Thursday, December 18, 2008

Denis Winter's "Death's Men": Book Review

This military historian presents a topical, chronological (in the sense that it follows the soldier's experience as he enlists, trains, and fights as part of the "Great War"), and comprehensive depiction of the infantryman's constant struggle to keep alive and alert under the stress of trench warfare, shelling, lice, rations, sentry, disease, and death that could come-- as a sniper's or mortar's target-- without warning. As you find out, if you hear the bullet, passing at twice the speed of sound, you are safe, at least for that instant. But, another one always waited.

The strain of battered nerves on sleep-deprived, poorly-fed, lonely, cold, and mud-encrusted men under weeks of attack without rest in some cases, permeates this grim but not wholly forlorn account. Published in 1978, Winter extracts the telling entry from dozens of published and unpublished memoirs. He emphasizes: "Studied from the bottom and looking upwards, the Great War becomes less useful to staff college students and more meaningful to the layman-- and to old soldiers of any war." (16) Rather than battles, the foggy terror and chaotic results of war as seen from the men who fought on the ground appear more unstructured, haphazard, and emotional. "What the scholar sees today as a single event, the participant was aware of only as a rapid succession of brilliant cameos, suffused with tension and fear." (170) Out of this "common memory" as recorded by veterans, in diaries, letters and books, Winter recreates the common man's endurance, or capitulation.

His style carries his narrative sharply along, fitting the subject. Speaking of marching: "The worries, anxieties and traumas of the individual, beaded on the rosary of memory, were lost in the mass. They were not lost for the future; just overlain by tendrils from men totally responsive towards each other." (76) Telling the various sounds made by rifles, we find the "most dangerous was the brief roar of a near miss. It was just like a violin string breaking, followed by the report of the rifle firing it, like a popping champagne cork." (109) Or, compare this utterly British sentence that sums up the end of an era: "The Earl of Faversham's deerhound was a well-known sight on the salient, urinating on table tops and following his master to the isolated grave on the Somme where he still lies today." (156)

Chapters take you through the call-up for "Kitchener" recruits, the training of "Other Ranks," how soldiers had to adopt to the Army; officer training; shipment to France; trench life, weaponry used there, and the strain; rest and home leave; battle and its aftermath; attitudes towards the Germans and to the war itself; and what happened after the war. The mass of information can overwhelm you, and this may be an advantage for those wishing to immerse themselves as if in the trenches, but others may prefer to take chapters in smaller sections, given their intensity of topic and treatment. There are no cross-references, nearly no endnotes, and surnames follow each other as if imitating how soldiers speak of each other by surname. The works are all listed at the end, but specific pages or citations are not documented. While this makes the book more readable, historians or scholars may demand more. Still, as a general reader with only cursory knowledge of the events, I was able to follow the gist easily. Winter cares about the men and their memories, and this empathy energizes his telling of their tales.

32 monochrome photos suffer from their printing in a mass-market paperback, but their captions show Winter's scrutiny continues when he analyzes imagery visually as well as verbally from his sources. A horrific one of a shell victim informs us that British "photo archives were carefully vetted so that very few pictures of dead Englishmen remain." Another shows how among the dead, crosses on top of their corpses with identity discs ready, the stretcher-bearer also lies among those he tried to rescue. 60% of a unit might suffer casualties in one battle; half of these were "walking wounded." Doctors operated only with morphine, bandages, and knives.If no pills, nurses injected a placebo of sterile water into raving, ravaged patients. "Probably the luckiest men were the prisoners," a third caption laconically observes.

I found the chapter on "Rest" less informative than I would have wished. "Home Leave" also appears nearly a blur, if understandably given the informants' own experience, or lack of much leave for many. Perhaps this comparative reticence when it comes to billets, ladies, and boozing behind the lines can be blamed on the lack of titillating or in-depth coverage in the primary sources relied upon by Winter. Women's roles, again reflecting the male-dominated context of every source, gain less attention than they might in a more recent social history of the period. After all, this is about the "soldiers" rather than nurses or prostitutes or auxiliaries.

One forgets that these millions of soldiers often led circumscribed lives for years; despite useless drill and aimless marching about when in boot camp, they might go months before seeing an enemy soldier, dug into their holes as they were on both sides. When death came, it was not usually under direct confrontation as it had been in earlier combats. Winter takes us in along toy-like men waiting to charge in haunting fashion. You feel their shock as they're pulled into a panoramic nightmare.

"This appalling noise seemed to come anonymously, for the enemy was hardly to be seen. Attacking 10,000 Germans, a soldier might perhaps see ten. Shells represented the enemy by proxy, bursting with a vast upward rush of black smoke, lit from underneath by a red flame. As treble to the bass of the shells were the machine-guns, engines letting off steam, and sniper-fire sounding like twigs crackling underfoot." (178-9)
Rarely did they flinch, or desert, or malinger. Mass pressure to conform and support their fellow troops appeared their motivation, discipline that overcame fright. After so long ducking, standing men felt naked, exposed as if plunging into a cold bath as they hunkered down under a barrage. Many at first might feel abstracted; still intact they might savor the thrill of assault. This joy jolted men; five minutes of battle seemed to exhaust men as if they had labored for a day straight. Their faces showed the strain and the shock afterwards.

More often than the dreaded "going over the top" to attack, the end to their tour of duty fell invisibly, if among great tumult. Confusion certainly becomes a motif here, in fatigue as well as battle. Few knew the reasons why they bivouacked where the campaign placed them. Patriotism loomed. Many enlisted men, Winter estimates, back then conformed readily, schooled by poverty or a static upbringing to passively serve their "betters." Traditionally, they obeyed, kept up routines, and waited for the order to fix bayonets. This probably led up to a rare encounter with their intimate enemy. Winter quotes "the greatest cartoonist of the war, Raemakers." A German cradles a dying British soldier, who looks up and asks him: "Is it you, Mother?" (206) Many memoirists verify this last scene witnessed as they comforted their mortally wounded mates, although the enemy seemed less likely to offer solace.

Even the mythologized Christmas truce still did not allow men to let their guard down long, out of fear or revenge. Soon, we read of Germans killed on their knees as they held up pictures of their wives or children; danger appears, Winter explains, to lessen hatred in battle, but once men are out of immediate peril, their reaction of bloodlust often continues. Still, a twisted humanity remains; a soldier recalls praying for his targets as he mowed each German down. Attacking as if dreaming-- alternating with vivid vignettes of slaughtered individuals emerging from the mist or reverie, whether comrades or foes-- appears to punctuate veterans' scattered, inchoate recollections of the dreaded yet hypnotizing zero hour of engagement.

The bulk of the work, naturally, lodges less in combat face-to-face than hunkered down in the trenches alongside the men. Among the rats, vermin, corpses, and stench, men burrowed in and hoped to live. Their stories enliven these pages as their conversations, in passing as if overheard by Winter, occasionally float behind the words he studies. These veterans find that battle leaves them indelibly altered; they long to speak of war whenever they meet another soldier, no matter his side. This collection as it sifts their tales depicts tedium as well as terror, holed up within strange fortifications in this war of attrition on bodies and minds, fought by fragile men from upended castles, implanted solidly into the dirt.

Certainly any of us finishing these sad pages, now that nearly all the veterans of the war to end all wars have died, find our problems reduced by comparison. I was amazed at how those men not inclined to serve, once recruited or conscripted with primitive equipment, impractical training, and brutal regimens, survived the worst. Many, of course, did not. This contrast, between those relating their memories and those about whom they wrote, often left behind in the mud or obliterated beneath it, leave a poignancy and a dignity for the "preciousness of life" difficult to conjure up at a remove. Nine percent of British men under forty-five died in the war, yet their losses were dwarfed by civilians and soldiers in France and Germany. Winter brings us as close as most of us will ever want to approach the consciousness of tattered, anxious, and exhausted men, who found the stubbornly remembered range of cruelty and decency over four years at their extremity.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)


Spud said...

I enjoyed your review. I happen to be re-reading 'Death's Men' at the moment, having just completed Sebastian Faulks's 'Birdsong'. (I wonder how much Winter's book was a source for Faulks.) It is an excellent read, extremely vivid but rarely sentimental, and with powerful vignettes that do more than film (let alone CGI) ever can to create a sense of feeling as well as scene. I was reminded of Robert Gross's film 'Passchendaele' in which the returned front-liner tells a gathering that the thing of most significance to the soldier in the hell of trench warfare is the availability of dry matches, the lack of which could push him finally over the edge.

One omission - although not critical given the task that Winter set himself - is a sense of comparison of others' experiences on both sides of the war. Do you know of any books that look at the French, German or colonial forces' experiences and perspectives?

Fionnchú said...

Spud, I've been mulling over picking up "Birdsong." I skimmed it in the library and the prose style somehow did not grab me, but this may reflect the tellers and not the author, in the sections I spot-checked.

That film sounds intriguing; my exposure to the war on film's only two versions of "All Quiet," "Testament of Youth," "Paths of Glory" and "A Very Long Engagement."

I'm no WWI expert, but Winters' study helped me convey the essence of trench warfare to my 20c History college students, for whom as all of us now this war seems otherwise very far away from our society, even as it set up the course of much of the past century.

As for comparative books, novels by Ernst Junger "Storm of Steel" & Henri Barbusse "Under Fire" are praised, although I have not read either one. A new history of WWI is just out by Peter Englund, a Swedish historian, "The Beauty & the Sorrow"--this takes an international approach from various first-hand witness accounts that may be what you're looking for--I have not read it yet. Thanks for your response, and best wishes...(Spuds is my younger son's nickname, btw.)

Spud said...

Thank you very much for the suggestions and I shall look them out. Spud (sing.) was my Dad's nickname for me as a kid, as it happens. Apparently when he was doing National Service in the army he was for a time alongside an Indian with a very long and (to the other squaddies) unconquerable name, so he was known to all as "Spud". Given Winter's passage on nicknames, I wonder how many "Spuds" there were in the trenches.