Die in Bed
Charles Yale Harrison
(Annick/Firefly)As faithful readers may recall, some of the RALPH factotums are inordinately fond of World War I. Because of a brawl in the southeast corner of Europe, six of the world's great nation-states got involved in a brouhaha that dragged on for more than four years, blowing up some of the richest farmlands of Europe, impoverishing millions of the poor and ignorant, enriching the great industrial complexes of Europe and America, and murdering millions of the finest flower of France, Germany, Russia, Austria, Italy, America, and the British Empire.Ancient regimes fell, infernally diabolical machines were introduced into the world's armamentarium, and the very earth itself was enriched with the blood of 8,500,000 bright-eyed, staunch and resolute youths. All the while, the very old and rich, who have always loathed the young, were able to decimate an entire generation. The absence of these youngsters brought about the chaos of a world-wide depression in 1930s, the net result of which was that the rejected generation were able (without much in the way of protest) to involve us all in yet another war --- labeled for the usual solipsistic reasons, World War Two. In roughly the same period of time, and with even more gruesome armaments and weaponry, the warring states were able to triple the casualties of the first, to over 30,000,000 young. All these shenanigans were carried on, on all sides, in the name of honor-for-country and in-the-name-of-god. Thus the wisdom of 20th Century humanity.Charles Yale Harrison was able to participate in the first of the century's series of World Wars by dint of being a young American willing to volunteer early in the course of the war as a Canadian. His enthusiasm was quickly quelled by days weeks months in the trenches, where he learned that the enemy was not the guy in the next trench over toting a rifle, but cold and wet and filth and lice:
We are filthy, our bodies are the color of the earth we have been living in these past months. We are alive with vermin and sit picking at ourselves like baboons. It is months since we have been out of our clothes. We begin to talk of the last time we slept between sheets.
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Not long ago, we reviewed The Somme by A. D. Gristwood, which told us of WWI through the eyes of the wounded (some, indeed, self-wounded ... just to get out from under. Do they still do that?) Generals Die in Bed tells of the life of those who lived and worked and suffered and died in the trenches.
There have been countless other you-are-there novels, but this is the first one that I have come across that details the shooting of a callous officer by his own troops (do they still do that?), the looting of a whole city (Arras) by the allied troops, and the looting of the incoming packages from home: "The mail for the battalion comes up. Most of the boys to whom the packages are addressed are either wounded or killed. We share them among ourselves." And, most haunting, the casual murder of young German soldiers trying to surrender:
"Bitte --- bitte (please --- please)."
Their voices are shrill. They are mostly youngsters.
They throw themselves into the crater of a shell hole. They cower there. Some of our men walk to the lip of the hole and shoot into the huddled mass of Germans. Clasped hands are held up from out of the funnel-shaped grave. The hands shake eloquently asking for pity. There is none. Our men shoot into the crater. In a few seconds only a squirming mass is left. As I pass the hole I see the lips of a few moving.
Generals Die in Bed was published in 1930. According to editor Robert Nielsen, one officer responded, "I have never read a meaner, nastier and more foul book." Another said it was "pure obscenity." Twelve years after the end of the war, a few books --- A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Coward, The Somme were published and, for the first time, spoke of the real obscenity of those on the front lines, being forced into daily acts of carnage against their equals, against their hearts, against themselves. Generals Die in Bed is one of the great documents of the new honesty.