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Draycot Defies Death

Draycot in front of the crosses - click on image to enlarge
In the photograph to the right, Draycot is standing at the edge of a ditch and higher than the crosses that represent death. His rifle is grasped firmly in his right hand, and although he is standing upright he is ready to move, as his right leg is behind his left, poised for action. He is both rigid and in motion; he belongs to the world of death and yet has not succumbed to it; he is in what appears to be a trench (it is difficult to see if this is a trench or a crater) and yet above it. He has turned his back on death and is looking towards life, represented by the photographer. He is a hero of the myth/romance mode of fiction. The photograph is emotionally charged. It seems to be saying, ‘I too may be dead soon but I shall certainly do my utmost to escape the fate of my fellow soldiers’.

The diary entries that refer to close shaves with death are more detailed than any others. They are also more dramatic in style, as evidenced by the use of such verbs as ‘pierce’, ‘batter’, ‘smash’ and ‘burst’. The situation in the trenches is frequently compared to Hell – the demonic world of Frye’s ironic hero. At the same time, Draycot has survived while others are dying around him.

The most detailed descriptions of narrow escapes from death are to be found in the diaries from 1916 and 1917, when Draycot was at the Somme and Vimy Ridge. On 19 February 1916, for example, reference is made to German sniper fire giving rise to ‘a few close calls’. Draycot’s ‘waterproof is pierced by bullets’. The following month there is severe battering of the dugouts: ‘The Huns rain shells in on us’ (22 March). Three days later, ‘Hell let loose. Hundreds of casualties. Dugouts blown up in the air. Trees smashed down ... The bursting of trench mortar bombs & grenades made vivid flashes & a deafening noise’ (25 March 1916). The entry for 27 March captures the full extent of the hell in which the soldiers were fighting:
Absolutely the most wretched weather last night. Boys outside all night. Rain, snow, sleet and driving wind. Hand grenades, rifle grenades & trench mortar bombs are sent over in profusion. Hell opens again at 11.30 a.m. by our artillery at Hill Co. A most hideous and frightful roar & noise. A rifle shot can scarce be heard. Aeroplanes very active, fly low. Our feet are wet & life almost unbearable. As I am standing outside the dugout a shrapnel bullet passes my neck and buries itself deep into the sandbag. Again I miss death by a rifle grenade. 3 burst simultaneously near dugout in fire trench. All night there is a terrible hell & din going on. It rains all night and the misery – pitiful as we stand outside in it all thró the night.
The Hell described here is particularly menacing because it starts at a specific point in time and is created by a combination of natural forces and technology. This is not the place for an upright, well-shaven, smartly dressed soldier such as the one depicted in the photographs on the previous page.

In the photograph below, Draycot is positioned in the centre (denoted by the letter ‘O’). He takes the liberty of sitting (the only other soldier who is sitting is anonymous and in the shade). Draycot’s headquarters at La Targette, Vimy - click image to enlarge His posture suggests composure, self-assurance and a sense of belonging. Draycot is in charge; hence the repetition of ‘my’ in relation to headquarters and observers. The headquarters provide little real protection but do give the impression of being organised, albeit rather primitively: the bicycle is placed under cover, part of the surface is cobbled, and there is seating accommodation of a sort.

Draycot is ‘Sergt’. The other soldiers are not given titles; the diaries reveal, however, that they are privates. Draycot’s diaries mention but do not describe the headquarters at La Targette. Instead, they focus on constant movement, requests to make sketches in different locations and a feeling of being pulled in all directions. While the photograph reflects some stability and order, the diaries paint a picture of chaos, frustration and transition. In the diary, Draycot is in bondage, fulfilling interminable requests for new maps and sketches, constantly risking his life. In the photograph, he is calm, has time to sit and is in control.


Next: War's End
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