Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
On a Monday in May, 1918, a most unusual event takes place on a battlefield in France. French and German troops face one another after four years of trench warfare. At dawn, the regiment under the command of General Gragnon refuses to attack. Another unbelievable event occurs when the Germans, who are expected to take advantage of the mutiny, do not move either. At noon, the whole sector of the front stops firing and soon the rest of the front comes to a standstill. Division Commander Gragnon requests execution of all three thousand mutineers; he also demands his own arrest.
On Wednesday, the trucks carrying the mutinous regiment arrive at headquarters in Chaulnesmont, where the dishonor brought on the town arouses the people to noisy demonstration. Relatives and friends of the mutineers know that a corporal and his squad of twelve, moving in a mysterious way behind the lines, succeeded in spreading their ideas about peace on earth among the troops. Four of the thirteen men are not Frenchmen by birth; among those only the Corporal speaks French, and he is the object of the crowd’s fury.
This situation creates uncertainty among the Allied generals because a war ended by mutiny is not reconcilable with military principles. To clarify the confusion, a conference takes place to which a German general is invited, and an agreement is reached for continuation of the war. To young Flight Officer David Levine, the unsuspected pause in war means tragedy. Determined to find glory in battle but realizing that he might miss his opportunity, he commits suicide. To another soldier, the Runner, the truce at the front is a welcome sign. A former officer, he rejected submissive principles and abuse of authority by superiors, and he was returned to the ranks. Having heard about the Corporal from the Reverend Tobe Sutterfield, an American black preacher who arrived under unexplainable circumstances in France, the Runner tries to show once again the power of the Corporal’s ideas. He forces a sentry, who profiteered by collecting fees for life insurance among the soldiers, to leave the trenches and join a British battalion in a peaceful walk toward the German line. When they show their empty hands, the Germans also come unarmed to meet the French. A sudden artillery barrage by French and German guns kills the sentry and cripples the Runner.
The man to decide the fate of the mutineers is the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies, an aged French Marshal. The orphaned son of a prominent family, he attended the French military school, St. Cyr. There his unselfish attitude combined with his devotion to studies made him an outstanding and beloved student. Especially devoted to him is the man who is now his Quartermaster General. After leaving school, the Marshal was stationed in the Sahara, where he incurred blood guilt by sacrificing a brutal legionnaire to tribal justice. Later, he spent several years in a Tibetan monastery. In the Middle East, he met a married woman with two daughters. The affair resulted in the birth of a son in a stable at Christmas. The mother died in childbirth, and Marthe, one of the daughters, cared for the boy. When World War I broke out, the Marshal became the Allied commander and the hope of France.
The mutinous troops are kept in a former factory building while awaiting trial. The Marshal, not surprised by the court proceedings, seems to anticipate all answers. Marthe and Marya, the Corporal’s half sisters, and his wife arrive in Chaulnesmont and, in an interview with the Marshal, reveal that the Corporal is his son. Marthe married a French farmer, Dumont, and the boy grew up on her farm. Soon after the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the army and received a medal for bravery in action. He married a former prostitute from Marseilles. Again, the old Marshal is not surprised and seems to know every detail.
On Thursday, a meal is served to the squad during which it becomes known that soldier Polchek betrayed the Corporal. Another soldier, Pierre Bouc, denies the Corporal three times. After the meal, the Corporal is called away to meet the Marshal. On a hill overlooking the town, the Marshal tries to explain the futility of his son’s martyrdom. When he promises a secret ocean passage to escape the death penalty, the Corporal refuses the offer. Later the Marshal makes a last attempt to influence his son with the help of an army priest. Recognizing his own unworthiness before the humble Corporal, the priest commits suicide. On the same evening, General Gragnon is executed by an American soldier named Buchwald.
On Friday, the Corporal is tied to a post between two criminals. Shot, he falls into a coil of barbed wire that lacerates his head. The Corporal’s body and his medal are buried on the Dumont farm near St. Mihiel. After the burial, a sudden artillery barrage plows the earth, leaving no trace of the Corporal’s grave.
After the war, a unit is sent to reclaim a body to be placed in the Unknown Soldier’s tomb under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. As a reward, they are promised brandy. Near Verdun, they obtain the body and then drink the brandy. While they are guarding the coffin, an old woman approaches. Having lost her mind because her son did not return from the war, she sold her farm in order to search for him. Knowing about the mission of the soldiers, she wants to look at the body. Convinced that the dead soldier is her son, she offers all her money for the corpse; the soldiers accept and buy more brandy with the money. They secure another body from a field adjoining the Dumont farm. Thus, the body of the Corporal reaches Paris. Four years later, the Runner visits the Dumont farm and picks up the medal.
Six years later, the Marshal’s body is carried to the Arc de Triomphe, with dignitaries following the coffin on foot to pay their respects to the dead leader. As soon as the eulogy starts, a cripple makes his way through the crowd. It is the Runner, who throws the Corporal’s medal at the caisson before an angry mob closes in and attacks him. Rescued by the police, he is dragged into a side street, where a few curious onlookers gather around the injured cripple. While he lies in the gutter, a man resembling the old Quartermaster General steps forward to comfort the Runner, who declares that he will never die.