by Charles Yale Harrison
Notes for VATE members’ students prepared by Robert Cole
1.| Perspective on the text| Page | 1|
2.| Questions to Consider| Page| 3|
3.| Two Guided Essay responses| Page| 5|
References in this guide are to Harrison, Charles Yale, Generals Die in Bed, Penguin 2003
Purchasers may copy Inside Stories for classroom use
A Perspective on Generals Die in Bed
Generals Die in Bed follows the progress of a Canadian soldier through the First World War, from the time he leaves Montreal at the beginning of his tour of duty, to the moment where he is taken on board a hospital ship to England for recovery. The story is told through his eyes, and is told as if it is happening in front of us, like a film.
The novel paints a devastating picture of trench warfare, showing it to be unimaginably dangerous and totally destructive of people’s capacity to hope. The aim of the writer seems to be to convey all the horror of war and also his anger at the generals for how they have treated their men. Another intention of the author seems to be to rid the reader of any romantic views of war and of any romantic views of the ability of heroism to make a difference.
Generals Die in Bed begins with a scene of drunkenness inside an army barracks. The soldiers are drunk, are talking about booze and women, and tease a soldier who had been a minister about his puritan views. There is nothing heroic or brave about their behaviour. Instead they are behaving like frightened children. The farewell parade to the station is shown from the point of view of the narrating soldier, for whom it is an exciting, then a confusing and distressing experience. The train leaves late, so the well-wishers have all gone home. The men are left in an empty train station, drunk and in their own mess. There is nothing heroic about such an entry into war.
In France the difficulties of war become immediately apparent. The soldiers are subject to training and the mindless and mind-numbing rituals of army drill. Any weakness or vulnerability is ruthlessly punished. The soldier tries to remember what he has been told about artillery bombardments, but when the real thing occurs, he and his comrades are totally unprepared: ‘I can do nothing to appease my terror,’ says the soldier.
He is thrown into the air by the blast; his ears are bleeding from the impact of the exploding shells; his friend Fry is almost completely buried by a direct hit on the trench. Their own safety is all they can think about. When their friend Brown is hit by a sniper and is killed, they can only think about themselves. Later, when they are able to cover up his twisted body, and later still, they think fondly of him, but for the time being survival is everything.
The soldier who tells the story is compassionate and understands how valuable kindness is in war time. Everyone, both soldier and civilian, is suffering so much that a small act of kindness is magnified by the recipient. A man who receives a present of tobacco from the soldier arranges for the soldier to spend the night with his daughter.
The soldier is able to see suffering and to feel for those who suffer. When he is caught in a German trench with two prisoners, he allows one of them to take the identity papers from the body of his dead brother because he feels pity for all of them, including himself: ‘How can I say to this boy, that something took us both, his brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely shrieking hole at night?’
The soldier can even imagine the mother of the two boys being pleased they were together. For a short time, as the Canadian and the two Germans cross No-Man’s Land together, they have a bond of humanity that transcends their national differences.
The text shows us that the experience of war can separate soldier from civilian. When on leave in London the soldier attends a theatre performance...