“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill)

10 November was Remembrance Sunday, and so for this post I thought I would look at two novels dealing with the theme of war.

Firstly, Regeneration by Pat Barker (Penguin, 1991).  This was the first novel Barker wrote in the Regeneration trilogy, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.  I actually think The Ghost Road is the strongest of the three, but Regeneration is still an expertly crafted novel, and although each novel in the trilogy stands alone, I think it’s preferable to start at the beginning.  Regeneration tells the story of Dr WHR Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War, and his shell-shocked soldier patients, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Although fiction, the novel is based on true events and Dr Rivers is a real-life character as well as the poets.  Barker said she chose the character of Rivers as, not being a soldier herself, she had to find a voice with some distance from the trenches.  Although this is the case, the way Barker looks at the horrors of war is unflinching.  I’m about to quote something truly atrocious, brace yourselves or scan past it:

“Burns arms were goose-pimpled, though the room was not cold.  The smell of vomit lingered on his breath.  Rivers sat down beside him.  He didn’t know what to say, and thought it better to say nothing.  After a while he felt the bed begin to shake and put his arm round Burns’ shoulders.  “It doesn’t get any better, does it?” […]

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him.  What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature.  He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly and had ruptured on impact.  Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realise that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh.  Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred.  Nightly he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting.”

Horrors like this are almost impossible to contemplate, and even more upsetting when you realise things like this actually happened.  Within this context, amongst their traumatised and screaming comrades, Sassoon and Owen try to express their disgust and anger through verse:

““What draft is this?”

“Lost count,” said Owen. “You did tell me to sweat my guts out.”

“Did I really? What an inelegant expression. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I see we got to the slaughterhouse in the end.” Sassoon read through the poem. When he’d finished, he didn’t immediately comment.

“It’s better isn’t it?”

“Better.  It’s transformed.” […]  He thought for a moment, crossed one word out, substituted another.  “There you are,” he said, handing the page back, smiling. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.””

Regeneration is not a long novel, 249 pages in my edition, but Barker crams so much in and I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  Alongside the issues of war, she considers themes of madness, what society expects from men, and what it expects from women.  How the state can betray its citizens, and what we can give to each other in times of crisis.

Here is a clip from Gilles MacKinnon’s excellent 1995 adaptation of Regeneration (released as Behind the Lines in some countries), including some lines from one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems, Dulce et Decorum Est:

Secondly, further back in time to the Crimean War, Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus, 1998).  This was the novel for which Bainbridge was posthumously awarded a Booker Prize in 2011, with a special prize, the Best of Beryl.  I haven’t read all of Bainbridge’s books, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s her best, but it’s certainly highly accomplished.  It tells the story of George Hardy, a surgeon and photographer who, after a family tragedy, decides to leave Liverpool for the Crimea.  His adoptive sister Myrtle and geologist brother-in-law Dr Potter accompany him, alongside fire-eater and sometime lover of George, Pompey Jones.  These three voices narrate the story, and learning about the eponymous character from others is entirely appropriate, as George is an enigmatic and conflicted man, as obscure as one of his blackened and fading photographic images .  As Myrtle observes:

“There’s a sameness about death that makes the emotions stiffen – which is for the best, else one would be uselessly crying all day long.  It’s why Georgie often seems insensitive to other people’s feelings.  Dealing with the dying, one must either blunt the senses or go mad.”

Amongst the filth and squalor of the Crimean battlefields, all see death more often than not.  Bainbridge presents it in a determinedly low-key way; the Charge of Light Brigade happens outside the story, and Dr Potter’s pragmatic response speaks volumes about the dehumanising effects of war:

“I am in two minds as to whether I should bother to pack my tent, it being in a wretched state, perfectly sodden and much holed.  It would be better for my health if I slept in the hospital tent, though that too is in a deplorable condition.  I am at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley.”

It may not be “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…” but while Bainbridge shuns Tennyson’s pomp, her use of small detail says more than enough about the futility of the combat and the waste of human lives.  Master Georgie is a haunting novel that stayed with me long after I finished it.

Here are the novels with the symbol of Remembrance Sunday, a poppy:

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4 thoughts on ““Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill)

  1. The Regeneration trilogy is brilliant. But one of the best and most evocative lines I’ve ever read about the First World War was from Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ – he describes the view of standing on a hill watching the first day of the Battle of the Somme as ‘men dying in ripples’ as they go over the top. Gives me goosebumps.

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