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Generals Die in Bed (1930) is a slender and undeservedly little known novel from WW I, by Canadian-American, Charles Yale Harrison [who, despite his name was born to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, and was the uncle of Judith Rossner, of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, fame.) His novella was buried by the publication, one year earlier, of  Robert Graves‘s Goodbye to All ThatErnest Hemingway‘s A Farewell to Arms, and Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front. Although it is confined almost purely to life in the trenches and under fire, while the others explore other matters, for that reason its punch is more concentrated, and likely to be consumed by young war-happy youngsters — to whom, he dedicates his book:

To the bewildered youths–British, Australian, Canadian, and German–who were killed in that wood a few miles beyond Amiens on August 8, 1918…

Though Harrison includes some descriptions of the men, and sketches in their conditions,

“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 ourselves like baboons..  It’s been months since we’ve been out of our clothes.  (34)

his main interest and overwhelming attention is to the fighting and dying.  Since I had recently seen War Horse, the incredible stage presentation, about the time I read Generals my antenna vibrated strongly with Harrison’s account of the horses:

A horse is wounded.
We hear the beast’s shriek above the howl of the bombardment. It is one of the four horses drawing a light field-piece. The wounded animal whirls around, dragging his mute, pawing mates with him. The team careers for a moment and crashes into the stalled lorry.
A shell bursts over the lorry.
The driver is hurled from his seat.
He is wounded. His cries mingle with the piteous shrieking of the wounded horses.
Two animals are now prone and the other two tear at the harness and kick wildly at the cannon.
Two stretcher-bearers appear and try to extricate the lorry-driver, who is being kicked to death by the frantic horses.
The road is an inferno.” (50)

As you can see, his prose is direct and visceral.  A telegraph from the front. He speaks of the exhaustion of the men, the horrible wet, muddy, dark frightening hours — as do the authors of other books.  Under Fire, (1916 – preceding the others by over a decade) by Henri Barbusse, comes close to  Harrison in evoking the conditions, though he does it at greater length.  From Barbusse we take away the weight and tedium punctuated by sheer terror.  With Harrison, it is almost non-stop terror.  This is perhaps the most graphic, gripping and horrifying description of a soldier’s moment I have ever read, though I suspect the details are absolutely real, and repeated in Vietnam and perhaps Iraq/Afghanistan, by the foot soldiers there:

I run down the trench looking for prisoners. Each man is for himself.
I am alone.
I turn the corner of a bay. My bayonet points forward–on guard.
I proceed cautiously.
Something moves in the corner of the bay. It is a German. I recognise the pot-shaped helmet. In that second he twists and reaches for his revolver.
I lunge forward, aiming at his stomach. It is a lightning, instinctive movement.
The thrust jerks my body. Something heavy collides with the point of my weapon.
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.
Of a sudden I hear him shriek. It sounds far-off as though heard in the moment of waking from a dream.
I have a man at the end of my bayonet, I say to myself.
His shrieks become louder and louder.
We are facing each other–four feet of space separates us.
His eyes are distended; they seem all whites, and look as though they will leap out of their sockets.
There is froth in the corners of his mouth which opens and shuts like that of a fish out of water.
His hands grasp the barrel of my rifle and he joins me in the effort to withdraw.     I do not know what to do.
He looks at me piteously.
I put my foot up against his body and try to kick him off. He shrieks into my face.
He will not come off.
I kick him again and again. No use.
His howling unnerves me. I feel I will go insane if I stay in this hole much longer…
It is too much for me. Suddenly I drop the butt of my rifle. He collapses into the corner of the bay. His hands still grip the barrel. I start to run down the bay.
A few steps and I turn the corner.
I am in the next bay. I am glad I cannot see him. I am bewildered.
Out of the roar of the bombardment I think I hear voices. In a flash I remember that I am unarmed. My rifle–it stands between me and death–and it is in the body of him who lies there trying to pull it out.
I am terrified.
If they come here and find me they will stab me just as I stabbed him–and maybe in the ribs, too.
I run back a few paces but I cannot bring myself to turn the corner of the bay in which he lies. I hear his calls for help. The other voices sound nearer.
I am back in the bay.
He is propped up against his parados. The rifle is in such a position that he cannot move. His neck is limp and he rolls his head over his chest until he sees me.
Behind our lines the guns light the sky with monster dull red flashes. In this flickering light this German and I enact our tragedy.
I move to seize the butt of my rifle. Once more we are face to face. He grabs the barrel with a childish movement which seems to say: You may not take it, it is mine. I push his hands away. I pull again.
My tugging and pulling works the blade in his insides.
Again those horrible shrieks!
I place the butt of the rifle under my arm and turn away, trying to drag the blade out. It will not come.
I think: I can get it out if I unfasten the bayonet from the rifle. But I cannot go through with the plan, for the blade is in up to the hilt and the wound which I have been clumsily mauling is now a gaping hole. I cannot put my hand there.
Suddenly I remember what I must do.
I turn around and pull my breech-lock back. The click sounds sharp and clear.
He stops his screaming. He looks at me, silently now.
He knows what I am going to do.
A white Very light soars over our heads. His helmet has fallen from his head. I see his boyish face. He looks like a Saxon; he is fair and under the light I see white down against green cheeks.
I pull my trigger. There is a loud report. The blade at the end of my rifle snaps in two. He falls into the corner of the bay and rolls over. He lies still.
I am free.
But I am only free to continue the raid. It seems as though I have been in this trench for hours. (75-78)

I don’t blame you if you want to turn away for a moment.

Harrison’s against-war position is written throughout — as in this exchange with a grousing buddy:

There’s two kinds of people in this world–there’s those that likes wars and those that fight ’em, pal” (144)

But with a ‘date’ in London during a short leave, after the bayoneting, there is a moment that stands out.

“I am a criminal. Did I ever tell you that I committed murder?”
She looks up with a jerk. Her eyes look at me with suspicion.
“It was some time ago. I came into a place where an enemy of mine was and I stabbed him and ran off,” I explain.
Her eyes are wide open. She is horrified. She does not speak.
I laugh and relate that the murder took place in a trench and that my enemy wore a pot-shaped helmet.
Her face glows with a smile.
“You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered someone.” (112)

Eventually, the narrator is wounded, and carried off.  The novel comes to an end, though the war has not.

The title comes from another exchange between two Canadians, and leads to the surprising revelation that the camp song many of us may remember, Hincky, dincky, parley voo, was actually a marching song for English speaking soldiers, with plenty of dirty soldier’s lines:

The inspection takes but a few minutes. The general gets into his car and drives off.
We are marched back to our billets. On the way back we talk:
“. . . a little runt, ain’t he?”
“Got a cushy job, too.”
“Bet he’s got a hundred batmen (orderlies) to shine his leather.”
“He’s got fifty medals . . .”
“Yeah, but he’ll never die in a lousy trench like Brownie and them did.”
“God, no. Generals die in bed.”
“Well, that’s a pretty good place to die.”
Anderson speaks up:
“Where would we be without generals–”
Clark shouts an order:
“March at ease!”

That means we may sing:

Oh, the generals have a bloody good time Fifty miles behind the line. Hincky, dincky, parley voo.

[Or the soldierly part:

Mad’mselle from Armentières, parley voo. Oh, mad’mselle from Armentières, parley voo. Mad’mselle from Armentières, Hadn’t been —-ed for forty years. Hincky, dincky, parley voo.}]

A soldier’s view of war (and a progressive young man at that.  He was arrested in 1928 on his way to Nicaragua to interview the Nicaraguan dissident General Augusto César Sandino.)

Gutenberg has a copy of the book on-line  though there are many feel-good-in-the-hand volumes available from such as ABEBooks and Alibris.

Read on!