Generals Die in Bed

Reviewed: November 6, 2002
By: Charles Yale Harrison
Publisher: Annick Press
175 pages, $9.95

This book crossed my desk last winter about the same time that I was reading about it in Pierre Berton’s Marching as to War. Berton makes the point that this book is probably the Canadian equivalent of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front for sheer power and for its honest portrayal of what life was like for soldiers in the trenches during the Great War of 1914-18.

Like many other writers of what was often called the Lost Generation, Harrison took his time getting around to the task of fictionalizing his own experience. An American who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Harrison was in the war from almost the very beginning, and writes from the viewpoint of one who was caught up in the initial euphoria and learned to loathe the truth.

This war was supposed to be a grand adventure, a testing ground for manhood.. Instead, it turned out to be a meatgrinder, a constantly churning  machine into which the generals threw division after division in the vain hope that any obstacle could be overcome if you simply used enough manpower.

The technology was way ahead of the tactics, and Harrison, as well as Remarque and Ernest Hemingway (in A Farewell to Arms) described in graphic detail what really went on in No Mans Land when the order came to go “over the top”.

Generals Die in Bed echoes the sentiments of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Base Details”, in which the infantry men die on the line while the majors and colonels toddle off to their comfortable berths and die in bed.

Harrison’s novel is a powerful story and one that should be required reading for a certain US President, who seems to think that this war business is all about technology and precision bombing.