I had so many mixed feelings about this book. I read it when it first came out, when I got a quarter of the way through and thought “What the hell,” and now I read the whole thing and thought “WHAT THE FUCK?” This book is for young people. Good Lord.
Shot at Dawn: World War I, Allan McBride, France, 1917, John Wilson, 2011.
For starters: I think it was a particularly brave decision by Scholastic for their very first book in a series that they would hoping be a popular spinoff to a popular series to be about a deserter being faced with execution. I mean, really. John Wilson is a great author who’s done a great job with it, so no qualms there (he also wrote Graves of Ice later in the series, which was also great), but this is pretty intense for what is ultimately a book targeted at YOUNG PEOPLE.
The structure of this book is also a bit different from some of the others—it starts out with a prologue where Allan is being held overnight in preparation for his execution the following morning, and telling his story to the officer guarding him will form the bulk of his story. I also don’t know for sure but I’d like to think that the choice of McBride is an allusion to The Green Fields of France, which if you haven’t listened to it (you should) refers to a young man by the name of Willie McBride. Anyway, that has nothing to do with anything, but I enjoyed it.
Anyway, Allan is a young man from the Nicola Valley in BC (which is a very pretty part of BC at the confluence of mountains without being, like, the Rockies or anything) with a romantic disposition and an idea that war is something magnificent. His friend, the four-years-his-senior Ken Harrison, teaches him to hunt and fish before he goes off to war several years before Allan does, and Allan spends the next couple of years reading about the war and wishing he could go off. One of the thing this book does really well is highlight the difference between the romantic picture (“us—brave, strong, and right—and them—evil, twisted, and inhuman.”) and real life—using the idealistic Allan as the voice.
In 1916 Ken comes home for a visit, but he doesn’t tell Allan anything but amusing stories, and Allan just can’t wait to enlist and ends up in Etaples, in France, in the fall of 1917. It’s immediately miserable, and Allan is shocked to hear that the French are mutinying from a many by the name of Harry Sommerfield, who begins telling him that mutiny and desertion are the only sensible things to do. It might be Sommerfield going around causing problems that helps encourage a major fight in Etaples between the MPs (military police) and the NCMs (non-commissioned members, or non-officers—at this time, generally all officers were either educated men or they had been promoted to officer positions after a particularly impressive showing on the battlefield, which means that NCMs were the ordinary rank-and-file members who joined with no education or experience. Sorry. That’s all the background stuff you’ll need to know, I promise). A riot breaks out, and because Allan doesn’t know what to do, he and his friend Bob from Saskatchewan go out and end up assisting an officer with clearing the bridge of men who have been beating an MP to death. They stop just short of opening fire into the crowds, because Sommerfield is there talking about how they need to all just calm down and talk about things.
After that incident, Allan manages to meet up with Ken at the camp near Cassel, and Allan is devastated that Ken is not at all happy to see him. (Cassel is near Ypres, which was a phenomenally tragic battle.) Ken tries to get Allan transferred somewhere far out of harm’s way, but Allan throws a fit and tells him not to. Ken tells him all about how he saw a young man completely obliterated by a shell and got shell-shocked as a result, and Allan just wonders if this makes Ken a coward after all.
In November, Allan finds himself digging trenches when they come across the decomposing body of a German soldier, and the corporal who discovers it just pitches the skull over the top of the trench. This is just the beginning of awful things. They’re preparing to go into battle at Passchendaele, and while Allan and Ken are talking, another recruit comes by and is almost instantly bumped off by a sniper bullet directly to the skull. Ken almost has a PTSD meltdown, and Allan is surprised by how non-horrified he is. Things get much much much much much worse almost immediately in the attack, which is horrible, but Bob manages to capture a German machine-gun nest all by himself while Allan just covers him with fire.
In the aftermath of the battle, Ken does have an attack—he keeps saying an attack is coming and they need to withdraw, but Allan manages to calm him down and they make it through okay and they’re relieved shortly after that. For most of the winter, Allan wonders how Ken can be so cowardly and how betrayed he (Allan) feels at seeing it. He doesn’t write the truth home to his parents because “It is simply not possible to describe Hell to those who have not been there.” He begins having awful dreams, feeling overwhelmed by everything, and so on, and just hopes that things will somehow, miraculously, get better instantly.
In the spring Ken returns from headquarters to lead them in a raid, and though Ken can barely keep it together, he begins to lead them all. They watch one of the company men get machine-gun fire right across the chest, and Ken says “I’ve done enough. It’s time to go home,” and just stands right up in the middle of no-man’s-land. He’s shot, obviously, but he lives, and Allan realizes that Ken just tried to kill himself. Then Allan begins having even worse nightmares and terrible episodes, and finally confesses everything to Bob, who says that maybe Ken is brave but bravery just isn’t enough when confronted with such horrifying circumstances.
They’re in the trenches, waiting for a signal, and Bob tries to distract Allan with what they’ll do after the war, just before they’re hit with a gas attack and a barrage at the same time. “How long that second barrage lasted I have no idea. It seemed like weeks. The sound was a physical presence—a hammer beating constantly inside my head. I was an animal, nothing more, numb and helpless, watching my hand shake and wondering vaguely who it belonged to. After a while a nursery rhyme from my child, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep,’ began to run endlessly round my head. I think I screamed it out loud into my mask….We were a herd of animals with squat snouts and wide, staring glass eyes, huddled in a poisonous, swirling fog, waiting for some vast predator to come and feed on us.”
I normally don’t quote such huge chunks, but that is both exceptionally well-written and immensely affecting. Holy crap.
And then their sergeant, who is checking that the men are all OK, is suddenly just obliterated by a blast. “There was a red haze. Then, suddenly, there was only the torn remnants of his neck, and blood pouring down his uniform. The body stood for an incredibly long time, as if trying to decide what to do, then slowly sat down on the trench floor…” Then Bob tells Allan to take his mask off, the gas has gone, and the Germans are preparing to attack—and then the barrage begins again. Allan just starts to walk away, unable to resist the desire to leave, and Bob grabs him and tells him he can’t just desert. Allan punches him and knocks him down just in time for an artillery blast that almost buries their trench. Allan lives, but comes to just to see that Bob is solidly buried at the floor of the trench. He digs him out, only to find he’s dead—the result of being on the floor at the exact moment the barrage hit him, and Allan realizes he may as well just have killed him.
Then Allan really does begin to lose his mind. He keeps talking to Bob—who is dead—while watching his men kill Germans in their trenches. And then he just walks away. He becomes convinced he has to walk back to Canada, and just starts walking. He walks for days. “My memories of those days are confused and not at all coherent. They’re a bunch of vivid images, but all unconnected, and set in a sea of tiredness and walking.” No one notices. The roads are full of men either retreating or going further, and no one notices Allan. He wanders through camps and across countryside, and he becomes convinced he’s in Ontario. Finally two men find him and bring him to a camp, where Allan eventually finds himself at a deserter’s camp led by none other than Harry Sommerfield.
He stays there, recovering somewhat, and learns what’s going on—the Germans are advancing at Amiens, and Sommerfield is assuming the war is lost and doesn’t care who wins. He points out that if Allan returns he’ll just be shot as a deserter, so why leave? He stays in the camp for months, moving around with them, feeling trapped, but not knowing what else to do. One day he’s sent out with Pete, a British deserter, to a nearby farmhouse to trade for food. The woman tells Allan that the Canadian forces have broken the German advance and the Germans are defeated, and Allan goes with joy to tell Pete, who is out in the farmhouse—only to find Pete in preparing to rape a teenage girl he finds there. The woman follows behind and stabs Pete with a pitchfork, killing him. That’s when Allan decides that he’ll return to the Canadians, and take whatever punishment they mete out. “Sommerfield’s answer was always the easy one. He had taken the safest option and thought only of himself. There had to be more to life than that. Ken knew it and now so did I.”
But the next day, while Sommerfield is preparing to leave the country, who turns up in the camp but Ken—on a patrol searching out deserters in the countryside. Sommerfield and Ken have an altercation, and Allan shoots Sommerfield before he can shoot them. Ken returns him to the camp, saying he’ll do whatever he can to get his sentence commuted and get him sent to a medical camp, and Allan finds that his guilt begins to disappear.
Then in the epilogue, Ken argues in Allan’s defense, and Allan is saved. That’s it. That’s the whole epilogue.
Rating: A. Well, that’s a qualified A. This is not an easy book to read—it’s gory, upsettingly gory, and it pulls no punches about the horror of war. But it does a beautiful job of explaining some things—how someone can be relentlessly brave and still shell-shocked by horrible circumstances, how someone can reconcile the difference between the beautiful drama of war and the horrible reality of it, how someone can go from an idealistic recruit to a deserter. It’s so well done. And another thing I really enjoyed was how it’s pointed out that Allan doesn’t at all enjoy the letters he gets from home, since they’re so alien to what he’s going through right now he doesn’t even recognize that world any more. It’s wonderfully done, and while it’s hard to read, it’s a good type of hard.