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Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison: an Overview

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Harrisons novel “Generals Die in Bed” is narrated by an anonymous soldier stationed in the infamous trenches of World War 1. The soldier tells of the slaughterhouse of war with horrific and uncompromising description. Throughout the text there are a few instances of heroism and gory such as the protagonists acts of bravery in a night time raid and heroic effort of the men to endure and maintain their humanities in the intolerable circumstances they were placed in. However, the resonating theme throughout the novel is that war is a place of horror and death not glory, this is first depicted the contrast between the feeling of the men in the first chapter of the book which quickly dissipates into one of “insane fear” after the first bombardment and then by the sentiment of the men that it the lice and the officers who are the real enemy not their German opponents.

The most obvious instance in the text of heroism is perhaps when the soldier conducts a night time raid in enemy lines. Whilst conducting the raid the narrator confronts a German and stabs the German in the ribs, with the bayonet on the end of his rifle. The narrator attempts to withdraw his blade but finds it is stuck, he then runs down the enemy trench of not being able to stand the sight of the if the wound that he created. Realizing that he is defenseless he sums up enough courage to return and retrieve his rifle. After the event the protagonist proudly declares that he has “been tested and found wanting.” This statement clearly demonstrates the value that the narrator places in heroism and glory and shows that there is a small place for glory in war.

The bravery of the men in their heroic struggle to endure, maintain their humanity and appreciate the small pleasures in life is both admirable and heroic. In the horrible conditions they were placed in it was not uncommon for men to go insane and give up. Under such conditions Renaud’s, a young French recruit who experiences stomach pains, fight to keep marching and the soldiers refusal to give up when trying to attain the crest in the last battle that he fight are remarkable feats of heroism. Heroism is also displayed by the men in their struggle to maintain their basic humanity by fulfilling futile tasks like killing the lice even though they know that they will return to maintain some from of hygiene, their ability appreciating the pleasant smell of beans blossoming and in general the pleasure they find in the small comforts of life like clean sheets and a good wine. However these glimpses of heroism are few and most of the novel is dominated by the brutality, death and discomfort that is caused by war.

The lack of glory and heroism that dominates “Generals Die in Bed” is highlighted by the contrast of the men’s attitude in the first chapter of the novel to that after they experience their first bombardment. The novel opens describing the barracks of the new recruits who sing “with mock pathos I don’t want to die.” The novel then abruptly skips to the men’s first experience of the trenches in which the protagonist stand before his lewis gun and imagines an action which, he states, makes him “feel elated.” This attitude of war being a place of glory and heroism full of joviality is quickly dispelled after the men experience a bombardment which causes them to “borrow into the ground like frightened rats,” liquefies their bowls and causes them to experience an “insane fear that keeps [them] cowering.” The notion of glory in war is further dispelled by the horrible conditions that the men of World War 1 were forced to endure.

The myth of war being glorious is further dispelled by the descriptions of the horrible squalor that the men had to endure and the unpatriotic stance that the men take on the war eradicates any patriotic notion that dying for ones country is heroic and glorious. The men live in vermin infested trenches and cannot cleans themselves of the mud that surrounds them. They “never refer to the Germans as [their] enemy” and the men don’t know “what the hell [they] are fighting for anyhow.” Rather the “traditional enemy” becomes the army police who are sent to round up the men after they pillage the city of Amiens . Further, the officers are universally hated by the men and Fry, a friend of the narrators, even goes so far as to shoot an officer in the back. All these sentiments of the men are echoed by a statement of the protagonist in which he declares that “we have learnt who our real enemies are. The lice, some of officers and death.” Glory and honour are ‘fanciful notions’ as far as the men fighting the war are concerned.

Harrisons anti-war novel “Generals Di in Bed” is a graphic recount by an anonymous soldier of the bloodbath that was the trenches of World War 1. The novel leaves room for the reader to appreciate the heroism that some of the men possessed by decribing the endurance of he men and their struggle to maintain humanity. However the major theme throughout the text is that war is a place devoid of glory and heroism. The novel causes the reader to ask, why has war persisted in human affairs from the beginning of recorded history?

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GradesFixer. "Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison: An Overview." GradesFixer, 10 Apr. 2019,
GradesFixer, 2019. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison: An Overview. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 September 2020].
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