Into the Silence
This simple life, with its gentle conflicts, so far removed from the war, left Morris suspended between the past and a forgotten future. He remained the most unlikely of soldiers. Of strategy he knew little, of close combat a great deal. He was almost blind, utterly dependent on his eyeglasses, but in the trenches he had never failed to kill. Though a career officer, he had no military ambitions of any kind, noting, "The years of war had bred in me a distaste for the close company of my fellow men. I felt an urgent need to get away."
His obsession was Tibet; he had studied the language, read every available book and military report, and sought through his contacts information about the many routes to its interior. As closely as possible, given his isolation, he had followed the exploits of the 1921 reconnaissance, and for some months had been in correspondence with General Bruce. The general wanted Morris as part of the team, but leave for an officer on active duty was problematic. Bruce went to the highest military authorities in the Raj. When, finally, a telegram arrived from Delhi requesting his release so that he could join the 1922 expedition, his commanding officer relented only on the condition that the months away on Everest count as home leave. Though this implied that Morris might have to wait another three to four years before returning to England and seeing his parents, he seized the opportunity. He had not been home since the end of 1915, and he had no overwhelming interest in going.
Unlike so many of his peers, Morris had not succumbed to the war fever that swept London in the summer of 1914. The dour and wooden face of Lord Kitchener, peering down and pointing from every recruiting poster, reminded him of a fanatical Old Testament prophet who had "grown a moustache and put on fancy dress." Morris felt no urge to answer the summons to serve his country. He worked at the time as a bank clerk. It was boredom that led him to enlist, and a class structure impossible to defy that elevated him - against all military reason, as he saw it- to an officer's rank in the 5th Leicestershire Regiment. Just before going out to France, he tried to lose his virginity to a Nottingham prostitute but froze at the last moment and bolted, fully dressed, from her room. The following morning he went to a doctor, certain that he had contracted some horrible disease, despite having not shed his trousers. He was only nineteen. He loved to paint, and his passion was music, the "delicate tapestry of sounds" of Debussy and the genius of Rachmaninoff, whom he saw perform at the pianist's London debut.
Morris arrived at the Front in the terrible spring of 1915. His first recollection was of getting lost in the trench system and approaching a signaler standing alone in a side bay. The man wore headphones. He was dead, though there was not a wound on his body. Morris recoiled in terror, but then, to his shame, began to laugh, a reaction he would soon consider to be normal.
Months later he was ordered to lead a night raid on a German position. For several days he scouted the ground, crawling out of the trench after dark and inching his way through mud and tall grass soiled with the dead of 1914, the French and Belgians in tatters of red and blue cloth, the Germans in field grey, the British in decaying uniforms of khaki. On the night of the attack, twenty of his men would die and twenty others be wounded, though the raid accomplished nothing. The survivors returned with no useful information and not a single prisoner. The platoon to his right "managed to bring back a German helmet which had presumably belonged to a soldier who had been blown to pieces. It was half filled with glutinous blood and brains."
The very next day Morris was offered leave to return home for a week. As he headed for Calais, a freight train farther up the line broke its couplings and came crashing down on his troop transport, derailing the engine, which exploded in flames that swept over carriages crammed with soldiers. His car, by chance, was in the rear, and he suffered only minor injuries. For those up front, escape was impossible. He later recalled, "The screams of those trapped in the burning wreckage horrified me in a way that trench warfare never did. There was something obscene about this drawn out agony, so unlike the quick death of battle."
He reached London that night, just in time to join his mother at the theatre, the Alhambra, for a performance by George Robey in the popular musical The Bing Boys. But his thoughts remained concentrated on the burning train, and "half way through...I could stand it no longer and we left." Like so many soldiers home from the Front, Morris found it exceedingly difficult to be with his parents. "There seemed to be nothing to talk about," he explained. "I had entered into a world where they could not follow. I longed for my leave to end." On his last day in London he was accosted on Regent Street by a major of the provost marshal's department, a man who would never see the war, and severely reprimanded for wearing turned up cuffs on his pant legs, a breach of regulations that had been invented in the months he had been at the Front.
He rejoined his battalion in Marseilles, destined for Egypt - an unexpected reprieve, he wrote, from the "sinister life in the trenches." But at the last moment, with half the men having embarked, those still marshalling in the docks were ordered back to the trains to return to northern France and the lines at Gommecourt Wood. It was the spring of the Somme. For weeks they would sleep by day and haul ammunition by night. In a shell blast Morris was wounded, a minor incident that took him to a field hospital, where a chaplain pleaded to minister to his soul. Morris refused. Recovered, he was sent directly back to the Front on the very eve of the battle. At the last moment he was ordered out of the front line on the evening of June 30 to take up a position in support trenches a few hundred yards to the rear. While he waited through the night to learn the fate of his command, shells fell all around. A soldier crouching at Morris's side was stuck by a large splinter that all but severed his leg. Morris was impressed by the absence of blood. The boy died stoically, without complaint.
The battle-wounded began to trickle back, among them Morris's platoon sergeant, who seemed to have aged twenty years in the minutes of the failed morning attack. His ashen face stained with blood, his uniform drenched by it, he screamed hysterically. Every lad been mown down climbing out of the forward trenches. Not an inch of ground had been won. In all Morris's sector the story was the same. Bodies and parts of bodies trampled in the mud, limbs protruding from the timbers of shattered dugouts, and everywhere "the tattered remnants of annihilated battalions lay strewn over No Man's Land like a picnic that had gone terribly wrong."
In the night Morris and men like him retrieved for burial what remained of the dead. In the dawn an acrid pall of smoke hung over the battlefield. Men walked about without fear of the enemy, as if in a trance, like sleep walkers. Morris wrote, "All noise has ceased; a stunned hush had fallen over the blasted moon-like landscape."
On the eve of Morris's twenty-first birthday he carried a mutilated soldier to an aid station behind the front. In the hospital tent, the sickening smell of gangrene and ether fascinated him. A voice came out of the haze, that of the surgeon about to go to work, warning him that what he would see if he stayed would not be pleasant. He returned to the line, which over the next days began to smell like a cesspool from the decaying dead. In the heat the bodies bloated and the faces took on a peculiar greenish pallor. "They haunt me still," Morris later wrote, "especially if I am alone at night in a forest."
In time everyone he had known in the army was dead. Morris only waited his turn. His salvation came quite unexpectedly, when a curious pamphlet reached the trenches, offering junior officers of British regiments the opportunity to apply for regular commissions in the Indian Army. Designed like a tourist brochure, the flyer gave the distinct impression that life in India was one long holiday. Morris knew nothing of the East, save that it was not France.
On March 30, 1917, even as the British launched attacks near Arras and made plans for the summer offensive at Passchendaele, Morris, in London, sat before a panel of beribboned officers and gave his reasons for joining the Indian army. A general wanted to know why he was not wearing the customary gold stripe on his sleeve, indicating that he had been wounded in battle. Fighting soldiers, Morris replied, disdained such ribbons. The general nodded sympathetically. Morris had his ticket out of the war and away from the almost certain death that awaited him on the Western Front.
A soldier's life in India inevitably led to the North-West Frontier, then as now a cauldron of tribal violence. During the war Afghanistan remained neutral, but in 1919 the ruler of Kabul, Amir Habibullah Khan, sensing weakness, ordered his army to descend upon India. He was stopped, but a fire was ignited that would take years and the entire Indian army to extinguish. In late 1921 Morris was again at war, serving on the frontier with the Waziristan Field Force.
On December 11 he led a convoy of supply transports and troops, Punjabis and Gurkhas, through the Spinchilla Narai, a strategic mountain pass. Morris rode with the vanguard. The Mahsud tribesmen attacked from the rear, an ambush that took the British completely by surprise. More than a hundred fell, including the senior officer Major Paget, who was killed. The command passed to Morris. When the enemy closed from three sides, he had no choice but to fight through them, even at the risk of abandoning the wounded. A Mahsud warrior came out of nowhere. Morris drew his revolver but could not shoot. He defecated in his pants. Only thirty of his original command got away, falling back at a run to the protection of the nearby fort. Morris tried to rally the men and rescue the wounded, but the colonel in command, fearing more casualties, refused to allow the sortie.
Morris climbed to a sentry post overlooking the plain. There was no sign of anyone. But in the distance a cloud of vultures hovered in the sky, waiting for the dead. Morris stood there for a long time, "watching the shadows lengthen; thinking and yet not thinking, physically numbed and unable to move away. As dusk was falling I noticed a solitary figure, moving very slowly and apparently with great difficulty. As he came near I recognized one of my own men. He was stark naked. He had been knifed in the belly and his testicles slashed. They now hung by bleeding threads of sinew. He was unable to speak and collapsed as soon as we carried him into the camp."
At dawn Morris led a relief company back to the wounded. All were dead and each had been ravaged, their flesh flayed and their genitals "roughly severed and stuffed into the victim's mouths." There was little more to say, nothing to do but seek revenge.
Within two months of this terrible moment, John Morris would be at the Mount Everest Hotel in Darjeeling, seconded to the 1922 Mount Everest expedition as transport officer, waiting to meet men he did not know. He had left Calcutta on the mail train and traveled across the Bengali plains, rising into the mountains at dusk. He had noticed the young boys perched on the front of the engine, ladling out handfuls of grit to give the wheels better purchase.
When, in his exhaustion, he had finally settled into his hotel room in Darjeeling, there came a sudden pounding at his door. Before he could respond, a great bear of a man lumbered into the room and unleashed a stream of fluent Nepali, "much of it abusive and obscene, after which he broke into roars of school boyish laughter." This was General Bruce, the leader of the expedition. They had never actually met. Bruce later confessed to having been horrified by Morris's bespectacled and unmilitary face. That the young soldier spoke excellent Nepali saved the day.
**Excerpted from INTO THE SILENCE Copyright © 2011 by Wade Davis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Knopf Canada.