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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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