The second act begins early the next morning. A shaft of sunlight shines down the steps into the dugout. Mason sets large plates of bacon before Osborne and Raleigh. Trotter comments on the smell as he enters. He asks Mason to fetch him some porridge, with the lumps taken out. As Mason leaves, Trotter eyes him suspiciously and comments that he is getting familiar. Trotter tells Osborne about a good cook he once had, an ex-plumber who set himself on fire while making the tea and went home pretty well fried.
While eating, Trotter and Osborne discuss how it’s too damn quiet on the field. They suspect the Germans are up to something. They discuss how Stanhope is not looking well: the night before, Trotter found him drinking a whole bottle of whiskey after dinner. Trotter mentions how the warm weather and the sound of birds singing made him feel hopeful: he thought of his flower-filled garden. He shows Osborne a photo of the garden. Trotter says the flowers will be coming out soon. He remembers that about a year earlier he mistook the smell of a may-tree in bloom for the sweet pear-drop scent of the phosgene gas the Germans were sending over. Before Trotter leaves, he says he would prefer to hear a few whizz-bangs and rifle grenades than the quiet.
Raleigh says how six days feels like a long time to be on the line, but Osborne says twelve hours have already passed, and that it is relieving at the end to have a hot bath and read under a tree. They discuss football: Raleigh is impressed to learn that Osborne used to play wing position for England. Raleigh imagines the thrill of playing to a large crowd, but Osborne says you don’t notice the attention when you’re playing.
After a pause, Raleigh says that the Germans are really quite decent, outside the newspapers. Osborne concurs, and says that one of the English men was shot on patrol. Three fellow soldiers crawled out to collect him, and when they began dragging him back a German officer stood up from the trench and told them to carry the wounded soldier. The soldiers stood and carried the man while the Germans helpfully fired up lights so they could find their way. However, the next day, they blew each other’s trenches to dust. Raleigh says it all seems rather silly, and Osborne agrees.
As Stanhope slowly enters the trench, Raleigh says he is going off to finish writing a letter. Stanhope complains of the bacon smell and says he has arranged two wiring parties to begin at eight o’clock that night, led by Corporal Burt and Sergeant Smith. He wants them to straighten the barbed wire defenses all along the front, because there are large holes that have been blown in it. Stanhope plans to wire the battalion in by lining the sides of the battlefield as well: he thinks they have a strong position, but he doesn’t trust the companies to hold their ground when the attack comes.
Stanhope says the colonel told him a German prisoner gave the day of the attack as the 21st—the coming Thursday, about dawn the day after tomorrow. Osborne confirms that this means they will be on duty when it happens. Stanhope says the Colonel said they can’t expect any help from the back lines. They have to stay put and stick it out during the attack. Osborne says he is glad it’s coming because he’s sick of waiting.
They discuss the chart Trotter made of one hundred and forty-four circles representing every hour of the six days they are on the line; he fills the circles in to mark the passing time. Stanhope says Trotter has no imagination; when he sees the wall he doesn’t think of the earth beyond, the worms and stones and tree roots. Stanhope wonders how worms know the difference between tunneling up and down, and says it must be horrible not to know. Stanhope asks if Osborne thinks life at war sharpens the imagination; he says whenever he looks at anything he sees right through it, until he gets frightened and stops. Stanhope describes the sudden feeling of everything going away until he’s the only thing in the world; Osborne says it’s just nerve strain and reassures him he isn’t going crazy.
Stanhope describes having had the world-shrinking feeling earlier that morning as he looked across No Man’s Land and thought of all the Germans with their guns ready, but Osborne interrupts him to comment on how the sun rises in so many beautiful colors out there. Stanhope immediately asks Mason to bring whiskey, saying it’s rather cold in the dugout.
While Stanhope and Osborne are discussing censoring Raleigh’s letter, Raleigh comes in, having finished writing. Osborne says he can leave it on the table, and Raleigh begins to lick the envelope; however, Stanhope tells him to leave it open because he has to censor all letters. Raleigh grows nervous and says that, in that case, he’ll hold onto it. Stanhope crosses over to Raleigh and demands that he give him the letter. Raleigh says it’s private, but Stanhope rips it from his hand and orders him to leave and inspect rifles. But once Raleigh is gone, Stanhope sinks down and tosses the letter on the table, saying he doesn’t want to read it. Act Two, Scene I ends with Osborne reading the letter aloud to Stanhope. Contrary to expectations, the letter doesn’t contain a single disparaging remark about Stanhope. Raleigh speaks of what a hardworking and inspiring commander he is.
The second act begins with an instance of the play’s thematic preoccupation with repression: Trotter moves from the subject of bacon to a cook he once had who set himself on fire while cooking and went home due to the severity of his burns, which Trotter explains using the metaphor “pretty well fried.” Trotter doesn’t linger on the moment, revealing how repression can take a traumatic episode and render it into a casual anecdote.
In order to pass the six days they are on duty, Trotter and Osborne try to distract themselves with talk of spring and gardens back home. Ironically, Trotter says he would prefer the sound of a few bombs rather than a silence so pronounced they can hear birdsong. Trotter’s statement is a seemingly absurd paradoxical statement, but when considered, it makes sense: the sound of guns reassures him that the war is trickling on as usual, whereas silence signals that the Germans are preparing for a full-scale bombardment.
Stanhope’s paranoia about traumatized soldiers deserting their positions when the attack comes leads him to order that the trenches be closed off by barbed wire fences on either side, leaving the men nowhere to escape to. In an ironic comment similar to Trotter’s, Osborne says he is glad the attack is coming soon, as though the dread of waiting is worse than the attack itself.
The theme of PTSD arises when Stanhope tries to discuss the feeling he has of the world shrinking. But rather than discuss the troubling dissociative episodes Stanhope describes, Osborne quickly changes the subject and reassures Stanhope that he merely has a bit of nerve strain—a euphemism that downplays the severity of Stanhope’s trauma-induced stress.
The conflict of Raleigh disclosing the truth of Stanhope’s decline comes to a quick and unexpected end when Osborne reads the letter aloud. In an instance of situational irony, the letter contains nothing that should have made Stanhope concerned. Raleigh’s letter is respectful, and elides any details of Stanhope’s PTSD, choosing instead to focus on bolstering the image of Stanhope as a hero who keeps his subordinates’ spirits up.