The title of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel is intentionally ironic, of course. The novel’s protagonist, Henry Flemming, not only fails to get a battle wound but is injured accidentally, then lauded for fighting bravely; he had initially run away.
Crane did not write from experience. He was too young to have fought in the Civil War. Indeed, he was born six years after it ended. And although he eventually became a war correspondent, that was after the success of The Red Badge of Courage so he had no direct knowledge of war when he wrote it. The key to the novel’s realism was research. He read a great deal about the Civil War and, crucially, interviewed veterans. The novel’s foundation in real historical events is evident from the close association of the narrative to the Battle of Chancellorsville fought in 1863, although Chancellorsville is never mentioned; and Crane gave one of Flemming’s friends the name of a real soldier who fought at Chancellorsville.
When you read the novel, none of that is explicit. Crane did not litter the narrative with historical descriptions or explanations but allowed his knowledge of the experience of war to underpin what he wrote. Consequently, the battle scenes are vivid and realistic. He recreated the sense of confusion often experienced by soldiers on battlefields, caused by their limited perspective of what is going on even a few metres away, let alone on the other side of the battlefield. From his interviews with veterans, Crane had gained insights into the nature of battle. But there is much Crane did not say.
To read a passage about a real firefight that shows its true horrors and violence, you need to look elsewhere. Chapter 4 ‘The Woods Fight’ in Donald Burgett’s Seven Roads to Hell is an account of an incident during the defence of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. It is not fiction. Burgett was recounting a real event in which he had participated. Weapons and tactics may change but the violence of combat is a constant. It is a common belief that ‘modern’ war is worse than ‘ancient’ war. Not so.
Crane was coy when it came to the wounds suffered by some of the characters in the novel. Indeed, the injuries are barely described at all. One character is shot in the arm.
It hung straight and rigid. Occasionally he would cease to remember it, and be about to emphasize an oath with a sweeping gesture. The multiplied pain caused him to swear with incredible power.
At the time of the novel’s publication, the mid-1890s, no one was likely to write or publish explicit descriptions of what weapons did to people. That would have been socially and morally unacceptable. It would take a world war and four years of trench warfare to change public perceptions of what weapons do to flesh and bone. Nevertheless, uninhibited descriptions of battle injuries tended not to appear in the memoirs from the First World War. The German writer, Ernst Jünger, an infantry officer on the Western Front, wrote about his experiences in The Storm of Steel, published in English in 1929 (the original version was first published in German in 1920, then revised and republished in 1924). Unlike the memoirs by British writers, such as Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That) and Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), Jünger did not flinch from presenting war as an adventure with violent interludes.
The Storm of Steel was the antithesis of The Red Badge of Courage. Jünger seemed to revel in the violence of war. ‘A shot smashed his forehead with a report like a breaking board’ is not untypical of Jünger’s style. Yet, even he avoids gruesome descriptions. When Jünger was shot through the chest at close range – one of several wounds he received during the war – he felt ‘a sharp blow’ and he blacked out for a moment. Getting shot with a rifle bullet is reputedly like being kicked by a horse. He felt pain but did not fall so he assumed nothing serious had happened. Some minutes later, he realised he was bleeding. A bullet had gone clean through his chest and come out of his back. Had the shot come from a greater distance than the few metres of this incident, the wound might well have been fatal because of the ballistic characteristics of bullets that have travelled more than a few metres from the muzzle.
Jünger’s injury also illustrates that getting shot does not necessarily result in being knocked down by the impact of the bullet. Moreover, the adrenaline of the moment can make injury go almost unnoticed despite its seriousness. When Britain fought colonial wars in the nineteenth century, officers found they needed a revolver capable of stopping a charging man. They opted for .455-inch. Smaller calibres simply failed to stop a man even when he was hit several times. In 1709, Anglo-Irish adventurer Peter Drake was shot through the calf during the Battle of Malplaquet, probably by a .69-inch musket ball, yet did not realise he had been injured until he dismounted his horse and found himself unable to stand.
A soldier from the Rifle Brigade was shot through the chest during the fighting at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 but did not realise it. He
These chest wounds, sucking wounds so called because air is drawn through the chest wound every time the injured man inhales, making a sucking or hissing noise, can cause the damaged lung to collapse because air is drawn into the chest cavity rather than the lung. A collapsed lung can lead to death very quickly, especially if blood seeps into the uninjured lung making it impossible to breath. If blood enters the lungs, the victim can drown. Such wounds are not restricted to those inflicted by high-velocity projectiles; the causative agent may be a sword, a knife or the spike on a bill. Shakespeare understood this; Mercutio dies like this in Act III Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet.
While such accounts present contrasting perspectives of what fighting on the Western Front was like, none of them tells us much about the nature of wounds. And when the authors came to dealing with their own injuries, they tended to say very little. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the red badge was very apt as far as Jünger was concerned. And he was not alone. Alf Pollard, who served in the Honourable Artillery Company on the Western Front, shows in his memoir, Fire-Eater, that he shared Jünger’s thrill of war. And like Jünger, Pollard won the highest award for bravery and was wounded more than once (Pollard won the Victoria Cross; Jünger won the Iron Cross and Pour le Mérite). They understated the seriousness of their injuries every time.
There is also another point that is often missed about warfare. War is unlike any other human activity; there is no direct civilian equivalent of the constant juxtaposing of life and death allied with the randomness of death and injury. Modern war, especially, has a psychological impact on soldiers which was largely absent from earlier wars. Survivability in modern warfare follows an efficiency curve as experience of combat increases. In this context, continuous combat is meant literally; it does not mean combat interspersed with periods of respite behind the lines.
Continuous unremitting combat in Second World War, in particular, was a reality which soldiers in earlier wars had not faced. This was particularly true of some theatres of war, such as the Pacific, but could occur in circumstances like the fighting at Stalingrad between August 1942 and February 1943 when the German Sixth Army was surrounded and eventually destroyed by the Red Army. American research found that the most dangerous period for a soldier was the first ten days of combat when lack of experience could easily result in sudden death or catastrophic injury. The learning curve was steep as the soldier became battle wise over those few days. For the next three or four weeks after that, however, he was at his most efficient and was least likely to take unnecessary risks. The curve flattened into a plateau. After a month of continuous combat, the survivability curve began to fall away as he became overconfident with an unjustified belief that he would escape injury and death no matter what he did. He began to take risks. This overconfident stage was the beginning of combat stress. By the time he had been in continuous combat for six weeks, his survival skills were beginning to be swamped by fatalism as he saw his comrades die and replacements last only a few days. Now, he was careless and less able to take the simplest of precautions to avoid injury. If he was not now removed from combat, his death became a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other wars, including the First World War, breaks from combat were always possible but, even with breaks, the unremitting nature of trench warfare in the First World War could still lead to psychological damage, as experienced by Siegfried Sassoon in 1917.
Not all men hate fighting. Indeed, Sassoon had been an aggressive soldier until he developed combat stress. Some men come to realise that it is only when facing the reality of sudden injury or death that they feel truly alive and come to relish the experience, although it often leads to psychological problems when that thrill is absent after the war. Jünger and Pollard should be viewed in this context. Neither man actually enjoyed the violence but both men savoured the vibrancy of being alive through their close encounters with death. And both had problems readjusting to civilian life after the war.