I had never heard of this book until I read David R. Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia:
Frøis Frøisland’s Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) includes sf and horror among its wartime tales.
There is surprisingly little information about this book on the Web of a Million Lies.
John Clute, in his “Froisland, Frois” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says:
More correctly given as Frøis Frøisland (1885-1930). Norwegian journalist and writer whose Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) is a volume of tales about World War One, several being sf or Horror, including the title tale, about an American soldier whose war wound activates his x-ray vision.
A Google search for the collection’s English title turns up a couple of bookseller descriptions and two brief contemporary reviews.
I’m somewhat skeptical that either Langford or Clute has read this collection or any of the booksellers listing it. (Though I wouldn’t actually bet on it with Clute. He’s not generally in the habit of speaking about books he hasn’t read.) The reason? There really isn’t much of what we call horror (in the literary genre sense) or science fiction in this book. There are eight fiction pieces with only the titular one being obviously fantastical and one borderline case.
Which, I guess, means pretty much anything I say will be quoted in term papers for decades.
Actually, I hope people go out of their way to contradict me. That might mean this book would be reprinted, and I could actually own it because the lowest price I’ve found for it now is $168. I don’t even spend that much on big reference books. As it is, I had it from the library for a brief time.
The dust jacket for the English language edition of this book has a quote from O. E. Rolvaag: “The first work of art to shed a ray of romance on the War.” (Rolvaag was a Norwegian immigrant at one time famous for his novel Giants in the Earth. These days I suspect he’s probably forgotten outside of the Dakotas and Minnesota — areas he lived and set his novels.)
“A ray of romance on the War”? I think I know what Rolvaag met. There is an element of that in the sense of exotic settings and events. There is an air of the travelogue about Froisland’s book.
The book’s core is eight stories, but they are introduced by a four part and fully realistic (and, from what I could determine, almost completely verifiable) history of “The Front”.
Froisland voices the book as if he is speaking to us and begins “They talk about the front, oh yes, the front — “.
What is striking about Froisland’s book is how little time he spends on maimings and death.
We do not get any passages like this from Lt. Robert Hoffman’s 1940 memoir I Remember the Last War:
Three weeks these men had lain in the sun and our troops set out to bury them. Americans and Germans alike were put under the sod.
There were horses too, and they were a problem. Horses are huge when they become bloated, swell to twice their normal size. Their legs are thrust out like steel posts and it requires a hole about 10ft square and 6ft deep to put a horse under. If the legs were off, a hole hardly more than half that size is required. At times we succeeded in using an axe and saw to cut off the horses’ legs. It was a hard task and an unpleasant one, but it had to be done.
Finally, the fields were cleared but there was still another gruesome task to perform. It is a law of war that the names of enemy dead be sent back through a neutral country to their homeland. The identification tags had been taken from the dead Americans but the Germans had been buried just as they were. There was the task to dig them up again – enough to remove half of their oval-shaped identification tags.
Froisland describes a similar scene:
We stop for a moment at the crossing from the ruins of the chateau to the connecting passage. One by one, and only for one short moment each, we are allowed to raise our heads above the trench in order to get a survey of the area. A German air torpedo lies burning on the parapet. I notice a piece of board stuck into the ground two yards in front of us: <<cadavre>> is written on it in blue letters. A dead horse is lying in the roadside ditch. Its belly is ripped open and both front legs are shot off. The airplanes are droning above us.
Froisland is the observing journalist — and Froisland did see enough of the combat in the war that he not only covered it for a Norwegian newspaper but he went on lecture tours to talk about it in Norway in 1915 and 1919. But there is not the disgust of the engaged combatant here but the romance of a neutral observer.
That would be neutral only in a political sense in that Norway was not a belligerent in World War One. Froisland spent his time among the Allied forces in the war, and he makes his sympathies clear with the dedication ““France has glory eternal to those who died for it”.
But it is also because Froisland, while interested in bravery and valor, isn’t interested in gore. He’s interested in psychological stress and disintegration and not just from what his contemporaries would call “shell shock”.
Like the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V, Froisland pulls the curtain back on the war and slowly moves from the rear area to the front, from December 1915 to about December 1916.
In “On the Firing-Line” he talks of the beginning of the trenches of the Western Front when the Germans, retreating in the First Battle of the Marne, begin to “burrow with their spoons of camp shovels”. In revels in the unappreciated logistics of the war and topographical details:
But the front is perhaps, first and foremost, all that wonderful machinery which reaches for miles to the rear and whose task it is to furnish food and drink to the war’s millions of men and beasts. From the ration-carriers in the foremost rifle-pits, who edge their way through the mud puddles, while the shower of shrapnel pounds dents in the tin pails, to the camp bakery, where 200 men work in day and night shifts, or in the deer park at Chateau X —, where 1,200 steers and 800 hogs are being fattened for slaughter. We have me all phases on our way out: the storehouses, the transfer stations, transportations columns, caravans without end; camp kitchens, pyramids of wine casks, mountains of food and drink!
We have seen lumberjacks by the thousands — for a couple of miles through thick forest, wood-cutters in uniform at every other tree. Huts and barracks to be built, mine galleries to be lined and propped up, rifle-pits to be braced, roads to be filled and mended. Everything for the front.
And Froisland establishes his romantic tone with the close of his first chapter:
Such is the front.
But it is also something quite different from this and infinitely more than this. For it is the greatest and most intense of all things — life and death in close embrace.
And it has ten thousand things than which nothing more beautiful can be seen anywhere — nothing more peaceful, nothing more unselfish and self-sacrificing.
But it is the most awful thing in the world.
The next chapter, “The Somme”, is the another very travelogue piece about the ruins, the sacred land with “not a green blade nor a live branch left” of “redeemed French territory”. (The infamous Somme offensive did actually recapture some French territory.) We hear of how the German trenches are underground cities with chapels, electrical stations, and assembly rooms. We hear of their walls of steel and cement. And, above, we hear of horse teams pulling wagons through the porridge-like mud.
In “The Front-Line Trenches” (like all the non-fiction pieces, I suspect this is drawn directly from Froisland’s own experience), he makes his way with an American journalist, fresh from covering the “Diaz rebellion in Mexico”, to the very front. A walking stick, helmet, and gas mask are essential to survive the passage through a “moon-landscape” — a common metaphor for the lands torn up by the artillery barrages of the Great War.
The cellars of a French nobleman’s castle are connected by tunnels to the trenches. And the German and French forces, separated by a few hundred yards, “occupy the same trench!”. The stalemate of the front is symbolized by two “heaps of ruins” Froisland observes through a periscope. The ruins are two farms whose names “recur every day in the communiques from Berlin and Paris”.
The scene setting concludes with “In the Argonne Forest”, an account of a lumber camp. There is an eerie vignette of fully geared French soldiers waiting in the darkness nine meters below ground to launch an assault — or repel the German miners who can be heard at work too.
And, in this last non-fiction bit, Froisland starts subtly linking individual sections of the book with various images and themes.
Here we hear the forest described in foreign terms:
We travel from one city of huts in this immense domain, across rivers and brooks, along lakes, up hill and down; we are traveling through the African jungle – by canoe, from one negro village to another.
I haven’t been able to establish if Froisland means that literally as in the sense of French African colonials at work. Senegalese certainly served their imperial masters in the war — one such soldier is, in fact, the protagonist of the next section of the book.
The titular Sall of “Sall Uhu — The Lion of Senegal” is representative of many of the protagonists in Froisland’s fiction pieces: many are not French and many are not soldiers.
Sall is a soldier, recruited by some false promises from his home. He encounters Froisland (the narrator’s persona is obviously Froisland) on leave in Paris. Sall is curious about Paris and its wonders, abstemious in women and drink, proud he can sign his name. Froisland takes a liking to him, adopts him as his filleul, alluding to the custom of French women of adopting a French soldier as their godsons and sending them letters and gifts.
Sall has promise. He’s ferocious in combat. He may be in line for a promotion.
But, after he goes back to Senegal on leave and returns, his letters to Froisland become fewer, and one day we hear he is dead. His last letter, in a childish scrawl revealing his other letters were dictated, says he is “all finished”. The narrator hears that, after he returned from combat, Sall was frequently drunk, had nasty habits, attacked a sergeant.
What are we to make of Sall? A colonial suffering from cultural shock and combat stress? A man only fit for war and unable to return to civilian life? Froisland never varies from his camera-eye, journalist perspective. He does not know another’s unvoiced thoughts and, so, doesn’t convey them to us.
(I haven’t yet verified the historical truth behind Sall’s recruitment. There seems a dearth of histories on the Senegalese in World War One. The only one I could find reference to was Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War by Joe H. Lunn.)
“The Eagle’s Nest” is another travelogue piece, here a journey to the Alpine front where Austria and Italy clash. Froisland, similarly to what he did earlier in noting how many small French towns got railroad spurs out of the war, notes how many mountain roads Italy built to conduct combat in the Alps.
The main story, though, is all summed up in the opening epigraph: “He who dies, before he dies, dies not, when he dies.” That describes an Italian officer who was set to be married, a wedding three days off when Italy enters the war. He returns on leave to find his betrothed married to another. From then on, at his cold post on Mount Canin, he remains silent and sullen until he dies about a year later.
Froisland does have a short, enigmatic conversation with him before he dies, a conversation about Lillehammer, Norway, and Norway is a topic of conversation with the odd Japanese hero of “The Chameleon”. This borders on a weird tale with many interpretations of the man (or men?) appearing as a prince, a street beggar, a journalist, a night-club magician, what are we dealing with? Twins? Dopplegangers? Clones? Telepaths? I hope to take a closer look at this story in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.
We do have a French soldier as a protagonist and on-stage German soldiers in “Christmas Eve in the Trenches”. This is not a feel-good, Christmas-in-the-trenches story though but another dark story of a romance destroyed by war, and it ends with a French soldier going on a shooting rampage against his comrades and some Germans visiting under a truce.
The spirit of Mati Hari, I believe, is behind “The Violin” in that its spy heroine is also Dutch and from Sumatra. She is a civilian and resident of Paris, but she is maimed by war. Vivacious and smart, she becomes the friend and professional colleague of Froisland. But she looses fingers in a Zeppelin bombing raid on Paris, becomes a cocaine addict and, somewhere along the line, a spy. The story ends with her execution by the French. Another case of Froisland showing that war can bring death in many ways.
Froisland’s account of war time Paris reminded me of this bit from Phillip Gibbs.
“The Coward from the Vosges Mountains” is another tale of a soldier driven mad by circumstances in the war. His hostility and hallucinations are directed at the dogs he believes are enemy soldiers. But the main point of interest is one of those odd observations Froisland’s book is full — some of them so obscure I haven’t been able to confirm them. Here it is noting how the animals of France fared during the war when so many hunters were otherwise engaged. Froisland tells of a multitude of hares and birds and rabbits damaging the fields and meadows of South and Central France. The story actually involves a hunting expedition Froisland goes on in Alsace.
A German soldier is at the center of a metaphorical, if not literal, doppleganger story, “I Stand Looking at My Own Corpse”. During the final months of the war, Froisland follows the Allied armies after the break in the stalemate on the Western Front. In Zeebrugge, Belgium in October 1918, Froisland and some other war correspondents spend the night in a hotel liberated from the Germans (with a cannon mounted in the hall — and, yes, Froisland does talk briefly about the Zeebrugge Raid.)
After enjoying the hospitality of the hotel’s owner — who has returned to retrieve the secret wine cache German officers missed all the years they occupied the place, Froisland retires to his room to write up his day’s notes and sleep. He is awakened by a German soldier who begs him for his clothes. He has been left behind by the retreating German forces and says he will cause no trouble, he merely wants to fade into the civilian population with civilian clothes.
Froisland acquiesces. The next morning he rather regrets his decision, especially when he gets word that he has been arrested as a spy — or, rather, the German has. Arrested and executed, in fact, and Froisland concludes the story with
I stood looking — and looking — at my own corpse. My companions said that our faces, too, bore a resemblance.
The concluding piece of fiction, “The Man with the X-ray Eyes”, is set, appropriately, around the end of the war. Undeniably weird, it tells of a wounded American soldier who really does have x-ray vision. Mixing horror and science fiction and symbolism, it is another story that will get a closer look in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.
The book is wrapped up with a wonderfully evocative piece on a topic not generally covered in World War One history: the French victory celebrations and march “Through the Triumphal Arch”.
The book has several black and white drawings. Frankly, most aren’t that interesting.
But, if it’s ever reprinted or you can afford it the collector editions, this book is definitely worth a look for both a fictional and historical view of the Great War.