I have just finished reading Siegfried Sassoon's book, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. Sassoon is famous mostly as a poet, maybe THE poet, of WWI. The Wikipedia article (you may follow the link above) tells me that this is a book that British kids get assigned to read in school. Well, we never had it assigned over on this side of pond and I never even heard of it til I started researching Fox Hunting (don't ask, but rest assured my research is not for protest purposes or because I am going to hunt anything). Anyway, I am happy that I discovered it as a 40-something. It would have been wasted on me at 16.
Mostly MoaFHM is about the life of a fictionalized Sassoon prior to WWI - and a way of life that was swept away irretrievably by the War. It is written so beautifully, at least in sections, I just have to gape. Here's a section I read the other night. It comes, just near the end of the book as Sherston, the narrator, is thinking back to the period of time on the Western front, shortly after the death of his best friend.
I can see myself sitting in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris behind the support line. There is a strong smell of chloride of lime. I am scraping the caked mud off my wire-torn puttees with a rusty entrenching tool. Last night I was out patrolling with Private O'Brien, who used to be a dock labourer at Cardiff. We threw a few Mills' bombs at a German working-party who were putting up some wire and had no wish to do us any harm. Probably I am feeling pleased with myself about this. Now and and again a leisurely five-nine shell passes overhead in the blue air where the larks are singing. The sound of the shell is like water trickling into a can. The curve of its trajectory sounds peaceful until the culminating crash. A little weasel runs past my outstretched feet, looking at me with tiny bright eyes, apparently unafraid. One of our shrapnel shells, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapours take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolved into nothingness. Perhaps the shell has killed someone. Whether it has or whether it hasn't, I continue to scrape my puttees, and the weasel goes about his business.