Her Privates We by Frederic Manning
|Her Privates We by Frederic Manning|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Scott Kemp|
|Summary: Frederic Manning's Her Privates We is a haunting First World War novel. Based upon the author's memories of the Battle of the Somme, the book has a terrifying realism, and its events linger in the reader's mind.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 247||Date: September 2013|
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail|
Ernest Hemingway called Frederic Manning's Her Privates We 'The finest and noblest book of men in war' he had ever read. But Hemingway wasn't a very trustworthy man, so we tend to defer judgement. He is, however, useful for contrast. Hemingway's tales of war (such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls) usually involve macho misfits and trite love stories, feats of derring-do and filmic dialogue; all the things, in fact, that have no place in Manning's First World War novel. Why is this? Well, by the time Hemingway started driving a Red Cross ambulance on the Italian front (1918), Manning's service was already over. Nevertheless, unlike the illustrious (and self-mythologising) Hemingway, Manning spent his war deep in the trenches of the Somme, mixing it with the proletarian soldiery. As such, Her Privates We is a brutal novel concerning the 'subterranean, furtive, twilight life' of the average Tommy, a work of startling power, and one that completely eclipses the war novels of the romantic Hemingway.
The narrative follows Private Bourne, Manning's lightly fictionalised alter ego. Stranded in a figurative no-man's-land, he knows that his education keeps him apart from his comrades and that his pride keeps him apart from his officers. Both sets of soldiers encourage him to put in for a commission, and it's a possibility he spends the novel pondering - when there's time. Mostly, the action follows the everyday life of the men when they are away from the frontline; even so, it's still a busy period. Some, fleet of foot, go in search of drink and women, while others, overcome by exhaustion, slope off for a kip. But, as far as escapism goes, it is only a brief interlude. Much to their annoyance, the battalion must still perform impromptu marches and pointless parades, and it's these dispiriting manoeuvres Bourne condemns. To him, they are an utter irrelevance, and further proof that there was 'too much bloody discipline in the British Army'.
Despite his double-outsider status, Bourne is a discerning spectator, his reflections on army life saturated with bitterness. And who can blame him? This was a truly devastating conflict, in which 'The confusion and tumult...was inseparable from the senseless fury'. For Bourne, however, the psychological and physical impact of trench warfare is lessened by comparison. He realises, as perhaps his colleagues do not, that he's 'only one of thousands whose life...[is a] blank emptiness', his existence absorbed by a 'blind and irrational movement of the collective will, which one cannot control, [and] which one cannot understand'. And while it may be an environment where 'good comradeship takes the place of friendship' - and where the camaraderie hits an 'intensity of feeling...friendship never touches' - Bourne is under no illusions: each 'man in arms' is a 'man fighting desperately for himself': they all stand 'alone'.
The novel is narrated in the third person, although the narrator's voice and Bourne's frequently blend into one: there is no distance. In the 'Author's Prefatory Note', Manning states his desire to authentically represent 'the anonymous ranks'. But, as William Boyd writes in his illuminating 'Introduction', 'the authorial brain informing...[the narrative] is rigorously intelligent' and in a totally different category to that of a 'private soldier'. Ultimately, then, and despite it being published pseudonymously by 'Private 19022', the book's intellectual ruminations create a discord between the author and those he wishes to serve. Sometimes Bourne seems more like an anthropologist than a regular soldier. Yet this attitude of detachment (and its concomitant reluctance to take sides) is sporadically undermined. At one point, the narrator says 'Our own guns had been completely silent during the strafe'. What are we to make of this? It might seem pedantic, but this is an important moment, as the unintentional emphasis on 'Our' tears through the veil of impartiality and rolls the narrator, Bourne, and Manning into one person: the loyal British soldier. A minor hiccup, maybe, but a telling one all the same.
This is an unexpurgated edition, in which all the effing and blinding has been faithfully restored. Though some may sniff at the gratuitous swearing, it enhances the novel's realism and helps distinguish between the different classes that made up the British Army; it also helps with the colloquial dialogue, especially the working-class dialects of Bourne's fellow fighters. But the stylistic quirks are not overly important, for it is Manning's recreation of the soldiers' 'state of semi-somnambulism' (and their need to escape 'from the desolation and hopelessness of that lunatic world') that makes the book such an unsettling and hallucinatory experience. Still, a niggling question continues to haunt the reader: although the army's strategy was clearly suicidal, did the top brass really shift - as one character speculates - from saying losses were 'unavoidable' to believing they were 'necessary'? Considering how long the inhumane slaughter went on for, it would seem so; but, as Manning sadly concedes, the Tommy's life 'held nothing new in the matter of humiliation', and so they had no choice but to endure their 'resignation' and mourn their 'obliterated humanity' - in silence.
If you wish to read another firsthand account of the First World War and its life-altering experiences, then The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett is an essential addition to the canon.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Her Privates We by Frederic Manning at Amazon.com.
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