The Scottish author and translator Walter Owen was not permitted to join the army during the First World War due to a painful physical illness which he self-medicated with opium. During one of these episodes, Owen had an out-of-body experience which transplanted him into the mind and body of a soldier on the Western Front. The Cross of Carl is his record of what he experienced. It was written in one night in 1917 whilst Owen was hospitalised for his illness. It was accepted for publication but was then refused by censors as anti-war propaganda for its brutal and gruesome depictions of the Western Front. In 1931, as the disenchanted view of the First World War became more and more prevalent among the slew of books that appeared in the War Books Boom, it was finally published.
The long, descriptive subtitle calls the novel ‘An allegory; The story of one who went down into the depths and was buried; who, doubting much, yet at the last lifted up his eyes unto the hills and rose again and was transfigured.’ The novel uses religious allegories to structure its narrative: the four chapters are titled after the stages of the Passion of Jesus, ‘Gethsemane,’ ‘Golgotha,’ ‘Sepulture’ and ‘Resurrection.’ The nationality of the soldier protagonist is not explicitly stated in the novel, suggesting that all soldiers in the conflict are subject to the same processes, that there is not inherent enmity between the enlisted men on either side. The plot follows this soldier, Carl, as he goes over the top in an attack.
Carl is injured in the attack; he passes out as a consequence and is mistaken for a corpse. He is then transported to factory where soldiers’ bodies are used as ‘pig-food, fats, glycerin and manure’ (Owen, 1931, p. 11). This reiterates a notorious example of atrocity propaganda which circulated during the War. Once awake, Carl escapes from the factory but is driven into a psychotic episode, and subsequently digs his own grave and lies in it. He becomes possessed by a prophetic voice. Two generals come upon him and carry him out of his grave, only to then shoot him due to his prophetic ramblings and his denunciation of them as minions of Mammon (Owen, 1931, p. 10, p. 16). This suggests that Carl views the conflict as a war of capital ordered by class structures.
L.A.G. Strong, reviewing for The Spectator (1931, p. 1022) named Owen’s novel ‘the most appallingly vivid narrative [they] have ever read.’ In the preface, General Sir Ian Hamilton calls it a ‘book of ghouls, ghosts, and nightmares.’ Owen combines the supernatural with a brutally realistic narrative of the war, and it has been categorised both as gothic and science fiction.
(with edits by Andrew Frayn)
Owen, Walter (1931). The Cross of Carl: an allegory; the story of one who went down into the depths and was buried; who, doubting much, yet at the last lifted up his eyes unto the hills and rose again and was transfigured. London: Grant Richards.
Strong, L.A.G. (1931). ‘Review of The Phoenix-Kind by Peter Quennell, The Thief by Leonid Leonov, Buttercups and Daisies by Compton Mackenzie, The Cross of Carl by Walter Owen.’ Spectator, vol. 146, iss. 5374 (27 June 1931), 1020-22 <https://www.proquest.com/docview/1295534434> [accessed 4 Nov 2021].
Note on funding
This blog is part of a research project on The War Books Boom, 1928-30 led by Andrew Frayn. This was partly funded by Edinburgh Napier University, and funding for a cognate project came from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. Beth Campbell’s work on this as an intern was funded by the Centre for Literature and Writing at ENU.
Project twitter account: https://twitter.com/warbooksboom