A British soldier eats dinner in a trench.Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

I do not know when the idea of deserting from the army entered my head. During those winter months in the trenches in France I had often said: “Christ! Wait till I get back to England. They’ll never get me out here again.” Just as most of the other soldiers in our lot would talk at times. We were all men from factories, mines, shops, and offices. There was none of that Journey’s End English public-schoolboy spirit (let us all be Peter Pans forever) that won the Battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton about us. We were unwilling soldiers, conscripts …

When conscription came to England in the early part of 1916, and I found myself in the first groups officially “called up,” I welcomed the opportunity to escape from the dull drudgery of shop life. I saw a way out of my economic slavery. I dreamed of a freer life when I got out of the army. It was an escape from a life I hated. It was also an experience, and I was in that adolescent mood which welcomed experience, especially one which could be used as a means to an end.

I was called up on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1916, placed in a well-known London regiment, and sent to a training camp. After four months I landed in France on July 14, a date easy to remember, for the flags were flying at Boulogne for the French national holiday. After a part summer, autumn, and part winter spent on the Somme and the Ancre, taking part in only one battle, that of Beaumont-Hamel, I finally managed to get an ankle broken—a sudden, unexpected event envied by all the other chaps when it luckily took me back to England …

This was the end of February 1917. While in the London hospital I was found to be suffering from a mild form of typhoid fever—I had had trench dysentery—and I therefore spent the next few months recovering from my minor accident and my minor illness …

During all those months in hospital I had vaguely known at the back of my mind that I should have to face the issue sooner or later. But whether because I was ill and weak, or because the return to civilization from the trenches made me evade the solving of serious problems, I did not think very much about the matter …

But … drilling and route-marching and bomb-throwing and bayonet-fighting all brought it vividly back to me. I was in the machine again, being trained to kill and be killed. And I was absolutely firm in my own mind that I was not going to risk being shot or killed by a German anymore. What I felt and thought at that time may be called sheer cowardice by some patriotic people, but, as I saw it, it was the most primitive kind of common sense carried into action. I just felt the whole war was futile—it was just three years old—and my connection with it less than nothing. I felt a fool ever to have allowed myself to be drawn into the mess. Now it was up to me to get out of it once and for all. But how? That was the question.


Originally titled “The Deserter: Just as He Was”

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