“Generals Die in Bed”


Many American authors discuss the idea of war and its consequences, such as hunger, malice, and numerous people’s deaths. Among the themes they discuss the most are World War II, the Vietnam War, and the military campaigns in the Middle East. However, the topic of World War I may serve as the beginning of the discussion of large international conflicts. Charles Yale Harrison, a Canadian writer, not only devoted time to writing a novel about this event but also participated in combat.

This paper analyzes the causes that made Harrison write a novel “Generals Die in Bed” and discusses its central messages. Being the participant of numerous life-threatening events during World War I, Charles Yale Harrison was greatly impressed by useless deaths of his comrades-in-arms and other horrors of war. As a result, he decided to share his experience, depict horrible warfare realities, and claim that those who initiate the war and admire it never serve, while common soldiers who realize the uselessness of war have to fight for the interests of generals.

- +

Why did Charles Yale Harrison Write “Generals Die in Bed”?

As a soldier who was in action during World War I, Charles Yale Harrison was impressed by the horrors of war, which is why he decided to share his experience with others. However, his experience has nothing similar with the admiration of events. On the contrary, the author focuses on those aspects that demonstrate the uselessness of war and expresses his disgust towards it. An interesting feature of this particular novel is that Harrison involves the discussion of the frontline realities almost immediately after the short introduction. However, first, he describes recruits, who are young skinny people that were children not long ago before the recruitment. They feel nervous because of the fear of the unknown and try to ease their tension by joking and singing songs. However, only later that they would realize the sense of the words they sing,

“I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,
The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar,
I don’t want to go up the line any more.
Take me over the sea, where Heinie he can’t get at me;
Oh, my, I’m too young to die,
I want to go home”.

Furthermore, the author depicts the realities of being in the trenches where soldiers had to live, hiding from shelling and suffering from lice. They fear the sounds of “minenwerfer”, mine-throwing mortars, and almost scratch their skin from the bodies because of the bites of pests. Initially, soldiers did not even consider the Germans as their enemies, giving this role to “the lice, some of our officers, and Death”. Nevertheless, despite the fact that they lived worse than animals, the real horrors of the war awaited them in the future.

Several events in the novel point to the reasons that made Charles Yale Harrison write a novel and tell people about the war. First, it is the first eye-to-eye battle with a young German soldier in a German trench during one of the raids. Unlike other conflicts, where bullets and shells killed soldiers, creating an image of a hidden death, in this event, the protagonist had to kill his enemy with a bayonet. As a result, he heard the screams of the dying soldier and watched his eyes as he died. However, later, it turned out that there were the dead soldier’s brothers. Thus, the author depicted that all soldiers are people, but at war, they are caught by the circumstances of life and have to struggle for survival. Similarly, observing the deaths of his fellow comrades, the protagonist wondered about the purpose of war. These reflective thoughts of the lonely soldier lying in the mud, surrounded by his dead fellows, while the generals and the civilians are not in combat, are the central messages of the novel.

What are the Central Messages of the Novel?

The central messages of “Generals Die in Bed” form a general idea that any war is a senseless act of killing people initiated by the ones who do not fight themselves. The novel discusses the tragedy of soldiers who have to live in poor conditions in order to survive and kill enemies. Moreover, the whole idea of the enemy is expressed during the protagonist’s dialogue with a French courtesan, to whom he mentions that he committed a murder. Her initial reaction is horror, which turns into a smile when she learns that he killed a German soldier. The young woman replies, “You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered someone”, which means that killing an enemy was not an act of murder. Nevertheless, the young soldier felt exactly as a murderer, having a terrible shock that gave him his first doubt of the reasonability of killing others. Another important idea is that civilians admire war and often may provoke it, but, at the same time, they are not aware of its horrors. The author discusses this idea as the protagonist and a young woman visit a theatre where there is a ply discussing war. The soldier is outraged by the words of the song, “What do we do with the money we earn? Oh, oh, oh, it’s a lovely war”, and the laughter of the audience. He considers that civilians have no moral right to make a joke out of the phenomenon that leads to the deaths of many people. The author connects this idea with another event, during which the commander of their division cheated the soldiers and claimed that the Germans sank a hospital ship with people. Driven by the need for payback, the Canadian division engages into a terrific battle during which many soldiers die. As it turns out later, the ship that sank carried arms, which leads the reader to a conclusion that soldiers are puppets in a play where no one wants to hear their concerns. As a result, the author states that war requires soldiers who do not think but act because thinking would make them refuse to fight. Lastly, soldiers initiate a discussion of the reasons for war and realize that many people did not want it to end. The reason for this is that they earn money selling weaponry, wine, food, and other supplies, and they get rich while soldiers die. One of the soldiers highlights the core idea of the novel, “There’s two kinds of people in this world – there’s those that like wars and those that fight ‘em”. Therefore, generals and civilians die in bed, leading a peaceful life and admiring warfare, whereas soldiers die for abstract ideas, and they are glad to have an injury because it might save their lives. Therefore, “Generals Die in Bed” demonstrates that any war is an unjust phenomenon that makes certain people rich at the cost of the deaths and suffering of their counterparts in the frontline.


“Generals Die in Bed” is a significant anti-war novel that demonstrates that those who admire war never participate in it. The author states that war is a crime that uses different means of cheating people and forcing them to kill each other. Charles Yale Harrison demonstrates that many soldiers have parents or wives and children, which is why their lives are just as valuable as those of the civilians. Similarly, they want to enjoy their lives, but their destiny is to obey the orders of the ones who send them to death. The protagonist, who is a young man interested in women and other pleasures of life, loses all his friends in combat and is glad to have an injury that grants him life. At the same time, the generals and civilians never had his experience, which is why they have no moral right to make fun of him and admire war, which is a crime.