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Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero

The title is, of course, ironic. George Winterbourne is not really a hero. Indeed, his death is almost accidental, as he exposes himself – deliberately? carelessly? – to German machine gun fire and is killed at once, the only British officer killed in that particular action, which results in an easy British victory. The narrator starts with his death and then proceeds to tell his life story. His parents are fairly awful. His father is a failed writer and solicitor and a complete nonentity. His mother, ruthlessly bourgeois and ambitious, has had twenty-two lovers (she marries number twenty-two and goes to Australia with him after the unexpected death of her husband, just two months after the death of their son). George himself, a failed artist, is only marginally better. The whole is a bitter attack on the society that, in Aldington’s view, was responsible for World War 1. George’s life story gives Aldington a chance to attack all kinds of bugbears – journalists, contemporary British writers, contemporary British painters, critics of both, the modern woman, free love, marriage.

However, this book is really about George (and Aldington) and World War I. Not really knowing why, George signs up as a private soldier. He feels, somehow, that it would less than noble to be an officer. Eventually, though he is persuaded to become one. Before he does become an officer, however, he is a runner to an officer called Evans, a standard British public school (i.e. rich private school) man. Evans is boring, unimaginative but decent. George grows quite fond of him. Their regiment is a pioneer regiment which means that they have to dig tunnels under the Germans and are, of course, subject to enemy fire and shelling as well as other unpleasantness. This part of the book is a savage attack on war. Aldington spares us nothing of the horrors, the futility and stupidity of war. Almost more frightening is the effect on George. George goes out an artist and a relatively independent thinker. As his wife and mistress both notice, the war changes him. He finds it difficult to relate to anyone, not just these two but anyone else. The only person he has real comradeship with is Evans, a person he would have despised before the war but Evans is wounded and he never sees him again. So why does he die? He becomes – unwillingly – an officer and finds his life even more miserable as he is continually abused by his colonel. At the end, as they are finally pushing the Germans back, he and his men are exhausted having barely slept in the previous two days. The Germans make a final stand. His men are falling like flies. There is only one thing left for George to do.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Chatto and Windus