Shooting Prisoners

When Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed was published in 1930 it aroused much criticism in Canada, partly because of the hero’s relationship with a prostitute, which I mentioned yesterday. One critic deplored the representation of the Canadian soldier as

a coarse-minded, profane creature, seeking only the solace of loose women or the courage of strong liquor [….] On the whole, such literature, offered to our avid youth, is an irrevocable insult to those gallant men who lie in French and Belgian graves.

Even more sensitive was the issue of Canadian soldiers commiting a war crime by shooting prisoners.
In Harrison’s novel, the men get a pep-talk before battle:

Our Colonel speaks to us. We like him. He has risen from the ranks.
‘I’m not saying for you not to take prisoners. That’s against international rules. All that I’m saying is that if you take any, we’ll have to feed ’em out of our rations…’
Some of us laugh at this. Most of us are silent, however.

Shooting of prisoners had been an issue in Wilfrid Ewart’s novel Way of Salvation (1921) and Stephen Graham’s memoir A Private in the Guards (1919). Graham’s book especially is all about the paradox that a noble war can only be won by brutality. A crack unit like the Scots Guards needs to brutalise its men through tough training until ‘taking no prisoners’ becomes the sort of thing in which a man might take pride. The Canadians had a similar reputation for tough soldiering, and Robert Graves caused offence by claiming in Goodbye to All That that they sometimes shot prisoners.
Harrison’s novel is an intentionally dysphemistic account of war. Dedicated ‘To the bewildered youths, British, Australian, Canadian and German who were killed in that wood a few miles outside of Amiens on August 8th, 1918.’, it is one of those books that insists on the war’s nastiness. The trouble was that in the intervening decade the public memory of the dead soldiers had gone in the opposite direction, and many wanted to remember fallen husbands, relatives and friends as not just heroes but as saints. Between Harrison’s bitter memories and the sanctified ones of the bereaved there was no common ground.
Which is the ‘truth about the War’? You choose. Some Canadian soldiers shot their prisoners. Many did not. A story-teller must be selective, and memories are selective, too. What a particular writer remembers will usually tell us as much about him as about the events that impel him into print.
There’s an interesting online paper by Jonathan F. Vance on the formulation of historical consciousness of the War in Canada. From this I get the impression that the reaction in the Dominions against the disillusioned war books of the late twenties and early thirties went further than that in Britain. Is this because the War was so integral to the national myth of the young countries? In New Zealand, film versions of All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey’s End were banned, apparently.


  1. Posted November 22, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to your post and c/o Wikipedia along the way, George, I now know what ‘dysphemistic’ means …

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  1. […] confronted by the fact that the Canadian forces became renowned, or perhaps notorious, for their ruthless efficiency during the First World War. It is interesting to speculate on how L.M. Montgomery, who in […]

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