[NOTE: I wrote this for my Writer's Craft Class. It's sort of based on Pat Barker's novel, Regeneration -- which is why my piece is called Disintegration. Barker's novel deals with how to heal from war experiences, while my piece is about the attack that caused the poet Wilfred Owen's neurasthenia in the first place. Owen is an actual historical figure as well as a character in the novel, so I was as historically accurate as I could be in my piece. The letter to Owen's mother is really what he wrote to her, the Colonel's message is real, and the events in the piece are real -- I just described them in more detail, using words and phrases from Owen's actual poems. Most of his thoughts are taken directly from his poems as well.]

He'd been in a railway cutting for days. His battalion had been rushed up into the line, and had just survived the most intense shelling he had ever seen - Owen could still hear the Colonel's message in his mind, sent by telegram days before, 'I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the battalion under the heavy shell-fire.... The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.' He remembered the smiles that lit up his tired men's faces as the letter got passed around, and he remembered saying that they'd probably get a little relief from all the fighting as a reward. But instead they'd been told to stay in the line. And now Owen was in a hole, just big enough for him to lie in, covered with corrugated iron. He couldn't really see what was going on outside the hole, but he could hear the demented wailing of shells above him; the bombardments had been more or less constant all day, and remained constant now that it was night. In the strange light of the flares Owen caught glimpses of 2/Lt.Gaukroger - an arm, a leg. All scattered haphazardly nearby.

When the explosion had hit, Owen and Gaukroger had been up against a railway embankment with the rest of the battalion, asleep. It had been raining, like it was now. Then a shell hit. His men told him later that it lit on the top of the bank, only about two yards above Owen's head. Before he'd even woken up, he'd been blown away from the bank. His heart had nearly jumped right out of his throat when he'd opened his eyes to find himself flying through the air, and he'd thought then that he was going to die. Right now he was too tired to think about whether or not death might have been a mercy.

He seemed to be floundering in a sea of fire and lime among trench walls, mud littered with bodies, and rows of spiked, twisted wire that curled in on itself as if it were in as much agony as the soldiers. He couldn't stop shaking, and his mind was full of the terrible crashing of shells and the glimmering of the guns that haunted his dreams. It was hard to breathe in the small space, and every time he closed his eyes he saw his men, the pallor of death showing on their faces. He saw them standing in front of him; hollow shells of human beings, now blind, deaf, and numb to the flares, the gunfire, and the cold. Sometimes he saw the ones who'd been gassed, too: white eyes writhing, men choking, drowning in their own blood. He was still shaking in the tiny hole as another shell passed overhead with a loud shriek -- he half-wished it would hit him so he wouldn't have to see Gaukroger anymore. He was exhausted. Let me sleep now, he prayed. Only out here, there was no sleep until you died in the filth and the cold, surrounded by the sounds of wailing and crying, and covered in blood.

'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,' Owen laughed at himself, to think he'd actually believed that lie. We all did, he thought. We all thought this war was going to be glorious, and when it ended we'd all come home full of pride, telling stories of grand adventures. He started for a moment; from somewhere in the direction of No Man's Land came the batter of machine guns. Out here Latin doesn't help us, he thought angrily. The medals? They're nothing but discs to make eyes close. And those glorious ribbons they hand out? Those are ripped from our own bodies in scarlet shreds.

A few shots rang out somewhere to his left. Snipers, trying to keep us on our toes, Owen realised. Surely he must be dead already, and in hell. He was trapped in muck, trying not to see the men, once living, whose bodies he often had to step on. He could never forget all the blood: in the sunlight all he saw were bloodsmears; in the dark everything was blackened with blood; and the breaking of the dawn every day felt like the reopening of a wound. And they wonder why we break down, thought Owen bitterly.

He wasn't really noticing the shells anymore; he couldn't see much from his position in the tiny hole. Owen made himself ignore his heaving stomach; he'd been forcing himself for some time now not to think about Gaukroger, and every time his eyes moved towards that area they passed swiftly over the bits and pieces of the man so as not to see them for what they really were. He settled down, and told himself not to think about anything at all except not getting shot, gassed, or blown to smithereens.

Suddenly he was being heaved up out of his prison. He looked up and the lieutenant grinned at him. Relief troops, thank God. Owen smiled wearily back and let the man help him up.

For days afterwards, even at the war hospital, Owen saw only fleeting, blurry images of broken trees and barbed wire, ghostly men with terrible coughs, walking through cursed sludge, and smothering dreams of open sores, gangrene, and rats. Sometimes there was a feeling of claustrophobia, and his mind sent him back into the dark, with the dead and the whistling shells. They told him he and his men had been out in the line for twelve days. Twelve days without relief, he thought. They reward our bravery by sending us back into the Line for twelve more days without reprieve?

Dazed and shaky, Owen finished off the letter to his mother:

'We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10p.m. for there is always a Pow-Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered ....'

He forced himself to accept a cup of soup and a mug of tea; he felt sick but he thought it would be best to eat a little anyway, since he hadn't for so long. The Medical Officer came and talked to him about Craiglockhart, a hospital in Scotland. Owen was too tired to care. It seemed best not to think about anything. At any rate, he didn't want to think about any of it. All those letters, all those missing men. He shook his head and wished there was no war.


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June 7, 2006