Paths of Glory

Tags:  general-fiction, favorite-fiction,

This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. The author, Humphrey Cobb, fought with the Canadian army on the front lines in France in World War I. While he points out that the events of the novel are fiction, much of what he describes is obviously based on what he witnessed in the trenches, and the core of the book’s horrifying plot comes from actual historical events.

Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb

The book opens with two soldiers watching the tired march of a bedraggled infantry unit. Duval is fresh out of school and has not yet seen any action on the front lines. He’s excited to blaze a path to glory. Langlois is a veteran who has already served with this unit, the 181st Infantry. He has no illusions about the nature of the war.

The infantry appears headed for a rest, marching slowly to a quiet town far behind the front lines after a long period of heavy fighting. Duval and Langlois catch up just in time to hear the orders from above: the infantry is to return at once to the front. They don’t know it yet, but they’re about to be thrown into an ill-planned assault on an impregnable German position.

Cobb writes with a brutal, unsentimental realism that is more horrifying than most horror fiction. We get the first taste of the author’s narrative power when a German shell hits the French troops as they approach the trenches. Lieutenant Paolacci is blasted into a chalk pit as he tries to direct his soldiers through the barrage.

The field is so thick with the dead of the previous infantry, the Tirailleurs, that Paolacci’s men don’t bother to look for him. He’s simply gone, like so many hundreds of thousands of others, and we think we’ve seen the last him.

The narrator catches up with him, however, as he lies dying near the bottom of the chalk pit. Paolacci, half delirious, can’t understand why he keeps smelling horse dung. How could there be a horse deep in this pit of chalk? And what is the hard thing pressing into his cheek?

As the rats in the bottom of the pit begin to gather, Paolacci drifts in and out of his senses. He realizes at last that the shell has blasted through his pelvis, that his leg is folded backward underneath him, that his cheek is resting on the heel of his own boot, with his foot still in it. This is the source of the manure smell. He must have stepped in dung before the shell hit him.

Neither the reader nor Paolacci knows whether, in his delirium, he is truly calling for help or only imagines he’s calling for help. We assume he’s dead when a rat perches on his face and begins to eat his lower lip, but we can’t be sure of that either. Meanwhile, the soldiers above, his own men, rush around the lip of the chalk pit, unaware that he’s dying just beneath their feet.

There’s a lot of this kind of ugly, senseless death in Paths of Glory. The men have become inured to it, as much as is humanly possible. When they go on a nighttime scouting mission outside the trench, they have to crawl over the bodies of the Tirailleurs, staying as low as possible to avoid machine gun fire while trying to avoid the most putrid of the rotting corpses.

The story moves back and forth between the low-ranking soldiers in the trenches and the generals back at central command, who are totally out of touch with the reality of the war. This was Europe’s first mechanized war (the US had already fought one in the 1860s) and the generals, particularly the French and British, were trying to fight it like an old-style cavalry war with disastrous results. The first battle of the Marne saw over half a million casualties, while the battle of the Somme registered over a million.

Consider that for a moment. A million casualties in a single battle. Commanders on both sides were simply marching men into machine gun fire and then scratching their heads, wondering why their attacks made no progress.

Paths of Glory appears to take place during the first half of the war, when the clueless generals were still practicing this utterly destructive and ineffective form of warfare.

Back at headquarters, behind the lines, a young and ambitious General named Assolant is given the assignment to take “The Pimple,” a huge stone hill that the Germans have been using to hold the core of their front line. A mistaken communique, accidentally released to the press, claimed the French had already taken the Pimple, which would have been a major victory.

Since they’ve already announced they took it, they’d better go out and actually take it, just to save face with the public. Assolant welcomes the assignment, figuring it will earn him a coveted medal. He does some back-of-the-envelope math, figuring he’ll lose a certain percentage of his already-exhausted troops as they cross the barbed wire of no man’s land. The remainder of his forces will then easily push the Germans out of their fortified position. Assolant’s thinking represents nineteenth-century battle tactics that simply don’t apply to twentieth-century warfare.

Colonel Dax, the trench commander of the 181st, knows this plan is hopeless. He shows Assolant the mountains of dead Tirailleurs littering the barbed wire of no man’s land, brave soldiers whose corpses cannot even be retrieved for burial. Assolant is deeply offended at having this evidence of failure rubbed in his face. What has death got to do with him?

The general orders an all-out assault to begin in mere hours, and to be carried out by men who have had no rest. What’s the plan? Simple. Just march them directly into the German machine gun fire and hope enough of them get through to mount an assault. The infantry’s cook knows better. He takes a head count, then orders evening rations for half the number, knowing the other half will be dead or wounded beyond hope before the day is out.

The assault lasts all of ten minutes, as the French soldiers are simply shot to pieces before they can even leave the trenches. Soldiers going up the ladder toward the battlefield have to contend with the bodies of their comrades raining down on them.

Assolant, watching the action through a telescope, is furious. He sees his precious medal slipping away due to the cowardice of his soldiers. The fact that they haven’t made it out of the trenches proves they have no spirit. He calls the artillery commander behind the lines and orders him to train the big 75-millimeter guns on his own troops.

“Why?” asks the artillery commander.

“The soldiers won’t leave the trenches. If you fire on them, you’ll blast them out and they’ll have to fight.”

The artillery commander refuses the order. Assolant relieves him of his command and orders him to report for court martial. Deeply offended by what he sees as a failure of nerve, Assolant puts his entire infantry under arrest, and orders the commanders of the four lead companies to choose soldiers from their ranks to be executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy.

The events described in the book are loosely based on the Souain Corporals Affair of March 17, 1915, with the character of General Assolant representing the disgraced French general Géraud Réveilhac.

The story, horrifying as it has been up to this point, becomes even more horrifying as the army ranks coalesce to choose the victims of General Assolant’s wounded pride. The choice of soldiers to be tried ranges from arbitrary to vindictive. Langlois is chosen by lot to die. Didier is chosen out of spite and hatred by a cowardly alcoholic commanding officer who hates him for his competence and bravery.

The court martial is a joke, with Assolant ordering the judges ahead of time to produce the verdict he wants. The trial is so grossly unfair, the judges refuse to have a stenographer or any army record-keeper present to record the proceedings.

Captain Etienne, commander of the infantry’s seventh company, is ordered without notice to represent the defendants. He, like the reader, is appalled by the travesty of the hearing. He stands up to the judges, making an eloquent and impassioned defense of men he knows to be innocent.

The prosecutor’s response is simply, “I’m not as eloquent as the defendants' council, but I don’t need to be because the men are plainly guilty.”

The defendants are convicted, and thus Assolant saves his all-important reputation. The failure wasn’t his, it was theirs. The other soldiers of the 181st infantry are forced to execute their own men, men who fought bravely beside them in a doomed and hopeless battle.

Can you imagine anything more demoralizing?

My copy of the book, a 1987 reprint from the University of Georgia press, includes an afterword by English professor Stephen A. Tabachnick. Apparently, fifty years after its initial publication, this book was out of print. Tabachnick asks how that could be. And why isn’t Cobb’s book, which “presents one of the harshest and most uncompromising exposures and analyses of human and institutional failure ever written”, taught in English departments throughout the US?

I don’t know. I had heard of the book only because Stanley Kubrik made a film version. If not for that, I never would have picked this up. Kubrik’s film, which I haven’t yet seen, apparently softens the harshness of Cobb’s book to make it more palatable for theater audiences. That seems like a betrayal.

If you can find a copy of this book, buy it and read it. And don’t get it confused with the book of the same title by the man with an almost identical name. Irvin S. Cobb’s Paths of Glory is not the same book! Penguin Classics finally brought this book back into print in 2010, and you can find copies online or through your local bookstore.