December 31, 2014
Just in time for the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18 (World War I), the publication in English of Gabriel Chevallier’s novel “Le Peur” (1930) is drawing deserved attention. Translated by Malcolm Imrie as “Fear” and available in the handsome New York Review of Books Classics series, the novel is clearly infused with Chevallier’s personal experience as an infantryman in the French Army during the Great War. Presenting the life of a soldier through extended passages inscribing equally the physical and the psychological trauma not just of combat but also of waiting for combat, it is a novel of unblinking witness.
Unlike Chevallier himself, who was “called up” to service, his protagonist, Jean Dartemont, enlisted in the army “against all my convictions, but still of my own free will—not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.” Dartemont is an educated young man, an intellectual for whom war is initially a phenomenon to study. About a third of the way through the novel, however, after he has been hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, his capacity to contemplate the nature of and the implications of his experience in the trenches, the dugouts, and the battlefields leads to a public admission that is also a pivot point for the “meaning” of the overall narrative. At the hospital, he is provoked by the nurses who insistently ask him what he did at the front line: “I marched day and night without knowing where I was going. I did exercises, I had inspections, I dug trenches, I carried barbed wire, I carried sandbags, did look-out duty. . . .” When prodded by the nurses to elaborate, he clarifies: “Yes, that’s all . . . Or rather, no, that’s nothing. Would you like to know the chief occupation of war, the only one that matters: I WAS AFRAID.”
For the willfully self-deluding nurses, Dartemont speaks utter blasphemy, but the patent truthfulness of his admission colors the rest of the novel after he returns to combat duty. Eventually, he realizes that the only way to conquer his own cowardice is to expose himself wantonly to the inevitability of dying in this transparently futile war.
Reading Chevallier’s novel recently, I inevitably thought of an earlier novel of the Great War by Donegal-born man-of-letters Patrick MacGill (who happens to be buried in Fall River, Massachusetts). MacGill’s most enduring contribution to the literature of the Great War may well be his three autobiographical narratives – “The Amateur Army” (1915), “The Red Horizon” (1916), and “The Great Push” (1916) – written in the very midst of his experience as a Rifleman (that is, a Private) in the London Irish Rifles regiment. But he also published two Great War-centered novels –“The Brown Brethren” (1917) and “Fear!” (1920) – after his military service ended when he was wounded in the Battle of Loos in September of 1915.
Unlike most of MacGill’s fiction, “Fear!” is not an “Irish” novel per se: the narrator-protagonist is Henry Ryder, a barber from a nondescript English village who is conscripted into an unnamed regiment of the British Expeditionary Force and shipped out to France as the War continues to decimate the population of able-bodied Englishmen. While the novel obviously borrows from MacGill’s own experience on the Western Front, it is really much more generic than specific in its detailed descriptions of night raids and marches, trenches and dugouts and billets, coarse camaraderie and lonely despair.
As historian David Taylor rightly recognizes in “Memory, Narrative and the Great War” (2013), MacGill’s autobiographical trilogy traces an arc of “disillusionment” with war. This arc continues through “Fear!” and the frontispiece to the novel includes a note headed “What This Story is About”: “Patrick MacGill has been able to write about war as war actually is. . . . [T]he realism of ‘Fear’ will bring home to all the conviction that such things must never be allowed to happen again.” While MacGill depicts many aspects of war in the novel, the exclamatory title foretells that its central subject will involve his extended revisiting of a motif he had introduced in the opening chapter of “The Red Horizon,” set on the ship transporting him and his fellow London Irish Rifles across the English channel early in 1915: “What will it be like, but above all, how shall I conduct myself in the trenches? Maybe I shall be afraid—cowardly. But no!” This question becomes an obsession for Private Henry Ryder.
As a novel, “Fear!” contains a lot of filler. Chapters and long passages detailing basic training at Salisbury Plain, sketching the various “characters” who populate the rank and file of Ryder’s company and section, dramatizing life behind the lines in estaminets and billets, and inscribing the abrupt shift from enervating tedium to frenetic action read more like vignettes than as contributing elements to a distilled storyline. What emerges from the baggy plot, however, is a compelling meditation—Henry Ryder’s, but really Patrick MacGill’s – on fear.
Not surprisingly, MacGill’s Ryder experiences an “epiphany” strikingly similar to that of Chevallier’s Dartemont regarding the short odds of dying in combat. But Ryder’s perspective is complicated by a story told by one of his seasoned section mates of the execution by firing squad of a deserter: “I felt as if I were the guilty man myself, that I was guilty of the failing for which L___ died.” For all of their similarities – and there are many, underscoring the universality of the experience of the Great War not just for British and French soldiers but, implicitly, for those on the other side of the barbed wire divide as well, the Germans – MacGill’s and Chevallier’s novels diverge on the basis of this incident, resulting in very different narrative resolutions.
Chevallier’s Dartemont actually survives his wanton rush to combat and he survives the War altogether, which allows him by way of his memoiresque narrative to bear unvarnished witness to the brutal reality of war. The final chapter of Henry Ryder’s story is “Written by Another Hand” – a coda-like conclusion by which MacGill allows the reader to infer Ryder’s fate after, as he puts it matter-of-factly, “I have run away from the battle.” Earlier, Ryder had parsed fear into three categories. The first is “jelly fear,” which “slackens the guts, numbs the brain and takes the stuffing from the spine.” The second is “reckless fear”: “What the devil does it matter now? You don’t care! You stop at nothing! Forward! and let me get at them! Six inches cold steel, six feet cold clay! Bullets fly, shells burst! Let them!” The third category is “calculating fear”: “You are quite calm, a normal being, weighing the pros and cons of the occasion. Able to fit your movements to your mood, you advance, consider, take cover, study your environment and obey orders. But this moment is not lasting.” Clearly, Ryder has succumbed to that first fear in the manner foreshadowed by his section mate’s story of the executed deserter.
Yet, finding himself in the ruins of an old church, Ryder looks to a damaged crucifix for guidance to resolve his dilemma. Left at a loss – Christ at least had a mission “to die for the sins of men” – he arrives at a simple understanding of how his cowardice relates to the overall devaluing of life and humanity that, as an increasingly transparent “war of attrition,” the Great War clearly amounted to: “It matters not – nothing matters. I’ll die, anyway. Who fires the bullet doesn’t matter. I’m going back to the firing line. . . . I’m going back.”
Ultimately, that devaluing – or its implied opposite, a revaluing of life and humanity – is at the heart of both Patrick MacGill’s “Fear!” and Gabriel Chevallier’s “Fear”: “such things must never be allowed to happen again,” indeed. In the midst of reading these two relentlessly bleak novels, I happened also to pick up “The Missing of the Somme” (1994), a meditation on remembrance by Geoff Dyer. He, too, engages with the issues of fear and cowardice, musing that “Perhaps the real heroes of 1914-18 . . . are those who refused to obey and to fight, who actively rejected the passivity forced upon them by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer, not to have things done to them.” He then goes on to describe how the family of one Private A. Ingham of the Manchester Regiment, who died on 1st December 1916, had believed for years that he had simply “died of wounds.” But when his father was finally informed that he had been executed for desertion or cowardice, he insisted on this inscription being added to the military headstone marking his grave in the French village of Bailleulmont:
SHOT AT DAWN
ONE OF THE FIRST
A WORTHY SON
OF HIS FATHER
I believe that both MacGill and Chevallier would salute that gesture.
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston