World War I World War I was one of the most devastating wars in human history. The number of casualties was huge. In the battle of Verdun, for example, which began in February 1916 and lasted for five months, the French suffered 350,000 fatalities as they repelled the German assault on a strategically important fort. The Germans had 300,000 fatalities. In the battle of the Somme, which began in July 1916, the British army suffered over 57,418 casualties, one-third of whom were killed on the first day alone. By the time the battle petered out in November, the British had suffered about 400,000 dead and wounded men, the French nearly 200,000, and the Germans an estimated 500,000. For that price, the British and French allies had gained only a small amount of territory, no more than 125 square miles. Between October and November 1916, the battle for Verdun flared up again, and the French regained the forts of Douaumont and Vaux. This was the battle in the novel in which Common Law participated for fifty days and which he describes in this way:
Fifty eternities of terror, second by second, horror by horror, to retake that ratrap stinking of the piss, [sh—], and death of all those on both sides who'd jerked one another around without quite managing to finish it off.
There are many nonfiction accounts of the peculiar horrors of World War I. Alan Lloyd, in his book The War in the Trenches, writes of Verdun:
"We had never experienced its like," recalled a French sergeant. "Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. We crouched in shell holes, increasingly smothered by the mud from explosions. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell."
This is the background against which the twenty-eight French soldiers in the novel, including the five who are described in detail, decided to mutilate themselves in the early winter of 1916 rather than be exposed to this level of carnage.
Trench Warfare The battles of Verdun and Somme in 1916 were examples of trench warfare. The first trenches on what became known as the Western Front were built by the Germans in September 1914, only one month after the war began. The trenches were built so that the Germans could halt the advance of the British and French. The Allies, seeing they could not break through the German trenches, dug trenches of their own.
Because the Germans had built the first trenches, they were able to choose the most advantageous positions for them, generally on higher ground. The British and French had to build their trenches at a lower level, on land that in some cases was only a few feet above sea level. Water was usually found only two feet below the surface. This meant that building and maintaining a trench was a constant battle against water and mud.
There were three rows of trenches: frontline trenches, support trenches, and reserve trenches. There were also communication trenches, designed for the transportation of men and equipment. Frontline trenches were usually about seven-feet deep and six-feet wide. The front of the trench was known as the parapet, the top part of which would be packed with sandbags to absorb enemy fire. To enable troops to see over the trench, a ledge known as a fire-step was added.
Life in the trenches was hard. Not only was there the constant threat of being killed by enemy artillery...
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or poison gas, there was the daily annoyance of rats, who flourished in the unsanitary conditions. Many of these rats were large and showed no fear of humans. They were bold enough to try to take food from a sleeping man's pocket. Body lice were another problem and proved impossible to eradicate. Lice carried the disease known as trench fever, which afflicted many soldiers. The condition known as trench foot was another hazard. It was an infection caused by cold and damp conditions, when men had to stand in waterlogged trenches for hours at a time. If it was not treated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and require amputation of the affected appendage.
Nonlinear Narration and Poetic Style As befits a mystery novel, the plot does not unfold in a linear way. It jumps forward and backward in time, as the events of the weekend in which the prisoners were pushed over the trenches is retraced through the reminiscences and letters of a range of characters. The point of view remains that of Mathilde, and she acts as the unifying element and the fulcrum for the entire narrative, since it is through interviews with her, or letters addressed to her, that the truth of what happened unfolds gradually. The voice of the narrator is also heard occasionally, usually to deplore the stupidity of the war.
The style of the work is often poetic and somewhat wistful, as for example in the epitaph written by the Canadian patrol leader as he and others bury the bodies: "Here lie / five French soldiers, / who died with their shoes on, / chasing the wind, . . . where the roses fade, . . . a long time ago." The wistful, yearning tone can be seen again in the description of the painting on the back of the wooden sign from Bingo, showing a peaceful scene in which a British officer gazes into the distance where the sun is setting. It evokes the idyllic world of France that the war disrupted.
Through simple descriptions of nature, the novel also shows how some of that lost world can be recovered, as in the description of the site of the trench at Bingo, as it appeared several years after the war:
The huge, freshly mown field has a lush green hill for its horizon, a little stream flowing quietly beneath a wooden bridge, and two truncated elms with leafy lower branches, their trunks ringed by suckers.
The same idea is contained in the figure of speech used by That Man in which life is personified as a traveler that can carry many burdens on its back and still continue. The idea occurs again in the evocative chapter title "The Sunflowers at the End of the World." The end of the world is where That Man says he now lives. The significance of the phrase is that in a sense the war was the end of the world. Not only must it have seemed that way to the men in the trenches, it literally put an end to the European world that existed until the guns started firing in August 1914. The end of the world where That Man lives is also the beginning of a new world, symbolized by the presence of That Man's son, whom Mathilde meets before she meets That Man himself. It also sets the scene for the peaceful idyll in which Mathilde meets Manech again, in the French village of Noisy-sur-Ecole. Perhaps Mathilde and Manech are the sunflowers, ready to bloom once more now that the clouds of war have passed.
1914-1918: Trench warfare is largely immobile. It involves large armies fighting for months to make very small territorial gains.
Today: Trench warfare is a thing of the past, as are conventional wars in which large armies clash on battlefields. More common today are what are called asymmetrical conflicts, which involve large differences in military power between adversaries. Terrorist groups attacking larger powers such as the United States or Russia are examples of asymmetrical conflicts.
1914-1918: Britain and France are bitter enemies of Germany.
Today: Britain, France, and Germany are allies and members of the European Community.
1914-1918: Poison gas is used by all sides in the conflict. An estimated 91,198 soldiers die as a result of poison-gas attacks and another 1.2 million are hospitalized. The Russian Army, with 56,000 deaths, suffers the most.
Today: Since the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the use of poison gas has been banned. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a global treaty that bans chemical weapons. One hundred and thirty-five countries, including the United States, have signed the treaty.
Sources Billington, Rachel, “No Man’s Land,” in New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, p. 24.
Donougher, Christine, “A War without Victors,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 1994, p. 20.
Lloyd, Alan, The War in the Trenches, David McKay, 1976, p. 84.
Pedroncini, Guy, “The French Armies: Recuperation and Recovery,” in The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, edited by Brigadier Peter Young, Vol. 8, Marshall Cavendish, 1984, pp. 2342–47.
Review of A Very Long Engagement, in New Yorker, Vol. 69, No. 31, September 27, 1993, p. 105.
Review of A Very Long Engagement, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 23, June 7, 1993, p. 51.
Further Reading Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975. Fussell examines World War I and how it has been assimilated, remembered, and mythologized by later generations. Chapter 2 gives an excellent account of life in the trenches.
Horne, Alistair, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, St. Martin’s Press, 1963, reprint, Penguin, 1994. Originally written in the early 1960s, this remains the best account of the terrifying battle of Verdun, between the French and German armies. Over a period of ten months, there were a total of 1,250,000 casualties. Horne’s research includes personal interviews with survivors of the battle.
Kakutani, Michiko, “Seeking Fiancé’s Fate, and Finding Bigger Issues,” in New York Times, September 21, 1993, p. C17. In this review, Kakutani views the novel as a gripping philosophical thriller and a meditation on the emotional repercussions of war.
Sixsmith, Major-General E. K. G., “Morale and Discipline,” in The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, edited by Brigadier Peter Young, Vol. 8, Marshall Cavendish, 1984, pp. 2348–56. This is mainly a survey of discipline in the British army, which Sixsmith regards as generally excellent. He also discusses morale and discipline in the French, Russian, and German armies during World War I.