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Generals Die in Bed

by Charles Yale Harrison

What do we tell the children? With the world events of last fall, everyone who lives or works with young people had to face that question. What do we tell them about war, justice, vengeance, the “enemy”? What do we tell them when we don’t even know what to think ourselves? I’ve always naively assumed that in the past this dilemma was easier. I’ve assumed that parents in 1914, for example, could talk to their children with some confidence about the neccessity of war for a just cause. But a recent Annick young adult novel has made me question that assumption.

Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, a novel of the Great War, was first published in 1930. It is a first-person narrative by an unnamed 18-year-old Canadian soldier about his war experiences from the time he leaves Montreal to the battle of Amiens, after which he is sent home. Harrison’s portrait of life in the trenches is unrelievedly horrible – rats, lice, blood, disease, decaying bodies. We have encountered some of this material in novels by other young adult writers, in Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land and in the memory/dream sequences in Michael Bedard’s Redwork.

What distinguishes Harrison’s novel, however, is its absolute disillusionment and cynicism. One by one he takes all notions of war’s nobility or even utility and systematically undermines them. Against the idea of vanquishing the enemy, he has soldiers saying, “We have learned who our enemies are – the lice, some of our officers, and Death.” Against the idea of war’s comradeship, he creates a scene in which soldiers fight each other over a crust of bread. Against the idea of military discipline, we see Canadian soldiers looting an unoccupied French village, breaking into churches, stealing food, vandalizing, destroying artworks, and finally setting fire to the houses. Far from making men out of boys, war in this narrative takes decent humans and brutalizes them. Even the science and strategy of warfare turns out to be a sham, when men die to recapture the very trench they lost earlier in the day.

Harrison is a powerful writer. He orchestrates the action so that just as we are becoming numb with horror over the deaths of young men, he modulates to a different key – the death of a cavalry horse – which is somehow more shocking and poignant. When our powers of indignation are battered, Harrison describes the wanton destruction of a peasant’s home and we feel anger again. When the noise and smell of battle overwhelm us, Harrison creates an oasis of calm, even lyricism. In one of these intervals, the soldiers are sent away from the front for a rest in a French village. They discover a stream and go swimming. “During the long winter months in the line, bodies did not exist for us. 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.”

Because this account is written in such a stark documentary style and because Harrison served at Amiens and was roughly the age of his protagonist, it is easy to forget that Generals Die in Bed is fiction. But to read it as autobiography is to miss some of its complexity. The final act of the novel consists of the preparation for Amiens and the battle itself. Before being sent off, the soldiers are given a pep talk by a brigadier-general who recounts to them the news of the sinking of the Llandovery Castle, a clearly identified hospital ship that was torpedoed by the Germans in clear contravention of the international laws of war, a “wanton act of barbarism.” It is this information that steels our protagonist and his comrades to go into the bloodbath of Amiens energized by feelings of revenge. But when our hero survives and is sent wounded to Britain he encounters a hospital orderly who says of the Llandovery Castle: “That was bloody murder, brother. Our officers oughta be shot for that. She was carryin’ supplies and war material.” A few paragraphs later the book ends, the protagonist knowing that his own “heroism” in battle, the blood-lust that fuelled the victory, was manipulated, based on a lie. It’s a final moment of disillusionment.

The problem here is that the orderly was wrong. The sinking of the Llandovery Castle, as investigated after 1918 in a war crimes trial, was indeed a German military atrocity. The ship was not carrying war supplies or military personnel in active service, but only doctors, nurses, and the wounded. Here’s where fiction can be more powerful and complex than documentary. Is it plausible that such a rumour, as passed on by the orderly, was circulating? Yes. Is it plausible that our hero would have believed it? Absolutely. Thus although the message of this novel is that war is meaningless, disgusting, and soul-destroying, using young men as pawns of a stupid corrupt system, we are not even allowed the comfort of consistent cynicism. There is no way to read this book and emerge less than uneasy.

What do we tell the young? With Annick’s decision to republish this novel in a young adult package they make a brave decision to tell them the truth, plain but not simple.