The Wars follows a young Canadian soldier named Robert Ross who is fighting in World War I. Although the main storyline takes place between 1915 and 1922, the narration occasionally switches to interviews with Juliet d’Orsey and Marian Turner (who knew Robert during the war) during the novel’s contemporary time period, roughly sixty years after World War I. Additionally, Findley inserts the reader into the narrative by making them a participatory character who is looking through archives of Robert’s family photographs and other old documents in the present day.
Robert is a shy, intelligent, athletic young man who comes from an affluent family. In April 1915, when Robert is eighteen, his beloved older sister Rowena falls from her wheelchair and dies. Robert, who has always viewed himself as his handicapped sister’s “guardian,” blames himself for the accident. After his mother, Mrs. Ross, has Rowena’s beloved pet rabbits killed, Robert enlists in the Canadian army in order to escape the guilt and trauma of his sister’s death. At military training, he meets Captain Taffler, a heroic soldier whom he hopes will teach him how to fight courageously and kill without fear. The other soldiers convince Robert to go to a nearby brothel, where he has a humiliating encounter with a prostitute named Ella and is horrified to see Taffler having sex with another man.
After training, in December 1915, Robert is promoted to Second Lieutenant and turns nineteen years old before embarking on the S.S. Massanabie to England. On the journey, Robert befriends another young soldier named Harris and takes over his job of overseeing the horses on board when Harris contracts pneumonia. Robert is forced to shoot one of the horses when it breaks its leg during a rough storm, an act that traumatizes him and begins the gradual loss of innocence he faces at war. Robert falls and hurts his knees during the same storm, an injury that causes him and Harris to be disembarked to an infirmary together when they arrive in England, where they become even closer. After Harris’s illness worsens and he is transferred to a hospital in London, Robert meets Barbara d’Orsey, who is there with Taffler to visit a wounded soldier named Captain James Villiers. When Harris eventually succumbs to his pneumonia and dies, he is cremated, and Robert scatters his ashes the River Thames with the help of Barbara and Taffler.
As new soldiers, Robert and his fellow young men glorify the war and are fixated on the notion of fighting and dying honorably. Thomas, Mrs. Ross, and Robert’s siblings Peggy and Stuart treasure the letters that he sends them from overseas. Robert travels from his post in France to Belgium, losing men along the way as they are either shot by German troops or fall into sinkholes where they drown in the mud. Just as he blamed himself for Rowena’s death, Robert continues to struggle with self-blame in his leadership role as a Second Lieutenant. Despite this guilt, Robert is observant and clever, and even saves his men from a chlorine gas attack by utilizing simple information he learned in his high school chemistry class.
In Belgium, Robert’s dugout is bombed in the devastating Battle of St. Eloi. He and his fellow soldiers, Poole, Levitt, Rodwell, Bates, Devlin, Bonnycastle, and Roots have first-hand experiences with trench warfare and witness the horrors of modern war; mustard gas attacks, flamethrowers, and long-range explosives are common, and many men die torturously painful deaths. Those who survive often suffer severe wounds or shell shock from the violence. The men’s Officer Commanding, Captain Leather, takes an entirely hands-off approach to the war, while Levitt, a junior officer who is a devout reader of the military strategy book Clausewitz on War, decries the passive mindset that Leather’s outlook embodies, and that modern warfare encourages.
While Robert and his fellow soldiers fight for their lives on the European battlefront, their families on the home front and Western society at large are also struggling to reconcile the mass brutality of World War I with their former notions of faith, tradition, and morality. Juliet d’Orsey and Marian Turner’s present-day interviews provide insight on these broad shifts as they reflect on how the war changed society. Between January and June of 1916, while Robert is at war, Mrs. Ross rapidly declines into alcoholism and increasingly erratic behavior over the guilt and stress of having a son who is risking his life overseas. Despite their physical and emotional distance, her struggles parallel Robert’s, showing the wide-reaching effects that the war has on both soldiers and civilians.
After the Battle of St. Eloi, Robert goes to rest at St. Aubyn’s convalescence hospital, which is owned by Barbara d’Orsey’s family. Here, he first meets Barbara’s younger sister, Juliet, who immediately falls in love with him. She is made envious when Barbara and Robert begin an affair and is traumatized when she accidentally walks in on them having violent sex. Juliet also saves Taffler’s life during this time, as he is recovering at St. Aubyn’s after losing both arms in the war and attempts suicide by rubbing his wounds on a wall to make them bleed.
In June 1916, following his time at St. Aubyn’s, Robert is sent back to France and journeys onto Belgium. On his way there, he is raped by four of his fellow soldiers, an assault that robs him of the last shred of his innocence that has been gradually corrupted by the war. He joins up with an ammunition convoy in Belgium and witnesses the most brutal combat yet, as Allied troops are devastated by German bombs and shellfire in the trenches. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the war and its trivialization of both human and animal lives, Robert asks Captain Leather to let him save their company’s horses and mules from the impending fire that is consuming the battlefield. When Leather refuses, Robert and Devlin disobey orders and set the animals free. Leather shoots Devlin, and Robert retaliates by killing Leather.
This incident causes Robert to desert the army and wander on his own for days, during which time he frees a train full of horses and allegedly kills an unarmed soldier named Private Cassles who tries to prevent him from passing through a wooded area. This act causes Major Mickle, Cassles’s superior, to pursue Robert and order his men to set fire to the abandoned barn where Robert and the horses are taking shelter in order to smoke him out. Robert, however, is unable to open the doors in time, and is trapped inside the burning barn. He barely survives the fire and is severely deformed, and all the animals burn to death. Robert is treated by Nurse Marian Turner at a French hospital, where he refuses her offer to help him commit suicide. After he is tried in absentia for his war crimes, he is transferred to St. Aubyn’s in the fall of 1916, where he lives out the rest of his bed-ridden life with Juliet by his side. Robert’s fellow soldiers, as well as most of his family, view him as a traitor and disown him for his actions. His father is the only member of his family to see him buried when he dies in 1922 at age twenty-five.