Generals die in bed, while soldiers die in the trenches, horrifically, unimaginably, infested with lice and surrounded by rats fattened on corpses. There are no rules, no expectations in war. And there is certainly no glamour. Instead, the men inhabit a senseless world, trusting only the instinct to stay alive.
Based on his own experiences in the First World War, Charles Yale Harrison writes a stark and poignant story from the point of view of a young man sent to fight on the Western Front. Beginning in Montreal, the scene soon shifts from the cheering crowds, streamers, and music of the farewell parade to the stench of the trenches, where the soldiers meticulously divide up the stale, gray "war" bread and rationed sugar for their weak tea.
In stark, graphic detail, Harrison writes of the soldiers' fear as the crumbling dirt walls of the palisade tumble down upon them during a shell attack. He recounts the horror of face-to-face combat, where the enemy is revealed to be a smooth-skinned lad, no different from the boy down the street. He shows compassion for both the killer and the killed, each innocent, in a situation without choice.
In raw, powerful prose, the insanity of war is shown clearly as Harrison questions the meaning of heroism, of truth, and of good and evil.
The First World War may seem distant and irrelevant to many young people today, but it is a timeless and important lesson. Seen through the eyes of the adolescent narrator, the experience of trench warfare takes on renewed vibrancy as readers identify with the plight of the youthful soldiers. Harrison's vivid account is a valuable resource for all teachers and students of history and of the human condition.
An introduction places Generals Die In Bed in its proper literary context, beside All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Harrison's concise, blunt writing style is an effective means of conveying the reality of war and an example to students of literature. Originally published in 1930, this book was lauded as "the best of the war books" by the New York Evening Standard.
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Charles Yale Harrison was born in 1898 in Philadelphia. He left school in grade four, and at the age of 16 began writing for the Montreal Star. Before long, he joined the Royal Montreal Regiment and fought as a machine-gunner in France and Belgium. He was wounded at Amiens in 1918 and returned to Montreal. Harrison worked as a theater manager and reporter before moving to New York City, where he earned his living as a public relations consultant, radio commentator, and writer.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from Chapter 3: "In the Trenches"
Over in the German lines I hear quick, sharp reports. Then the red-tailed comets of the minenwerfer sail high in the air, making parabolas of red light as they come towards us. They look pretty, like the fireworks when we left Montreal. The sergeant rushes into the bay of the trench, breathless. "Minnies," he shouts, and dashes on.
In that instant there is a terrific roar directly behind us.
The night whistles and flashes red.
The trench rocks and sways.
Mud and earth leap into the air, come down upon us in heaps.
We throw ourselves upon our faces, clawing our nails into the soft earth in the bottom of the trench.
This one crashes to splinters about twenty feet in front of the bay.
Part of the parapet caves in.
We try to burrow into the ground like frightened rats.
The shattering explosions splinter the air in a million fragments. I taste salty liquid on my lips. My nose is bleeding from the force of the detonations.
SOS flares go up along our front calling for help from our artillery. The signals sail into the air and explode, giving forth showers of red, white, and blue lights held aloft by a silken parachute.
The sky is lit by hundreds of fancy fireworks like a night carnival.
The air shrieks and catcalls.
Still they come.
I am terrified. I hug the earth, digging my fingers into every crevice, every hole.
A blinding flash and an exploding howl a few feet in front of the trench.
My bowels liquefy.
Acrid smoke bites the throat, parches the mouth. I am beyond mere fright. I am frozen with an insane fear that keeps me cowering in the bottom of the trench. I lie flat on my belly, waiting ...
Suddenly it stops.
The fire lifts and passes over us to the trenches in the rear.
We lie still, unable to move. Fear has robbed us of the power to act. I hear Fry whimpering near me. I crawl over to him with great effort. He is half covered with earth and debris. We begin to dig him out.
To our right they have started to shell the front lines. It is about half a mile away. We do not care. We are safe.
Without warning it starts again.
The air screams and howls like an insane woman.
We are getting it in earnest now. Again we throw ourselves face downward on the bottom of the trench and grovel like savages before this demoniac frenzy.
The concussion of the explosions batters against us.
I am knocked breathless.
I recover and hear the roar of the bombardment.
It screams and rages and boils like an angry sea. I feel a prickly sensation behind my eyeballs.
A shell lands with a monster shriek in the next bay. The concussion rolls me over on my back. I see the stars shining serenely above us. Another lands in the same place. Suddenly the stars revolve. I land on my shoulder. I have been tossed into the air.
I begin to pray.
I remember that I do not believe in God. Insane thoughts race through my brain. I want to catch hold of something, something that will explain this mad fury, this maniacal congealed hatred that pours down on our heads. I can find nothing to console me, nothing to appease my terror. I know that hundreds of men are standing a mile or two from me pulling gun lanyards, blowing us to smithereens. I know that and nothing else.
I begin to cough. The smoke is thick. It rolls in heavy clouds over the trench, blurring the stabbing lights of the explosions.
A shell bursts near the parapet.
Fragments smack the sandbags like a merciless shower of steel hail.
A piece of mud flies into my mouth. It is cool and refreshing. It tastes earthy.
Suddenly it stops again.
I bury my face in the cool, damp earth. I want to weep. But I am too weak and shaken for tears.
We lie still, waiting ...
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