Willie’s company return to the front line. The war is in its darkest months yet. With great loss of life, sections of the regiment have gained ground at Guillemont. Captain Sheridan tells the men they are press on to Guinchy. Once again, the men gather before Father Buckley for mass, but this time they do so in a field fought over just days before, still strewn with the unburied dead. As Buckley speaks, Willie thinks upon the nature of words, finding them a kind of natural music, and rallies.
The company make their way up to the line through smashed fragments of humanity. The shelling is intense. Ever more anguished, Willie recognises the corpse of Quigley amongst the hundreds of bodies as he passes. He sets about cutting barbed wire with his fellows, preliminary to pushing forward. The men, seeking distraction, argue good-naturedly about the type of crop they work amongst. The talk cheers them.
Moving up to the captured German lines, the company eventually come to a battlefield, the scene of vicious fighting. Dead German and Irishmen are everywhere. The sight of dismembered corpses is terrifying, and the smell of death lingers. Men retch as they walk. When the men reach Guillamont they find Chinese workers building a makeshift road. In the midst of terrible shelling, the diggers are struck by shellfire as they work. Willie and his company finally stop at the foremost trench line. There they eat stew and sleep before the planned attack on Guinchy.
The men are ready to attack at four in the morning, awaiting the movement of a creeping barrage intended to supress German fire as the men march across no-man’s land. Pitying the new recruits, Willie hears with terror the British shelling commence: he wets himself as the barrage begins. The men are given their orders, and climb the trench ladders. They march across no man’s land. The barbed wire is scattered and at first the men walk unimpeded towards the German line. Soon however the British artillery barrage overreaches them, allowing German machine guns to commence firing. The Irish advance is cut to pieces. Captain Sheridan is immediately hit. The company marches on through the murderous gunfire. The Irish soldiers reach the enemy trenches and engage once more in hand to hand fighting with German soldiers, who swiftly surrender.
Willie and the company spend the rest of the day in a cold panic, awaiting a counter attack. Finally they are relieved by others in the 16th and begin the march back to British lines. Reaching the safety of occupied ground, they find the body of Captain Sheridan as it is being transported back to the line. They follow its progress to Guillemont. As they go, they are cheered by fellow soldiers who have learnt of the capture of Guinchy. Willie and his comrades feel traumatised and empty, however- knowing as they do the hideous carnage they have left behind them.
Kirwan is executed for cowardice the next month. Major Stokes declares the sentence, and the Irishman is shot at dawn. Willie helps dig Kirwan’s grave, and attends his funeral, where Buckley tells Willie of Kirwan’s family past. Kirwan’s mother, Willie is told, left her millenarian sect to be with his father, and in doing so was forever expelled from the fold. Their union together, Buckley tells, gave them Jesse Kirwan. Willie is upset to be told this, and remembers the tale until his own life ends. That night, Willie sneaks out of billets, and sings ‘Ave Maria’ over Kirwan’s grave.
Willie tells O’Hara this sad story, and O’Hara responds with his own confessional. He tells of moving through a Belgian village at the start of the war and discovering a maimed and raped Belgian woman tied down in a church. The men release her and lead her away to be treated but come under fire from a wood and take cover in a ditch. A young lieutenant strikes her as they seek cover, and then proceeds to rape her in the same ditch. O’Hara confesses that he held her down while the rape happened. Willie is revolted and strikes O’Hara, who is surprised by Willie’s reaction. O’Hara remonstrates with Willie about the brutality of the war, but Willie is horrified and goes to bed, desperately questioning the nature of man.
It is late spring in Flanders in 1916, and Willie’s company are performing fatigues while behind the lines. News continues to filter through of more executions back in Ireland. The men realise that some sort of big push is imminent. The French bloodshed at Verdun continues unabated.
Jessie Kirwan awaits court martial for disobeying orders, and is refusing food. This is relayed to Willie by Father Buckley, who has been ministering to the Corkman. When asked for a character reference, Kirwan gives Buckley Willie’s name, and Buckley asks Willie to visit the prisoner. At first Willie means to refuse, his compassion worn away by time and events. Yet Buckley’s fond request and a curiosity about Kirwan leads to Willie agreeing to see the man in spite of himself.
The Battle of the Somme begins. News of the massacre of the 36th Ulster Division reaches the men, who are awed and horrified. Willie goes to see Kirwan where he is held, in a working abbatoir, on the 3rd of July. A bullock is being slaughtered as Willie arrives: Kirwan is being held in a toilet adjacent to the killing floor. While Buckley goes to see his charge, Willie talks to the Irish corporal guarding the room. Kirwan is a nice enough man, the corporal declares, but became deeply upset after the execution of the rebel leaders. He is not sympathetic to Kirwan’s politics, but does note with some concern that Major Stokes’ hostility to the Irish means that at court martial Kirwan’s life stands in the balance.
Willie goes in to see Kirwan. He is emaciated and withdrawn, but greets Willie from his bed. He announces his intention to be shot. He does not intend open protest, but refuses as an Irishman to fight in the British Army. He has chosen Willie as the single witness to his intentions. Willie tries to talk him out of his intention, but Kirwan is firm. Willie then gives Kirwan his Bible. Kirwan protests that he has one: Willie reminds him of their first meeting, and notes that his own isn’t stained with urine. After leaving Kirwan in his cell, Willie walks out with Father Buckley, privately ruing his friend’s seemingly suicidal ethical course.
Willie writes home to his father, expressing his relief that Dublin is returning to normal, and his love for the men of his battalion. News of the events at home stir the beginnings of debate among the Irishmen. While general opinion is still hostile to the rebels, the news that the leaders of the rebellion are to be shot causes some disquiet. O’Hara does not like the gleeful tone of one of the newspaper reports, despite himself voicing some indignation that, as soldiers in the British army, they are thought as enemies of Irish freedom. Keilty and Willie also express regret that the men are to be shot: and in a further letter Willie tells his father this. He also writes a postcard to Gretta, for whom he once again struggles to adequately express his love and affection.
Willie and the rest of his company are billeted in a suit-making factory. Suit outlines for manufacture hang eerily from the ceilings in the main production room. As Willie sleeps with his company in the anteroom adjacent, he dreams of the man he killed. Across no man’s land, the dead German captures a pigeon, and Willie is excited by the thought that the man will now kill and eat the bird. To his surprise, the man releases the pigeon, which flies up into the sky. Willie then awakes.
The men are now behind the lines. In a glass house laid out with enamel baths, the men communally bathe and enjoy the luxury of hot water. They joke together and ease into the silent pleasure of company. Willie, however, remains troubled by thoughts of death.
Later, the Irishmen retire to an impromptu theatre and a singing party begins. Members of the battalion volunteer to sing for the others. The sings stir profound feelings and memories from the gathered men. Willie’s friend O’Hara, an amateur musician, plays ‘Roses of Picardy’, a sentimental music hall number, and the performance brings many to tears. Willie then is encouraged to step up, and he sings the song he once sang in competition, ‘Ave Maria’. Willie’s marvellous singing and the Catholic mystery of the song enraptures the crowd. Willie remembers a long-supressed memory of singing the hymn over his dead mother’s body as she lay at home after his sister Dolly’s birth. He sings for her and for the audience of Irishmen before him- themselves so close to death.
When Willie comes to, he finds Moran slumped at the bottom of the trench, and Father Buckley attending to the dead. Quigley is being stretchered away. Captain Sheridan, unable to telephone headquarters, gives Willie a message to be relayed to the battalion command. Willie makes towards the rear and stumbles on the HQ in an old barn. There he finds three officers seated at a shabby table: Two Majors, one of whom is named Stokes, and a Captain Boston. Major Stokes is incensed by the loss of men, and reacts aggressively to Willie’s presence, only mollified by the Captain. He tells Willie that he smells and insults the Irish. Willie replies that he shat himself in terror, and this momentarily disarms the major. News that 800 of the 1200 in the battalion are casualties further angers Stokes, and after promising supplies for the men able to remain in the front line, he turns again on Willie, calling him Little Willie, the Kaiser’s son. Willie is dismissed with a grudging apology, but as Willie leaves Stokes renews his attack. Willie makes his way back to the line with the insults ringing in his ears.
The soldiers left in the line set about burying the dead. Willie finds the German that he killed and personally makes to bury him, after collecting the man’s belongings for Captain Sheridan, though he keeps a small toy horse found on the man. Willie finds some solace in the act of digging, as O’Hara whistles ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ nearby. As he digs, lines from the Book of Revelation occur to him, and his thoughts turn affectionately towards his employer, Dempsey the builder. Willie finds himself strangely hopeful about the rebuilding of Dublin, and the broken world about him. Christy Moran snaps him out of his reverie. Willie finally says a Hail Mary over the body of the German in his grave. After the burials, he and the remains of the battalion find themselves taken out of the line and back to billets.
Willie returns to Flanders in spring. He is becoming traumatised by his experiences, and is beginning to endure panic attacks focused on the safety of his sisters. Jesse Kirwan’s misery and the death of the young rebel weigh on him. Meanwhile, the other Irish recruits are largely disinterested in events at home: Christy Moran, however, is indignant about the nationalists’ actions.
The men march up the line to Hulloch, where Willie writes an affectionate letter to his father affirming the patriotism of the Irishmen in the line. At stand-to a communication is relayed from HQ that a gas attack is expected. Father Buckley gives mass to the gathered battalion as the shelling before battle begins; a sign of the mortal threat anticipated ahead.
The men have taken their place in the line when gas sirens sound. Captain Sheridan makes a speech, calling on the men’s courage. A new recruit, Quigley, collapses in fear, and struggles to get his gas mask on. Willie is left to his own terror as he waits for the attack to begin. When gas finally begins to pour over the parapet, Quigley is the first to collapse; Willie is surprised by pity for the soldier. Sheridan moves the incapacitated to the rear of the trench. Willie shits himself in fear, and finds himself praying for the protection first of Jesus, then his father, then his grandfather. As the gas pours in, men struggle in their masks; Willie smells the gas, which seems more deadly than before, at St Julien.
Hand-to-hand fighting ensues as attacking Germans leap into the trench. Willie is seized upon by a German but he inadvertently skewers the man with his tomahawk, then manages to slash at the man’s head. In tearing his own mask off, the German succumbs to the gas. A melee ensues as more attackers leap into the trench, and Willie is knocked cold.