Robert’s dugout is bombed by the Germans. After the roof caves in, he, Rodwell, and Levitt are disoriented and surrounded by debris. Levitt clings to his copy of Clausewitz on War while Rodwell collects his animals (who all survived in their cages). Robert frantically digs through the debris, certain that Poole has suffocated and died. Robert is angry but relived when Poole appears behind him from outside, alive and well.
This passage demonstrates the stressful and traumatic instability that is inherent to the life of a soldier. One moment the men are asleep, and the next moment their dugout is completely destroyed. Even though Robert is disoriented by the explosion, Poole’s wellbeing is still at the forefront of his mind, showing the sense of self-sacrificial duty that he has as an officer, even in the midst of utter chaos.
Robert struggles to survey the devastated trenches amidst the fire and smoke from burst shells. He climbs through the debris-ridden, waterlogged trenches toward the Battalion Signals Office, where he hopes other survivors will congregate. On his way there, he saves a rat trapped in a hole, marveling at the presence of something alive amidst this devastation. It takes Robert over an hour to trek a quarter of a mile.
Seeing the rat trapped in the hole indicates the war’s tendency to trivialize life, as even the most innocent, defenseless creatures are dragged into the violence around them. Robert’s concern for this animal demonstrates his empathy and sense of duty to protect those who are more vulnerable than himself, hearkening back to his former role as Rowena’s “guardian.”
Robert reaches the Signals Office but cannot get through to his O.C. (Officer Commanding) for orders, as most of the wires are down. The wounded are being led back to Wytsbrouk by a horse railway. German shells continue to land nearby as he waits to send his message. These close calls cause several soldiers to exclaim “Isn’t it marvelous!”
The men’s enthusiasm about the chaos reinforces the notion that many of Robert’s fellow soldiers are still exhilarated by danger, rather than afraid of it. The men view violence as an opportunity to prove their manhood, a testament to the self-destructive mindset that war encourages and that encourages war.
Captain Leather, Robert’s company commander, arrives from Wytsbrouk and asks Robert to explain the situation. Leather continually repeats “just so” as Robert delivers his report, even as he shares his fear that all of his men have been killed. Leather studies a map and lays down a new course of action for positioning the guns, which Robert silently believes is crazy because they will sink in the mud. He then introduces Robert to Corporal Bates, who is in charge of the Mortar Squads. After warning Robert that these men are troublemakers, Leather wanders off to have some tea.
Captain Leather’s attitude toward the war is one of detachment—his repetitive response to Robert indicates that he is not genuinely empathetic toward the trauma his men have been through and does not wish to become directly involved in the conflict. His irresponsible plan only reinforces this carelessness. Whereas many of the young soldiers are motivated by a desire to sacrifice themselves for their countries, Leather is only concerned about himself, foreshadowing the fact that those under his command will be forced into precarious situations down the line.
Robert and Bates lead twenty-two men through the remains of the trenches. Robert likes Bates because his attitude toward the battlefield is one of genuine awe rather than detachment. They arrive back at Robert’s dugout, where Levitt is disturbingly calm. Robert tells him to help Poole fix the brazier so they can make tea later. Rodwell, who is caked with mud, hopes that the rainclouds will pass so that the ground will freeze. Like Robert, all of Rodwell’s men were killed.
Bates’s genuineness is a contrast to Captain Leather’s cynicism and carelessness, a difference which suggests that more experienced soldiers eventually become desensitized to the violence they witness. Levitt’s dulled emotions, on the other hand, imply that he is experiencing shell shock. These different reactions to the bombing show the varied effects of trauma on individuals.
When Robert, Bates, and their men reach the remains of the forward trench, they find it still full of dead and wounded soldiers. Only the wounded are allowed to turn back and stay with other wounded men, so Robert and the others press on. Bates thinks that the most terrifying part of war is having to trust orders from strangers (like Robert and Captain Leather) who might be mad, stupid, or crazy.
Bates’s concern about following orders implies that soldiers are often forced to prioritize their sense of duty above their own sensibilities or physical wellbeing. His worry about trusting Robert foreshadows uncertain danger for the men wherein they will have to rely on each other to survive.
Robert spots an object in the distance and tells Bates they will head toward that. He instructs Bates to wait to enter the crater until he finds a foothold. Robert falls down the crater’s slippery, muddy sides and injures his knees before struggling his way into a standing position. Bates and the other men drop down into the crater after him. There is no sign of the enemy, so Robert climbs up to the rim of the crater and signals the men to come up and start digging.
The fact that Robert is hurt even before they reach the site of the mission proves that his skepticism of Captain Leather’s plan is warranted. Regardless, his role as a soldier forces him to obey orders even at the risk of injury for himself and his men, showing the inherent danger he is willing to accept as part of his duties.
The men dig out a site to set up the guns according to Captain Leather’s orders. Robert notices one of the gunners throwing mud into the pools below like a child playing in a park. He begins to make calculations but suddenly realizes that the fighting has stopped as they hear birdsong overhead. The silence means that the Germans are going to attack again. The residual smoke from the shells has begun to dissipate along with the clouds overhead, destroying their cover.
The image of the soldier playing with mud takes on a dark tone considering how harrowing their situation is in the wake of the bombing. The boyish gesture highlights just how significantly their lives have changed from their relatively recent days of childhood.
Suddenly, a pale blue fog appears overhead. Robert orders the men to put on their gas masks, but Bates tells him they were not issued any due to the hasty nature of the operation. Without thinking, Robert orders them to jump, and the men land on top of one another in the water below. The situation quickly becomes a nightmare, as some of the men cannot swim and one breaks his legs in the fall. Corpses that had lain against the sides of the crater fall down into the water. The soldiers forgo all protocol as they desperately try not to drown, and Robert has to kick his men away as they try to steal his gas mask.
Like the bombing of Robert’s dugout, this sudden attack shows that the soldiers must live in constant anticipation of the next violent attack; there is rarely a moment to rest physically or mentally. Although Robert is an officer and has a responsibility to look out for his men, this role is not always morally straightforward. While his decision to keep his gas mask for himself could be interpreted as selfish, it is also necessary—he knows that he must stay alive in order to help the other soldiers.
Robert remembers being in chemistry class with Clifford Purchas years ago and learning that the natural ammonia in urine could turn chloride into a harmless powder. He commands his men to tear the tails off of their shirts, urinate on them, and wrap them around their faces. Bates’s terror prevents him from urinating, so Robert pees on the cloth himself and slaps it over Bates’s face.
Robert’s quick thinking in this dire moment shows that his inherent courage and resourcefulness are just as honorable as his romanticized notions of killing the enemy without remorse. Though he idolized Taffler’s ability to kill in Part 1, Chapter 13, Robert’s actions here suggest that there is more than one way to be a hero.
The gas gradually dissipates, but the men wait with their faces buried in their hands for three hours, playing dead and praying as it begins to snow. Finally, Robert eases himself up and commands the other men to stay still. He hears the same bird from earlier singing, and it makes him nervous because it reminds him of a cowboy signaling the presence of an Indian in the woods.
As in Part 2, the birdsong here is an ominous sign of danger, showing the war’s ability to turn ordinary sights and sounds into triggers of panic and relived trauma for shell-shocked soldiers.
Robert freezes as he spots a German soldier lying at the edge of the crater, looking at him through a pair of binoculars. He can see the German’s eyes when he puts the binoculars down, noticing that the soldier is around his age. At first Robert quietly orders Bates and the others to stay silent and covered under the snow, but the German seems to signal that he is unarmed. Robert tells Bates and the rest of his men to get up and climb out of the crater.
Robert’s realization that the German soldier is his age is a surreal moment, as he is finally able to personify the vague, faceless enemy that he and his men have been fighting all along. The similarity between Robert and the German shows war’s ability to rob young men of their innocence, as these two soldiers who may have been friends in another situation are forced to become mortal enemies in the context of war.
Robert begins to climb out, too, but thinks he sees the German reaching for a gun. Robert impulsively shoots and kills him, but is horrified to realize that the German was only reaching for his binoculars, and that he had a sniper rifle the entire time and could have killed them but chose not to. Robert hears the bird singing again and thinks that this sound will haunt him for the rest of his life. On their way back through the trench, Robert and the other soldiers find that everyone else is dead, having either been gassed or frozen to death.
Robert’s impulsive decision to shoot the German soldier is a testament to the moral complexity of war, as he feels it is his duty as an officer to take one life for the sake of saving several others. Although he kills the German in preemptive defense of his own men, and this act could be interpreted as heroic, Robert is still tortured by guilt for years to come. This reality suggests that the violent acts soldiers are forced to commit can be just as traumatizing as the violence enacted against them.
The next few days seem to bleed together as the Germans continue to attack. Countless troops are lost as fire storms burn and explode men and their horses along the front. It is rumored that the Germans have invented a flamethrower that is “the ultimate weapon,” able to vaporize entire trenches of men into dust.
The invention of the flamethrower is an extreme example of the “passive” modern warfare techniques in Clausewitz on War that Levitt has referenced to the other men. The gruesome, destructive nature of the flamethrower allowed for the killing of huge numbers of men from a physical and emotional distance, a stark contrast to the close-range weapons that were used in war up until this point.
The men try their best to regroup in the midst of this chaos. Rodwell and Poole repair the roof of the dugout, while Levitt goes mad and sits immobilized with his books piled up on his knees. Devlin, Bonnycastle, and Roots make forays from Wytsbrouk, and Robert and Bonnycastle fight in confusion over the fact that all of the guns were left in No Man’s Land. Rodwell, having saved his toad during the gas attack, disappears. The rabbit, hedgehog, and bird all asphyxiated. No one is sure of Rodwell’s whereabouts, or if he survived.
The soldiers’ different reactions to the bombing (distraction, madness, and anger) demonstrate how traumatic events can have varied effects on different individuals. The deaths of Rodwell’s animals in the bombing show that the war also has wide-reaching consequences for those who are not directly involved in the conflict, even the most innocent and defenseless of creatures.
One day, it begins to rain, and the fighting seems to be over as the fire on the ground is extinguished. Rodwell reappears and says goodbye, as he is being transferred. He entrusts Robert with his toad, sketchbooks, and a letter addressed to his daughter for safekeeping. Captain Leather finally makes an appearance, commanding Robert, Levitt, Poole, and Devlin to return to Wytsbrouk while Bonnycastle and Roots stay with the men. He says that it is a pity Robert lost the guns in the crater.
Captain Leather again proves to be an ineffective leader. Despite the reality that Leather sent the men on a dangerous, irresponsible mission and Robert was forced to save their lives as a result, he only acknowledges the mistake that Robert made by leaving the guns in No Man’s Land. This attitude suggests that soldiers are not always praised for their courage or heroism—rather, they are judged solely on their ability to follow orders and unjustly blamed for the mistakes of their superiors.
A few days later, Robert receives word that Rodwell shot himself. He was assigned “down the line” to a company who had been in the trenches and driven to madness during the fire storms. These men forced Rodwell to watch them torturing small animals by burning them alive, which drove him to suicide. Robert reads the letter that Rodwell wrote to his daughter Laurine, in which he told her that nothing ever dies and that he would always be her father.
Rodwell’s suicide encapsulates the devastating psychological effects that war can have on an individual. From this passage, it is clear that trauma has a cyclical effect, as soldiers who are traumatized by violence are driven to commit senseless violence of their own against animals. While these men have clearly been morally corrupted by war, Rodwell refuses to lose the innocent spirit that he has managed to preserve throughout the war, and chooses to end his life rather than witness or perpetuate cruelty against defenseless creatures.
The novel flashes back to January 1916, from the perspective of Robert’s mother. Mrs. Ross begins to seek comfort in rain and snow, forcing Miss Davenport to walk outside with her during storms. She closes her eyes when she passes by acquaintances she knows on the streets and walks with a stick instead of an umbrella.
Throughout the novel, eyes represent human vulnerability. Mrs. Ross’s habit of closing her eyes when she passes people on the street suggests that she is harboring self-blame over spitefully encouraging Robert to join the army in Part 1, Chapter 10, and is afraid that others will cast judgment on her. She also feels simply vulnerable as a mother with a son at war, and doesn’t want others to see that vulnerability.
In February, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are burned down, and Mrs. Ross pores over the news. She tells Miss Davenport that her country is being destroyed by fire. In March, Mrs. Ross braves the harsh wind to walk in a muddy ravine, with Davenport following behind. On some days, Mrs. Ross gets drunk and Davenport wheels her in Rowena’s wheelchair to the park. She dreads falling asleep, and the bumping of the wheelchair keeps her awake.
Although Robert and his mother are separated by distance, Mrs. Ross’s confrontation of the brutal Canadian elements is similar to Robert’s own struggle at war, as he faces sinkholes, poison gas attacks, and explosions, among other threats. The parallel experiences of mother and son draws on the title, The Wars, implying that there are multiple wars happening during any given conflict. While soldiers on the battlefront fight a physical battle, families on the home front fight their own battles as well.
Mrs. Ross obsessively rereads, memorizes, and catalogues Robert’s letters. She writes him rambling, illegible responses. Tom feels distant from his wife and misses her terribly, but never says anything, instead losing himself in memories of their early days as a couple. Tom loves Mrs. Ross but fears her, feeling as if he is “just another room through which she passed towards the dark.”
Mrs. Ross’s erratic behavior again suggests that she blames herself for Robert’s dangerous situation overseas. Portraying the weakening of the Ross family unit alongside the violence that Robert and the other soldiers face again shows that the war has wide-reaching effects, not only on soldiers, but on civilians.
On March 8, 1916, Robert is sent from St. Eloi to England. On the train ride there, he flips through Rodwell’s sketchbook and is shocked to see a several drawings of himself mixed in with the other sketches of toads, birds, rodents, and other animals. Although the likeness of Robert is good, the drawings seem vaguely inhuman, as if he had somehow been “modified and mutated” to become one of the animals. Early that morning, Robert had released Rodwell’s toad, as promised, near a hedge. As the toad burrowed in the mud, Robert touched it with his fingertips and told it to “be well.”
Rodwell’s drawings suggest that he viewed Robert as more akin to an animal than a man, implying that Robert has the same inherent gentleness and purity of spirit that he has admired in animals throughout the novel. This special quality in Robert hearkens back to Part 1, Chapter 3, when Miss Turner implied that it is ordinary people who cause the horrors of war. The fact that Robert is perceived as extraordinary foreshadows the possibility that the “monstrous” actions of ordinary people will play a role in his downfall.