Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford is stationed in the trenches of the western front in France in 1916. But Stephen's mind is elsewhere, reliving his relationship with Isabelle Azaire, the married woman he met and fell in love with in Amiens during the summer of 1910.
Stephen is ordered to oversee the men digging a tunnel under no-man's-land to the German trenches, and arrives just in time to witness the deadly effects of a flash flood in the tunnel. Tunneler Jack Firebrace is the last man out, bearing news of the death of one of the men.
Stephen later finds Firebrace asleep on guard duty, and summons him to his quarters the next morning to be court-martialed. But when Firebrace reveals that his mind, too, is elsewhere — at home, with his young son who is ill with diphtheria — Stephen abruptly lets him go.
On the next shift, Stephen and the tunnelers encounter German soldiers whose tunnel has intersected with their own, and Stephen is shot in the brief underground battle. In his delirium Stephen returns to 1910, when he and Isabelle finally consummated their passion and escaped into the unknown when René, Isabelle's husband, discovered their affair.
Stephen's body lies in one of the endless rows of dead soldiers waiting to be removed from the front. Jack Firebrace paces amongst them, searching for the lieutenant so he can remove his dog tags and write to let Stephen's family, if any, know he is dead. What will he find when he finally kneels down beside Stephen?
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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1916: Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford stands at attention behind his men as they line up in their trench to receive communion from the staff chaplain, but he does not see the dirty, dismal scene before him. He is reliving the first time he met Isabelle Azaire, wife of René Azaire, a factory owner in Amiens, when he came to stay at the Azaire home for a month in the summer of 1910. Stephen is instantly attracted to Isabelle, and learns that she is unhappy in her marriage after hearing her fighting with René, and sobbing.
Back on the front, Stephen finds that two of his infantrymen have been recruited to help dig tunnels under no-man's-land to the German trenches. The plan is to plant explosives under the Germans — before the Germans can tunnel through and blow up the British. Stephen goes to retrieve his men from this dangerous duty just in time to witness the deadly effects of a flash flood in the tunnel. Jack Firebrace is the last man out, having stayed behind with a man who was trapped by debris, and who drowned in Jack's arms.
Stephen carries on, his mind constantly replaying the steps that led him and Isabelle to become lovers in 1910 and going through the motions of his duties as an officer until he finds Firebrace asleep on guard duty. Stephen summons Firebrace to his quarters the next morning to be court-martialed. Desperate, Firebrace tells Stephen that he has been distracted by his young son's illness. Stephen, an orphan with no family and no desire for children, seems to resist this appeal until Firebrace says, "Funny you know, your head's here but your heart's always somewhere else." Stephen is caught out by this summary of his own situation, and lets Firebrace go.
Shortly afterward, Stephen is ordered by Captain Gray to accompany the tunnelers on their next shift. He reluctantly does so, and they suddenly encounter German soldiers whose tunnel has intersected with the British tunnel. Stephen is shot in the brief underground battle, and hauled out by Firebrace. In his delirium Stephen returns to 1910, when René leaves for a business trip and Stephen and Isabelle finally consummate their passion. As Stephen's body succumbs to its wounds, and he is left for dead, his soul returns over and over to his idyllic days with Isabelle. Even the threat of exposure by Isabelle's step-daughter Lisette, who has seen Stephen and Isabelle making love, and the return of René from his trip, cannot stop the two lovers from seeking each other out.
René confronts Isabelle about the secret charity work she has done, taking food to his own starving factory workers. He is furious with Isabelle, who refuses to stop this work, and this goads him into bringing up the rumors he has heard that she and Stephen are having an affair. Isabelle confirms it instantly, and René orders Stephen to leave the house that night. When Isabelle pledges to leave with him, René in his rage tells her to go. Stephen and Isabelle pack hurriedly and leave in a waiting carriage, disappearing into the night.
As Stephen remembers this frantic scene, and his own elation, his body lies in one of the endless rows of dead soldiers waiting to be removed from the front. Jack Firebrace paces amongst them, searching for the lieutenant so he can remove his dog tags and write to inform Stephen's family, if he has any, that he is dead. He finds Stephen and lifts his head to remove the tags, only to hear a faint voice pleading, "Help".