Through the Wheat

by Thomas Boyd. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923. 12mo. vi +266 pp. $1.75.
ONE’S first thought is that it would be hard to write a more tantalizing book. Repeatedly the author seems on the point of giving us what we want, a clear, comprehensive view of that critical moment in the war when the point of the great German drive of 1918 was blunted by the American Marines and the Twenty-sixth Division at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood. As repeatedly the expectation is disappointed, and the narrative seems to tail off into a series of detached personal experiences and impressions.
On second thought, this tantalizing feature of the book is seen to be its supreme virtue. The book is an unusually powerful bit of impressionistic writing It faithfully portrays the sensations and emotions of the private at the front, his bewilderment his complete ignorance of his whereabouts and relationships, and of the rationale of his doings. If it is tantalizing, it is because the private himself was tantalized He had literally no sense of orientation, of personal adjustment to the whole of things. That dimly realized condition is here vividly set forth.
Other matters we had heard of are here pictured in all their sordid reasonableness: the dirt, the weariness, the constant hunger, the discomfort of modern warfare; the amazing confusion, the uncertainty, the inability to find sense or justice in what men were ordered to do. A constant stream of unpicturesque profanity trickles muddily through the pages, as though uttered by young men thoroughly tired and disillusioned. There is a note of angry contempt for every form of cant. There is no hint of nobility in thought or motive, no suggestion of conscious heroism. Neither is there any hatred toward the Germans. Evidently the spiritual side of human nature is pretty thoroughly atrophied, and the man becomes little more than a resentful automaton dragging his protesting body through a series of meaningless movements dictated by powers whom he naturally despises. The keynote of the whole book is found in its last four words: ‘ His soul was numb.’
Rarely has the impersonalism of modern warfare been more vividly portrayed. Someone has said that war is simply the peace-time tenor of life violently accelerated. Here is the case in point. An age of invention and mechanical ingenuity goes to war; and its warfare becomes primarily a conflict of guns and tanks and airplanes and gas-bombs; while the human creature drops into second place — a mere pawn, to be moved about, sacrificed, fed to cannon, as the Great God of Mechanism may elect.
It is an inevitable book, and on the whole a welcome one. If any ardent young spirit still feels his soul stirred by the alleged romance of war, here is his corrective. If, after reading this account, he can discover any gloss at all left on that, particular chunk of gingerbread, he will be more than ordinarily obtuse.