Company K by William March

company k

Company K (1934) is a strange novel. At the recent Aberdeen conference, Steven Trout made strong claims for it, and with reason. It is wide-ranging, hard-hitting and original. Its form is a succession of brief (sometimes under a page) fragments, each relating a war experience of a different member of an American company of Marines. These combine to make a collage picture of the war and its aftermath.
The voices vary in dialect and attitude, but the dominant tone is that of the wise-guy, unillusioned, who sees through war. This effect is enhanced by the neat structure of many of the fragments, which usually work to a sharp change of tone, or to a punchline. Influences mentioned for Company K include Hemingway, Dos Passos and Remarque, but I think the author from whom March has learnt most is O. Henry, master of the sharp ironic twist.
Steven Trout’s talk explained the book’s origins in an earlier short version, published as a magazine story, in which nine characters each gave his own version of a crucial incident, when a sadistic officer ordered the men under his command to commit a war crime by killing prisoners. The different versions added up to a full picture of the incident, without authorial commentary.
The success of this story led March to develop it, adding over a hundred more testimonies to different wartime and post-war incidents, and producing the novel as we now have it.
I have not read the original short version, but can see the it working very well. The incident described is an anomaly, an exception, and short form is a good way of dealing with the anomalous. Presumably this story showed how war could give power to the worst of men.
In the fuller version, that incident is still at the centre. It takes up more space, and is dealt with in more detail, than any other event in the novel. And since the novel has set itself up as the record of typical Marine experience, I think the incident unbalances it.
March himself may have felt this as a possibility. In the first section, a fictional author, Private Joseph Delaney, is just about to have a book exactly like this published, and his wife urges him: ‘I’d take out the part about shooting prisoners.’ when he asks her why, she explains:

Because it is cruel and unjust to shoot men in cold blood. It may have been done a few times, I’m not denying that, but it isn’t typical. It couldn’t have happened often.

He asks if a depiction of an air raid would be better. She thinks yes, because it is more typical. He changes the subject to that of the battlefields, now overgrown:

To me it has always seemed that God is so sickened with men, and their unending cruelty to each other, that he covers the places where they have been as quickly as possible.

Matlock ordering the prisoners to be shot is the crucial example of this cruelty, so it must stay in the book, it is implied.
Yes, point taken, but I think the episode unbalances the book. Matlock is an unbalanced man, acting through personal sadism. I feel that putting him at the centre of the novel diminishes it, and lets the great impersonal cruelties of the war off the hook, as it were.
Shooting of prisoners happened (and probably happens in every war). In that insufficiently known novel Way of Revelation (1921), Wilfrid Ewart shows Eric, the officer who, unlike Adrian, the book’s hero, totally identifies with the role of soldier. The pair of them come across two German prisoners ‘being prodded along a lonely section of trench by the bayonets of a sergeant and three soldiers, accompanied by kicks and curses.’ To Adrian these enemies are ‘as much the victims of the holocaust of war as himself or their captors’ but Eric gives the men permission to do what they like with their prisoners. ‘Passing back that way half-an-hour later, they found the Germans lying dead in the trench.’ Eric has seen the matter purely from a military perspective (‘They’re no use to us.’) and has none of Adrian’s civilian compassion.
In Ewart’s book the episode of shooting prisoners is not a matter of an individual’s sadism; it is a matter of the culture of the military. Adrian is disconcerted by how far his friend has moved away from civilian standards. Shooting prisoners in this book is therefore a symptom of a deep problem of the war, not just a matter of individual psychology.
Despite these reservations, Company K is a remarkable book. I’m arguing with it here because it’s worth arguing with..

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4 Comments

  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    When I read that in “Way of Revelation” I instantly thought of the BBC 3-part film of “Dunkirk”. Jimmy Langley, too wounded to evacuate, is left to the Germans; he mentions the apparently widely-known fact that in the Great War the Guards never took prisoners, and expects the same treatment himself. (They fix him up instead.)
    You’d think it would be counterproductive to discourage the enemy to surrender easily. The only excuse I’ve seen that makes sense is the reputation of Germans to surrender and then either fire when the captors’ guard is down, or pick up weapons from the battlefield and shoot the guard taking them back.

    • Posted April 22, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      The official line was always that prisoners would be treated well, to encourage desertion or surrender. The ‘Battle of the Somme’ film makes much of this. There is, for example, a sequence where a Tommy offers a prisoner a cigarette. Th trouble is, his body language betrays that this was something he was not entirely comfortable doing.
      Certain units, such as the Scots Guards, sometimes boasted of ‘never taking prisoners’. (see Stephen Graham’s ‘A private in the Guards’) I get the impression that killing prisoners was most likely in cases where the Germans had, in the soldiers’ estimation, done something to deserve it, like abusing a flag of truce, or when men wanted to get revenge for the killing of a comrade.

    • Alan Allport
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      A soldier wishing to surrender on the Western Front in both world wars faced a dilemma. On the one hand, he ran a real risk of being killed immediately upon capture. On the other hand, so long as he survived this initial encounter with the enemy, his chances of survival increased exponentially, and he was of course now removed from the danger of the battlefield.

      In general, prisoner killing took place ‘in hot blood’ by front-line troops. Once the prisoner was officially received and cataloged by the enemy army as a POW, and handed over to rear-echelon troops to be guarded and taken to a detention camp, he was safe.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted May 5, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    George, “Company K” was required reading long ago when I taught a university survey course in the U.S. on war literature.

    March may have got the idea of sequential first-person narrators from Browning’s “The Ring and the Book,” or he may have hit upon it on his own. In any case, it was one of the book’s most distinctive features.

    It’s impossible to say how much of “Company K” is based on first-hand experience and how much of it is simply imagined. A few of the narrations border on satire or the surreal. March departs from naturalism to demonstrate how inescapable subjectivity really is.

    Mrs. Delaney’s judgment that an air raid is less cruel than shooting prisoners – perhaps because more “typical” – is, in a word, rich: just one of March’s many ironies. Much of Delaney’s purpose in his novel-within-a-novel is to emphasize, with quiet resignation, that war is nothing like what the detached civilian may think it is, and even its eyewitnesses readily consign its “lessons” to oblivion.

    The only picture of war that Delaney’s spinning wheel of fortune can reveal is a blur of countless disconnected impressions and memories.

    One of the best English-language novels of the war.


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