CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 6. . . . November 15, 2002
We are back in the line.
This is a noisy front. It is constant turmoil. There is no rest. The enemy rains an endless storm of fire upon us. At night the wire is hammered by the artillery and we live in perpetual fear of raids.
There is talk of an offensive.
Out on rest we behaved like human beings; here we are merely soldiers. We know what soldiering means. It means saving your own skin and getting a bellyful as often as possible . . . that and nothing else.
Camaraderie - esprit de corps - good fellowship - these are words for journalists to use, not for us. Here in the line they do not exist.
We fight among ourselves.
The morning rations come up. The food is spread out on the rubber sheet and we start to divide it among ourselves. Bread, the most coveted of all the food, is the bone of contention today. Cleary is sharing it out.
Broadbent suspects that his piece is smaller than the rest.
An oath is spat out.
In a moment they are at each other's throats, like hungry, snarling animals.
Like The Red Badge of Courage (American Civil War) and All Quiet on the Western Front (WWI from the German perspective), Generals Die in Bed, first published in 1930, chronicles the disillusionment of a young soldier facing the horror and inhumanity of war. This reissue as a young adult novel coincides in a timely fashion with the current increasingly militant rhetoric reported in the media daily. Shortly after World War I began, Harrison joined the Canadian army and was promptly sent to fight on the Western Front. His damning indictment of a war in which "generals die in bed" while soldiers "die in a lousy trench" resonates with the impact of his experiences.
From Montreal with recruits celebrating their departure and crowds waving flags and cheering, the scene shifts abruptly to the unspeakable horrors of the trenches. None of his training has prepared the teenage protagonist and narrator (never given a name) for the actuality of the trenches - the rats, the lice, the mud, the filth and disease, the noise, the dead and dying, the constant fear, the awful food, the sleeplessness, the colours, the snipers. In stark and powerful prose, the narrator chronicles his experiences, admitting he can find "nothing to appease" his terror. "We have learned who our enemies are - the lice, some of our officers, and Death," he observes bitterly. The soldiers yearn for a "Blighty," a wound that will send them home relatively whole.
Only when on leave do the soldiers regain their humanity. "During the long winter months on the line," the narrator observes in wonder, "we were men in uniform; clumsy, bundled, heavy uniforms. It is amazing now to see that we have slim, hard, graceful bodies. Our faces are tanned and weather-beaten and that aged look which the trench gives us still lingers a bit, but our bodies are the bodies of boys." When the narrator is on leave in London, a cleric remarks that the "best thing about the war . . . is that it has brought out the most heroic qualities in the common people, positively noble qualities." The narrator remains silent, realizing telling him of the reality of the trenches where men fight ignobly over crusts of moldy bread would be useless.
Harrison systematically refutes the glory of war myths. Like the poet, Wilfred Owen, he clearly does not subscribe to the Old Lie, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (it is sweet to die for one's country). "Camaraderie - esprit de corps - good fellowship - these are the words for journalists to use, not for us," insists the narrator. His growing disillusionment with the war reflects the unspeakable horrors he faces daily. Even when "on rest," arrogant officers insist on "an interminable routine of fatigues. We march, drill, shine buttons, do guard duty, serve as batmen for the officers, practice grenade throwing, machine gunnery, and at night are taken by lorry behind the lines to do wiring and trench-digging. This is called out on rest." The special privileges accorded officers contrast sharply with the bare necessities granted enlisted men who fight to survive in the trenches and retain their humanity. In disgust, the narrator declares, "The salute, the shining of our brass buttons, the correct way to twist a puttee . . . a thousand thundering orders! A thousand trivial rules, each with a penalty for an infraction has made will-less robots of us all."
From Montreal to major battles of the Western Front - Bethune, Arras, Amiens - Harrison provides graphic detail of the atrocities of war. He describes face-to-face combat with intricate detail like the difficulty of removing the bayonet from a body; the pitiful begging of enemy soldiers, "nicht schiessen! - bitte - nicht schiessen;" the smell of burning bodies after an attack from the Flamenwerfer (flame-throwers); the looting of a French town; the water-filled and collapsed trenches with "yellow, infested earth;" and the unrelenting noise - the thundering of artillery, the shrieking of Lewis guns, the "splintering roar" of comet-tailed minenwerfer, the whiz of grenades, the hiss of flame throwers. Although the narrative is often abrupt and stark, the rhythm of language effectively communicates the ugliness and harsh reality that is the lot of soldiers on the front lines. Chapters of the horrors of the trenches and battlefields alternate with chapters when the narrator is "on rest" or on leave; the prose changes from blunt and raw reporting to insightful reflections and observations laced throughout with vivid images.
Although Harrison himself served in the trenches, thereby lending authenticity to his account, the novel is fiction, not autobiography. Before the Amiens offensive, a general sends the soldiers off in a frenzy to avenge the three hundred wounded Canadians who perished when the Germans torpedoed the Llandovery Castle, a hospital ship. Later, as the wounded narrator waits to board a hospital ship, an orderly tells him the ship actually carried "supplies and war material." In historical fact, the doomed ship carried wounded, not war material; however, Harrison achieves a powerful effect in his fictional account by concluding the novel with the narrator's final disenchantment with a system that uses false information to motivate young men to kill without compassion.
An introduction by Robert Nielson providing an overview of the historical context, a map of the Western Front setting the geography, and five grainy black-and-white photographs are included for the benefit of the target young adult audience. The graphic descriptions of life in the trenches and on the killing fields may disturb some young readers, as may the obvious pessimism of the protagonist. Generals Die in Bed is no gentle treatise on war; it stands as a reminder of the insanity of using warfare to solve political problems, of sacrificing human beings for ideological purposes.
Darleen Golke is a librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.