William March’s short-story novel of World War I. I read the University of Alabama Press paperback.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Seen the Movie: No
Members of Company K narrate their journey through training, WWI campaigns, and life after war.
The 113 sections of Company K are more flash fiction than chapters, each told from the point of view of a different soldier. The best section (and closest to a full-fleshed standalone short) is 10 pages but the average runs around 2.
We don’t get time to know any of these characters as individuals but I think that was March’s intention. The author in the first section says that he wants the book to be “a record of every company in every army” (p.13). March’s stance is that any man could have any of the experiences to follow. Still, I would have liked an index to show which sections each character appears in. It was difficult to keep track of character threads (I can’t quite call them “arcs”).
The lack of character connection leaves Company K weak as narrative, though it stands strongly as an anti-war, pro-humanity piece. And March’s writing, as we saw in The Bad Seed (review) is very good.
 Each story is told in first person by the man named in the chapter’s title. Though we’re supposedly following different people, the voice remains extremely similar. This is somewhat justified by the opening chapter “Private Joseph Delaney,” which lets us know that Delaney is truly the man behind every story; the author of the entire book.
I am still thinking of the book which I have just completed. I say to myself: “I have finished my book at last, but I wonder if I have done what I set out to do?”
We had been silent for a long time, and then my wife spoke: “I’d take out the part about shooting prisoners.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it is cruel and unjust to shoot defenseless men in cold blood. It may have been done a few times, I’m not denying that, but it isn’t typical. It couldn’t have happened often.”
“Would a description of an air raid be better?” I asked. “Would that be more humane? Would that be more typical?”
March sets up good tension here: What is this about shooting prisoners? Will Delaney take his wife’s advice and excise the story? If not, when will it happen?
The shooting, of course, does come. Several chapters lead up to it and several chapters deal with the fallout. It is the central event of Company K and March is wise to clue us in early on. It gives us something to hold onto through the disorienting start.
To me it has always seemed that God is so sickened with men, and their unending cruelty to each other, that he covers the places where they have been as quickly as possible.
 “Corporal Jerry Blandford”
“I’ve been thinking over what [the chaplain] said about this being a war to end injustice. I don’t mind getting killed to do a thing of that sort. I don’t mind, since the people coming after me will live in happiness and peace….”
 Joseph Heller would echo many of March’s sentiments (and touches of the style of Company K) and run with them in Catch-22 (review). Heller allows his sarcasm and anger to run wild; March keeps some restraint, but we see Catch-22-isms in moments like these:
“Corporal Walter Rose”
I didn’t know, as a matter of fact, I just guessed right; that’s all: So I was an intelligent hero, and got the Navy Cross. If I’d been wrong, and there’d been nothing under the crate, I would have been a dumb bastard, a disgrace to the outfit, and, like as not, would have been thrown into the brig. They’re not fooling me any.
“Sergeant Theodore Donohoe”
I tell you war is a business, like anything else, and if you get anywhere in it, you’ve got to adjust yourself to its peculiarities and play your cards the way they fall.
“Sergeant Wilbur Tietjan”
You see, the men were so far away, it didn’t seem like killing anybody, really.
“Private Roger Jones”
I never saw the trenches so quiet as they were that time at Verdun. There wasn’t a squarehead in sight.
noun – (North America, informal) – a stupid or inept person.
(offensive) – a person of German, Dutch, or Scandinavian, especially Swedish, origin.
“Private Carter Atlas”
I remembered all the good meals I had ever eaten and thought of rare dishes, such as truffles or ortolans, which I had read about, but never tasted.
The ortolan, or ortolan bunting is a bird. The ortolan is served in French cuisine, typically cooked and eaten whole. The bird is so widely used that populations dropped dangerously low, leading to laws restricting its use in 1999.
 “Private Edward Romano”
I saw, too, the slow rain, gleaming like a crystal against the light, and falling in dead, unslanted lines to the field.
“Private Jacob Geller”
When Harry and I looked at the man good we saw that he had been killed by a piece of h.e. There was a hole in his chest as big as your fist.
 Some stories show the same event from different points of view; these are usually redundant. Deaths in “Lieutenant Thomas Jewitt” (p.61) are shown again immediately in “Private Stephen Carroll” (p.63). Carroll’s part doesn’t offer anything new and the two could easily be combined into one slightly longer chapter by simply using a different point of view.
Later, the chapters “Lieutenant Archibald Smith” (p.91) and “Private Edward Carter” (p.93) do the same thing: tell us the exact same story two times in a row. With this pair, Smith’s side is completely unnecessarily. If March wanted to keep it in, it should have come after Carter’s.
“Private William Anderson”
“Are you still with us, ‘Gentle Annie’?” he asked.
“—- Jack!” I said.
“Gentle Annie” is a popular American song written by Stephen Foster in 1856.
The way “—- Jack!” is written makes it seem like a swear (it is not the name of anyone involved in the scene) but the only swear I know of with “Jack” in it is “Jack shit.”
 “Private Martin Dailey”
He wanted to talk a great deal, because he knew he was going to die before we reached the hospital. But there was nobody to listen to him.
“Private Henry Demarest”
I understood for the first time those lines of Verlaine: “Tears fall in my heart like rain upon the town….”
Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet (also referenced in Cloud Atlas, note ).
The poetry site From Troubles of The World has the full text of the Verlaine poem, which begins:
Tears fall in my heart
As rain falls on the city;
What is this languor
That pierces my heart?
 “Corporal Lloyd Somerville”
The night nurse came over to me. She was fat and old, and she walked on the sides of her feet like a tame bear.
(p.71 – 72)
 “Private Harry Waddell”
This is the way it really happened.
 Many chapters end in the narrator’s death. During the middle section some start to sound the same (and not in a thematically-making-a-statement way):
“Lieutenant Archibald Smith”
He pressed on the butt of his rifle and the bayonet entered my body slowly. Then he withdrew the bayonet and struck me quickly again and again. I fell to the duckboards and lay there in the mud.
“Private John Townsend”
Somebody jabbed a bayonet through my body and somebody clubbed me with the butt of a rifle and I fell down the stairs and into the dugout again.
“Private Bernard Glass” (describing a different death than Townsend’s)
I sunk my bayonet into him time after time. Then I hit him on the head with the butt of my rifle.
“Private Edward Carter”
He passed humming “La Paloma” under his breath.
“La Paloma” is a popular Spanish song that has been produced and reinterpreted in diverse cultures, settings, arrangements, and recordings over the last 140 years. The song was composed and written by the Spanish composer from the Basque region Sebastian Iradier in the 1850s. (“La Paloma” translates to “The Dove.”)
“Private Sidney Borgstead”
I’m a “dee” fool and haven’t two brains to knock together.
A damn fool?
In Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a character recounts a conversation:
“She said, ‘Put away that dee lantern,’ she says.”
“Says she, ‘Dost hear, old turmit-head? Put away that dee lantern. I have floored fellows a dee sight finer-looking that a dee fool like thee, you son of a bee, dee me if I haint,’ she says.”
(p.241, The Mayor of Casterbridge)
It does seem to be shorthand for swears, the way a parent might speak around a kid.
 “Private Walter Drury”
“Why don’t I refuse to do this?” I thought. “Why don’t all of us refuse? If enough of us refuse, what can they do about it?…” Then I saw the truth clearly: “We’re prisoners too: We’re all prisoners.”
“Private Roger Inabinett”
What I was really looking for were Iron Crosses. They’re worth real money back in the S.O.S.
According to Wikipedia, the United States Army Services of Supply, known as “SOS,” wasn’t created until 1942.
Though, the website Doughboy Center, excerpting from Over There: The American Experience in World War I, speaks of the Services of Supplies (SOS) , whose tasks included:
Acquiring, Delivering and Recycling all the Equipment, Uniforms and Food for the AEF
Building and Operating a Network of Hospitals
Running Delousing Stations for the Front Line Troops
“Private Albert Nallett”
Sergeant Halligan said the natives of Honduras called them ant bears.
Another term for aardvark or giant anteater.
 Captain Matlock, the hypocritical, disliked leader of the company, appears to die (or at least have a mortal wound) in “Private Abraham Rickey”:
One machine gun bullet had hit [Captain Matlock] squarely between the eyes, plowing through his head and coming out at the base of his skull (…)
“I thought he was dead, sure, but he was breathing all right when the stretcher bearers took him. It was just one bullet, but it went all the way through his head. When I turned him on his face, I saw a teaspoonful of brains had run out on the ground.”
None of the men discuss Matlock again until near the end of the book, where it seems he survived the war. From “Private Rufus Yeomans”:
Come up some night and have dinner with us, the wife would be tickled to death to have the captain of my old company for dinner. (…) Bring Mrs. Matlock, too, if she’ll come.
People have survived bullets through their skulls but the way it’s described sounds… pretty bad. I’m surprised March didn’t give some explanation of how Matlock survived.
“The Unknown Soldier”
Two Maxims opened a deadly, enfilading fire.
The Maxim gun was a weapon invented by American-British inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1883; it was the first recoil-operated machine gun. By World War I, many armies had moved on to improved machine guns. The British Vickers machine gun was an improved and redesigned Maxim, introduced into the British Army in 1912. The German Army’s Maschinengewehr 08 and the Russian Pulemyot Maxim were both more or less direct copies of the Maxim.
“Corporal Stephen Waller”
Company K went into action at 10:15 P.M. on December 12, 1917, at Verdun, France, and ceased fighting on the morning of November 11, 1918 near Bourmont, having crossed the Meuse River the night before under shell fire; participating, during the period set out above, in the following major operations: Aisne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.
Verdun is a small city in the Meuse department in Grand Est in northeastern France. Verdun is the biggest city in Meuse. It was the site of a major battle, and the longest-lasting, of the First World War (February 21 to December 18, 1916, which means Company K came to France almost a year after the battle’s end).
Bourmont is a former commune in the Haute-Marne department in northeastern France. In June 2016, it was merged into the new commune of Bourmont-entre-Meuse-et-Mouzon.
The Meuse is a major European river, rising in France and flowing through Belgium and the Netherlands before draining into the North Sea. It has a total length of 575 miles.
Aisne is a French department in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France. Most of the old growth forests in the area and many monuments were destroyed during battles in World War I. It is thought that the Aisne River was the birthplace of the trench warfare seen in the First World War. The Aisne campaign (May 27 – June 5, 1918) is also called the Third Battle of the Aisne.
Marne is a department in north-eastern France named after the river Marne.
The Aisne-Marne campaign (July 18 – August 6, 1918) includes the Second Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Soissons.
Saint-Mihiel is a commune in the Meuse department in Grand Est in north-eastern France. It lies on the banks of the Meuse River. During World War I, Saint-Mihiel was captured by the Germans in 1914 and was recaptured during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. The St. Mihiel campaign (September 12 – 16, 1918) includes the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
The Forest of Argonne is a long strip of rocky mountain and wild woodland in north-eastern France. During World War I, the forest was the site of intense military action.
The Meuse-Argonne campaign (September 26 – November 1918) includes the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
“Private Christopher Van Osten”
The nurse selected a fellow from the First Engineers called “Bunny,” a man from the Rainbow Division named Towner, and myself.
The 42nd Infantry Division (“Rainbow”) is a division of the United States National Guard which has served in World War I, World War II, and the Global War on Terrorism. The division currently includes Army National Guards from fourteen different states, including all of New England, New York, and New Jersey.
When the division was proposed (to be formed from the non-divisional unites of several states), Douglas MacArthur said that such an organization would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” The name stuck and they division adopted a shoulder patch and unit crest which acknowledged the nickname.
“Private Howard Bartow”
Our company went to the front in crowded camions.
noun – 1. a strongly built cart or wagon for transporting heavy loads; dray.
2. a truck, as for military supplies.
“Private Ralph Nerion”
Why didn’t they make me a non-commissioned officer? I knew the I.D.R. backwards and forwards.
Military Dictionary lists IDR as standing for “International Defense Review.”
Jane’s International Defence Review (IDR) is a monthly magazine reporting on military news and technology. The IDR is one of a number of military-related publications named after Fred T. Jane, an Englishman who first published Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships in 1891. (I can’t find when the IDR was first published.)
 “Private Harold Dresser”
In my home town people point me out to strangers and say, “You’d never believe that fellow had a hat full of medals, would you?” And the strangers always say no, they never would.
“Private Leslie Jourdan”
Olsen and I had studied [piano] together in Paris, under Olivarria, back in 1916, when we were both kids.
Olivarria is an invention of March’s.
“Private Roy Howard”
The boys used to say I was tight, and that hurt more than not having any money to spend for cigarettes or pinard, but I took it all good-natured.
Pinard is a French term for wine (particularly red wine), popularized as the label for the ration of wine issued to French troops during the First World War.
 “Private Theodore Irvine”
Better to suffer the ultimate pains of hell than to achieve freedom in nothingness!
 “Private Howard Virtue”
I became afraid that I would die before the meaning of my life was made clear.
How can I thunder the incestuousness of Herodias?
Herodias (~15 BC – ~39 AD was a princess of the Herodian Dynasty of Judaea during the time of the Roman Empire. Her first husband was Herod II, her half-uncle. Her second husband, Herod Antipas, was half-brother of her first husband. Antipas is best known today for his role in events that led to the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
 “Private Manuel Burt”
I took a ring off his finger for a souvenir. I put it on my own finger and kept turning it around…. “This is a ring off the first man I ever killed,” I said, as if I were speaking to an audience…. But before I got back to the line, I took the ring off and threw it into the underbrush…. “I shouldn’t have put on his ring,” I thought; “that will tie us together forever.”
“All we know is that life is sweet and that is does not last long. Why should people be envious of each other? Why do we hate each other? Why can’t we live at peace in a world that is so beautiful and so wide?”
Company K would be incredible for high school classes: assign different students different chapters to discuss or assign the whole class a handful of the best. Themes of war, politics, human nature and shit luck are handled swiftly and well.
For other readers, the good vignettes make up for the redundant or inconsequential. There are at least fifteen above-average sections; five excellent (“Private Robert Nalls,” “Private Wilbur Bowden,” “Private Leo Brogan,” “Private Roy Howard,” “Private Manuel Burt”).
Company K is best in its last quarter where we see varying experiences of soldiers after the war. It’s a subject not explored or described nearly enough to the non-soldier, even 84 years later. These are the important parts for the average reader and getting through the book to reach the end is worth the cost and the couple of hours it will take.
March would grow incredibly as a writer from this debut. Even if you’ve read Company K and were less than impressed, his collection of short stories Trial Balance (also available through The University of Alabama Press) and The Bad Seed are near-perfect outings.
Next week: I am not going to be very kind to Henry Farrell’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?