Normally I am not one for novels. Story books tend to find themselves flung out the door quickly while I look for something worthwhile. With regard to the Great War I find a great many people writing novels depicting, they say, the situation one man or more went through. I dismiss them myself. However when a man who has served in the trenches writes of the war I am more inclined to hear what he has to say and see his description of his war. The men who served are the men to listen to! Frederick Manning spent months on the Somme with the 7th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, a 'Kitchener Battalion,' and claims all the situations recorded in his book occurred to someone, often he himself.
Manning was born in Australia in 1882 and moved to Lincolnshire in 1903 to live with a family friend who had become vicar at Edenham. Here he read widely in classics, studied philosophy, and produced a book, 'The Virgil of Brunhild,' others followed but while literary circles admired his writing mass circulation was not to be expected. In spite of his asthma Manning continued to smok to much, he also spent a lot of time in local public houses an exercise that would lead to troubled times in the future.
His poor health did not stop him attempting to enlist in 1914. In spite of London life, where he became regarded as a minor poet and literary critic mixing with some important people from that world, he shared the desire to join the army like so many others of his day. He was rejected several times until in October 1915 he was accepted by the Shropshires, numbered private 19022. His educated background led him to being selected for a commission, which he failed, he joined his regiment in France during 1916. The 7th attacked Bazentin Ridge on the 14th of July, the wire was uncut and the second wave were hit by their own barrage, 200 men and 8 officers being lost. Manning was promoted to lance corporal, possibly after this battle. In November the battalion attacked the well defended Serre, on the Somme, another trying time.
Manning received a commission in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment. This did not suit either he nor the British Army. Being a bit of a loner, drinking heavily, and failing to adhere to the army way off life he soon found trouble with superiors. His regard for the men as distinct from officers and his dislike of much military thinking and its effects on the 'poor bloody infantry,' increased his revulsion of much concerning army life. The effects of trench life were said to be responsible for his drinking and attitude but the commission was resigned in 1918. He had continued to write, poems, items in magazines and by 1923 Manning took a commission to write the life of Sir William White. White had been a leading man in the admiralty late in the 19th century.
Ten years after a war men's minds begin to demand they tell the world what they have endured. Life has, for most, returned to some sort of normality but the experiences have never healed, indeed they never do. Manning was encouraged to write about his experiences and take advantage of the emotion of the day as books were beginning to fall off the shelves and typewriters were melting under the desperation to publish memoirs He produced his work quite quickly and published in a limited number as 'The Middle Parts of Fortune.' The introverted Manning takes the reader inside the hearts of men in battle, and quite unlike any other book we see something of the mind of a real everyday soldier. The 'soldiers language' was considered too strong for the time and an expurgated version was published as, 'Her Privates We,' the title a quote from Shakespeare.
Unlike many war books this one contains comparatively little war action even though it begins as an action is ending. We read instead much of the emotions of a soldier in battle, the relationship of officers to men and vice versa at the time, the attitudes and responsibilities of NCO's, the men who really run an army, and as they withdraw out of the line the scene changes to the dull monotonous routine of army life. This however is not the somewhat sentimental emotions seen is American movies, here we are confronted with the everyday man. After the return from the line the men spend a few days settling their nerves, dwelling, without much exchange of confidences, on the stirred emotions within, helped, though they may not think it, by the routine of life. The dead are an ever present reality for the soldier, one day he may join them.
As is the way companies break down into two or three men getting together to make their life bearable. The hero of the book, named Bourne after a small town Manning once stayed in, speaks French tolerably and is used by many to get help from local women regarding obtaining food and wine and having these prepared for them. One causes Bourne much laughter when lady of the house misunderstands a soldiers use of the word, 'cushy.' This was a common army word from the Hindi for 'comfortable.' The woman instead hears 'coucher,' a word which has a differing meaning and results with her fetching the language ignorant solder a slap round the head. Manning himself 'liked to drink,' as they say and soldiers often while away what is left of their lives in making merry. 'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,' means more to a soldier in such a war than it can ever mean to another.
The action, if this is action, continues with Bourne posted to the orderly office. Here again the 'office politics' of army life is centre stage. It isn't good. Nervous adjutants, greasy sergeant majors, and the strange feeling that a soldier prefers the real army with his pals rather than this 'cushy' number. At least he avoids all those hard fatigues men at rest are lumbered with. However army parades continue, seen as needless by many but insisted upon by an officer core with reasons of their own. One such is interrupted by two shells which take out several men, much to the battalions disgust. An aircraft is blamed but it soon becomes obvious that it is British shells falling short, a not uncommon occurrence. Men sent on raids or to the line on fatigues when to all minds such is not possible is made worse when casualties, often popular officers, are injured. The regiment returns to the line and Bourne and his mates act as runners, suffering the delight of a German bombardment while doing so. Again this is used to describe both Bournes reaction and that of his companions. They then return to prepare for yet another chance to go 'over the top.'
What we read in these glimpses of army life is not so much the action but the reality seen from deep within the authors mind. The mist or fog is described almost as if it is alive, the countryside, even in the dark, allows us to know that men in war are touched by their surroundings like everyone else. We also note the attitudes in the towns behind the lines, and the class difference that results in unfair treatment of the men. This impersonal, dangerous army, becomes a family for the men, a man once part of a regiment, sharing the dangers, has a kinship, a clan, that outsiders can never enter. Indeed many men today with more recent experience of warfare understand Bournes mind and recognise their thoughts and emotions as identical to the men of 1916. Some form close bonds, but many avoid this as men disappear without trace and never heard of again as injury, death or confusion reign in war. Frederick Manning attempts to tell the inner soldier, himself, while contemplating the men around him. He seeks their unspoken thoughts, he describes their unsaid words, he reveals men as they are. War books are often full of dangerous action, sometimes sugary, sometimes unbelievable. This one is the real deal. War is impersonal, men go 'over the top' together but fight alone. Men work as a unit, for one another, but fight and die individually.
This is the best book on the war I have ever read! It does not give all those little details we often seek, but provides sufficient to understand the sights and sounds, the pleasures and daily trials of army routine for the common soldier. Instead in the midst of a great conflict we see the individual whose name appears on the local, unnoticed, war memorial. On each memorial is a Bourne, a Martlow his young friend, or his pal Shem the Jew, there we find the many sergeants and officers who ordered their lives and led them to destruction.
This is a great book! This book gives us the men and their hearts as it really was during their time on the Somme.