Warning – this review contains spoilers.
Charles Yale Harrison’s book ‘Generals die in bed’ is a fictional piece released in 1930 that graphically details the horrors of war from within the trench lines of World War I.
The book follows the 18 year old narrator, a nameless American fighting in the Canadian Royal Montreal Regiment, through his journey from training to homecoming. Harrison himself fought for the Canadian Army, which lent an element of realism to his depiction and served to draw many critics as the Canadian Army at the time was highly honoured after their victories at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. “It’s a gross and shameful slander on the Canadian soldier, by a degenerate-minded fool” LTCOL Cy Peck VC, DSO and Bar.
This novel followed a path that had been created by Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque the year prior with their fictional depictions of wartime horror in A farewell to arms and All quiet on the Western Front respectively. These two novels also depicted the horrors of war from the perspective of front line soldiers and portrayed the ‘enemy’ as just another soldier following higher orders. There are, however, several points of difference that has set this prose apart from its contemporaries.
The novel is emotive and graphic as staccato and peremptory language and sentence structure are used to echo the scenes of the battlefield. ‘I become insane. I want to strike again and again. But I cannot. My bayonet does not come clear. I pull, tug, jerk. It does not come out. I have caught him between his ribs. The bones grip my blade. I cannot withdraw.’ Through this style, the reader feels immersed in the story and can feel the fear of the protagonist. This style also sets a pace for the novel. In battle scenes for example, the sentences are shorter to create a faster pace.
Throughout the book, Harrison depicts the boredom and lamenting of the average soldier to perfection. Chapter upon chapter paragraphs are written detailing lengthy conversations in the bottom of dug outs and on the back of trucks about those things that are scarce on the front line – food and women. These conversations depict a side of war which is rarely shown, that being the hour upon hour of boredom awaiting action. Throughout history war is glorified and taught only as the large action-packed battles, however these battles, although important, are not the whole picture of war. It’s in these moments too, while picking at lice and discussing meals from years prior that were not fully appreciated at the time that the bonds of friendship are developed.
Just like the realities of war, the boredom is punctuated by moments of intense action and immense fear. The fear is omnipresent, however what is described with detail at the start of the book, slowly decreases in emphasis as the novel goes on, thereby illustrating the slow degradation of the protagonists senses. ‘Now he will divide the sugar… the rusty spoon for dishing out sugar and such things is stuck between two sandbags in the parapet over his head. Glad to straighten himself up for a second, Brown stands up to reach for it…In that instant his head snaps back viciously from the impact of the bullet…The sugar is not yet divided. Some of it is spilled and dissolved in the bottom of the trench. Broadbent salvages as much of it as he can…He scoops the remaining sugar into four instead of five parts.’
There are many gems hidden within this book that the reader can learn from. The moment that the protagonist divulges to a woman in London on leave that he had killed a man, going on to further divulge that the individual was a German soldier which was met with ‘You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered someone.’ Demonstrated not only the effective use of propaganda throughout the war with civilians, but also the disconnect in understanding the opposing force in a war between those that had been in the trenches with them and those far removed.
The compassion for the enemy is most prominently illustrated in a scene in which the protagonist gets his bayonet stuck in a German soldier. This scene is one of the more graphic and ends after our John Doe finally shoots the German. After this occurs and the Germans begin to retreat, the protagonist captures a German soldier, only to discover it is the brother of the soldier he just killed. ‘He looks up at me with the eyes of a dog and says: ‘Mein Bruder – eine minute – mein Bruder’…How can I say to this boy that something took us both, his brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely, shrieking hole at night – it armed us with deadly weapons and threw us against each other.’
Another such interesting point is the effect that the war had on soldiers not just during the war, but afterward. Although the aftermath of the war isn’t covered in the book, there are paragraphs and scenes throughout the novel that leave no question as to the fact that the war would not cease with the signing of an armistice for those that had fought in it. ‘How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways again and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulphur, we who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies.’
As a junior Officer there are several further points to take away from this novel. One of the first is that your soldiers are always watching. The behavioural standards of an Officer need to be above reproach and the standards of some, cannot compromise your personal standards. There are several times throughout this novel that officers are portrayed as lacking integrity and moral standards. The main one that stood out was during the looting of a local village by the Canadians who were fatigued from war and had lost their sense of right and wrong. ‘I looked in at headquarters, the officers are havin’ a great time too.’ I have personally seen individuals who have talked about the conduct of their commanders, only to be promoted through the ranks and be surprised that subordinates would critique their own conduct ‘…the officers are as drunk as we are…’.
Another point I took from this book was yet another point on integrity. Although subordinates do not need to know everything, honesty and open lines of communication down the chain will promote loyalty and respect back up the chain. In the novel a Canadian General used the propaganda of a hospital ship being destroyed by the enemy to rally his subordinates before war “…history will recall that the gallant Canadians did not allow this wanton act of barbarism to go unavenged…”. Later in the book when the protagonist is on his journey home, he learns that this was a lie.
The novel is true to its title and although there are many more points to draw out of this short read, I believe the following two exerts sum up this novel: ‘It won’t be over until every officer has an MC’, ‘At the base a sergeant once told me that all a soldier needed was a strong back and a weak mind.’
I highly recommend that Junior Officers take the very short amount of time to read this novel. It is informative, entertaining and very well written.