Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 25, 2022

Attacked by Flamethrowers

I don't know of a better, or more terrifying, description of what it was like to be attacked by flamethrowers than that contained in  Generals Die in Bed. The novel, written by Canadian veteran Charles Yale Harrison, was published in 1930. Critics at the time considered it the finest of the war's semi-autobiographical antiwar treatments. MH

German Flamethrower Teams at the Somme

They are coming! We look behind us. They have laid down a barrage to cut us off. We are doomed. Anderson jumps from his gun and lies groveling in the bottom of the shallow trench. I tell Renaud to keep firing his rifle from the corner of the bay. Broadbent takes the gun and I stand by feeding him with what ammunition we have left. They are close to us now.

They are hurling hand grenades. Broadbent sweeps his gun but still they come. The field in front is smothered with grey smoke. I hear a long-drawn-out hiss. Ssss-s-sss!

I look to my right from where the sound comes. A stream of flame is shooting into the trench. Flamenwerfer! Flame-throwers! In the front rank of the attackers a man is carrying a square tank strapped to his back. A jet of flame comes from a nozzle which he holds in his hand. There is an odor of chemicals. Broadbent shrieks in my ear: "Get that bastard with the flame." I take my rifle and start to fire. Broadbent sweeps the gun in the direction of the flame-thrower also. Anderson looks nervously to the rear. "Grenades," I shout to him. He starts to hurl bombs into the ranks of the storm troops.

Odor of burning flesh. It does not smell unpleasant. I hear a shriek to my right but I cannot turn to see who it is. We continue to fire towards the flame-thrower. Broadbent puts a fresh pan on the gun. He pulls the trigger. The gun spurts flame. He sprays the flame-thrower. A bullet strikes the tank on his back. There is a hissing explosion. The man disappears in a cloud of flame and smoke.

To my right the shrieking becomes louder. It is Renaud. He has been hit by the flame-thrower. Flame sputters on his clothing. Out of one of his eyes tongues of blue flame flicker. His shrieks are unbearable. He throws himself into the bottom of the trench and rolls around trying to extinguish the fire. As I look at him his clothing bursts into a sheet of flame. Out of the hissing ball of fire we still hear him screaming. Broadbent looks at me and then draws his revolver and fires three shots into the flaming head of the recruit. The advance is held up for a while. The attackers are lying down taking advantage of whatever cover they can find. They are firing at us with machine guns.


  1. With every new war, a more sophisticated killing machine. Now we have drones and what have we learned? Nicole d'Entremont

  2. Wow. That's really well done.
    How's the rest of the novel?

  3. FYI, my copy of the book is entitled "Generals Die in Bed."