This scene in A Man Could Stand Up, the third novel of the Parades End tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford is magnificently drawn out. It’s World War I in the trenches and the hero, Christopher Tietjens, is trying to defend against a German offensive. There is a young soldier, Aranjuez, who has sunk into the mud, and most of the scene deals with Tietjens pulling him out and carrying him to safety, all the while bullets and bombs hurling about him. The language simplifies immensely to simulate the fragmenting thoughts of the soldiers under immense pressure. Compare the staccato, simple sentences of this battle scene with lush, flowing language of an earlier part of the book, a scene describing Tietjens’ unfaithful wife, Sylvia, here. This is a very complex, modernist book, and I’m not sure I completely follow everything, but the characters are really engaging and the writing is exquisite. Ford Madox Ford is one of the best prose stylist in the English language. Here’s this remarkable scene.
It was slow, slow, slow…like a slowed down movie. The earth maneuvered for an infinite time. He remained suspended in space. As if he were suspended as he had wanted to be in front of that cockscomb in whitewash. Coincidence!
The earth sucked slowly and composedly at his feet.
It assimilated his calves, his thighs. It imprisoned him above the waist. His arms being free, he resembled a man in a life-buoy. The earth moved him slowly. It was solidish.
Below him, down a mound, the face of little Aranjuez, brown, with immense black eyes in bluish whites, looked at him. Out of viscous mud. A head on a charger! He could see ‘the imploring lips form the words: ‘Save me, Captain!” He said: ‘I’ve got to save myself first!’ He could not hear his own words. The noise was incredible.
A man stood over him. He appeared immensely tall because Tietjens’ face was on a level with his belt. But he was a small Cockney Tommy really. Name of Cockshott. He pulled at Tietjens’ two arms. Tietjens tried to kick with his feet. Then he realized it was better not to kick with his feet. He was pulled out. Satisfactorily. There had been two men at it. A second, a corporal had come. They were all three of them grinning. He slid down with the sliding earth towards Aranjuez. He smiled at the pallid face. He slipped a lot. He felt a frightful burning on his neck, below and behind the ear. His hand came down from feeling the place. The finger-tips had no end of mud and a little pinkishness on them. A pimple had perhaps burst. He had at least two men not killed. He signed agitatedly to the Tommies. He made gestures of digging. They were to get shovels.
He stood over Aranjuez, on the edge of liquid mud. Perhaps he would sink in. He did not sink in. Not above his boot tops. He felt his feet to be enormous and sustaining. He knew what had happened. Aranjuez was sunk in the issuing hole of the spring that made the bog. It was like on Exmoor. He bent down over the ineffable, small face. He bent down lower and his hands entered the slime. He had to get on his hands and knees.
Fury entered his mind. He had been sniped at. Before he had had that pain he had heard, he realized, an intimate drone under the hellish tumult. There was reason for furious haste. Or, no….They were low. In a wide hole. There was no reason for furious haste. Especially on your hands and knees.
His hands were under the slime, and his forearms. He battled his hands down greasy cloth; under greasy cloth. Slimy, not greasy! He pushed outwards. The boy’s hands and arms appeared. It was going to be easier. His face was not quite close to the boy’s, but it was impossible to hear what he said. Possibly he was unconscious. Tietjens said: ‘Thank God for my enormous physical strength!’ It was the first time that he had ever had to be thankful for great physical strength. He lifted the boy’s arms over his own shoulders so that his hands might clasp themselves behind his neck. They were slimy and disagreeable. He was short in the wind. He heaved back. The boy came up a little. He was certainly fainting. He gave no assistance. The slime was filthy. It was a condemnation of a civilisation that he, Teitjens, possessed of enormous strength, should never have needed to use it before. He looked like a collection of mealsacks; but at least he could tear a pack of cards in half. If only his lungs weren’t…
Cockshott, the Tommy, and the corporal were beside him, grinning. With the two shovels that ought not to have stood against the parapet of their trench. He was intensely irritated. He had tried to indicate with his signs that it was Lance-Corporal Duckett that they were to dig out. It was probably no longer Lance-Corporal Duckett. It was probably by now ‘it’. The body! He had probably lost a man after all!
Cockshott and the corporal pulled Aranjuez out of the slime. He came out reluctantly, like a lugworm out of sand. He could not stand. His legs gave way. He drooped like a flower done in slime. His lips moved, but you could not hear him. Tietjens took him from the two men who supported him between the arms and laid him a little way up the mound. He shouted in the ear of the Corporal:
‘Duckett! Go and dig out Duckett! At the double.’
He knelt and felt the boy’s back. His spine might have been damaged. The boy did not wince. His spine might be damaged all the same. He could not be left there. Bearers could be sent with a stretcher if one was to be found. But the might be sniped coming. Probably, he, Tietjens, could carry that boy, if his lungs held out. If not, he could drag him. He felt tender, like a mother, and enormous. It might be better to leave the boy there. There was no knowing. He said: ‘Are you wounded?’ The guns had mostly stopped. Tietjens could not see any blood flowing. The boy whispered: ‘No, sir!’ He was, then, probably just faint. Shell shock very likely. There was no knowing what the shell shock was or what it did to you. Or the mere vapour of the projectile.
He could not stop there.
He took the boy under his arm as you might do a roll of blankets. If he took him on his shoulders he might get high enough to get sniped. He did not go very fast, his legs were so heavy. He bundled down several steps in the direction of the spring in which the boy had been. There was more water. The spring was filling up that hallow. He could not have left the boy there. You could only imagine that his body had corked up the springhole before. This had been like being at home where they had springs like that. On the moors, digging out badgers. Digging earth drains, rather. Badgers have dry lairs. On the moors above Groby. April sunlight. Lots of sunlight and skylarks.
He was mounting the mound. For some feet there was no other way. They had been in the shaft made by the projectile. He inclined to the left. To the right would take them quicker to the trench, but he wanted to get the mound between them and the sniper. His breathing was tremendous. There was more light falling on them.
Exactly…Snap! Snap! Snap!...Clear sounds from a quarter of a mile away…Bullets whined overhead. Long sounds, going away. Not snipers. The men of a battalion. A chance! Snap! Snap! Snap! Bullets whined overhead. Men of a battalion get excited when shooting at anything running. They fire high. Trigger pressure. He was now a fat, running object. Did they fire with a sense of hatred or fun! Hatred probably. Huns have not much sense of fun.
His breathing was unbearable. Both his legs were like painful bolsters. He would be on the relatively level in two steps if he made them…Well, make them!...He was on the level. He had been climbing, up clods. He had to take an immense breath. The ground under his left foot gave way. He had been holding Aranjuez in front of his own body as much as he could, under his right arm. As his left foot sank in, the boy’s body came right on top of him. Naturally this stiffish earth in huge clods had fissures in it. Apertures. It was not like regular digging.
The boy kicked, screamed, tore himself lose….Well, if he wanted to go! The scream was like a horse’s in a stable on fire. Bullets had gone overhead. The boy rushed off, his hands to his face. He disappeared round the mound. It was a conical mound. He, Tietjens, could now crawl on his belly. It was satisfactory.
He crawled. Shuffling himself along with his hips and elbows. There was probably a text-book way of crawling. He did not know it. The clods of earth appeared friendly. For bottom soil thrown to the top they did not feel or smell so very sour. Still, it would take a long time to get them into cultivation or under grass. Probably, agriculturally speaking, that country would be in pretty poor condition for a long time….
He felt pleased with his body. It had no exercise to speak of for two months—as second-in-command. He could not have expected to be in even the condition he was in. But the mind had probably had a good deal to do with that! He had, no doubt, been in a devil of a funk. It was only reasonable. It was disagreeable to think of those Hun devils hunting down the unfortunate. A disagreeable business. Still, we did the same….That boy must have been in a devil of a funk. Suddenly. He had held his hands in front of his face. Afraid to see. Well, you couldn’t blame him. They ought not to send out school-girls. He was like a girl. Still, he ought to have stayed to see that he, Tietjens, was not pipped. He might have thought he was hit from the way his left leg had gone down. He would have to be strafed. Gently.