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Photo: The Battle of Loos, 1915

An excerpt of the novel Even If by Robert Anderson

"All may, none must, some should."

Anglican saying regarding the Sacrament of Confession


The Western Front, Fall 1915


The battle was to take place at dawn.  The Germans, in their bunkers up in the hills, might have been watching the Corps of Royal Engineers at work for at least a week, maybe longer.  The Engineers had supervised the digging of the network of parallel trenches, the reinforcing of the walls with planks of Scots pine, the sandbagging, the laying of the duckboard flooring, and the wreathing of the barbed-wire parapets.  Pine signboards had been affixed to the wire.  Tasseled letters in dark paint read, "Privy Gardens," "Portman Square," and "Baker Street."  Others, in shades of imperial red, announced, "Welcome, Heinz!  Tuck in!" 

            When Lieutenant John Kipling, who had turned eighteen the previous month, arrived with his unit of Irish Guards, General Sir Douglas Haig and his officers were situated in the eastern command post and General Sir John French and his staff were in the western headquarters.  The rumor was that, come what may, the twain between them would ne'er meet, if one could even judge that such a "twain" had ever existed.  The two senior officers of the British Army might have been statues flanking either end of a bygone battlefield, standing tall in bronze greatcoats among the quackgrass and pigweed since no communication wires had seemed to have been lain across their great divide. Just the same, reasoned John, Haig and French might have been intending to communicate, even in the midst of the battle, through the agency of their regimental runners, eyes, ears, and mouths in the field where eyes, ears, and mouths mattered the most.  The bituminous slag heaps of the abandoned mining camp, black pyramids with strangely grooved hieroglyphics curling like serpents down the length of the black dunes' inclines, the tall smoky-white chalk hills, and the dense forest that the intel team was calling "the Chalk Hill Wood," would likely afford these runners, many of whom had survived the Marne and Ypres, ample enough cover to hide behind if caught under fire.  Yet the heaps, hills, and woods would also surely hinder the thrust of the dawn's frontal attack on the part of the British soldiers, the assault that was to take place after the promised artillery strike, undertaken in order to soften the German positions.  John had to wonder if this were an area of the salient which had appeared advantageous on a strategic map but hadn't been reconnoitered through a rational pair of spyglasses until a significant portion of the Expeditionary Force had already been committed.  As far as he could see, through his funhouse-mirror spectacles and his astigmatic eyes, there was no heavy cannonry in evidence at all, not in the German hills and not on the British lowlands.  Would they bring in the guns in the dark and erect the munitions sites undercover like the contraptions of some blackguardly carnival stealing into a church village in the dark of night?  He couldn't have said.  The war was only fourteen months old, and this was to be his first battle.

            In the heat of the afternoon, he had seen the Leyland lorries driving drunkenly across the rocky terrain.  Soldiers from the Suffolk Regiment, lacking any ranking officers on hand and unlucky to be underrepresented here after having their numbers severely diminished at Ypres, had been mobilized, probably at random, to unload the trucks.  The iron cylinders that they were unpacking were much too narrow to accommodate artillery shells, which, like the Suffolk infantrymen themselves, were becoming in ever-shorter supply after the spate of recent "stalemate" engagements.  Newspaper commentators had begun calling this a "war of attrition," and the term seemed to imply a policy of advancement through the mass subtraction of both men and material, like two mass caravans being forced to discard their excess cargo along the road to an ever-more ambiguous terminus, the army which broke the tape with the lesser burdens of kith, kin, and equipment and the greater trail of detritus destined to be deemed the ultimate victor.  Was this a war of attrition or was it a revolt among lemmings?  And yet hadn't it been the tiny Island of England, forever governed by the chimerical and foolhardy, which had, against all odds once conquered the world and endowed post-Roman history with a new sense of adventure and flair, redefining the tenor of civilization, as unconquerable as it was unlikely, and had this not taken place at no insubstantial expense of sacrifice and disquietude, at that?  However undetected, however cryptic, there just had to be an endgame in the minds of the high-command committee members, the same breed of men, in some cases the members of the same ancestral clans, who could claim credit for keeping the Empire intact and Europe in a state of circumspect and skeptical peace throughout most of the last century, the British century.  Yes, this war's naysayers had made a fair point, but it was hardly a historical point given that it was indisputably the English who held the deed on the recent past.  Things would turn 'round, reassured the wheel of history, gainsaid by only the torture rack of the moment.  And if things didn't turn around, you, Young John Kipling, enlisted junior officer, were now at the very least a passenger on that wondrous wheel, an inflection in a great singing chord that was harkening all around the world, reverberating through and transcending both space and time.  This war would shape the century, and even if you didn't live to see what form the new age might take, in fighting at the front you were harmonizing with a world that you would never come to know.  The idea had the trick of not only immortality but also divinity about it, did it not?  Like being raised from the dead in one sense, and in another never having truly died, no?


              Being the only son of a preeminent author, whom some commentators had styled as "the conscience of Great Britain," John couldn't have imagined a future for himself without a field commission.  Disregarding who or what his father might be, what would he see in the eyes of his wife and children when the flags were to be unfurled and the inevitable roll would be called amid the drumbeats on those afternoons of a future full of bank holidays?  And as much as he'd like to say that he had achieved his Lieutenant's stripes of his own initiative, this wasn't entirely what had taken place.  Able as the next man and fit to serve in all but eyesight, he had had, in the end, to rely on his father's influence.  With a view to ultimately untangling himself from his father's influence. 

            Dad's identity aside, did it even make sense, in the end, to define his own duty in life according to the conceivable expectations of a conjectural wife and set of children--people whom he had yet to meet and who did not even exist in his life as yet?  According to the logic of his innermost rationale, if he were to succumb in the field, he wouldn't be falling so much for the glory of England, but for the sake of a parcel of chimeras, the ghosts of bank holidays and family evenings future.  Should he really be, for that matter, shedding his blood for the sake of the bloodless?  But how else would he define his own individual allegiance if not in relation to the elements that remained missing in his life, those elements that, in the speculative sense at least, were going to come along and complete the consummate man that he had always wished to become?  Those elements without which he would have no reason to contemplate a future for himself, much less endeavor to create one.  His hypothetical wife and children would naturally be beholden to love him.  But they would also retain the prerogative of judging him according to the natural order, cold judgment being an inevitable component of inheritance, just as he, always struggling to understand the complexities of Mr. Rudyard Kipling's legacy, had allowed himself to sit in silent and often secretly harsh assessment of his father, a great man mortgaged to his soul with secret deficiencies that John himself, lacking achievements of his own, could not afford at this point in his life to harbor.  Natural selection, in the main, is the act of rethinking oneself in relation to one's progenitors.  Eh tu, Brute?  Eh tu, Jesu?

            Wife, daughter, son, and, yes, father were all going to judge him in accordance with the way in which he would perform in the field tomorrow morning.  And these judgments would be rendered sight unseen, meaning that prior to the battle, he would not be allowed the benevolence of actually laying eyes upon his wife and children in the vision that he was longing for, or, in a separate vision, truly apprehending his father's secret heart.  And, for their part, if he should fall, wife and children would likewise never see him at all, for the simple certitude that his death would preclude their existences.  What's more, his death would surely abort the moment when he and his father could regard each other, for perhaps the first time, eye-to-eye.  However inverted this war had made the world seem, looking down upon another's grave or looking up from one's own was never going constitute anything approaching a parallel view--for as much as one was going to outlast the other, neither would, in fact, ever survive the other.             


Robert Anderson, Flannery O'Connor Award winner in 1999, for Ice Age, is also the author of Little Fugue (2005), published by Random House.  He lives in New York City and teaches writing at the Nationwide Master Institute in Flushing, Queens.  

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