- Battlegrounds Without a Baedeker
The 1914-1918 war, although worldwide, is often reduced in print to the "Western Front" in Belgium and France. By such illogic it is then reduced even further to the four-hundred-mile labyrinth of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland where the fighting stalemated for nearly four costly years. Recyling six articles in 196 pages of text, Mark Larabee intends to have the reader see the landscape of war as he thinks troops in Flanders saw it: "The individual soldier's visual experience of warfare was mostly restricted to the bit of sky seen from the shelter of a trench." Another and significant linkage with war on the ground in Larabee's view emanates from metaphors in fiction stretched to fit his theme, with little or no relevance to reality. Some of the British writers he examines in detail had other intentions in mind, and some were never there in time or place.
What should the Great War look like in print? Land war consumes troops in profligate fashion, but half or more never get close to the front [End Page 401] lines and are in reserve, resting, training or service roles, seldom if ever hearing, or encountering, battle. These fortunate bearers of uniforms remote from the action see war as sprawling encampments; exasperating drills and inspections; vast munitions and fuel dumps; exotic, or shabby, towns and villages; interminable queues of military traffic; routine mess calls and mail calls; endless, suffocating boredom. The topography of battle in Flanders was messy, horrifying, and far different. The limited horizon of the trenches, and of No Man's Land between the enemy positions, exposed a mucky, shell-cratered, foul-smelling, featureless wasteland in which little remained of the colorful if clinical descriptions in prewar Baedeker guidebooks.
Maps, Larabee contends, are "mediating texts ... for understanding the nature and progress of a war that was otherwise too vast and chaotic to be observed productively by an individual." He concedes, however, that military maps were ineffective in "a ruined landscape" and useless in a limited and ongoing operation—often disintegrating in practice into a breakdown of pre-battle logic. Larabee's best pages, early on, review the vast terrain of memoir and fiction that exemplify "cartographic failure and disorientation." Unpersuasively thereafter, he seeks evidence for theories of "social space" and for the allegedly "bankrupt objective epistemology of military mapping."
When Larabee rejects the "predetermined cognition" furnished by Baedeker, sightseeing opportunities useless in flattened Flanders, he turns to fiction of dubious relevance. Pages from A Room with a View (1908) offer "deictic descriptions" illuminating nothing about the topography of a war then years in the future and remote from E. M. Forster's setting. Further pages drawn from another Larabee article explore Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915), written almost entirely before the war, and Ford's wartime experience, featuring a retired officer who is good only to the unreliable narrator. The novel includes almost no references to military life, which in any case concerned an earlier, colonial era. "Yet the Great War, while never explicitly mentioned," Larabee contends, "forms an invisible backdrop." Pages follow from another article about Ford's novel concerned with title deeds in early America fashioned from wampum—an indigenous equivalent to money. Readers may well find it mind-boggling that Larabee sees a connection to the landscape of war: "Wampum, situated at the intersection of multiple planes of cultural transaction, circulation value, technological progress, and mnemonic inscription, serves as a complex instance of a fundamentally topographical representation in fiction." [End Page 402]
For Larabee, Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier (1918), the land—literally, England—becomes "something threatened by the presence of soldiers." In this instance a shell-shocked returnee invalided to his country home is disturbed by its picturesque gardens, further beautified since his departure for the front. Nevertheless, Chris Baldry is somehow restored to sanity by its mellow order ("the suave decorum of [its] lawn"), and eventually is able to return to the presumably...