A Son at the Front, Informative Fiction Behind the Battlelines

Book cover, A Son at the Front

I recently read A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton, the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Wharton, the daughter of wealthy New York aristocrats, lived in Paris during World War I. Throughout the conflict, she dedicated herself to France’s defeat of the Germans. She volunteered in relief centers for displaced people, raised money to support wounded veterans, and wrote articles for a number of American publications, in part to urge U.S. engagement. In 1916 France’s president appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour due to her tireless efforts in aiding the country.

At the same time, Wharton somehow found the energy to practice her craft as the author of novels, short stories, and poetry. She wrote A Son at the Front in 1919 but it wasn’t published until 1923. In the immediate aftermath of four years of fighting, the need to focus one’s thoughts on anything other than war delayed its release.

I often state that I prefer nonfiction to fiction but Wharton’s novel brought me to a new realization: the fiction that captures my deepest affection is almost always written by someone who was alive during the historical time period in which the story takes place, or (minimally) was written by someone who knew intimately others who lived through it. A Son at the Front is a work of fiction, but it contains so many subtle details about how upper-class people living in Paris spent their days during the war that it also carries the authentic account of a keen eyewitness.

Edith Wharton
Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1907.

I hope the summary that follows inspires you to read A Son at the Front because I include here only a sliver of what it has to offer. If, however, you prefer knowing very little about a book before reading it, I caution there may be spoilers ahead.

A Son at the Front

A Son at the Front is the story of an American ex-pat, John Campton, living in Paris in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. His son, George, who was unexpectedly born while his parents were visiting Paris and lived most of his life in the United States, is called up to fight for France. After years of trying to make a name for himself, Campton’s career as a portrait artist has finally taken off. His wealthy ex-wife, and George’s mother, is remarried to an influential banker. The three parents, bestrewn with high-society connections, pull every string they can lay hands on to keep George, if not out of the military, at least far from the front lines.

Once the young soldier leaves Paris, however, there is little to no information about his activities. George’s letters home are simplistic and impassive, always ending in reassuring platitudes. Meanwhile, the opportunities to glean insights from higher-ups who know about George’s engagement are few and far between. Eventually, there are indications that George’s back-office regiment may well be sent into battle.

As with every war, the homefront is bombarded with dubious propaganda: the war will end swiftly; France’s superior forces are making undeniable advancements; Germany cannot withstand further losses… Yet to all observers, the war is like a gruesome version of Seuss’ Star-on Star-off machine, with exuberant young men lining up at the entrance to achieve glory while the maimed, mutilated, and casketed return from the other side.

WWI Battle Scene by Chartier
In 1916, the French government commissioned painter Henri-Georges-Jaques Chartier to produce this battle scene.

All In

Undoubtedly, Wharton’s writing is colored by her personal experience but there’s no denying the ubiquitous devotion to the troops that reigned in the streets of Paris. Everyone had skin in the game. Wharton’s psychological portrait of Campton, a middle-aged man twisting in a web of impotence, is set against a backdrop of fervent patriotism.

In contrast to today’s armed conflicts—at least those that the United States engages in—the war was first and foremost on everyone’s minds. There was a prevailing assumption that each member of society would find ways to support the effort, doing whatever they could to bring the fighting to an end—short of advocating for surrender.

Campton had never before, at least consciously, thought of himself and the few beings he cared for as part of a greater whole, component elements of the immense amazing spectacle. But the last four months had shown him man as a defenseless animal, suddenly torn from his shell, stripped of all the interwoven tendrils of association, habit, background, daily ways and words, daily sights and sounds, and flung out of the human habitable world into naked ether, where nothing breathes or lives. That was what war did; that was why those who best understood it in all it’s farthest-reaching abomination willingly gave their lives to put an end to it.

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
The Soldier's Departure, by Victor Prouvé
The Soldier’s Departure, 1914, by Victor Prouvé

Desperate for News

Similar to today, people had a critical need for information and habitually relied upon numerous sources of communication. However, the vehicles for sending and receiving news were strikingly different. It’s hard to imagine, but according to the Ministère des armées, French civilians sent at least 4 million letters per day to the front lines and received as many in return. Within Paris, mail was delivered multiple times per day and a separate, pneumatic postal system allowed average citizens to send messages across town in a matter of hours.

Petit bleu telegram
Known as “petits bleus”, blue slips of paper were used to convey handwritten messages on Paris’ pneumatic postal system.

Wharton’s imagined settings give a clear picture of such circumstances. Today, we often complain about people’s addiction to their smartphones. Back then, it seems, similar distractions were generated by any source that might provide further news about the war.

Campton’s lips were opened to reply when her face changed, and he saw that he had ceased to exist for her. He knew the reason. That look came over everybody’s face nowadays at the hour when the evening paper came.

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton

Impotence and Estrangement

Wharton never had children and yet she produced legions of poignant passages relating to Campton’s parental aspirations and concerns. No longer privy to his son’s thoughts, Campton initially assumes that they must mirror his own. He wants to unquestioningly support his son’s ambitions. His son’s inaccessibility, however, exposes Campton’s deep-seated uncertainty. He can’t be totally sure of George’s state of mind. Without admitting to the possibility, Campton recognizes that there is a chance his son might want to engage in combat.

Wharton’s astute descriptions evoke the internal tug-of-war that strains many parents’ perceptions as their kids become adults. On one side of the rope lies the rational desire to rejoice in a child’s independence. On the other side is the irrational yearning to maintain some sort of control. If one is a successful parent, the side of independence wins out, but for Campton, this loss of control could cost him his son.

It was true that [George’s] letters had never been expressive: his individuality seemed to dry up in contact with pen and paper. It was true also that letters from the front were severely censored, and it would have been foolish to put in them anything likely to prevent their delivery. But George had managed to send several notes by hand, and these were as colourless as the others…

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
French soldiers at Verdun
French soldiers of the 87th regiment at the battle of Verdun, 1916.

Describing the Indescribable

As far as I know, A Son at the Front is not based on a true story. Yet, the book conveys much more than a patina of authenticity. Time and again, Wharton describes circumstances and feelings that would be difficult for any author to tackle–even those who lived through them. I found myself constantly marveling at her prose.

The thought of “Out there” besieged him day and night, the phrase was always in his ears. Wherever he went he was pursued by visions of that land of doom: visions of fathomless mud, rat-haunted trenches, freezing nights under the sleety sky, men dying in the barbed wire between the lines or crawling out to save a comrade and being shattered to death on the return. His collaboration with Boylston had brought Campton into close contact with these things. He knew by heart the history of scores and scores of young men of George’s age who were doggedly suffering and dying a few hours away from the Palais Royal office where their records were kept. Some of these histories were so heroically simple that the sense of pain was lost in beauty, as though one were looking at suffering transmuted into poetry. But others were abominable, unendurable, in their long-drawn useless horror: stories of cold and filth and hunger, of ineffectual effort, of hideous mutilation, of men perishing of thirst in a shell-hole, and half-dismembered bodies dragging themselves back to shelter only to die as they reached it. Worst of all were the perpetually recurring reports of military blunders, medical neglect, carelessness in high places: the torturing knowledge of the lives that might have been saved if this or that officer’s brain, this or that surgeon’s hand, had acted more promptly. An impression of waste, confusion, ignorance, obstinacy, prejudice, and the indifference of selfishness or of mortal fatigue, emanated from these narratives written home from the front, or faltered out by white lips on hospital pillows.

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
The Menin Road, by Paul Nash
The Menin Road, by Paul Nash, depicting WWI battlefield on the Western Front.

Coming to Terms with the Unthinkable

At the start of any armed conflict, there are always people who resist getting involved. Whether pacificist, cynical, or simply apathetic, they put their energies elsewhere. But the longer the conflict drags on, the longer atrocities accumulate, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the horror.

During my lifetime, I’ve never had to face that sobering turning point where I changed from peacemonger to ardent proponent of force. I’ve never lived with the threat of my son being killed in battle. But books like A Son at the Front have given me a clear impression of how such circumstances might feel. Could I be a strong advocate for war? In what circumstances? Could I ever embrace my son’s involvement?

Those are the kinds of questions that Wharton’s book had me pondering. It pulled me away from my insulated and privileged life to reflect, just briefly, on what many in this world have had to deal with and sadly continue to face.

If France went, western civilization went with her; and then all they had believed in and been guided by would perish. That was what George had felt; it was what had driven him from the Argonne to the Aisne. Campton felt it too; but dully, through a fog. His son was safe; yes — but too many other men’s sons were dying. There was no spot where his thoughts could rest: there were moments when the sight of George, intact and immaculate — his arm, at last out of its sling – rose before his father like a reproach.

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
French magazine cover 1919
Homage to the dead of World War I, one year after it ended.

A Less than Zero Sum Game

Wharton was certainly not a pacificist. She heavily supported France’s engagement and lobbied vigorously for America to come to its aid. At the same time, she recognized the tragic waste that four years of combat brought and the folly of man’s insatiable desire to expand his dominion.

Ultimately, A Son at the Front advances the importance of defeating the Germans. In Wharton’s view, they had to be stopped. In hindsight, however, it’s impossible to accept that the catastrophic losses on both sides were worth it. If only the world’s leaders would learn from the past. Despite the best efforts of historians and brilliant novelists, mankind ends up with generation after generation of power-hungry rulers willing to squander their country’s resources, sacrifice the youths of their nation, and destroy the lives of their perceived enemies. And thus, books like A Son at the Front remain highly relevant.

Such a summer morning it was — and such a strange grave beauty had fallen on the place! He seemed to understand for the first time — he who served Beauty all his days— how profoundly, at certain hours, it may become the symbol of things hoped for and things died for. All those stately spaces and raying distances, witnesses of so many memorable scenes, might have been called together just as the setting for this one event — the sight of a few brown battalions passing over them like a feeble trail of insects.

From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
Isolated Grave Vimy Ridge
Isolated Grave and Camouflage, Vimy Ridge, by Mary Riter Hamilton, May 20, 1919

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. I can see that Wharton is a gifted writer, and does a good job of conveying her ideas — but World War I is perhaps the least suitable war in history for presenting those ideas, because it really was utterly pointless. It started almost by accident, from an escalation of incompetent political blunders following a petty assassination. There was no great evil that needed to be defeated, like fascism in World War II or jihadism today. Nothing was really at stake except which country would get to grab off a chunk of which other country’s territory. The only historically important result of the war was the rise of communism in Russia, and that wasn’t even the goal of any of the belligerents. There was nothing at stake to remotely justify the vast toll of death and maiming. “Long-drawn useless horror” is exactly right, for the whole thing.

    A parent whose child is becoming independent always faces that fear of completely letting go of control, because of concern that the child may get involved in something genuinely dangerous — experimenting with drugs, joining a cult, or whatever. But how much worse is the fear when, as in this case, the dangerous temptation is actively encouraged by the government.

    • Yeah, it’s impossible to justify the destruction of World War I. Nothing was gained. Territorial disputes are so maddening because they last for centuries and every time there’s a fresh attempt to reclaim what once was lost, the men in charge push the narrative that victory will be swift and result in a just restoration of dominion. A Son at the Front covers the war from the beginning until the Americans declared they were entering the fray. At that point, according to Wharton, the French hated the Germans in much the same way as Israelis hate Hamas. Perhaps that hatred was unjustified but so many people had lost loved ones at that point that surrender was unimaginable. I don’t mean to justify the mindset. But, I think Wharton’s book helped me understand it a bit better.

      Believe me, I know the fear of losing complete control of one’s kids. Ha! I consider myself to have been a pretty hands off parent. Yet, even though my kids face nothing even close to the perils of warfare, I am sometimes filled with worry. It’s completely irrational but the thought that they might be struggling with anxiety or depression and not be able to fully share that with me–for whatever reason–is difficult to accept even though such situations are to be expected. There were many elements of Campton’s character that I didn’t appreciate but I could relate to many of his aspirations with respect to his relationship with his son and as I said in my review, I was surprised at Wharton’s ability to render a rainbow of nuances.

      Thanks for reading. What do you think the outcome would have been had France (or Britain or the United States) had stayed out of the war?

      • Alsace-Lorraine is actually an example of a very common type of intractable territorial dispute. States tend to want geographically-defensible borders (such as large rivers), but a state based on ethnicity usually wants to incorporate all territory inhabited by that ethnicity. By the first imperative, Alsace-Lorraine should be part of France (so the border would be on the Rhine), but by the second, it should be part of Germany (because it has historically been Germanic in language and culture). Thus the area changed hands several times depending on the relative power of France and Germany, down to 1945 when the unwritten rule was established that the post-World-War-II borders were locked in place and could not be changed any more, at least not by force, even if historical injustice was involved.

        Your last question is an interesting one, though I’m no expert on that period. It’s hard to imagine France staying out since Germany invaded it. If that had not happened, then with France being neutral territory, there would have been almost no way for Germany and Britain to engage each other in battle, and the war would basically have been just Germany vs Russia, which would have led to the collapse of the latter much more quickly than happened in real history. This would have resulted in Germany dominating eastern Europe while the same old unresolved tensions simmered along in the west, probably leading to a separate western war a few years later.

        If Britain had stayed out, the war would have played out much as it did in real history, but with Germany at less of a disadvantage, possibly enough to win in the end. If the US had stayed out, again, Germany would probably have won — in real history, the collapse of Russia freed up enough manpower to transfer to the west to unfreeze the trench-warfare lines in a few places, and push forward toward Paris again. Without the US getting involved, it’s hard to see what would have permanently stopped this.

        In that scenario, since Germany was just as full of resentment and hate over the massive casualties as France and Britain were, Germany might well have imposed a settlement as harsh as the Treaty of Versailles in real history. I don’t know whether this would have led to the rise of a Hitler-like figure in France determined to wage a war of revenge and national re-assertion twenty years later. The situation would be parallel, but the cultures are rather different. It’s too bad we can’t look at parallel worlds in which key events happened differently, to see what would have followed.

        • Thanks for sharing some though-provoking speculation, Infidel. I can’t imagine France staying out of it either and I don’t think they would have produced their own version of a Hitler had they lost, but certainly there would have been a strong resistance movement (as there was in WWII) and armed conflicts would have continued.

          Architecturally speaking, Alsace retains much of its German influence but when traveling there these days, the people seem far more French than German. It’s a wonderful mix of the two cultures. Too bad so many people died to arrive at today’s seemingly peaceful state of affairs in that region of the world.

          As far as future invasions go, France is far more concerned about Russia and China than Germany. It’s a terrible possibility to ponder.

          • I don’t think they would have produced their own version of a Hitler had they lost

            I would be curious to know why you think this, if you feel inclined to elaborate. I know Germany and France are different, but I don’t know France nearly as well, but the French have been capable of pretty horrific things at times (I’m thinking Algeria 1954-1962).

            The relaxation of tensions that has allowed the former dispute over Alsace-Lorraine to die down is a huge achievement. When I visited Germany in 1984 I met an old man who had fought on the Russian front in World War II. He told me that Germany and France had programs like student exchanges to help people in each country get to know the other, to prevent a recurrence of the past. He said, “The young people today are smarter — they won’t let themselves be tricked into hating each other like we were.” The people have finally realized that the real enemy is not the other country, but the extremists and haters in both countries.

            You said, Could I be a strong advocate for war? In what circumstances? Could I ever embrace my son’s involvement?

            My guess is that you never would, because the circumstances that led people in France and Germany in 1914 to feel that way can no longer arise, at least in a major country like the US. The French, as Wharton observes, fully believed that France’s very survival was at stake, and that its civilization and values might be permanently lost. When the stakes are felt to be that high, any sane person will be willing to fight. But the modern US has nuclear weapons. No other country will choose to pose that kind of threat to our very survival, because they would be risking total annihilation. See the Ukraine war, where both Russia and NATO have been very careful to avoid direct combat between their forces, because the risk of that escalating to a nuclear exchange would be too high. Without the nuclear factor, the Ukraine war would certainly have escalated to an all-out Russia-vs-the-West conflagration by now, with death and destruction across much of Europe comparable to World War II. Thanks to the H-bomb, that has not happened, and probably cannot. This is why I say the H-bomb has prevented more human death and misery than any other invention. If the lunatics who seek to abolish nuclear weapons globally ever achieve their goal, humanity will be hurled back into the pre-1945 nightmare in which events like World War I and II become possible again, perhaps even common, and you might well find yourself facing the questions that parents in the time of A Son at the Front had to face. Fortunately, I don’t believe this will ever happen.

          • You’re absolutely right that France was capable of committing horrible offenses but I think there were key differences. Had France lost to Germany in WWI, their focus would have been to rid the Germans from any previously-held French territory that Germany had gained and to prevent further German advances. Even in WWI, there were reasons to believe that if Germany succeeded, it wasn’t going to stop. Similar to today’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine, if Ukraine manages to drive Russia out, I’m not expecting them to produce an authoritarian leader that launches a campaign to expand Ukraine’s frontier.

            I don’t want to understate the criminal aspects of France’s efforts to expand its empire, and certainly there were and continue to be racist and nationalist French people. But while France was complicit in sending many Jews to their deaths, they weren’t in charge of the camps and never hatched any plans of their own to exterminate certain portions of humanity deemed to be inferior.

            You’re more optimistic than I about the security of the United States and the future of mankind for that matter. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate much of your writing. I’m not expecting war to break out and certainly not one that in any way resembles WWI. But, I do worry about acts of terror—those committed by our own citizens as well as foreign agents. If our young men and women were called into action, I can imagine circumstances that might influence my son’s enlistment. Like Campton, I want to believe that my son would see things as I do and hold on to the belief that violence begets more violence. But if he didn’t and he signed up to fight, I wouldn’t oppose his decision. I’d try to understand it and I might come to believe he was doing the right thing.

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts about nuclear weapons. You make good points regarding their ability to deter certain conflicts but do you think that nuclear technology is safe from the hands of “lunatics” who might decide to use it? What about a mishap, where there is an unintended launch that provokes a counter attack?

            As I write these perilous paragraphs, I’m not really as anxious as I may seem. Such thoughts don’t keep me up at night… usually. Ha!

          • It is certainly true that terrorist acts continue. But an attack that kills a thousand every few years is still better than a war that kills ten million every couple of decades. And even with terrorist attacks, we seem to be doing fairly well at deterring them. With the fanaticism of the Islamists (and some domestic extremist groups), why don’t we have something like 9/11 or 7/7 every couple of months? They don’t require much skill or technology to carry out. But we can catch them before they happen in many cases, and deter them by retaliation. All the leaders of al-Qâ’idah at the time of 9/11 died within a few years, not just the deluded cannon fodder they sent into oblivion on those planes. Other leaders of extremist groups saw and took note.

            From what I know of the subject, terrorists building a nuclear bomb or even learning how to use a stolen one would be far more difficult than most people realize, and would require an assembly of equipment and expertise which Western intelligence services would probably detect well in advance, and understand its implications, enabling us to put a stop to the threat long before it was realized. It might be just possible with extensive help from a terrorist-supporting country — but imagine what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in the middle of New York or Tel Aviv. We’d spare no effort to identify the country that had helped, which would immediately cease to exist, while anybody with any share of responsibility who escaped would be hunted down without mercy. Even people like the rulers of Iran understand this.

            There can never be absolute security, but we are a lot more secure with nuclear weapons than without them. 78 years without a mega-war like World War I or II has probably saved hundreds of millions of lives already. Deterrence works. Fear is one of the most effective tools for regulating human behavior. I’ll take the morally-perverse and scary H-bomb that actually delivers a more peaceful world, over the pre-nuclear chaos that gave us flattened cities and millions of corpses every few decades, any day.

          • PS: I missed you question about an “unintended launch” of a nuclear missile. Given all the safeguards in place, this is actually much less likely than your car spontaneously starting, backing out of the driveway, and driving off down the street all by itself. The weakest link is actually not mechanical failure but bad-decision-making at the top, which is another reason to vote against Trump next year (and notice that even he never used a nuclear bomb, and the precautions Milley put in place would likely have stopped him if he had tried it. We do need something like the Soviet nuclear doctrine, in which there were two sets of codes and the minister of defense, not just the president, was also required to launch a missile, so no one person ever had that power all by himself.

  2. Excellent. Navrant mais excellent. Je n’ai pas de préférence entre “Fiction vs. non-fiction”. Whatever does the job.
    A particular quote you posted rang a bell for me:
    “If France went, western civilization went with her”.
    I’m afraid that’s where we are now. And Belgium, and… and…

    Here’s some non-fiction for you:
    I knew my grandmother’s little brother, Alexandre, had been killed in WWI in the early days of the war. He was barely 23. Then I recently read an article by an English historian whose name I forgot… (Memory).

    He spoke of a particular day of the war, August 22nd, 1914, when 27,000 French soldiers were killed. Morts pour la France.
    Possibly the day of the war with most casualties.

    I went back to the certificate of death of my… great-uncle. He died that day… along with 27,000 other soldiers. (at least on our side)

    • Boy, that’s chilling Brieuc. Uncovering portions of family history like that can be exhilarating. I’ve been trying to track down more information about my grandfathers’ participation in the war. One was an ambulance driver stationed at Saint Nazaire. I filed a request for information and received a reply giving me links to two additional forms that I need to provide along with more supporting documents.

      The other was a conscientious objector who was thrown in solitary confinement until some sort of deal was struck after which he was placed in a desk job.

      I’m keen to learn more about both of them.

      • Your grandfather? That was WWII, right? American? Good that you found the proper channels.
        As far as my great-uncle, Alexandre Desprès, I’d always known about him and my grandfather’s brothers. My mother always told my my grandfather had gone to war along with his 7 brothers. Only my grandfather and two of his brothers came back…
        Then a few years back, I learned about an intitiative of the French Ministry of Defence called “Mémoires des hommes”. They digitized all death certificates of WWI. So one can track by name. Since my grandfather’s name is not common, (Prodault) and his brother in-law either (després) plus places of birth, I was able to get most certificates. Alexandre was the first to die, August 1914. The last one was a brother of my Grand-father. He was killed in 1918, only a few weeks before the en of the war…
        Best of luck in your search…
        Now the ambulance driver? Maybe he knew Hemmingway?

        • Both of my grandfathers were born at the end of the 19th century. My father was born in 1926 so he might have fought in WWII but was rejected due to a heart murmur.

          Oh my! Eight brothers from the same family and only three survived. So tragic.

          Had my grandfather known Hemingway, I’m sure I would have heard about it even though I don’t recall him ever speaking of his time in the army. I think Hem served in Italy or Spain, not France. If only I’d cared about such things when I was a teenager. By the time I became interested in family history, most of my ancestors were gone. C’est typique, non?

          • C’est typique. En effet. Your father was my mother’s age. At least he was saved from WWII.
            There is a picture my mother had, of her parents at a wedding. She once told me who was who, but I didn’t listen quite sharply enough. Biting my fingers now.
            I’ve posted it under the title “The bride wore black”. Did you read that one? I can send you the link if you haven’t.
            Au revoir. Bonne soirée.

          • I don’t recall that post. Feel free to leave a link here. My mother wore a dark grey dress, tea-length, for her wedding. She wore it many times thereafter as well for special occasions. I would have worn her dress when I got married if it had been in better condition. Instead, I succumbed to societal expectations and did the traditional white gown, not really my thing but I felt at the time that the wedding was more to satisfy my husband’s family than anyone else. I absolutely chose the perfect life partner for me, the rest was inconsequential.

          • One has to make compromises. A wedding is more often than not a social event for the family. The end result is what counts. Congrats.
            Here’s the link:
            Au revoir

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