The dugout shook with the reverberations of a huge shell. The lantern swung on the beam, the glasses jumped on the table, and bits of earth fell from the ceiling. Weir gripped Stephen’s wrist.
‘Talk to me, Wraysford,’ he said. ‘Talk to me about anything you like.’
‘All right. I’ll tell you something.’ Stephen blew out a trail of cigarette smoke. ‘I’m curious to see what’s going to happen. There are your sewer rats in their holes three feet wide crawling underground. There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want to know. I believe that it has barely started. I believe that far worse things than we have see will be authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys like my Tipper and your Firebrace. There is no depth to which they can’t be driven. You see their faces when they go into rest and you think they will take no more, that something in them will say, enough, no one can do this. But one day’s sleep, hot food and wine in their bellies and they will do more. I think they will do ten times more before it’s finished and I’m eager to know how much. If I didn’t have that curiousity I would walk into enemy lines and let myself be killed. I would blow my own head off with one of these grenades.’
‘You’re mad,’ said Weir. ‘Don’t you just want it to be over?’
‘Yes, of course I do. But now that we have come this far I want to know what it means.’
–Taken from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks