Adrian Garrard, the young British officer who narrates this grim tale, describes in vivid detail the now-familiar horrors of mud and slime, disease, mustard gas, bodies sawn in half by machine-gun fire, and the “lice game” (whoever picks off the greatest number of lice off the other’s clothing is the winner). This fairly conventional war story takes an unexpected turn when Garrard, wounded on the battlefield and lying in a stupor in “no man’s land,” is approached by several howling, blackened creatures who at first appear to be animals. When they start to pillage the corpses for equipment and food Garrard realizes they are men, or rather men transformed into savage beasts. When the shelling shortly resumes, they scurry into craters and disappear.
Reports and rumors of these deserters transformed into bestial troglodytes continue to circulate. When the war is over a joint commission of Allies and Germans investigates the matter, eventually discovering the tunnels from the craters leading to the lair of several dozen men/beasts. The final confrontation between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” men is exciting and bloody, with much suspense and even a portion of dry British wit.
There is a certain plausibility about the notion of deserters seeking refuge in such caves and craters that makes the narrative all the more engrossing and terrible. Unfortunately, having won the reader’s assent to this initial premise, the story becomes too far-fetched with the introduction of a character who is supposed to be a young Adolf Hitler. Hitler was indeed a corporal in World War I; in this story, Garrard has the opportunity to kill him but does not. Later, when World War II commences and Hitler comes to power, Garrard’s guilt and remorse over not killing Hitler when he had the chance nearly ruins his marriage, and so on. All this is more than a little preposterous and tends to undermine the validity of the first part of the book.
Still, this in an engrossing novel. The author, a former British Naval officer in World War II and now a playwright and film director, skillfully evokes the savagery of the battlefield, and the characters are especially well drawn.