doing the same thing. Morpurgo is very critical of the way the British Army treated their soldiers’ lives so carelessly.
Tommo’s turn for patrol comes, and he is slated to go with Charlie, Nipper Martin, Pete, Little Les, and Captain “Wilkie” Wilkes. Tommo finds he is “not so much frightened as excited” for the task ahead. He feels like he’s poaching again at home.
The fact that once again Tommo is almost excited by the prospect of war demonstrates how naïve and immature he is. He even claims that he feels like a child going poaching again, which seems a long way from the reality of the situation.
The men wriggle their way to the German wire on their stomachs, and they head into the German trench in silence. They make their way to the source of some music and light, where they can hear voices. Just as they approach, a German soldier leaves the dugout. He sees the men, and runs back inside screaming. Tommo says that the man should have surrendered and gone with the British, and that he made the wrong decision by turning back. One of Tommo’s company throws in a grenade behind the soldier, and suddenly there is chaos and the firing of guns from all sides. When Tommo edges closer, he sees Little Les lying dead on the ground. All of the Germans except one are also dead.
It is interesting that Tommo claims that the German soldier who runs back into the dugout made the wrong decision in doing so. Tommo thinks that the soldier should have surrendered, implying that this sacrifice would have spared more of his fellow soldiers’ lives. Tommo’s claim makes it clear that Tommo himself has a very strong sense of duty and loyalty to his fellow soldiers. He thinks it would be better to sacrifice one’s own life instead of risking the lives of the other men.
The one remaining German soldier is “beside himself with terror.” He is whimpering, “naked, blood-spattered and shaking,” and Tommo notes that he himself is also shaking. The British men give the German a coat and get him out of the dugout, and then start frantically trying to escape before they attract further attention.
The surviving German soldier is presented as a sympathetic figure rather than a hated, dehumanized enemy. He is clearly nothing more than a terrified and friendless young man, who perhaps never wanted to fight in the first place. Morpurgo begins to demonstrate that not all of the enemy were necessarily “bad” people.
Tommo’s company manage to escape the German trench, but as they start heading back towards their own trench, they are caught by a flare. Tommo presses himself into the ground and finds himself thinking of his father, and imagining himself apologizing to him for causing his death.
It is telling that when Tommo thinks he is about to die, his thoughts turn to his father and the guilt he feels for his father’s death. This guilt is clearly a heavy burden on Tommo’s mind, and it will linger throughout most of the story.
Further shelling begins, and the British soldiers hurry to a crater to shelter themselves from the attack. Wilkie is stuck further up a slope, and tells the boys that he can’t move his legs, so Charlie carefully drags Wilkie into the crater for protection. When the shelling stops, Charlie carries Wilkie “on his back the whole way, until the stretcher bearers came for him in the trench.” Wilkie makes Charlie promise to come and see him in hospital.
Charlie demonstrates his trademark loyalty and a great deal of courage when he risks his own life to help Wilkes. It is very noble of him not to abandon his injured captain, and Wilkes clearly appreciates this, which is why he tells Charlie to come and visit him in hospital.
Tommo hears the German prisoner praying to himself and realizes that they both call “God by the same name.” Soon, the German stops praying and starts rocking himself “like a child, like Big Joe.” When they arrive back at the British trench, the company has a cup of tea and a cigarette with the prisoner before he is taken away. They don’t speak, but as he leaves, he thanks the men. Nipper remarks how strange it was to see the man “with not a stitch on,” because without uniforms “you can hardly tell the difference” between the German and the English. Later that night, Tommo finds himself not thinking of Little Les, as he supposes he ought to be, but instead of the German prisoner. He feels that from the short time they spent together, he “somehow knew him better than [he’d] ever known Little Les.”
The German prisoner becomes a very poignant figure in this passage. He is clearly just like Tommo and the other British soldiers: young, scared, and forced into fighting. He doesn’t seem to want to fight the British at all, he has just got caught up in a war beyond his control. Tommo realizes they are no different from one another: not only does the German share the same Christian faith as the British, but he is also just as grateful for a cup of tea, and in the most pitiful image of the scene he rocks himself just like Big Joe used to. Joe is such an innocent and sweet character that comparing the German to Joe cements the German as a sympathetic figure.
Tommo and Charlie go to see Wilkie at the hospital. Wilkie has already been transported back to Britain because he was “in a bad way,” but he left a golden watch for Charlie. Charlie thinks the watch is “ruddy wonderful” and promises Tommo that he can have it if anything ever happens to him.
This watch is perhaps connected to Tommo’s watch, which he is looking at in the opening passage of the previous chapter. If so, perhaps this implies that something will happen to Charlie.