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Generals Die In Bed [Paperback]

Charles Harrison , Robert Nielson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 16 2007

A new edition of the classic novel about the frontlines of World War I.

"Unique among the novels of its day, it has stood the test of time."
-Author and historian Pierre Berton

All war is hell -- but for troops serving in World War I, it was the bloodiest trench warfare ever known. Generals Die in Bed is a first-hand account of one young man catapulted from new recruit to walking wounded on the Western Front.

From day one, he is surrounded by mud and fear. Artillery whistles down without warning. Boys, barely men, cry out for their mothers. Close combat is worse: sudden frenzied scrambles with German soldiers, and bayonets that don't come out smoothly from their victims.

Regular rotation takes them away from the front, and the weary combatants scramble for wine, women or whatever else will help them forget they'll have to go back. This harrowing spiral continues until an ill-fated hill charge leads to a gushing leg wound and release papers home.

A new introduction to this edition places Harrison's novel alongside its literary contemporaries -- All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Originally published in 1930 and acclaimed as "the best of the war books" by the New York Evening Standard, Generals Die in Bed remains an unforgettable book.


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Generals Die in Bed is one of the great documents of the new honesty. (www.ralphmag.org (Review of Literature, Arts and P 2007-07-00)

Harrison's damning indictment of a war in which generals die in bed while soldiers die in a lousy trench resonates with the impact of his experiences.... From Montreal with recruits celebrating their departure and crowds waving flags and cheering, the scene shifts abruptly to the unspeakable horrors of the trenches. None of his training has prepared the teenage protagonist and narrator (never given a name) for the actuality of the trenches... In stark and powerful prose, the narrator chronicles his experiences, admitting he can find nothing to appease his terror.... Although the narrative is often abrupt and stark, the rhythm of language effectively communicates the ugliness and harsh reality that is the lot of soldiers on the front lines.... Generals Die in Bed is no gentle treatise on war; it stands as a reminder of the insanity of using warfare to solve political problems, of sacrificing human beings for ideological purposes. Highly Recommended. (Darleen Golk Canadian Materials 2002-11-15)

A stark and poignant novel. (Canadian Children's Book News 2010-06-00)

From the Back Cover

“Harrison’s novel offers the most authentic account of the brutalizing effects of war.”
–Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Canadian classic anti-war novel May 21 2007
Format:Paperback
The horrors of the First World War are relived in Harrison's controversial classic, "Generals die in bed" which questions the notion of war as a noble and glorious endeavour. The story is of six Canadian men and their experience as being shock troops against Germans. Though the unnamed protagonist does kill several Germans over the course of the book, from the onset, he and his squad learn who their "real enemies are - the lice, some of [their] officers, and Death." (Chapter "Out on rest" p.23, 2007 edition)

The protagonist witnesses several events which undermine the nobility of war and progressively desensitizes him to violence. During one of his leaves from the front, he is repulsed by the humorous and light-hearted portrayal of the war in London by middle class folk, non-combatant military personnel and even religious figures. He witnesses the looting of a village and the ensuing chaos. Finally, he and his squad are lied to in order to increase their aggressiveness in what seems like the final assault.

Occasionally lacking some detail, the almost "point-form" writing style does require an active reader and an active imagination. Still though, Harrison's poignant novel transcends the realities of the First World War and undermines the military as an institution in general.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredible, but sadly unread account of WW1 May 1 2001
By "franke123" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book takes in the experiences of a WW1 Canadian soldier during the mustard gas, lice, trench warfare, flame throwers, snipers, and other assorted horrors.
At times, it is not an easy read due to the candid and almost non-descript accounts on the battlefield. He has little prose and even less flowery description - everything is to the point, which further reinforces the terror of all he sees. At certain points of the story, it can also be incredibly sad as well. Not an easy story to read.
The description of his bayonett being stuck in a live german boy while his brother watches on in terror is one of the most candid and sad experiences ever read. As well, when Charles is wounded, it is written almost in a surreal fashion, as he hallucinates and falls in and out of consciousness.
Pick this one up. It's a true account from the writer (meaning he was there), and it's a story that isn't easily put down.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a stunning look into the soul of a Canadian soldier in WW I July 14 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a seminal work, written and published before All Quiet on the Western Front, which bears a strong resemblance to it. The life of a Canadian soldier in the trenches of World War I allowed little room for nobility or love or friendship, filled as it was with rats, lice, poison gas, the ubiquitous stench of death and the few shattered yards of polluted mud which became his whole world. Written in the simple, flat style of Hemingway, this is a Canadian classic.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best WW1 book ever April 3 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is the greatest book i have ever read in my life. The story takes you, hits you in the stomach, and never lets you go.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A neglected book Dec 24 2003
By K Scheffler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book, I believe, was essentially forgotten until it was resurrected by an independent publisher in the 1970s; it was on the CanLit reading list while I was at university, but I don't think that the book has received the readership that it deserves, namely, this book should be manditory reading in Canadian high schools.
Interestingly, the author was an American; a fact that's important in that a large number of Americans did enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but whose service has now largely been forgotten.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raw WW1 memoir-novel Jan. 4 2011
By Karla Bushway - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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."
"'Course not."
"...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.)
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