Chapter 21, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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It is the cold Christmas of 1917, and Willie has just turned 21. Willie’s platoon are billeted in a farmhouse on an only partially trenched part of the front line. The news is that America may be about to enter the war, and that all reserve Irish battalions will not be sent to Flanders but to reserve camps in England. Moran (who because of loss of men now commands the platoon) draws the lesson that as far as the English are concerned, the Irish are no longer to be trusted.

Willie is troubled. His family do not contact him on his birthday, and he remains deeply upset by the anonymous letter sent to Gretta. He mentions the matter in passing to Pete O’Hara, who expresses sympathy and anger. The men await a German attack, filled with a feeling of growing dread.

The day of the attack comes and the men first face massive artillery and mortar fire before the massed lines of a German regiment attack through fog. Willie’s platoon fight at a forward point until Moran orders them to fall back. Finding themselves in a wood behind, they fall into hand to hand combat with the Germans. Pete O’Hara is mortally wounded in the fight. He confesses to Willie that he sent the letter to Gretta and declares his deep regret. He explains that he sent the letter in a fit of humiliated anger, when Willie indignantly struck O’Hara for the rape of the Belgian woman. O’Hara dies in mid-explanation.

As Willie momentarily rests beneath a tree a shell explodes near himself, Christy Moran and Timmy Weekes. He awakes in a shuddering ambulance, and sees a vision of a dozen tongueless women sitting with him. He blacks out again.

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