Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
The Wars was written by Canadian author Timothy Findley and published in 1977. It tells the story of nineteen-year-old Robert Ross who, following the death of his older sister Rowena in 1915, enlists to fight in the First World War. Robert is a quiet young man who cared deeply for his sister. He feels guilty about her death—she died after falling from her wheelchair—and he joins the army to escape that guilt.
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Following his training, Robert is made Second Lieutenant and is sent on the S.S. Massanabie to England. He meets a young man named Harris on the journey. Harris is in charge of looking after the horses but, when he becomes ill with pneumonia, Robert takes over the role. During a storm one of the horses breaks its leg and Robert has to shoot it. Having to perform this act is horrifying to Robert and signals the start of his loss of innocence.
He fired. A chair fell over in his mind. He closed his eyes and opened them.
Robert was also injured during that storm and when they arrive in England he and Harris are sent to the same hospital. The pair become even closer. When Harris dies Robert scatters his ashes in the River Thames.
Robert travels across Europe losing many of his men. Like he was with the death of his sister, Robert struggles with his guilt. The war is also having a devastating effect on Robert’s mother who is struggling with alcoholism. In June 1916 Robert travels back to Belgium. But, on the way, he is raped by four of his fellow soldiers. In Belgium, Robert sees the most savage conflict of the war so far. He asks Captain Leather if he can save the horses and mules who are set to be killed during combat. When he is refused, he and fellow soldier Devlin set the animals free anyway. Leather shoots Devlin and Robert kills Leather. Following this, a disillusioned Robert leaves the army, he drifts for days and seeing a train full of horses sets them free. As he escapes with the horses he is forced to shoot a soldier who tries to stop him from going through a wooded area. He is then pursued by a Major Mickle who asks Robert to surrender. When Robert replies with gunfire Mickle orders his men to set fire to the barn where Robert is hiding with the horses. The horses all die and, badly burned, Robert is sent to St Aubyn’s convalescent hospital. Robert remains at the hospital until his death in 1922 aged twenty-five. Viewed as a traitor by the rest of his family, his father is the only one to attend his funeral.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
The main action of this powerful war novel—Robert Ross’s initiation into adulthood through confrontation with death, violence, love, and sexuality—is preceded by a brilliantly constructed frame which engages the reader’s interest and establishes the objectivity and credibility of the first-person narrator, who is either a historian or a biographer. The frame is also thematically linked to the main plot as another aspect of the difficulty of the search for truth about any man at any time. The first section of part 1, “Prologue,” presents a remarkably memorable image of Ross at the devastated front lines, about to commit the error of benevolence against which the preceding epigraph warns. This scene is repeated verbatim in part 5, section 11; only then will the reader grasp the motives, consequences, and meanings of the event.
This structure gives the novel a quality of resonance and reverberation, for to understand the scene fully is to understand one major theme of the novel. The scene also secures the reader’s interest in Ross and his sympathy for the narrator’s search for the truth about this man among the archives of letters, documents, and photographs of the scholar-athlete and his loving, wealthy family, of Ross during basic training, and one of him in flames astride a black horse, so vividly described that it burns itself into the reader’s mind. Then the narrator inserts part of a transcript of an interview with the nurse who cared for Ross after the flames; she will also return at the conclusion of the novel to illuminate her comments here. Then the novel jumps back to Ross, on his way to join the Canadian forces to fight the war to end all wars, and a quick flashback to the events that lead to his decision.
From that point until the end, apart from the narrator’s remarks concerning the nurse and Lady Juliet d’Orsey’s diaries, the action is relatively conventional and sequential in order, covering primarily the action of one year, 1915-1916, when Ross was nineteen and twenty. The narrator’s concern for and repetition of precise and sharp details, facts, and dates and his inclusion of a few historically true individuals are absolutely convincing. This framework is fascinating, but, more important, it is essential in establishing and keeping the serious realistic tone of a story centered on a seemingly ordinary youth who commits a bizarre, almost unbelievable act which is labeled by some as insane, by others as treasonous. It is the narrator’s and reader’s task to understand the act in order to understand this man and, thereby, all the men who have ever fought in the wars.
Robert Ross, at nineteen, does not understand how to deal with death, violence, or women. When his sister, Rowena, dies and his mother orders the death of her pet rabbits, Ross wishes to escape his feelings of being trapped and guilty. He decides to enlist to fight in the war to save civilization and leaves home on Good Friday, after the funeral. He hopes to develop the inner resources needed to achieve his dreams of glory as a war hero. His actions, however, always show his compassion for others, both animals and men. After nine months’ training, his company sails for Europe, and he begins to learn that senior officers care little about the condition of their men or animals. Shortly after arriving in England, Harris, Ross’s closest friend, dies of pneumonia, leaving Ross to dispose of his ashes. He is assisted in this task by a heroic veteran from Canada and his constant companion, Lady Barbara d’Orsey.
At the French front, Ross is faced with more violent forms of death as he alternates between ammunition convoy duty and trench mortar duty. Caught in the open because of a stupid order by an absent superior officer, Ross helps his few men survive a gas attack, although his knees are severely wounded. Finally, Ross kills his first enemy soldier, but feels grief, not glory. Then come the violence and deaths of the fire storms caused by the German introduction of flamethrowers into the battles. By this time, one of Ross’s men is insane and one has committed suicide; only four are left alive. It is little more than a month since they landed in France.
During Ross’s leave in the springtime green of rural England, he learns of love and meaningful sexuality from Lady Barbara. The two lovers spend most of their time together at St. Aubyn’s, the family’s country estate, most of which Barbara’s mother has turned into a recuperation hospital. Juliet, Barbara’s twelve-year-old sister, also loves Ross but cannot understand the strain of cruelty in his relationship with Barbara. Ross, for the first time, shows spurts of uncalled-for violence but is under control because of the hope for sanity and the future that love has given him. He leaves to rejoin his company after an almost idyllic two months.
Ross’s exhausting circular journey back to the front foreshadows the absolute chaos and increased violence of the fighting by late May of 1916. Before he can rejoin his company, he is raped by a group of Canadian soldiers in a blacked-out changing room at the baths; his own violent streak is aroused. Then, for six days, without sleep, he escorts convoys continually under airplane strafing. German artillery shelling of the company positions becomes so accurate that almost everything is in flames.
The climax of the novel comes when one of Ross’s last men is shot by a senior officer for trying to help Ross save the company horses from being burned alive; Ross, in anger at the useless death, shoots the officer just as a massive shell destroys everyone and everything around them. The sole survivor, Ross wanders, dazed, hurt, and isolated, until he finds a horse, a dog, and a deserted freight train containing more than one hundred horses. He liberates the horses and drives them to what turns out to be their death. When the barn to which Ross has led them burns, Ross and the horses are caught in a flaming inferno. Ross, burned severely all over, unable to speak or move, is taken first to a field hospital under guard for three months. In August, 1916, he is returned to England only four months after he left; he arrives again at St. Aubyn’s, this time as a terminal convalescent. Barbara sees him only once, but Juliet, like her ghostly ancestress, nurses him personally until his death in 1922 at age twenty-five. Both Ross and Juliet have defined their compassionate humanity by their actions; both have become what they admired.