I should have had a real problem with this book because "First person, present tense" is not exactly my style. But after reading this, I think it's all a matter of context. When it's been used in other books, it feels like it's the author's arbitrary choice with no real message behind it. For instance, Wolf Hall. What does it matter if I'm "right there" in Thomas Cromwell's shoes? BFD! I wasn't feeling the urgency or importance of the tone (unless it was self-importance). However, using the tense with the subject matter of a Canadian soldier (Harrison himself) going from new recruit to embittered soldier to wounded and exiting the war was a better fit.
This story predates All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms by a year (serialized in 1928, published in 1930 - a year after the other books), and while the anti-war theme is the same, I don't recall feeling so gut-punched when I read Remarque and Hemingway.
Harrison's prose is sparse, practically skeletal, and it pounds at you. There's little light and joy, and when there is a momentary bout of pleasure it's quickly snuffed out by the war that must be constantly fed. There are no details given about the narrator beyond his age. You are meant to become him.
The soaked earth here is nothing but a thin covering for the putrescence which lies underneath; it smells like a city garbage dump in mid-August. We are sunk in that misery which men fall into through utter hopelessness. (p. 54)
How will we ever be able to go back to the peaceful ways again and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulphur, we, who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies? (p. 101)
During a trench raid, the narrator bayonets a German and can only dislodge his rifle by firing it. He captures two other prisoners (one is the brother of the man he killed), an act which earns him a medal and ten days' leave:
I try to decide where I shall go, to Paris or to London, but the thoughts do not stick.
The image of Karl, he who died on my bayonet, seems to stand before my eyes.
The shaking becomes worse. The movements are those of one who is palsied.
I begin to sob.
I am alone.
I am living through the excitement of the raid all over again; but I cannot relieve myself with action now.
I do not think things now; I feel them.
Who was Karl? Why did I have to kill him?
The questions press on my brain--cry aloud for an answer. I toss and turn in my searching. It does not come.
It is better, I say to myself, not to seek for answers. It is better to live like an unreasoning animal. (pp. 125-129)
Ugh. I hate that war above all others.
There's plenty of action, but it's never glorious. A physically-decrepit recruit named Renaud is caught by a German flamethrower:
Flame sputters on his clothing. Out of one of his eyes tongues of blue flame flicker. His shrieks are unbearable.
He throws himself into the bottom of the trench and rolls around trying to extinguish the fire. As I look at him his clothing bursts into a sheet of flame. Out of the hissing ball of fire we still hear him screaming.
Broadbent looks at me and then draws his revolver and fires three shots into the flaming head of the recruit. (p. 198)
When soldiers aren't dying grisly deaths, they're falling into verboten conversations about the why and wherefore of the war at large. As they march past an ammunition dump that is exploding in the distance, they muse on the amount of money that's going up in flames:
"I bet that dump going up over there must cost a billion dollars."
"And I'll bet somebody is making a profit on those shells whether they are fired at the Germans or whether they just blow up...."
"Sure they do."
"Just think of all the people that's getting a big hunk of swag out of it. Shoes, grub, uniforms, bully beef..."
"Sure, and I'll bet that those people don't want the war to end in a hurry."
"...and they're all praying to God tonight for the war to last for ever while we're riding in this god-damned lorry..."
"...and God must be listening to them. Look how long it's been going on." (pp. 215-218)
I thought this book was a perfect length for the style. It had a message and it delivered it, and in an unforgettable way. The final scene, tying in the sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle with the narrator's blind vengeance on the enemy at Amiens, is a twist of soul-crushing irony and I closed the book feeling as I always do when I read about the "Great War": Depressed beyond all belief.
(While I can find nothing stating at the Llandovery was actually carrying ammunition, it's obvious that Harrison's cynicism was such that he believed it.)