Spring Offensive takes place during the first twenty-four hours of the German attack against French and British forces along the Maginot Line in April 1940.
Of course, the Germans didn’t attack the French and British in April 1940, but two months later, in June, and when they did, they wisely bypassed the Maginot Line in favor of a blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and the Lowlands. This is a major reason why Herbert Clyde Lewis’ second novel, Spring Offensive, quickly flew from the new release stacks to obscurity. While the Phoney War dragged on, there was still an opportunity for a writer like Lewis to fantasize about what might happen when the shooting started. When it did start for real, events moved too fast for anyone to have time for fiction.
Peter Winston, Lewis’ protagonist, is a young American from outside Indianapolis serving with a British Expeditionary Force unit encamped in a small French town along the Maginot Line. He’d joined out of mixed motives–a bit of anti-Nazi fervor and a bit of self-pity. His girl had dumped him, he’d lost his job as a newspaper reporter, and his best friend had begun to avoid him as a hopeless loser. Readily accepted into the British Army, he now finds himself killing time in the most meaningless military drills.
One night, he decides to sneak out of the barracks and commit a small act of eco-vandalism. Taking a packet of flower seeds he’d obtained from a villager, he quietly slips into the barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles of the No Man’s Land between the Allied and German lines and spends the night planting seeds.
As dawn breaks the next morning, however, the sky is suddenly filled with the shriek of incoming German artillery shells. Winston injures his ankle in trying to run back to his unit. He takes a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder and winds up pinned down in a shell hole. Over the next few hours, he watches as the fearsome blood-letting of First World War battles like the Somme are re-enacted with faster-firing machine guns and deadlier explosives. Late in the afternoon, a young, frightened German soldier rushing forward in another futile charge bayonets him in the gut, leaving him to die in his muddy crater.
In many ways, Spring Offensive reworks the situation of Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I covered here several months ago. Instead of a stockbroker slowly drowning in the Pacific, we have a young soldier dying in No Man’s Land. In each book, Lewis switches between the present and flashbacks to his protagonist’s past and between the mind of his unlucky hero and the thoughts of other people in his life. And in both, Lewis is quite effective in conveying the wavering emotions and wandering thoughts of a man consciously moving closer and closer to death.
Unlike in Gentleman Overboard, however, a rather abstract situation is replaced by one very much within the reality of his contemporary readers. In early 1940, the American public was torn between support for the Allies and the isolationist views of the “America First” movement. Some of the thoughts that run through Winston’s mind as he lays in his shell hole touch directly on that debate:
And he was wondering why he had come all the way across the ocean to fight when he might have stayed at home, right in Indianapolis, and fought there. There was a war to be fought in America, he thought, and what a war it was! He was not proud of having been a private in the B. E. F., but he would be proud to be a general in that other army. And millions of men would volunteer, brave young men with hard brave faces, men from the fields and the factories and city streets and country roads, men marching west and shaking their fists at the setting sun. Winston moaned softly and moved his head from side to side. He didn’t want to die; he wanted to live and go home and fight in America’s war, in the war to make American a Land of Promise once again.
Now it could be that this is only meant to be a last thought of a dying man, no more or less significant than his memory of slipping his hand around the waist of his old girlfriend. But it’s hard for me to separate this passage–which, by the way, goes on with yet more Hollywood-ish populist cliches (Lewis did go on to work for the studios)–from the general premise of the book: the young man going out to plant flowers and being caught in the crossfire of a vast, bloody, and largely pointless battle. Perhaps Lewis truly did not intend to take a stand against anything but war itself, abstracted from the context of Nazism, Antisemitism, and Fascism, and was not casting a vote with the America Firsters. He did, after all, demonstrate an ability to view the most desparate situation–a man drowning alone at sea–with remarkable objectivity in Gentleman Overboard.
If he did, then Spring Offensive must rank with one of the great examples in literature of bad timing. Within weeks of its publication, the statis of the Phoney War was replaced by images of Panzer tanks rolling across France and the Nazi flag flying under the Arc de Triomphe. And within a few years, the abstract image of anonymous young German soldiers was replaced by that of S. S. troops carrying out mass executions. Whatever Lewis’ intention, it’s impossible now to view this book outside the context of its time.
In the very last lines of Spring Offensive, a German shell lands directly on top of Winston. “… [A]nd when the smoke cleared away, he wasn’t there any more.” History appears to have had the same effect on Spring Offensive.