Reading, Watching–and Smelling–World War I

More than a year ago, I decided to observe the centenary of World War I by using it as the theme of my English composition classes devoted to writing across the curriculum.  To that end, I have immersed myself in a wide assortment of novels and films about the conflict of 1914-1918, about which David Lloyd George quipped, “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.” Each of these works has offered me new and profound insights into the atrocity and devastation of trench and tunnel warfare, mustard and phosgene gas, shell shock and disfigurement, loss of faith in the future–and in God. The list includes the following:

Novels

  • Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)
  • Roland Dorgelès, Wooden Crosses (1919)
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)
  • Erich Maria Remarque,  All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
  • Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991)
  • —, The Eye in the Door (1993)
  • —,  The Ghost Road (1995)
  • Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War (1993)
  • Marc Dugain, The Officers’ Ward (1998)
  • Mary Swan, The Deep (2002)

Films

  • Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
  • Ernst Lubitsch, Broken Lullaby (1932)
  • Raymond Bernard, Wooden Crosses (1932)
  • Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion (1937)
  • Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory (1957)
  • Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (1991)
  • Gillies MacKinnon, Regeneration (1997)
  • Christian Carion, Joyeux Noël (2005)
  • Philip Martin, Birdsong (2012 BBC serial)
  • François Ozon, Frantz (2017)

I recommend them all because their differing vantage points–of subject matter, theme, and passage of time–have enriched both my intellectual and my emotional understanding of the horrors of the Great War, which Alfred Korzybski, a Polish veteran of the Eastern Front, called “the closing period of the childhood of humanity” (Manhood of Humanity, 1950).

Despite the specific and keen insights I have gleaned from each of these fictional accounts, I have received my most thorough and detailed impressions of the actual experience of the war from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, and I would like to share some of them while they remain fresh and strong–and putrid.

The first quarter of the novel takes place in 1910, when the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford is sent to France by his employer to live in the home of René Azaire in Amiens and learn the textile business under his tutelage. Stephen is generally unfeeling and aloof as a result of his upbringing as an orphan–qualities that change when he falls in love with Azaire’s abused wife, Isabelle. As their affair is revealed and they run away to set up housekeeping together, Stephen understands that their relationship represents his first and only chance for intense emotional and physical attachment.

Stephen’s prophecy becomes reality in the rest of this well-crafted novel; the next section is set in 1916: “Jack Firebrace lay forty-five feet underground with several hundred thousand tons of France above his face” (117). Gone is the heady passion of the preface–long but essential in the portrait of Stephen Wraysford. When he appears on the battlefields–and in the trenches and tunnels–of World War I, stony reserve replaces powerful emotion; he is a “mad, coldhearted devil” (211). The novel presents not Stephen’s feelings about war, but his physical experience of it.

The realistic depiction of the extreme physicality of the war experience is the greatest strength of Birdsong. As I read, I repeatedly had to remind myself that the novel was written in 1993; again and again I told myself, “This must be how it was.” Subsequently, I discovered the source of this intense realism in Faulks’s preference for contemporary first-hand accounts–diaries, letters, field reports–as source materials. He clearly cared about getting the gruesome details right.

For example, my skin crawled in instinctive reaction to the ubiquitous references to lice infestation in the soldiers:

He thought of the stench of his clothes, the lice along the seams, the men he was frightened to befriend in case their bodies came apart the next day in front of his eyes. (133)

The evident advantage of cutting back the numbers [of lice] was the temporary relief it gave from the sour, stale smell the creatures left, though even this relief was qualified since the odour was usually compounded or overwhelmed by stronger and more persistent bodily smells. (331-32)

The eggs of hundreds of lice [lay] dormant in the seams of his shirt. By the time he reached the Front his skin was alive with them. (333)

As demonstrated above, the novel also reveals the stench of war in passages noxious even in the reading:

Within half a mile [the communication trench] had become no more than a zigzagged cesspool, thigh-deep in sucking mud that was diluted by the excreta of the overrun latrines and thickened by the decomposing bodies that each new collapse of trench wall revealed in the earth beneath.  (169)

The men . . . passed out thigh-high rubber boots that had been in continuous service for eight months. The decayed pulp of the interior was a mash of whale oil and putrid rags that could accommodate feet of almost any size. (271)

The smell [in the tunnels] was hard to breathe, but it was no better aboveground, where the chloride of lime seemed not to relieve, but to compound the atmosphere of putrefying flesh, where the latrine saps had been buried or abandoned, and where, to avoid the smell of feces, men chose to inhale the toxic smoke of braziers. (287)

Perhaps most revealing–and revolting–however, are Faulks’s stark descriptions of the wounds suffered by the soldiers, compounded by the limited medical care available. These are not thrilling battle scenes that inspire the bloodthirsty; rather, they are almost unbearable scenes of human carnage.

Each day, they removed more of the man’s body, snipping ahead of the gangrene, though never taking quite enough. When they unplugged his dressings, fluid leapt from his flesh. . . . His body was decomposing as he lay there. (177)

There was a man beside him missing part of his face, but walking in the same dreamlike state. . . . His nose dangled, and Stephen could see his teeth through the missing cheek. (218)

He recalled individual limbs, severed from their bodies, and the shape of particular wounds; he could picture the sudden intimacy of revealed internal organs, but he could not always say to whom the flesh belonged. (271)

What he had not seen until the week before was the explosive effect on soft tissue, on the pink skin of two privates in his platoon who had been gathered up in a single sandbag by one of the others. (279)

Stephen’s firsthand experience of this inhuman slaughter enabled him to realize that humanity would never be the same when–if–the brutal war ever ended.

None of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did were beyond the boundaries of human behavior. (136)

It was not his death that mattered; it was the way the world had been dislocated. It was not all the tens of thousands of deaths that mattered; it was the way they had proved that you could be human yet act in a way that was beyond nature. (225)

They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away. . . . [T]here were no boundaries they would not cross, no limits to what they would endure. (270)

Tedium is another experience of war revealed in Birdsong. The first hundred pages of the novel race from moment to moment, bathing the reader in the colors of life-affirming narrative. But when the war begins for Wraysford, even reading about it becomes numbing–long and slow and gray. Unfortunately, this contrast is absent from the otherwise excellent BBC adaptation, which switches back and forth between the Stephen-and-Isabelle story and the scenes of war. This ill-chosen technique gives the war sections a sense of urgency and even excitement that belie the experience of reading the novel.

The other important contrast in the novel relates to the interspersed chapters set in 1978-1979, when Elizabeth Benson seeks to learn about the war experiences of Stephen Wraysford, the grandfather she never met. In these episodes, the characters are flat and their concerns, superficial. Faulk’s decision to include these chapters masterfully reveals the how paltry the details of life can become when it is marked by ease and safety and satiety.

I look forward to continuing my immersion in the stories of World War I. I also plan to return to the poetry of that war–Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and even the idealistic Rupert Brooke for balance. I live a century after that war, a war that was anything but great except in the shadow it has cast over those ensuing hundred years.

***
Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War. 1993. Vintage, 1997.

Martin, Philip, director. Birdsong. Performances by Eddie Redmayne, Clémence Poésy, and Joseph Mawle. BBC One, 2012.

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