After removing my parachute, I saw Major LaPrade, my battalion commander, and Colonel Sink, the regimental commander, at the checkpoint on the southern edge of the drop zone. They had previously agreed that, as quickly as possible, the paratroopers would be formed into 15-man groups, placed under an officer and hurried south to seize the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. Timing was crucial in this part of the operation; minutes counted. I became part of the second group, led by Captain Mo Davis, commander of A Company. We moved on the double toward the bridge. About 200 yards out we received heavy German 88mm artillery fire, including flak that hit in the trees above us. We were forced to the ground, taking casualties from tree bursts. Davis was hit, and as his wound was being treated, the medic was also struck by a bullet. Davis said, You better hurry up, medic. They’re gaining on you.
We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!
A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
An officer came blundering down the trench:
‘Stand-to and man the fire-step!’ On he went...
Gasping and bawling, ‘Fire-step ... counter-attack!’
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
‘O Christ, they’re coming at us!’ Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle ... rapid fire...
And started blazing wildly ... then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans...
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
The horror of this description is without parallel, but where Sassoon really excels is in his realistic portrayal of the psychological effects of the war. Perhaps his best poem in this vein is “Repression of War Experience,” from Counter-Attack, and Other Poems . The poem, in the form of an interior monologue, explores a mind verging on hysteria, trying to distract itself and maintain control while even the simplest, most serene events—a moth fluttering too close to a candle flame—bring nightmarish thoughts of violence into the persona’s mind. In the garden, he hears ghosts, and as he sits in the silence, he can hear only the guns. In the end, his control breaks down; he wants to rush out “and screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;/ I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”