by Hugh Gilmore
Two weeks ago, I was looking for a book to read, having just finished one and not wanting to face an evening without a successor. I have a shelf of “maybes” set aside for such times, and I quickly pulled a few and looked them over. I settled on a paperback novel called “Paths of Glory,” by Humphrey Cobb. I knew there was a movie of that name starring Kirk Douglas in all his indignant presence. The book’s cover showed a soldier who resembled Douglas standing on a battlefield, waving the men behind him to come ahead. Bombs falling nearby set him in high relief.
I don’t read a lot of war novels but I am an eager reader of first-person accounts of war, especially WWI trench warfare. I’ve read lots of them. I’m fascinated by the inglorious, mud-wallowing courage and humor of that war’s foot soldiers. And the high ludicrousness of the officers who conducted that war as if it were a social-class-riddled rugby match. Most of them seemed convinced in the dawning age of intense, newly-developed, high-power artillery and aircraft that they were still leading a 19th-century cavalry charge. They insisted that “character” and “spirit” would save the day, despite the callous stupidity of their campaigns and orders.
“Paths of Glory” follows a French regiment fighting in the trenches of the Western Front. As the story moved along, whenever a commanding officer was berated by his superiors for lack of progress, he’d order flanking movements or over-the-top charges of the enemy, who sat waiting for them with machine guns. Each wave of French attackers was killed in overwhelming numbers. The few who survived had to fall back. The frustrated French command decided to pick four soldiers at random and execute them as a deterrent to future cowards. An officer, Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, bravely tries to defend the men at a court-martial, but they are found guilty and shot by a firing squad. After that, the troops returned to the trenches, and the mad pulse of the war beat on.
After reading this book, I wanted to see the movie, but could not find it on Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube, so I still haven’t seen it. I did, however, do some research about the book and its author, Humphrey Cobb.
Cobb was an American, born in 1899 to artsy American parents, living then in Siena, Italy. He was boarding-schooled in England until he was a teen and then came to America. Kicked out of an American high school, he never went back to a classroom. Instead, he promptly went to Montreal, Canada, lied about his age and joined the Canadian army. He served in WWI for three years. He fought in the battle of Amiens. He kept a diary and a notebook and had vague ambitions of writing someday about his experiences. He did not publish “Paths of Glory” until 1935, however. Cobb based the concluding action of his book on a true story about the “Corporals of Souain.” In that incident, four French soldiers were executed for cowardice after a failed attack on a German-held hill.
The book’s title was taken from Thomas Gray’s famous poem, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” with its famous line, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” “Fields of Glory” made the best-seller list for a while. It was also adapted to the stage. Young Stanley Kubrick, the film director, read the book when he was 14, remembered it years later and decided to make a film of it. The subsequent movie (1957) starred Kirk Douglas in one of his first starring roles.
While pursuing this thread, I was surprised and confused one day when I typed in the search field: “Paths of Glory by Cobb” and came up with a link to a quite different book, of the same name, also written by a “Cobb.” In this case, however, the name was Irvin S. Cobb. His nonfiction book was also about WWI and the Western Front, but the full title was “Paths of Glory: Impressions of War Written At and Near the Front.” This Cobb, a journalist from Paducah, Kentucky, worked for the Saturday Evening Post and wrote eyewitness reports from the developing Western Front in the fall and early winter of 1914, just as a massive German army invaded Belgium on its way to France. I found a copy right away and read it.
The book is amazing. Cobb and four other American journalists sailed to Belgium and actually hired a taxi to take them to the front. Cobb’s descriptive writing equals, if not surpasses, Hemingway’s in its ability to alternate between staggering panorama (300,000 German soldiers and 100,000 horses marching in precision across Belgium on their way to Brussels and then France) and the individual shudders, sneers and tears of Belgian shopkeepers, priests, policemen, peasants and children as they stand by and endure. Hemingway seems too often cramped by his own commitment to style, whereas Cobb is smooth and grand, always willing to be impressed, even awed – and disgusted (in an ironic way) – by the sights and sounds of war. Mark Twain meets H. L. Mencken. One of the best war correspondent books I’ve ever read.
In a lucky trifecta, the new WWI documentary “They Shall Never Grow Old,” came to the Ambler that week. It perfectly capped the experience I’d just had of reading two books called “Paths of Glory,” written by two different Cobbs. My comments on the film will follow at another time.