“Points of Honor: Short Stories of the Great War by a U. S. Combat Marine”
Author: Thomas Boyd
Edited and with an Introduction by Steven Trout
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $19.95 (Paper)
In just a few weeks it will be the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day, 11-11-11, that is, 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, when the shooting in the first world war officially stopped.
These last four years have been the centennial for WWI. If, by coincidence, the run-up to the 2019 Alabama Bicentennial were not also under way, I think the Great War would be receiving a lot more attention.
This is not to say it has been entirely ignored. “Send the Alabamians” by Nimrod Frazier and “The Great War in the Heart of Dixie” by Martin Oliff are both important contributions.
Steven Trout, an authority on the literature of WWI, and chairman of English at the University of South Alabama, has edited these stories and provided a fine, sturdy, informative introduction, well worth reading; it’s not just the expressionistic jacket-flap copy as one sometimes sees.
Trout gives a biographical sketch which includes the information that after the war, Boyd became friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who admired and championed Boyd’s work, especially “Through the Wheat” (1923), possibly the best WWI combat novel.
(Boyd, originally from Ohio, was living in St. Paul in 1921, managing a bookstore and writing a newspaper column. That summer, “to escape the heat in Alabama,” the Fitzgeralds moved to St. Paul and became friends with the Boyds. Fitzgerald, whose unit never went overseas, was fascinated by Boyd, his storytelling and his writing. But, Trout tells us, when Boyd later turned to writing novels set on farms in Ohio “Fitzgerald was appalled.” He hated “novels of the soil.” The friendship died and Fitzgerald made a number of cruel remarks about Boyd including calling him “a barnyard boy.” Tales of tough life on an Ohio farm were NOT what Fitzgerald thought modernist fiction should be.
I had never heard this story before but believe it as told.)
In “Through the Wheat” Boyd takes the reader through the sensations, the feel of combat, minute by terrifying minute. Boyd’s unit fought at Belleau Wood and suffered 1000 casualties in one day. Then the same unit, a few weeks later, was ordered to advance across an open wheat field near Soissons, and half the men were lost in the first hour. Boyd and his unit later fought at Saint Mihiel and finally at Blanc Mont where Boyd was gassed.
“Points of Honor,” eleven short stories, published three years later, is different from the novel in several ways.
Although there are some battle scenes, the stories are mostly of military life, life in the barracks, the tedium of drilling, and the grim, depressing duty of graves registration and reburial of the fallen.
As Trout points out, the conflicts here are often among members of the U. S. military.
Of course, the Marines have an enduring antipathy towards the military police, who seem intent on making their lives miserable through petty harassment.
One story explores the huge importance of mail and the demoralizing effects of the “Dear John” letter.
The gulf between officers and enlisted men is, as always, broad, and misunderstandings abound.
In the opening story, “Unadorned,” Captain Wilfred Byrd, a “well-formed, graceful” young man with “features more fine than manly” overhears a loudmouth soldier questioning his masculinity. Captain Byrd overreacts and his powerful need to prove his courage has the tragic consequences one might expect.
In “Sound Adjutant’s Call” the men are not impressed by “thin, little” Captain Arthur Balder, a martinet with “spindly legs,” but Balder calmly distinguishes himself in battle.
In “A Little Gall,” Corporal Lewis, normally a model soldier, gets a little drunk and makes a mildly stupid remark to an officer. Lewis can’t even remember the remark, but he is sentenced to years in prison.
In “Responsibility,” Private Andrus, a seasoned combat veteran, is reluctant to become acquainted with the unit’s new replacements, fellow enlisted men, since they will probably be dead soon. (The replacement rate in Boyd’s battalion was over 150%.) Nevertheless, Andrus goes alone, into No Man’s Land, to rescue a foolish newbee.
The song most associated with WWI, the war’s anthem in fact, is surely George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” The chorus ends: “Send the word…we’re coming over … and we won’t be back till it’s over over there.” In November of 1918 it was over over there and the Yanks, many of them wounded physically and/or emotionally and forever changed, came back to a world which seemed not to have changed at all, where no one seemed to understand what they had been through, and into which they now fit uncomfortably.
“The Long Shot,” the story Trout calls Boyd’s “most ambitious,” is in this tradition of what might be called “post-war” stories, which includes Homer’s “Odyssey” and, more recently, Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” (also WWI), Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (WWII), and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “In Country,” which follows a Vietnam veteran.
As it was then, so, to a great degree, it is now.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.