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Harrison's Generals Die in Bed: Based on Experiences of Facing Combat During Ww1

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It is widely agreed that the epistemologies of composers writing about World War One (WW1) have significantly impacted stigmas and perceptions of that war. If literature is to play this crucial role in feeding society’s understanding of the atrocities of war it becomes imperative that the epistemological representations are able to adequately convey those terrors, through textual or visual features, in order to ensure that WW1 experiences are reflected accurately for generations to come. A critical lens is required in order to interrogate both the various representations of physical combat at war. This will be explored, through the eyes of different perpetrators and victims in several texts – the 1930 novel Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, the poem ‘The Soldier’ written by Rupert Brooke in 1914, and the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. These will all be used to contribute to the idea that the horror of war should never entirely leave our cultural psyches.

Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed is a Canadian anti-war novel, based on his personal experiences of facing combat within WW1. It is a direct portrayal of the unforgiving lifestyle within the trenches. The connection between a patriotic soldier and his homeland is explored within the poem ‘The Soldier’. It is a profoundly patriotic and idealistic representation of this bond. All Quiet on The Western Front is a novel by a German veteran of WW1 Erich Maria Remarque. The novel highlights the concepts of idiocy and irrationality surrounding the extreme physical and mental stress throughout the war, and upon returning to the homefront, the severe detachment felt by the soldiers.

Generals Die in Bed is an anti-war novel by Charles Yale Harrison. The novel, first published in 1930 portrays a first-hand experience of combat through an unnamed, eighteen-year-old Canadian soldier – based on the author’s personal encounters. It provides an ‘authentic and evocative’ portrait of life in the French trenches throughout WW1, which is unrelievedly horrible with disillusionment and cynicism present throughout the style of realism. This novel also presents itself as a confrontation of the savage realities of war for its readers, in an immediate and experimental manner. Shared experiences are communicated, in order to reveal the repressed truths of war, which belie patriotic proclamations of glory, honor, and courage, further exploring the deromanticizing of war. Generals Die in Bed is written in a journalistic manner, mainly devoid of ideological commentary. Authenticity is built within the text. Although the novel is undoubtedly an anti-war text, it does not preach to its audience, instead of challenging the notion that war was heroic and noble by presenting the daily horrors and reality of military life and trench warfare:

‘We do not know what day it is. We have lost count. It makes no difference whether it is Sunday or Monday. It is merely another day – a day on which one may die’ 

To a vast extent, Generals Die in Bed is largely successful in its modernistic approach of portraying the atrocities of post-war traumas. The study of war literature cannot be limited to only victims, veterans, and homefront experiences – we must also consider post-war traumas portrayed in literature. Freud’s concept of trauma is crucial to consider when investigating literature concerned with these wounds. ‘How can a writer adequately express the devastation – physical or emotional – of such a conflict? How can such madness be transferred into post-war life, and then into literary form? Analysts must consider how the portrayal of war and its aftermath are described in literature decades after the actual event. That is, how have writers since the war represented the reality of war, and how does the approach of the Modernists differ from that of the previous literature?’ Harrison’s work reveals traumas which earlier works have not achieved.

Harrison has been able to effectively and accurately portray the psychology of soldiers at the time. Throughout the novel, there is a central theme of the systematic undermining of notions of war’s nobility and utility. Against the idea of vanquishing the enemy, he depicts the unnamed soldier’s vocalization of his own strong opinions – ‘We have learned who our enemies are – the lice, some of our officers, and Death’. This shows the young men’s journey as they come to see their superiors as the enemy. This is achieved through a questioning of the ideology behind those who benefit from sending subordinates to war, lacking any awareness of their tragic fate – in essence, it questions the rationale of the war. This successfully mimics the propaganda-like nature of literature in history.

Again, against the idea of comradeship, Harrison creates a scene in which soldiers fight over a crust of bread, highlighting the petty nature the war has created amongst the men. Contrary to the concept of military discipline, Canadian soldiers are seen to loot an unoccupied French village – breaking into churches, vandalizing, stealing food, and destroying artworks all before finally setting fire to the houses. This novel presents the concept of war, taking young, decent boys and dehumanizing and brutalizing them.

Highlighted is the modernist view that war may not have been virtuous after all. The novel serves as an accusation, through the questioning of the judgments of the Generals who, from the safety of their comfortable headquarters, cynically send their dehumanized, suffering troops to their deaths. The prior common understanding of war as glorious and noble, associated with comradery and honor, is ultimately challenged and shown to be false in Harrison’s view. ‘We are getting it in earnest now. Again we throw ourselves face down on the bottom of the trench and grovel like savages before this demoniac frenzy’. Through the recount of the barbaric conditions the men are facing, the honest and harsh reality of the war is emphasized. 

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Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed: Based on Experiences of Facing Combat During WW1. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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