A while back I had a mild dispute with Daniel Karlin about Kipling’s The Sleepy Sentinel. (Prof. Karlin’s excellent paper on the poem Tin Fish, by the way, is now online at the Kipling Society website.)
Yesterday I found more about the crime of sleeping on sentry duty, in War is War (1930) a memoir by Ex-Private X (A.M. Burrage).
Of course we fall asleep on sentry, but our officers are too decent to make a song about it. A sentry asleep in the line is liable to be court-martialled and shot, but I don’t think it was often done. It must stand to reason that a man who can go to sleep standing up while his life is in danger must be in a pretty bad way, and even the Army council cannot alter the laws of nature.
I did it twice, and the first time I was caught by Mr Cleeves, a short, quiet, kindly “loot” about forty years old. I recognised his type in the elderly lieutenant in Journey’s End. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what I was doing. “I was only blinking, sir, ” I answered. “Well, don’t blink like that again,” he said, and passed on. […]
The second time I did it thoroughly, and walked in my sleep. This was at night. The rest of my platoon had gone to get rations, and I was left as the one sentry – this was in the supports – until their return. this was practically an all-night job, and a pretty tough one. A lance-corporal had been detailed to supervise me, and he very naturally went to sleep. So did I.
I woke up in a strange country. To be precise I woke up in the front line on the left flank of the battalion on our left, having walked about two and a half miles through trenches. Trench sentries had been posted to challenge stranger, and thus prevent German spies in British uniforms from prowling about, and I had to run the gauntlet on my way back.
“Why the bloody hell couldn’t you answer me when I challenged you an hour ago? Nearly poked my bleeding bayonet throughbyou, I did.” This was the sort of stuff handed out to me at almost regular intervals on my return journey.
I got back just before the ration party to find that the lance-corporal, having woken up and discovered me to be missing, had taken my place on the fire-step, so nothing was known officially about my unconscious exploit.
In 1919 Burrage would publish a rather lurid story about a shell-shocked man walking in his sleep and committing a murder. Perhaps his own tendency to somnabulate gave him the idea.