Findley begins describing the setting of the war itself: “There is no good picture of this except the one you can make in your mind.” Robert has been in France for a month and two days. It is February, 1916. He is on a road covered in fog and smoke. He cannot discern anything at either end of this road. On both sides of it are ditches filled with fetid water. They are making their way to the front in Belgium. All around Ypres are the flats of Flanders, which are full of mud. Men and their horses sink in it, dying, making it contaminated. This is where the war is fought.
Robert's destination is a place called Wytsbrouk, about a mile from the front. Robert finds the Flemish language incomprehensible. When he is approached by a Flemish peasant he is convinced the man is speaking gibberish. The man believes Robert is English and says “Maudit Anglais!” (cursed English) to him.
Riding with Robert is Bugler Willie Poole. Robert describes him as uncomplicated. He can play the bugle but declined to join the military band because he wouldn't actually be fighting the war if he did. With visibility being so bad, Robert wonders if the men following are lost. He stops. Poole remarks that the smell in the air is probably chlorine, not from a gas attack, but from the ground itself. Poole asks if perhaps they have made a wrong turn. Some birds are flying out of the ditches but Robert cannot make them out. He tells an orderly to go back and see if the other men can be found. He tells the orderly to take Poole’s bugle and play a note every fifty seconds or so. The two men wait, unnerved.
Finally the sound of the bugle returns. Junior officer Levitt emerges from the fog. He informs Robert that the orderly and his horse fell in the dike. Levitt explains that somewhere Robert took a wrong turn. Robert is dismayed at his actions but says nothing. Levitt jokes that he was glad to have the bugle while walking back because that way the Germans wouldn’t shoot him, as he could be anyone. Poole says the Germans are probably at least a few miles away still. Robert is disheartened. Like many men, he feels that one isn’t in the war unless one is in danger.
Robert goes ahead on the road on horseback. As he progresses the fog envelops him and he can no longer make out Poole and the others behind him. In the distance he can hear gunfire. Finally the horse stops and he is forced to dismount. On foot he hears a waterway nearby. He steps toward it and sinks down into the mud all the way up to his waist. He fights to keep from drowning and is able to extract himself. He sees a man lying nearby. Before he can make this figure out the chlorine in the mud begins to blind him. Someone grabs his shoulder. It is Poole. Robert realizes that the birds he had been seeing are crows. When his eyes have cleared, Robert looks over the area and sees that the whole field is filled with floating bodies and debris. The only sounds are those made by the crows.
Robert enters the river on horseback via the gap in the dike. The cold water washes over his boots, cleaning away the mud. On the far shore he can see the men and the rest of the convoy and the fires they’ve lit. He wants desperately to be warm. When he reaches the bank, Robert falls off the horse. He is picked up and wrapped in a blanket. Poole sits, wrapped in a blanket too. He plays a tune and everybody sings “we’re here because we’re here.” They spend the night in the middle of the road. In the morning he notices that as they move on they are followed by the crows.
Robert and the men arrive at the front. The Second Battle of Ypres had taken place in April 1915 and from that time forward till the end of the war the city would remain in Allied hands. Most of the Canadian troops were deployed here. Their objectives were the towns and villages, ridges and woods for roughly ten miles on either side of them.
The men spend their days assigned to different duties such as convoy duty and working the batteries. When there is fighting (a “show”), columns of men form to transport the ammunition. The size of the order depends on how long the guns are to be firing. Anything less than half an hour is referred to as nuisance firing. Word comes down that the Germans are making a gas attack at the Ypres Salient. This is some five miles from Robert’s location so all he gets is a taste of it on snowflakes.
Robert and Levitt are able to take advantage of a clear day and spot interesting things on the German side from the observation post. Robert is proud to show Levitt just how real the enemy is. As they come down and see the men in the trenches, fighting has been going on for days. Some twenty-five or thirty Germans prisoners have deserted their side and come over. Most of the men in the trenches are exhausted, asleep where they lie. As Robert and Levitt make their way they must walk about a hundred yards in full view of the enemy. No shots are fired but Levitt asks if they can’t walk faster. Robert tells him no, that that is the surest way to get shot. To demonstrate he calls and waves to the German side. Still no shot is fired. Finally he begins running. A shot is fired immediately. Robert falls. After a moment, he stands, grinning, and tells Levitt to walk and take his time.
At the dugout are Devlin and Bonnycastle, the men Robert and Levitt are to relieve. Levitt puts down his bag and bumps it against the door. Devlin reprimands him and tells him not to hit the door. Levitt wonders why. He sees that the door contains a panel of stained glass. Devlin explains that he collects items and got it from a house in St. Eloi. He has a number of other such artifacts he has collected. Levitt notices a wire cage on the floor. Devlin tells him that it contains Rodwell’s toad. Rodwell keeps a number of animals in small cages under his bunk. Robert is immediately reminded of Rowena. All of them have been injured and Rodwell rescued them. Robert opens his sack to reveal gifts of eggs, cognac, chocolate, canned salmon and other rarities. Devlin and Bonnycastle are delighted. They ask Levitt what he has brought. Levitt says he has books with him. He is reading Clausewitz's On War. The other men stare at him in disbelief. “Well,” he says, “someone has to know what he’s doing.”
The dugout is fairly luxurious as dugouts go. It has four bunks, stools, a chair and large handmade tables. Rodwell joins them for a meal. Levitt begins discussing Clausewitz: “Clausewitz says the true basis of combat is man to man. He says for that reason an army of artillery is an absurdity.” He says that true battle is like a minuet. Some of the men take some offense to this, but Rodwell smooths it over and shifts the conversation to the animals he has rescued. Rodwell explains that he is an illustrator of children’s books. The men poke some fun at him for this, but Rodwell defends himself. Sleep does not come easily to Robert. Levitt continues to quote Clausewitz (“an excess of artillery leads to a passive character in war”). Robert’s thoughts drift to Harris and Taffler.
The novel flashes back to January 1916, before Robert’s tour of duty began. He and Harris are in the Royal Free Hospital. Harris has become quite ill and has no visitors. The doctors and nurses tell Robert bluntly that they are glad he is here. No one should die alone. Sometimes Harris wakes and looks at Robert, making Robert uneasy as he is confused by what he feels. He hasn’t felt the need to spend all his time with anyone since Rowena. Robert wakes up every morning and feels that he must go see Harris. Harris tells Robert a story about swimming with fishes. He tells Robert that he felt that was where he belonged.
Robert comes late one evening to see Harris. He has been to an afternoon matinee and is delayed. Eugene Taffler arrives with Lady Barbara d’Orsey. Taffler greets Robert but Lady d’Orsey stays back, seemingly uninterested. Taffler introduces Robert to her. She pays Robert little mind. He watches Taffler and Lady Barbara make their way to one of the hospital beds. A man encased in bandages lies there. Taffler says something to the man, though no one else hears it. He and Lady Barbara then promptly leave without another word or even a goodbye. Robert feels that the bandaged man is in pain. He informs one of the nurses who administers morphine and thanks Robert. She explains that the bandaged man is Captain Villiers. He lost his voice when his vocal chords were destroyed by fire. The nurse says to Robert, with some contempt, that he should not ask her about Lady Barbara. “I don’t know how she dares to come here," she says.
The next section is told by Lady Juliet d’Orsey. She is the fourth of the Marquis and Marcioness of St. Aubyn’s five children and the lone survivor. She still resides at the St. Aubyn’s London address. She says in her interview that she is proud of Robert Ross. The name of Stuart Ross makes her cringe. She defends Robert, saying that what he did was not evil or maniacal. We are not yet aware of the events she is referring to. Lady Juliet states that her sister, Lady Barbara, and Robert met because of Harris and Captain James Villiers. Villiers had always been a friend of her family, especially her brother Clive. Lady Barbara followed Clive and James around until Clive told her that she was interfering with his friendship with James. Juliet explained to Barbara that the two men were in love. When James Villiers got his first decorations and came home a hero, Barbara snatched him away from another woman. Juliet also feels that Robert was in love with Harris, not necessarily in an erotic way, but still in love nonetheless. She says that war is not something one ever really gets used to, nor should they. Imagine if everyone you know or cared about was killed, one by one.
She continues that Barbara would go with Taffler to see James Villiers but, cruelly, would say nothing to him. She became aware of Robert Ross on these visits. She reveals that Harris died two days before Robert left for France. Harris’s body was mistakenly cremated, much to Robert’s horror. He took the ashes and sat with them for hours, unsure of what to do. Taffler and Lady Barbara came upon him. After he explained the situation, Barbara suggested that he scatter them. Taffler asked Robert where Harris would like to have his ashes scattered. Robert was sure that the sea would have been Harris’s wish. Since the sea was too far, they took the ashes to a river. Robert scattered some of the ashes and then asked Taffler to throw the box containing them into the river. As they left, Barbara told Robert a short story about General Wolfe (a British general most notable for his victory over the French in Canada). She tells him that he got Canada for the British. Robert said no, that it was "us," the soldiers, who got it. It is the first time in the novel that he refers to himself as a soldier. That night, he left for France.
Consider Findley's writing style as he describes Robert's ordeal in the fog as well as in later scenes on the front. Findley does not attempt to provide great detail as other war literature authors might. Instead, he uses non-specific and seemingly passing observations to lay out a scene, relying on the reader's imagination as well as their knowledge of the period and World War I. Some scholars feel Findley uses this technique to force readers to think differently about the material ("There is no good picture of this except the one you can make in your mind."). In the dike scene in which Robert nearly drowns it can be argued that Findley uses this technique to capture Robert's confusion and loss of direction. The scene evokes horror imagery as Robert and Poole hear noises around them in the fog but cannot identify them. The birds that Robert couldn't see very well turn out to be crows, feasting on the corpses that litter the muddy fields. Findley is able to capture the feeling of fear and death without literally describing it. The scene evokes the underworld, and Findley is able to establish that where Robert is headed is truly Hell.
When Robert and Levitt have the chance to look across the lines to observe German soldiers, Robert takes great pride in being able to show Levitt how real the enemy is. Robert wishes to contextualize them, not as obstacles to be conquered, but as men just as he and Levitt are. It gives the war meaning to Robert. It also implies that Robert sees the humanity of all those around him, even those who have been trained to kill him and those on his side. Consider this especially when Robert encounters the German sniper later on and kills him only to realize the sniper had no intention of killing Robert.
Still, Robert is not completely oblivious to the realities of war. He demonstrates to Levitt that running in front of the enemy is the surest way to be shot. He risks his life to prove his point, running along the front lines so that a German soldier takes a shot at him. He stands, grinning, having enjoyed the experience. This act is seemingly insane, but what Robert is invoking most in taking such a risk is his love of life. It is this small amount of joy in the face of what is to come that is positive, however unorthodox.
The dugout that Robert shares with Rodwell, Devlin, and Bonnycastle is an attempt to civilize an otherwise uncivilized world. The stained glass window that Devlin has "found" depicts St. Eloi, the patron saint of blacksmiths. It should be noted that one legend regarding St. Eloi states that he was able to shod a reluctant horse by first amputating its leg, placing the shoe on, and miraculously reattaching the leg to the horse. It is unlikely a coincidence that St. Eloi is a friend to horses and mirrors Robert's nature. Here is where Robert also meets Rodwell, who immediately reminds us of Rowena. Rodwell's soft spot for animals endears him to Robert. Rodwell sees animals as beings, referring to them as "he" or "she" instead of simply as "it". Rodwell has a reverence for life that is very much like Robert's. Levitt also introduces Clausewitz's On War into the novel. Refer to the Additional Content section for information on Clausewitz.
Findley flashes back to Robert's experiences at the Royal Free Hospital before he was sent to the front. Robert watches over Harris, who it is clear will not survive long. Like Rodwell, Harris has an affinity for animals and the natural world, specifically the ocean and fish. He has visions of swimming with them and feeling like that is where he belongs. Robert forms a bond with Harris there, which Lady Juliet d'Orsey speculates amounts to love. She is quick to clarify that it was not a sexual love but a platonic love and sympathy that Robert extended toward Harris and to seemingly all living things. War is something that Robert never becomes accustomed to and she argues that this makes him far superior to one who does.
It is in the hospital that Robert also meets Lady Barbara d'Orsey, who accompanies Eugene Taffler to visit Captain Villiers, a man with whom she was previously involved. Some scholars see Lady Barbara as a harlot or witch-like figure who preys on men in much the same way the war itself does. She uses them and then disposes of them when she no longer needs them. This cruelty is repeated when she comes to visit Robert at St. Aubyn's, accompanied by yet another man.