A Very Long Engagement

by Sebastien Japrisot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925

The reader of A Very Long Engagement needs to stay alert. Japrisot is a master at veiling the truth at the same time he half-reveals it. He readily drops physical clues such as a pair of German boots, a button from a British uniform, a unique postage stamp, or a red glove. He offers hints and offhand remarks that only reveal their significance later in the story; he creates subtle differences in the way various people relate the story about the events of that fateful weekend on the Western Front. Also, like any good mystery writer, Japrisot plants red herrings, like the hints that the men who survived, if anyone survived, might have been Common Law or the Eskimo. And he piles up the evidence that Manech really is dead, fooling the reader all the time (but not Mathilde) and only revealing the truth at the end.

But perhaps what remains most vividly in the reader's mind is not the skillfully plotted mystery, or the moving love affair between Manech and Mathilde, but the devastation of war. This is a mystery and a detective story set against the background of "the war to end all wars," as World War I was known at the time.

A Very Long Engagement presents World War I as it was for the soldier at the front. In this aspect of the novel too, Japrisot uses his skills as a mystery writer. At various points in the novel, characters express disbelief that the French army could really have done something so callous as to toss their own men over the trenches to serve as shooting practice for the enemy. The reader wonders whether Japrisot invented the incident for the sake of telling a good story. This is, after all, a work of fiction. But near the end of the novel, the author very deliberately inserts a passage from the memoirs of General (later Field Marshall) Fayolle, a World War I commander. The memoirs were published in 1965 and include a record of a meeting of French generals in January 1915, during which General Pétain, later to become the French hero of Verdun, ordered that twenty-five French soldiers who had shot themselves in the hand should be bound and thrown over the trenches closest to the enemy. It is clear from Fayolle's comment about Pétain that he disagreed with the decision: "Character, energy! Where does character end and ferocious savagery begin!"

This insertion of a passage from a nonfiction memoir is almost as incongruous in a novel as a footnote might be; like a scholar documenting his sources, Japrisot provides the title, author, publisher, date of publication, and page number of his quoted material. Incongruous or not, the information hits home with the force of a barrage of artillery. The truth, unfortunately, is that acts of self-mutilation in order to avoid or terminate war service were not uncommon during World War I. Soldiers were exposed to a kind of warfare more hideous and terrifying in its squalor, deprivation, and danger than (many would agree) any country has a right to ask its young men to endure. And those who took drastic measures to avoid such horrifying conditions were punished.

In the British army, many soldiers hoped they would be wounded in battle, since this would be the equivalent of receiving a ticket to be sent home. Some soldiers took the logic of this further and inflicted wounds on themselves. This was an offense punishable by death. A total of 3,894 men in the British army were convicted of self-inflicted wounds. None were in fact executed, but all served periods in prison.

Other frontline soldiers committed suicide rather than endure the hell of the trenches. They would place the muzzle of their rifle to their head and squeeze the trigger with their big toe. There were also recorded instances when men driven beyond endurance would put their heads above the parapet and wait until they were shot by an enemy sniper. This is a variation of what Manech does in the novel, when he holds up his right hand above the parapet, clutching a lighted cigarette to guide the German sniper to the target. Manech hopes this will get him out of the trenches and sent home as an invalid.

Executions in the British army were carried out, if not for self-inflicted wounds then for other offenses, including desertion, being asleep or drunk on post, striking a superior officer, abandoning a position, and cowardice. There were 304 such executions in the British army during World War I; the vast majority were for offenses committed in the trenches at the Western Front. The executions were carried out by firing squads. It is clear from later statements of the soldiers who were ordered to shoot their own comrades that the executions aroused as much dislike and distaste as is shown by some of the French soldiers in the novel regarding the five men tossed over the trenches. In one case, a British soldier who faced a firing squad was injured by only one bullet that hit him in the side. Everyone in the nine-man firing squad was deliberately firing wide, so that they would not have the man's death on their conscience. (The poor victim was eventually dispatched with a bullet to the temple fired by the officer in charge.) Just as in the novel, such men were officially listed as killed in action.

Another common punishment for disobeying orders in the British army was called Field Punishment Number One. Among other measures, such as forfeiting pay and other perks, this punishment called for the offender to be attached to a fixed object for up to two hours a day and for a period up to twenty-one days. According to some reports, these men were sometimes placed within range of enemy shell-fire (although this was against official regulations). Many at the time regarded this aspect of Field Punishment Number One as a barbaric punishment.

The French army also had its problems with discipline. As Guy Pedroncini states in his article, "The French Armies: Recuperation and Recovery," about the time A Very Long Engagement takes place, in early 1917, there was much discontent in the ranks because of factors such as reductions in leave time, inadequate food at the front, and inadequate rest facilities at the rear of the front. Drunkenness, insubordination, and desertions rose during the year, culminating in a mutiny of about 40,000 French soldiers in June. They refused to continue the kind of suicidal assaults on German lines that had produced large casualties and no results. The response of the French commanders was relatively mild. Five hundred and fifty-four men were sentenced to death, but only seven immediate executions took place. About half of the mutineers brought to court were granted extenuating circumstances, and one in eight was reprieved. Curiously, General Pétain, who had become the commander-in-chief of the French army, was in favor of leniency. "They are our soldiers," he reportedly said. This was the same Pétain who in 1915 had ordered the prisoners guilty of self-mutilation tossed over the trenches.

In most cases of indiscipline in the British and French armies, the problems were caused or exacerbated by the stresses of trench warfare. It is staggering for a modern reader to realize the extent of the system of trenches that crisscrossed Belgium and France during World War I. There were more than 12,000 miles of Allied trenches, and about the same number of German ones. It was almost possible to walk from Belgium to Switzerland entirely in trenches.

As far as living conditions were concerned, in addition to the ubiquitous rats, lice, and mud, there was the danger of being killed not only by the enemy but by your own side."
enness, insubordination, and desertions rose during the year, culminating in a mutiny of about 40,000 French soldiers in June. They refused to continue the kind of suicidal assaults on German lines that had produced large casualties and no results. The response of the French commanders was relatively mild. Five hundred and fifty-four men were sentenced to death, but only seven immediate executions took place. About half of the mutineers brought to court were granted extenuating circumstances, and one in eight was reprieved. Curiously, General Pétain, who had become the commander-in-chief of the French army, was in favor of leniency. "They are our soldiers," he reportedly said. This was the same Pétain who in 1915 had ordered the prisoners guilty of self-mutilation tossed over the trenches.

In most cases of indiscipline in the British and French armies, the problems were caused or exacerbated by the stresses of trench warfare. It is staggering for a modern reader to realize the extent of the system of trenches that crisscrossed Belgium and France during World War I. There were more than 12,000 miles of Allied trenches, and about the same number of German ones. It was almost possible to walk from Belgium to Switzerland entirely in trenches.

As far as living conditions were concerned, in addition to the ubiquitous rats, lice, and mud, there was the danger of being killed not only by the enemy but by one's own side. The passage in the novel where this is mentioned (Captain Favourier tells Esperanza about it) is not fiction. An estimated 75,000 British soldiers in the war were killed by British shells that had been intended for the Germans. The German and French armies also suffered casualties in this way.

One of the problems was that opposing trenches were very close together. In A Very Long Engagement, the trench known as Bingo Crépuscule is at its closest point only 120 meters (130 yards) from the German trench, and 150 meters (164 yards) at the farthest. The average distance in most sectors was about 230 meters (250 yards). The narrowest gap was at a place called Zonnebeke, where only 6 meters (7 yards) separated British and German soldiers.

The area between the trenches, known as no-man's-land, was full of hazards. In front of the trenches was barbed wire that was sometimes thirty meters deep. Elsewhere in no-man's-land there would be shell holes and craters that made any advance difficult. Ironically, it is these difficult conditions that give the five French prisoners in the novel their best chance of survival. In front of Bingo, according to Esperanza, there were plenty of shell craters that gave the men the possibility of finding at least temporary shelter.

It was the stresses of trench warfare, including sleep deprivation combined with the trauma of constantly being under fire, that was responsible for the thousands of cases of shell-shock. At first, the British authorities did not recognize the condition as genuine, which meant that some of the men who suffered from it were executed for cowardice or desertion. Today, the condition is sometimes known by the more general term, battlefield exhaustion. Symptoms in World War I ranged from the milder cases of giddiness and headaches to complete mental breakdown. In the novel, Manech is a victim of shell-shock after a shell explodes near him and he is covered with the blood and flesh of another soldier. It is this experience that costs him his sanity. Given the unmitigated horror of trench warfare, the wonder is not that men such as Manech went insane but that more men did not do so. In the face of such madness, madness might seem like a logical response.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Very Long Engagement , in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.

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