This is a brutal tale of the exploits of French commandos on the Great War's Bulgarian front. First published in 1934, Vercel's novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt for its unflinching assessment of the toll fierce combat had taken on the youth of France. Largely autobiographical and told from the perspective of a young lieutenant, the book follows the exploits of a French commando unit attacking Bulgarian outposts along the Romanian border. The unit is led by Captain Conan, a haberdasher's son who finds his calling as a fearless killer ready to crawl through barbed wire and slit the throats of his enemies on midnight raids.
Conan is loyal only to his men, as all notions of patriotism are lost in place of the fraternity and brutality needed for survival and success in this close combat. Following the Armistice, Conan's unit is redeployed to Bucharest to maintain the peace, but they do more harm than good. The soldiers have become murderers, thieves, and rapists, and Conan himself is charged with injuring his lover's husband.
But the victim withdraws the charges, and Conan leaves Bucharest when the French are called to combat Lenin and Trotsky's guerrilla forces along the Ukrainian border. Conan and his men, now facing their former Russian allies, have lost all ideals of honorable battle and are reduced to serving as mindless weapons to be moved about on the field. Conan becomes the hero of his final fight, but Vercel shows us that there is no happy homecoming for a trained killer - only isolation, loneliness, and nostalgia for battles Conan never fully understood. Morgan's introduction to this new edition maps the public reception of Vercel's novel and places the book in the larger context of World War I combat literature.