The Wars Summary and Analysis
As Part Three of the novel begins, the dugout has been bombed. Robert wakes up, surrounded by smoke and debris. He can’t feel his legs and there is a heavy weight on them. The roof of the dugout is slowly collapsing. Levitt emerges in the rubble, carrying his books. He is panicked and in shock. It turns out that Rodwell is the weight on Robert’s legs. He is pinned by other debris. Robert has his hands around Rodwell’s animal cages. Poole is nowhere to be found. Levitt helps to free Rodwell and the two men pull Robert out, too. He collapses immediately, his legs still asleep after being pinned. He is concerned about Poole. He and Rodwell begin digging to try to find him. Levitt, still in shock, begins to complain that the men are making a mess when he tries so hard to keep the dugout in order. Rodwell turns and strikes him. Levitt runs out of the dugout immediately. Rodwell and Robert keep digging. Robert senses a third person has come in next to him and is digging, too. He assumes it is Levitt returning. It turns out to be Poole. He had left the dugout to relieve himself when the attack came. Robert is angry with him for leaving but relieved he is alive. Poole apologizes but is clearly amused.
Robert emerges from what remains of the dugout and makes his way to the trenches where he had introduced Levitt to some of the men just the day before. Now the trench is gone, just a smoldering hole. He tries to make his way into the crater to look for his men, but the way is now blocked up with the bodies of the dead and the stretcher carriers trying to make their way. He decides instead to try for the Battalion Signals Office, thinking that any of the living men would have made their way there. As he tries to get there he falls constantly, tripped up by holes and dead bodies. He comes across a rat squealing, trapped because of the waterlogged conditions. He grabs it by the tail and frees it. He wonders if he has done a good thing or bad thing by helping a rat remain alive. It is about a quarter mile to the Battalion Signals Office. Normally he could walk such a distance in minutes or run it in one and a half. Now, it takes him over an hour to get there.
The Signals Office is a chaotic scene. Robert is unable to get on the wire to receive orders, as all the wires are commandeered by other officers. German shells began landing close by but are fortunately off the mark. One of the closer shells causes everyone to duck. A young officer looks at Robert and says “Isn’t it marvelous?” Robert retreats outside for a cigarette.
Captain Leather, Robert’s commanding officer, arrives from Wytsbrouk. He asks for a status report of the situation. As Robert delivers his impressions of the current situation, Leather’s only response is “Just so.” Even when Robert tells him that he fears that many of his men are dead, Captain Leather delivers the same response. The Captain studies a map and designates new areas for guns to be set up. Robert feels the forward positions that the Captain has chosen are death traps for any man sent to them. He feels that the men will be exposed and the mud will likely swallow up the guns anyway. He does not argue with the Captain. Leathers warns Robert that the Mortar Squads are made up of troublemakers and goes inside for tea.
Robert comes to know Corporal Bates a bit as he leads him toward the dugout. Bates is taken by the sight of the battlefield and how treeless it is, comparing it to the aftermath of a cyclone or flood. Robert feels that if he can reach the dugout he may be able to gather himself and make sense of the situation regarding Captain Leather’s orders. At the dugout, Levitt is disconcertingly calm. Robert tells Rodwell to try to get the brazier going again. Rodwell informs him that all of his men are dead.
Robert and Bates move through what remains of the trench. There are dead men everywhere. Everything has taken on the same gray pallor. They come upon a crater, the bottom of which is filled with rising water. Robert considers Bates and Leather. He is taking orders from a man he doesn’t know at all. This, to him, is the greatest fear of war: not knowing if the men whose orders he is following are mad or stupid.
Robert spots an object that looks like a ski pole and tells Bates that they are going to head for that. Robert enters the crater and tells Bates to wait until he has a foothold. He begins to swim in the mud waiting for a shot to ring out, but it does not. Instead the surface sides of the crater are slippery like grease and Robert falls in, injuring his knees. Bates enters the crater, followed by the other men. There is no sign of the enemy. The object he had spotted earlier is, in fact, a ski pole.
The men begin digging to prepare an area to set up the forward guns in accordance with Captain Leather’s orders. Robert is performing the necessary calculations when he notices the absolute silence. It can only mean one thing: the Germans are about to attack. Robert counts the number of spare clips he has when one of the men alerts him to a pale blue fog creeping over the crater rim: gas. Robert orders the men to put on their masks only to discover that there men were not issued masks. Robert orders the men to jump. They all land on top of one another in the muddy water. There is a struggle and Robert fights off both living men and corpses in the water. He is the only one with a gas mask. He draws his pistol and fires it, telling Bates to order the men to back off. They do so. He then orders the men to take out a handkerchief or tear off a piece of their uniform and urinate on it. The men do as they are told, but are fearful that Robert has gone insane. He orders the men to place the urine-soaked rags over their faces.
Robert remembers a clear image from his school chemistry class: two bottles side by side. One bottle contained chloride and the other, urine. Tiny crystals of harmless ammonium chloride crystals formed when the two were near one another. In this way, the men could survive the gas attack. The gas begins to dissipate but the men still remain motionless. The Germans may be waiting to come through at any moment.
Robert begins to move, brushing the newly fallen snow off himself. He turns over and is the only brown thing on an otherwise white landscape. He rises and looks out over the edge of the crater. A German soldier with field glasses is looking right at him. He draws his pistol and is sure that the German soldier can see him. The soldier does nothing. He is alone. Robert tells Bates to stand up, too, certain that the German will not do anything. Bates does so and covers the German soldier while Robert climbs. To climb out, Robert has to turn his back on the German soldier, but is confident that he has no intention of killing anyone. Suddenly, Robert falls as Bates cries out. Robert hears a shot and sees the German soldier fall. Robert later realizes that the man was only reaching for his binoculars. Worse yet, the soldier had a Mauser rifle with him, a weapon used by snipers. He could have killed all of them at any time if that had been his intention. Robert has no idea why he spared them. Robert hears a bird flying overhead cry out a long, sad series of notes, a sound that will haunt him. On the way back through the trench, they do not find any of the men alive.
It is now the end of February. The Germans begin using flame throwers for the first time in combat. At first, only rumors of this weapon exist, and many men do not believe it is real or possible. Stories abound of men being cooked alive in the trenches and dying agonizing, horrific deaths. Rodwell and Poole manage to repair the roof of the dugout. Levitt has lost his mind completely, spending his time sitting with his books piled up to his chin. Rodwell has disappeared. Some of his animals died in the gas attack. No one is sure if he and his unit survived or not.
At the beginning of March, Rodwell reappears. He is being transferred. Robert, Poole, Devlin, and Levitt are to return to Wytsbrouk. Looking straight at Robert, Captain Leather says it’s a pity that Ross lost the guns in the mud. Robert informs him that he is Ross. Captain Leather coughs and repeats that it is a pity. He spots an airplane in the sky. “Free as a bird," he says, and leaves them.
Rodwell gives Robert a letter to mail when he gets back. He also gives him the toad and tells him to release the animal as far back from the front line as he can. They part ways. Rodwell’s letter is addressed to his daughter, Laurine. Robert and Poole load Levitt onto a train for the wounded. He is the only one sitting up. They then make their way to the Signals Office. Poole’s bugle is tarnished almost completely black.
Robert learns on Saturday that Rodwell has shot himself. He had been sent to fight with men who had been exposed to the firestorms in the trenches. Some of these men had gone mad. Rodwell found them slaughtering rats and mice and burning them alive in their fires. Rodwell had tried to stop them. To taunt him, the men forced him to watch them kill a cat. Half an hour later, he wandered into No Man’s Land and shot himself. Robert reads the letter Rodwell gave him for his daughter. It is a goodbye letter, telling her that he will be her father always and that he exists in all things. This echoes the quote from Euripides with which Findley begins the novel: "Never that which is shall die." The address for the letter is in Listowel. Robert does not know where this is but is determined to find out.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Ross has taken to going outside during storms. She calls to Ms. Davenport to put on her coat and hat whenever rain or snow falls. She often carries a stick and bangs it against lampposts while she is out. At one point, during a blizzard, she threw the stick in the snow and then dragged Ms. Davenport to a store to buy another. She also braves river banks during floods. She becomes convinced that her country is being destroyed by fire. When she has had too much to drink, Mrs. Ross sits in Rowena’s chair and Ms. Davenport wheels her to a park and back. The bumps on the journey keep Mrs. Ross awake, which she prefers. She dreads sleep.
Robert’s letters are read and cataloged and memorized. Mrs. Ross writes back to him every day in handwriting that is often indecipherable. Through all this, Mr. Ross continues to love his wife. He stares at her from across the dinner table and remembers the day he first saw her, riding a pony. She, too, remembers that day and was amused by how she was cruel both to him by ignoring him, and to her pony by not letting it stop to drink. Though she turned down many proposals from other men, she accepted Tom Ross. He did not ask for her but instead, simply offered himself. This allowed her to feel free. Being loved, for her, was the greatest burden. Now, she sits across from him and looks through him like he isn’t even there.
Robert is now being sent to “Blighty," or Britain. Robert looks through the sketchbooks that Rodwell left him. He sees all the drawings of animals as Rodwell described them. He finds one sketch of himself, done while he was sleeping. Of all the drawings Rodwell has made, it is the only one of a human subject. There is something unusual about the sketch, something slightly non-human. Robert wonders why Rodwell would have only drawn him and no one else when all he ever drew were animals. That morning Robert had released Rodwell’s toad into the wild and watched it burrow down into the mud. “Be well," he had said before leaving.
Part Three begins to introduce Robert to the horrors of warfare. It is clear that Captain Leather is entirely removed from the reality of the front lines. He gives orders that Robert knows will only result in the deaths of more men. Later on, he does not even recognize Robert while discussing how the guns were lost in the mud. Corporal Bates shares Robert's fear. What if those that are giving you your orders are insane or stupid? It could cost you your life. This again refers back to Carl von Clausewitz's writings on the nature of warfare, and specifically on the term "the fog of war". This term refers to the uncertainty soldiers will encounter in battle. This uncertainty can refer to their own capabilities, their enemy's capabilities, as well as their own understanding of a situation. All can be called into question.
This theme of confusion is touched upon throughout the novel. Findley even uses it when presenting information about Robert Ross as a character. As the readers, we piece together information about Robert from archived photographs and interviews. We are asked to make our own judgments about who Robert was and if what he did was admirable or reprehensible. The bottom line is that we cannot know with any certainty who Robert was. We can only glean a picture of him from the material presented. This ties into the ongoing struggle between public and private that pervades the novel. Our attempt to know Robert is, in a way, an invasion of his privacy.
The scene in the crater is reminiscent of Robert's near drowning in the dike. The four basic elements, earth, air, water, and fire, are another theme in the novel. The mud that nearly takes Robert's life is a mix of both water and earth. Fire is symbolized in the bombing and again in the stories Robert hears of the new flamethrower being used by German forces. We see the element of air when the German forces begin a chlorine gas attack on Robert and his men. As the gas descends upon them there is a panic and the men struggle to wrestle away Robert's gas mask. He is able to restore order with the use of his pistol. Fire is again symbolized in Robert's weapon. It becomes a tool of violence that also gives him power and a feeling of safety. The element of water comes into play when Robert orders his men to urinate on a handkerchief or piece of cloth after remembering a chemistry lesson from his school days. His quick thinking allows his men to survive what would have been otherwise horrible deaths. For all of his respect for life Robert could have been written off as timid or delicate. Here, he demonstrates that he is a quick-thinking leader and a true soldier.
Robert's encounter with the German soldier is an encounter with a version of himself. After establishing that the soldier does not seem to have any desire to kill Robert or his men, Robert shoots the German soldier when he sees the man reaching for something. Only later does he realize the man was reaching for a pair of binoculars to get a better look at a bird flying overhead. The man had no desire to kill anyone though he had the means to. Worse yet, he appears to share Robert's love of animals. Compare this with the earlier scene in which Robert points out the German forces to Levitt from the observation deck. Robert sees the enemy as fellow human beings instead of as faceless "Huns". The tragedy in killing the German soldier is not simply that the man had no intention of hurting anyone, but that in any other situation, he and Robert might have had a great deal in common.
With Rodwell's death Findley revisits the theme of the destruction of innocence. After watching his fellow soldiers torture a cat purely for the intention of disturbing him, he takes his own life. The senseless destruction of the natural world coupled with a seemingly endless capacity for cruelty erode Rodwell's faith in the world. Rodwell is like Rowena in that both characters are connected to the natural world in ways most people are not. That their names are so similar to each other, as well as Robert's, is not a coincidence. Rodwell's letter to his daughter seems to be prescient of the fact that he would not survive the war. His words mirror Robert's own belief in the sacredness of life. Phrases like "I am alive in everything I touch" and "We survive in one another" indicate a belief that the most valuable things in life are those around us and that all living beings are connected.
We see that Mrs. Ross is beginning to unravel as the war progresses. She takes to going out in storms, dragging poor Ms. Davenport with her. She catalogs Robert's letters and writes back to him in indecipherable handwriting. The distance from her son has had a lasting effect on her. Her desire to venture out in terrible weather betrays a need to be close to what she feels her son must be experiencing. She cannot know warfare firsthand so she puts herself in the worst conditions she can find. Some scholars see this not solely as madness but a desperation on Mrs. Ross's part to keep her bond to her son as strong as she can. By trying to know what he is experiencing, she feels that he is alive in her, echoing the sentiment Rodwell expressed in the letter to his daughter.
The distance between Mr. Ross and Mrs. Ross appears to have only grown, though he still loves her. She reveals that being loved is the greatest burden in her opinion. This once again echoes the theme of private vs. public. Being loved requires one invite another into one's private life. Mrs. Ross is uncomfortable with this idea as it also means she has to know the intimate parts of others' lives.
Robert's connection to animals and the natural world is displayed in Rodwell's sketchbook. His portrait of Robert is the only one in the sketchbook of a human being. Robert notes that there is something unusual about the portrait, something slightly non-human in the way Rodwell has drawn him. He wonders why. Findley answers Robert's question here for him. Rodwell saw something not just other than human in Robert, but beyond human. He had entrusted the animals and his sketchbooks, as well as his letter to his daughter, entirely to Robert. Findley paints Robert increasingly as something of an animal-like persona, even messianic in some ways. He seems to be able to communicate with animals and hear the voice of nature in ways that other men simply do not. Rodwell recognizes this quality in Robert.
The Wars Essays and Related Content
- The Wars: Major Themes
- The Wars: Questions
- The Wars: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Timothy Findley: Biography
- The Wars Summary
- About The Wars
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Prologue and Part One (Sections 1 to 15)
- Summary and Analysis of Part One (Sections 16 to 29)
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two
- Summary and Analysis of Part Three
- Summary and Analysis of Part Four
- Summary and Analysis of Part Five (I)
- Summary and Analysis of Part Five (II) and Epilogue
- Carl von Clausewitz's "On War"
- Related Links on The Wars
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources