A few days ago I complained that C.S. Forster had chosen to ignore the military achievements of the last hundred days of the War when he write The General, his attack on hidebound military incompetence.
In Randall and the River of Time, written fourteen years later, he made up for this by giving a very gripping account of the War’s last campaign.
Lieutenant Randall, the book’s rather lacklustre hero, was on leave in London when the German offensive of March 1918 broke through the British lines, destroying his battalion (‘most of [the] survivors were men who at the end of the war were found in German hospitals, limbless, or eyeless, or mad.’)
returning before his leave is officially over, he is attached to another battalion for ‘desperate months of battle; of wild rearguard actions’ leading ‘exhausted men coaxed and cajoled or forced into making one more effort, and one more effort after that.’
The German offensives peter out, and Randall is unenthusiastic about the planned counter-offensive:
Randall had been in too many offensives not to be sceptical about them; victory (and not just the occupation of a few yards of blood-soaked trench) was also something too good to appear possible.
He remains dubious:
even though while marching up yesterday they had passed hundreds of tanks hidden by the roadside, even though aeroplanes in scores were patrolling overhead, even though at the battalion conference a visiting staff officer had talked with supreme confidence about the results the new tactics were about to bring.
Since this is a novel about World War One, one half expects events and hindsight to render that confidence grimly ironic – but no. There is very hard fighting and chance plays its part, but his battalion demolishes the German rearguard and pushes forward, though ‘even with all the signs of military victory round him, Randall could not believe in victory; he had been disillusioned too often.’
Forester shows the British (plus ‘an American army deeply committed to action – not even the most incredulous British soldier could doubt that now) winning the war. In this novel one certainly can’t complain of any injustice to the men of 1918, whose efforts he had glossed over in the earlier book
These war scenes are the strongest in what is rather an odd novel, which takes Randall through the War and an over-hasty marriage into melodrama and an Old Bailey trial.. There is a constant emphasis on events that happen by chance, which dramatically determine the course of a man’s life. Turning left or right in a trench means the difference between life and death; a chance encounter on a bus leads to an intense relationship; not daring to kiss a girl sends the hero away to where he meets the businessman who will make his fortune; going home unexpectedly one day leads to horror and tragedy.
There are the big flowing events of History, like the War, and there are these small chance occurrences. Forester wants to say something about humans and Fate, I suppose, but it doesn’t really come off. What is more, it weakens the novel. If Randall is merely the pawn of chance, he is not going to be a very interesting hero. Hornblower and General Curzon were both buffeted by events, but took action against them, mostly successfully in Hornblower’s case, disastrously in Curzon’s. Randall, though, is mostly passive, which makes him a dull hero. His success as an inventor comes by chance; his relationship with his wife is determined by what he thinks he ought to do; he is an annoying character because he cannot see truths about his wife that are blindingly obvious to the reader (when Forester makes her faults far too explicit).
I gather that Forester originally intended to make this the first volume of a trilogy; he was probably wise not to continue with the plan.
That being said, the book has Forester’s usual readability, and those 1918 battle scenes are very well done indeed.
Forester himself did not fight in the War. He explained later that when he went for his medical he was inexplicably rejected. Or that was one story he told; on other occasions he claimed to have fought, apparently. He was a man who took the practice of creating fictions into his real life as well as his literary one.
For someone who did not fight, his accounts of Army life and battle seem very well-researched. Other non-combatants of that generation who write about the war tend to fall into cliché or violent generalities (think Noel Coward or Sean O’Casey). Forester has done his homework.
The novel is not free from hyperbole however. There is one remarkable chapter where Randall is heading for the Third battle of Ypres, and Forester editorialises about the horror of the War:
Heretics had been tortured by the Inquisition; red men had devised methods of making their captives scream in agony. In the years to come the Nazis would try to outdo these achievements in the cruelties of their prison camps. A furious and desperate war was to open twenty-one years after the close of its predecessor, with slaughter and heroism and misery. But at no time in the history of misery was there such suffering as a purely fortuitous combination of circumstances brought to a million human beings in 1917. The Marquis de Sade might dream of tortures but not his insane imagination could compass the torments which chance dealt out to the devoted infantry of the nations at war. [T]he freezing dungeons of the Inquisition, the iron cages of Louis XI, were not to be compared to the wet and the cold and the slime of the water-logged trenches in Flanders, where men stood night and day knee-deep in icy mud, or took their rest, head bowed, sitting on a firing-step hardly more solid [….] the degradation of Buchenwald was not as deep as the degradation of the brutish filth of the Salient.
He’s writing about the battle that his non-combatant status meant he missed out on. Over-statement brought on by survivor guilt?