First published in 1927, Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, challenges the notion that war is heroic and noble. Like Wilfred Owens, whose poetry focus on the dehumanizing effects of war, Harrison also outlines the numerous costs. As well as the obvious costs of war such as death, there are also hidden costs such as the soldiers’ humanity as they become hardened to the horrors of war. However, honesty and honour are also casualties, which becomes evident between the increasingly uneasy relationship between the Generals and the troops . Finally truth is also a casualty of war as both the allied soldiers and the Germans are betrayed during the final costly onslaught at the Battle of Amien.
Young, enthusiastic North American and Canadian men, mostly aged around 18 or 19 years, are sent to the battlefront oblivious of the challenges that await them. One of many untrained Canadian infantrymen who enlists, this narrator, feels apprehensive. Before he embarks from Canada, he admits, “I feel lonely. I do not want to go to war.” Harrison clearly depicts the senseless waste of lives. More than ten million lives were lost in the war; 240 soldiers died every hour of every day for four years.
However, Harrison’s focuses not just on the body count. It is the loss of humanity in this pointless war that challenges the readers’ moral compass.
Harrison demystifies war and shows that rather than being glamorous and glorious, it is horrible, futile, and shocking. Dehumanized, and at times bestial, the soldiers are not noble and brave heroes, but ordinary men who smell defeat. They are anxious, under-trained and inexperienced, fighting for what they come to believe are meaningless ideals. They have “harried nerves” and every time they return to the front line they are “as fearful and jumpy as the newest recruit”. (75) The author’s figurative language helps to convey a sense of the horror of war, as the soldiers lose their humanity during the fight for survival. The conditions are so disgusting that the soldiers are reduced to “savages” as they “crawl, like babies, on all fours.” (48) They behave like “hungry snarling animals”. They try to “burrow into the ground like frightened rats” (25) Their suffering is compounded by impossible conditions and the vermin that feed upon their misery: the lice, the rats, diseases and odours become another beast with which they have to contend. Despairingly, the narrator remarks, “we are being eaten alive by lice.” He concludes that it is “better to live (as) an unreasoning animal”. His blunt reference to Cleary’s death, “dead with a hole in his head … with his jaw shot away …” also prompts the suggestion that “maybe he was better off. No more war for him – no more fatigues”.
In addition, Harrison personifies the war as a living, breathing monster that “shrieks and catcalls” or “howls like an insane woman” that overcomes the soldiers’ senses and reduces them to automatons as the fight for survival consumes them. They have had thousands of orders drilled into them and respond robotically. “A thousand thundering orders! A thousand trivial rules, each with a penalty for an infraction, has made will-less robots of us all.”. Furthermore, they become desensitized to pain and death. This is obvious when Karl pleads for his life because he has three children. As Harrison states, “who can care for us, we who are set loose at each other and tear at each other’s entrails with silent gleaming bayonets?”
The soldiers slip into anonymity. Initially, readers are introduced to the names of the group of five but as each dies, except for the narrator, they remain nameless. Even in periods of rest, the soldiers live in temporarily deserted barns, half-empty villages and eventually Arras, which they wantonly destroy.
Throughout the text Harrison uses juxtapositions to reinforce his point that the men are not naturally savage, but become so. For example, upon the narrator’s return from the front the differences in their humanity become apparent: “Out on rest we behaved like human beings; here we are merely soldiers”. Even this “merely soldiers” is ironic, as it suggests that they are helpless victims of a war machine that abandons them. Harrison’s sentences are short, sharp and concise to reflect the robotic behavior of soldiers who mindlessly follow orders. Simple sentences such as “there is talk of an offensive” and “it (the front) is in constant turmoil” suggest that the soldiers are remote from the decision-making processes and react simply to the chaos over which they have no control. They simply follow orders: “We are back in line”. The blunt tone echoes the torrent of bullets (“the enemy rains an endless storm of fire upon us”) and captures their sense of helplessness as well as their fear: “we live in perpetual fear of raids”.
Harrison also sets up a comparison between the honourable values and the nice words used by those who are ignorant of the horrors of the trenches, and the harsh and grubby reality of those who have to fight for every morsel of bread. In the trenches, the soldiers intuitively learn that words like “camaraderie”, “esprit de corps” and “good fellowship” are ‘words for journalists to use, not for us”.
This becomes particularly apparent when Broadbent and Cleary fight over a morsel of bread and if not for the actions taken by the soldiers to separate them, it could also be a fight to the death. According to Harrison, the conditions are so pitiable that the bread becomes a “bone of contention”. A fight breaks out simply because “Broadbent suspects that his piece is smaller than the rest”. As Harrison suggests it only takes a quick “oath” and a curt reply for the soldiers to be fighting as animals would, full of hate, and “at each other’s throats like hungry, snarling animals”. Their fight is violent and aggressive as evident from the bloody streaming down Cleary’s cheek. After the fight, he “gnaws” at the “hunk of bread” in his hands “like an animal”.
The simple task of dividing the bread (with its spiritual connotations) sets up the soldiers for unreasonable competition and envy. Here there is an implied criticism of the Generals or the officials in charge, who are abandoning the soldiers during their time of need.
Harrison also sets up another comparison between the ordinary heroic soldier who battles the atrocities of war, and the heroic soldier who wins medals. In this case, if there is a hero, Harrison suggests, it is the soldiers who have to withstand the terror of war and the horror of the trenches. The narrator’s encounter with Karl turns him into a “hero” in the traditional sense and the officers consider rewarding him with a Military Medal. He is the only one to return with a prisoner, during a very dangerous offensive during which 40 of the 100 troops were killed. After he confronts Karl in the trench, he reflects that they are “set loose at each other and tear at each other’s entrails with silent gleaming bayonets” (95)
However, to the narrator, this is not a heroic deed. In the trench, it was either him or Karl and he was the survivor on this occasion. If the soldiers are systematically dehumanized through terror, Karl is humanized as the narrator depicts the suffering of their agonizing confrontation. The German shrieks and howls as the narrator thrusts his foot against him to free his rifle. “Face to face”, he notices the victim’s “boyish face”. The narrator anticipates his mother’s sorrow, which compounds his feelings of guilt. He realizes he has committed state-sanctioned murder. Later, the human face of the enemy again becomes apparent when the young German boys run towards the allies “with their hands held high above their heads silently asking for pity”. They are also shot dead.
Harrison juxtaposes this narrator’s genuine sense of regret with the deceitful actions of the Generals, who sacrifice their honesty and integrity to protect their lives. The orderly believes that their shameful conduct leading to an indefensible loss of life should have cost them their lives. He states “our officers oughta be shot for that”. However, the generals live a protected existence and in many cases trivialize the endeavour of the troops and exploit their courage. The narrator states, “our real enemies are .. the officers.” The generals are incompetent and exploit the rank-and-file soldiers in devious ways. They are used as cannon-fodder during many unwinnable battles. Once again we recall the title, Generals die in Bed which depicts the relative comfort of the generals who are removed from the terror of the trenches. The soldiers’ “smutty marching songs” reveal their contempt for the generals who do not make the same sacrifices as the soldiers. “The generals have a bloody good time … fifty miles behind the line”. (109)
The Generals constantly refer to the spoils and treasures of war as “souvenirs”. This is not only distasteful but trivializes the legacy of the fallen soldiers. It makes a mockery out of the sacrifices that are exacted from them for their country. The Generals give the orders and do not become involved in the savagery. During one of the bloodiest offensives, the colonel offers the narrator a drink of rum when he returns from killing Karl. However, although the narrator is decorated for bravery he nevertheless reflects upon the senseless encounter whereby they are exposed to extreme danger. Up to 40 of the 100 troops were killed and the only comfort the General offers is a drink of rum.
Another casualty of war is the truth. The deceit showed by those in charge reaches a climax during the Battle of Llandovery where hypocrisy and betrayal lead to Harrisons’ sense of shame and disgust . The officers in charge contravene the rules of war in a most despicable manner and betray their own soldiers in the process. The officers lied to the troops before the Battle of Amiens so as to try to motivate the soldiers. They claimed that the Germans had brutally and purposely attacked an ally hospital ship. However, the allied officers did not tell the troops that the allies had already broken the rules of war because they had tried to conceal ammunition on a hospital ship believing that it would gain safe passage. The Generals such these details. Rather they encourage the soldiers to use this incident as an “opportunity to avenge the lives of our murdered comrades” whereby nurses in lifeboats “appealed in vain to the laughing men on the U-boat”. The general states that “no instance of barbarism in the world’s history can equal the sinking of this hospital ship”. This leads to another contravention – the Canadians shoot the surrendered German soldiers at point-blank range thinking that they are avenging the LLC. ship. The German soldiers plead for mercy. They are unarmed, and yet as Harrison states, the “rifle fire drowns out their words … We do not heed. We are avenging the sinking of the hospital ship. We continue to fire”. Although the Germans plead for mercy, there is none. Harrison shows there is no pity in war – only rank brutality.
Through his sharp and bare narrative style, the numerous juxtapositions and bleak imagery, Harrison exposes the numerous costs of war; perhaps the ultimate cost of war is the betrayal suffered by the troops at the hands of their superior officers. The Generals exploit them in harsh ways, sacrificing their honour as well as that of the troops and also conceal the truth from them so that they will inflict greater horrors on their German enemies.