The Great War

Her debut novel, The Return of the Soldier, is a wonderful provocation. The story revolves around a 36-year-old soldier called Chris Baldry who has returned from the front during the first world war physically intact but shell-shocked. He has forgotten the past 15 years of his life and can’t remember anything past the age of 21…He has forgotten the war. He is, as a result of this loss, much happier.

Reading today, this memory loss feels like a convenient plot device. But as Victoria Glendinning reminds us in the introduction to the Virago anniversary edition of the novel, problems with recollection were a frequent symptom of shell shock. By the end of the first world war, the British army faced 80,000 cases, with hundreds of thousands more young men also dealing with serious trauma. So in 1918, West was engaged with some of the toughest questions of the time.

The Return of the Soldier is more about the pity than the glory of war; references to ‘flooded’ trenches, a sky ‘full of flying death’ and bullets falling ‘like rain on the rotting faces of the dead’ show that West has no illusions about ‘the old Lie.’ But The Return of the Soldier is not a straightforward anti-war book. One of its most tragic implications is that Chris is better off ‘sick’—he may be delusional, but his madness makes far more sense than the real world.