One week into his return to the front, the Germans execute a fourteen-hour barrage on Robert’s convoy. Robert is delirious after sleeping only eight hours in three days and subsisting on chocolate bars, tea, and rum. He asks Captain Leather if he can make a strategic retreat with his new supply of horses and mules so that the animals can be saved from certain death in the incessant shellfire, but Leather refuses.
In the midst of this terrible violence, Captain Leather’s refusal to let Robert free the horses and mules is particularly cruel and shows that Leather, unlike most of his subordinates, is not motivated by self-sacrifice or a sense of duty to his fellow men. Rather, he is focused on portraying a contrived image of resilience and valor to the enemy.
As shells begin to land in the barnyard, Robert can no longer stand it. Devlin agrees to help him disobey orders and save the horses and mules. Captain Leather sees them releasing the animals from his office and runs outside, screaming at them to shut the gates. Devlin continues to drive the horses out, so Leather shoots him.
This passage marks an important shift in Robert’s character, as his and Devlin’s actions here are motivated by their own individual sense of what is morally right in the situation, as opposed to the dutiful obedience Robert has otherwise exhibited during his time at war.
As Robert comes out of the stable Captain Leather yells that he is a traitor and threatens to shoot him. Shells continue to fall as Robert runs for the gates, and an explosion blows him into the road. He looks up to find that the entire barnyard and Signals Office have been reduced to rubble, and that all of the animals are either dead or dying in the fire. Robert appears to be the only survivor.
Robert’s attempt to free the horses and mules proves to be futile, as the shellfire devastates the battlefield and kills the animals. This reality demonstrates the unjust helplessness and senseless violence that animals, like their human counterparts, experience in war.
Robert looks out over the scene and is so angry that he fears he will go insane. He thinks that any other animal causing this terrible destruction would have been called mad and shot. Just then, Captain Leather begins to struggle to his feet and Robert shoots him between the eyes. Robert spends the next half-hour killing all of the mules and horses who are suffering, after which he tears the lapels from his uniform and leaves the battlefield.
As horses are symbolic of freedom and innocence, the suffering of these defenseless creatures robs Robert of all hope and drives him to the brink of madness. By killing Captain Leather, Robert takes on the role of moral arbiter, as he believes that enacting revenge on Leather will bring about some sense of justice for the deaths of both Devlin and the animals. This act, coupled with his desertion of the battlefield, shows that Robert has completely forgone his duties as a soldier and will rely on his own standards of honor from this point forward.