Throughout the novel, Robert Ross and his fellow soldiers continually encounter water, air, earth, and fire in various forms. As the men experience the violence of World War I, these four elements come to represent their ongoing struggle between life and death. Water signifies the life-altering changes that war brings about, as Robert either bathes or comes into contact with this element just before many of his major transitions as a soldier. For example, he soaks in the bathtub before he enlists in the army, crosses the ocean on his journey to Europe, and bathes at Asile Desolé before he is raped by fellow soldiers. Air represents the men’s lack of control and fleeting optimism amidst the ongoing fight for their lives, as chlorine and mustard gas attacks often disrupt otherwise peaceful moments, filling the air with suffocating fog and depriving them of oxygen. Earth reflects the dehumanization and gruesome death inherent to trench warfare, as thousands of soldiers die unceremoniously by drowning in the muddy trenches. Similar to earth, fire represents the all-consuming pain and destruction of war. Many soldiers die torturous deaths in infernos caused by flamethrowers and bombs. Fire is what finally destroys Robert’s life at the end of the novel, as the incident with the horses in the burning barn disfigures his body and brands him as a traitor.
While these harrowing events are taking place in Europe, Robert’s mother, Mrs. Ross forces herself out into the harsh Canadian elements (rain, snow, wind, and mud) and is captivated by the news of a fire that destroys the Ottawa Parliament Building. This fascination seemingly occurs because coming into contact with the four elements bridges the gap between what soldiers are experiencing on the battlefront and what she and other civilians are experiencing on the home front. These natural forces—water, air, earth, and fire—are powerful in their ability to disrupt lives and bring about change, serving as a parallel to the all-encompassing societal disruption that World War I brings about. The four elements ultimately symbolize the ongoing struggle for life and the destructive alterations of mind, body, and spirit that Robert and the other soldiers experience at war.
The Four Elements Quotes in The Wars
The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. When it rains…the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you “waded to the front.” Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
Poole said: “You needn’t worry about the Germans here, sir. They’re a long ways off yet. At least as much as two miles or more.”
Levitt said: “Oh.” He seemed somehow demoralized by this news. Perhaps he thought you weren’t in the war unless the enemy could shoot you. In this he was much like everyone else who’d just arrived. You weren’t a real soldier unless you were in jeopardy.
From the gap, when Robert’s eyes had cleared, he cast a single look back to where the man had been. He saw that the whole field was filled with floating shapes. The only sounds were the sounds of feeding and of wings. And of rafts.
In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour—but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.
Robert thought of a Saturday crowd at a football game where everyone would link hands on the cold, fall afternoons and the long chains of singers would weave back and forth in the stands till the whole arena would be swaying from side to side.
Robert sat on the mutilated mattress and opened his kit bag. Everything was there—including the picture of Rowena. Robert burned it in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger—but an act of charity.