I have just read a book sent to me from that excellent organization The Folio Society. These people realize that well written, informative, quality bound books, full of new artwork, are of great pleasure to the owner, giving tangible and olfactory pleasures before the pleasant task of reading commences. Such a book is Frederick Manning’s The Middle Parts Of Fortune, his only novel in fact, first published in a limited edition in 1929, it was probably the first intelligent novel to come out of the Great War. How it was published in its original form is a miracle of censorship. It was printed again in expurgated form in 1930 “with certain prunings and excisions” under the title Her Privates We. What that reading was like is a puzzle. The mores of the time demanded the soldiers language of the first publication be pruned and excised. The book would have lost a lot of its impact. The Folio Society’s edition of this marvelous book follows the original unexpurgated text and must be all the better for it.
Manning was a private soldier, reg.no. 19022 in 7th Battalion, Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and the book is really his experiences with that regiment. However the story is of a fictitious battalion, with fictitious characters acting out in real places within true military engagements. The book could only have been written by a soldier who had served in front line situations, it could never have been written by the casual civilian observer, the whole 288 pages are obvious authentic first hand experiences which at times shocks the reader to the core.
The battalion, the Westshires, had been knocked about badly on the Somme in late 1916. We have a clue, the village of Guillemont was captured in early September 1916. In fact the church there rebuilt after the war, is a monument to the four battalions who eventually overran the pile of hardcore that was once the village. The Westshires had been decimated, they were down to just over 100 men according to one of their officers, Mr Clinton, that from a fighting force of probably 750 to 800 soldiers.
The hero Bourne, named after the Lincolnshire town where Manning lived; and his surviving comrades were moved to a quiet spot in the line around Mazingarbe, on the Bethune-Lens Road to recover from their ordeal and have fresh drafts inserted into their ranks to bring them once more back up to fighting strength. I say quiet spot, in fact 11 months earlier this area was in the middle of the Battle of Loos (September-October 1915) where my great uncle, Eddie Lenihan, was killed in C Company of the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards, two days after his Lieutenant, John Kipling, Rudyard’s son disappeared, on 26th September 1915. No trace of Eddie was found also and he is remembered on the Loos Memorial at Dud Corner Cemetery just a few hundred metres down the road from where Bourne, our hero, is having to deal with desultory German artillery. Then it was not the place to be with the British army losing 50,000 men in three weeks of fighting whilst the British generals, French and Haig squabbled as to which troops belonged to whom.
After a few weeks in reserve and a couple of weeks retraining at Vincly and Reclinghem, west of Bethune, while the new drafts fitted into the battalion, it was back to the Northern Somme, facing the village of Serre, just north of Beaumont Hamel, where the allied troops had tried in vain to gain an inch of ground from the 1st July 1916 until the Germans offered it to them on a plate when they had a planned retreat to the Hindenberg Line in late March 1917. By then the book had finished, Bourne killed on a futile night raid because an officer wanted to see what was going on.
The book is electrifying in its detail, the first novel of the war, the first book even, that I have read that has been able to get into the minds of private soldiers. The ordinary soldier was basically a good man in a lousy position, always willing to accept authority and always looking out for his mates and always railing against orders which he knew might involve unnecessary deaths and injury. Which is where the NCO’s came to the fore. Experienced and mainly decent men who felt responsible for all their boys and in a quiet circumspect way could point out the errors of a young officer’s judgement. They the inexperienced platoon commanders appreciated this sagacity and it proved what a great leveller of humanity war was.
Bourne is well liked by the private soldier, although an educated toff, because he was one of them, he shared emotionally and materially with them. He believed in fairness and equality, he was a go to man for private soldier and NCO, although he recognised the status of officers he was not uncomfortable in their presence. They in fact admired his position with the men and in fact seemed at times a little jealous.
The men usually naturally grouped up in twos and threes, and in this grouping did everything together and shared everything they had. “They had been three people without a single thing in common; and yet there was no bond stronger than that necessity which had bound them together” These gathered men are not explained only in their limited conversation, the reader knows nothing of their past only their now. You get no emotional attachment only what you get from the dugout atmosphere.
The book displays the build up in intensity prior to going over the top and how it affects each man with his private idiosyncracies, each man thinking the next few hours are his last. It takes a very brave man to face his maker and act semi-normally, in fact they were all extremely brave men. The text shows how thoughts then on deserters were not the same liberal views of today. The men had no time for people who could not face the pressures of battle. They had to, so why cannot the deserter. Which explains somewhat why the firing squad was never short of numbers, although admittedly under orders.
Also although it is explained how decent the men are, sharing and helping their friends in whatever way they could: in battle their characters changed, the survival instinct takes over and killing the enemy means nothing if it saves their own or a mates life. A German soldier is bayoneted, the bayonet is stuck but easily released when the finger presses the trigger of the rifle, sending a 303 bullet bursting a hole through the man from close quarter.
All the men, NCOs and officers are well aware that to die on the battlefield is a welcome release from the living hell they suffer on a daily basis, but it is not a reason for suicide, they will fight for their lives and hope if they are lucky for a “Blighty one” There are sections where the way of dying is disseminated and how the affects of a sniper’s bullet’s near miss is more frightening than a close shave from a shell or a salvo of machine gun bullets. This talk can only come from soldiers who had layer upon layer of frightening experiences thrust upon them.
In the end Bourne realizes that he has gone has far as he can with the men and if his influence is to be felt further he has to join the officer class who are constantly being reminded by the NCOs of his qualities. While happy enough either side of the NCO line, he takes up the invitation to go for a commission only for this underlying jealousy of an officer who volunteers him for a night raid just prior to his departure for officer training. Bourne is carried back dead.
I thoroughly recommend this book, as far as I can remember it is the only book I have ever read where on completion I have turned back to page 1 and read again. It is a remarkable piece of work written from experience by a master of his craft. The Folio Society’s version might be expensive as modern books go but its quality and manipulative pleasures derived whilst pulling the volume from its packing are worth at least half the price.