reviews: we wasn’t pals and generals die in bed

2 03 2009

I’ve been doing some research for a project I’m working on.  It’s taken me back to WWI readings.  I had trouble, after leaving academia, with reading anything in this vein.  It made me… pine is as good a word as any, I suppose, to describe the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach anytime I thought of the work I’d left behind.  I’m relieved to say that that feelings has left me now, that I can now read these works without becoming regretful or feeling as if I had somehow betrayed the important experiences recorded in those works that touched me so deeply.  I think part of that stems from the fact that I’ve found a new outlet for my work.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research over the past couple of months, but the last few days I’ve made my way through two books that have really stayed with me: We Wasn’t Pals and Generals Die in Bed.  I’d read Harrison’s book several years ago, but only selections from We Wasn’t Pals.

Harrison’s book is a harrowing account of line on the front lines during WWI.  It is a straight-forward and direct narrative, with little “literary frills” as noted in the introduction to my copy of the book.  There are some very graphic scenes, most particularly the moment in which during a raid the narrator stabs a German soldier with his bayonet and then cannot get it out.  Harrison’s novel strips away much of the sentimentality of other narratives, particularly about the comradery between men.  There is some connection between the men, but he also shows the way in which each man is very much alone in his struggle to survive.

We Wasn’t Pals is a collection of poetry and pose written by Canadians during the First World War.  I wasn’t overly familar with most of the work in this collection, and the introduction notes that much of this work has been overlooked.  There is a good range of selections in this collection, focusing on different aspects of life in the trenches.  Two selections that particularly stood out were “The German Prisoner” by James Hanley and “The Strange-Looking Man” by Fanny Kemble Johnson – the former because of the uncomfortable  brutality Hanley is able to capture in his tale of two soldiers who lose their way in the fog and who enact the insanity of war on a German prisoner who stumbles into the shell hole they are hiding in, and the latter because of the fable-like quality lent to this story about life after the war and its consequences.

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