A reader sent me a request the other day. He will be taking the AQA WW1 AS exam next month, and would like some suggestions for practice extracts. (the trickiest question on the paper is a compulsory one where candidates are given an unseen extract about the War, and asked to analyse it, and to link it to their previous reading.)
I shan’t be marking the exam this year (I had a small dispute about standards with my team leader last year, and sent my papers back) but still feel well-disposed to the students who take this paper, so here are three extracts that I might have set were I still a schoolteacher and preparing students for this exam:
1. From The Red Horizon (1916) by Patrick MacGill
“To the war! to the war!” I said under my breath. “Out to France and the fighting!” The thought raised a certain expectancy in my mind. “Did I think three years ago that I should ever be a soldier?” I asked myself. “Now that I am, can I kill a man; run a bayonet through his body; right through, so that the point, blood red and cruelly keen, comes out at the back? I’ll not think of it.”
But the thoughts could not be chased away. The month was March, and the night was bitterly cold on deck. A sharp penetrating wind swept across the sea and sung eerily about the dun-coloured funnel. With my overcoat buttoned well up about my neck and my Balaclava helmet pulled down over my ears I paced along the deck for quite an hour; then, shivering with cold, I made my way down to the cabin where my mates had taken up their quarters. The cabin was low-roofed and lit with two electric lamps. The corners receded into darkness where the shadows clustered thickly. The floor was covered with sawdust, packs and haversacks hung from pegs in the walls; a gun-rack stood in the centre of the apartment; butts down and muzzles in line, the rifles stretched in a straight row from stern to cabin stairs. On the benches along the sides the men took their seats, each man under his equipment, and by right of equipment holding the place for the length of the voyage.
My mates were smoking, and the whole place was dim with tobacco smoke. In the thick haze a man three yards away was invisible.
“Yes,” said a red-haired sergeant, with a thick blunt nose, and a broken row of tobacco-stained teeth; “we’re off for the doin’s now.”
“Blurry near time too,” said a Cockney named Spud Higgles. “I thought we weren’t goin’ out at all.”
“You’ll be there soon enough, my boy,” said the sergeant. “It’s not all fun, I’m tellin’ you, out yonder. I have a brother——”
“The same bruvver?” asked Spud Higgles.
“What d’ye mean?” inquired the sergeant.
“Ye’re always speakin’ about that bruvver of yours,” said Spud. “‘E’s only in Ally Sloper’s Cavalry; no man’s ever killed in that mob.”
“H’m!” snorted the sergeant. “The A.S.C. runs twice as much risk as a line regiment.”
“That’s why ye didn’t join it then, is it?” asked the Cockney.
“Hold yer beastly tongue!” said the sergeant.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Spud——
“Hold your tongue,” snapped the sergeant, and Spud relapsed into silence.
After a moment he turned to me where I sat. “It’s not only Germans that I’ll look for in the trenches,” he said, “when I have my rifle loaded and get close to that sergeant——”
“You’ll put a bullet through him”; I said, “just as you vowed you’d do to me some time ago. You were going to put a bullet through the sergeant-major, the company cook, the sanitary inspector, the army tailor and every single man in the regiment. Are you going to destroy the London Irish root and branch?” I asked.
“Well, there’s some in it as wants a talking to at times,” said Spud. “‘Ave yer got a fag to spare?”
Somebody sung a ragtime song, and the cabin took up the chorus. The boys bound for the fields of war were light-hearted and gay. A journey from the Bank to Charing Cross might be undertaken with a more serious air: it looked for all the world as if they were merely out on some night frolic, determined to throw the whole mad vitality of youth into the escapade.
“What will it be like out there?” I asked myself. The war seemed very near now. “What will it be like, but above all, how shall I conduct myself in the trenches? Maybe I shall be afraid—cowardly. But no! If I can’t bear the discomforts and terrors which thousands endure daily I’m not much good. But I’ll be all right. Vanity will carry me through where courage fails. It would be such a grand thing to become conspicuous by personal daring. Suppose the men were wavering in an attack, and then I rushed out in front and shouted: ‘Boys, we’ve got to get this job through’—But, I’m a fool. Anyhow I’ll lie on the floor and have a sleep.”
2. From Realities of War (1921) by Philip Gibbs
“To-morrow,” said the colonel – our first chief – before driving in for a late visit to G. H. Q., “we will go to Armentieres and see how the ‘Kitchener’ boys are shaping in the line up there. It ought to be interesting.”
The colonel was profoundly interested in the technic of war, in its organization of supplies and transport, and methods of command. He was a Regular of the Indian Army, a soldier by blood and caste and training, and the noblest type of the old school of Imperial officer, with obedience to command as a religious instinct; of stainless honor, I think, in small things as well as great, with a deep love of England, and a belief and pride in her Imperial destiny to govern many peoples
for their own good, and with the narrowness of such belief. His imagination was limited to the boundaries of his professional interests, though now and then his humanity made him realize in a perplexed way greater issues at stake in this war than the challenge to British Empiry.
One day, when we were walking through the desolation of a battlefield, with the smell of human corruption about us, and men crouched in chalky ditches below their breastworks of sand-bags, he turned to a colleague of mine and said in a startled way:
“This must never happen again! Never!”
It will never happen again for him, as for many others. He was too tall for the trenches, and one day a German sniper saw the red glint of his hat-band – he was on the staff of the 11th Corp – and thought, “a gay bird”! So he fell; and in our mess, when the news came, we were sad at his going, and one of our orderlies, who had been his body-servant, wept as he waited on us.
3. From France At War (1915) by Rudyard Kipling
We edged along the still trench, where the soldiers stared, with justified contempt, I thought, upon the civilian who scuttled through their life for a few emotional minutes in order to make words out of their blood. Somehow it reminded me of coming in late to a play and incommoding a long line of packed stalls. The whispered dialogue was much the same: “Pardon!” “I beg your pardon, monsieur.” “To the right, monsieur.” “If monsieur will lower his head.” “One sees best from here, monsieur,” and so on. It was their day and night-long business, carried through without display or heat, or doubt or indecision. Those who worked, worked; those off duty, not five feet behind them in the dug-outs, were deep in their papers, or their meals or their letters; while death stood ready at every minute to drop down into the narrow cut from out of the narrow strip of unconcerned sky. And for the better part of a week one had skirted hundreds of miles of such a frieze!
The loopholes not in use were plugged rather like old-fashioned hives. Said the Colonel, removing a plug: “Here are the Boches. Look, and you’ll see their sandbags.” Through the jumble of riven trees and stones one saw what might have been a bit of green sacking. “They’re about seven metres distant just here,” the Colonel went on. That was true, too. We entered a little fortalice with a cannon in it, in an embrasure which at that moment struck me as unnecessarily vast, even though it was partly closed by a frail packing-case lid. The Colonel sat him down in front of it, and explained the theory of this sort of redoubt. “By the way,” he said to the gunner at last, “can’t you find something better than that?” He twitched the lid aside. “I think it’s too light. Get a log of wood or something.”
I loved that Colonel! He knew his men and he knew the Boches—had them marked down like birds. When he said they were beside dead trees or behind boulders, sure enough there they were! But, as I have said, the dinner-hour is always slack, and even when we came to a place where a section of trench had been bashed open by trench-sweepers, and it was recommended to duck and hurry, nothing much happened. The uncanny thing was the absence of movement in the Boche trenches. Sometimes one imagined that one smelt strange tobacco, or heard a rifle-bolt working after a shot. Otherwise they were as still as pig at noonday.
We held on through the maze, past trench-sweepers of a handy light pattern, with their screw-tailed charge all ready; and a grave or so; and when I came on men who merely stood within easy reach of their rifles, I knew I was in the second line. When they lay frankly at ease in their dug-outs, I knew it was the third. A shot-gun would have sprinkled all three.
“No flat plains,” said Alan. “No hunting for gun positions—the hills are full of them—and the trenches close together and commanding each other. You see what a beautiful country it is.”
The Colonel confirmed this, but from another point of view. War was his business, as the still woods could testify—but his hobby was his trenches. He had tapped the mountain streams and dug out a laundry where a man could wash his shirt and go up and be killed in it, all in a morning; had drained the trenches till a muddy stretch in them was an offence; and at the bottom of the hill (it looked like a hydropathic establishment on the stage) he had created baths where half a battalion at a time could wash. He never told me how all that country had been fought over as fiercely as Ypres in the West; nor what blood had gone down the valleys before his trenches pushed over the scalped mountain top. No. He sketched out new endeavours in earth and stones and trees for the comfort of his men on that populous mountain.
And there came a priest, who was a sub-lieutenant, out of a wood of snuff-brown shadows and half-veiled trunks. Would it please me to look at a chapel? It was all open to the hillside, most tenderly and devoutly done in rustic work with reedings of peeled branches and panels of moss and thatch—St. Hubert’s own shrine. I saw the hunters who passed before it, going to the chase on the far side of the mountain where their game lay.