When I began this project I was tormented with the possibility of simple failure: what if, on one quiet day, all the sources fell silent? What if all down the many rows of The Big Spreadsheet there was not a letter, not a diary entry, not even a biographer’s note? So I spread a wide net, and, especially in the first year, we followed several early warriors who were not really writers at all. And there’s no danger–save technological catastrophe–of failure now. There are battalion diaries to fall back on, and I have found (and left mercifully all but unopened) a few secondary history books which are designed much like tear-off daily calendars…
And yet, with the Somme, there was so much to cover in the lives of our current group of writers that I introduced few new voices. And this winter, with so many dead and so many others home in England, it might yet come to pass that an entire day slips through the cracks, as far as actual words from our writers goes. And it almost did, today.
In order to prevent this–and to fill in the gaps left by the Somme (though there is no replacing the voice of Noel Hodgson, and no one remotely like Saki or Raymond Asquith)–I will introduce a few new diarists during the winter. One, Stanley Spencer, was probably riding on a truck, just today, a century back, which would have been rather a weak post…
But, happily, we do have one letter today, which I had almost overlooked. It’s short, but meritorious. Afterwards, I will take the rest of today to close some unfinished business… at great length.
Edward “Robert” Hermon is an affectionate husband and a conscientious officer, but he’s neither a towering intellect nor a scintillating writer. Yet these four attributes taken together do constitute a certain amount of charm–it’s the sheer number of his letters that are the problem. Writing nearly every day to his wife Ethel, he gives us something more like one side of an ongoing, loosely-jointed conversation than a series of descriptive letters.
But today he does his duty: a sharp, declarative, state-of-the-war letter–and a reminder that the majority of British officers have yet to feel any sharp challenge from encroaching despair or disillusionment. Hermon is an Old Etonian of thirty-eight, but he sounds older–eminently Victorian. He hits the Vitai Lampada note here, and hard.
10th December 1916
Things certainly do look bad just at present but they will come right in the end… We are all right here & if the folk will really buck up at home & play the game & chuck all the damned foolishness till the war is over, it will be alright. We are bound to win in the end so long as the navy remains top dog…
As this letter reads almost like a parody of the form (picture Graham Chapman in a Sam Browne belt dictating with curled underlip), it’s tempting to dismiss these sentiments as unreflective and dangerous–the war is not, after all, either a game or a process with a predetermined outcome. And yet these general sentiments were surely much prevalent than the selection of sources, here, would indicate. Hermon’s views were “majority” views, a century back, however much they will come to seem like a rear-guard action against the all-conquering spread of anti-militarist/disillusioned/at-the-very-least-humane war writing.
But onward disillusion, for if it was never in the historical majority, it will still have its day–in this case, literature is better-written by the minority party, snatching disenchantment from the jaws of victory… (let’s consider this mot not quite perfected).
I left us hanging, in November, about the outcome of Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The climax of the action was the brutal attack at the very end of the Somme battle which left the protagonist, Bourne, bereft of his two mates–Shem, wounded and headed for Blighty, and young Martlow dead.
But Bourne lives on, and the end of the “battle” of the Somme does not mean the end of trench combat. Manning’s novel is one of the most effective war novels I know, and if we find ourselves today, a century back, between its events and its writing, we also have contemporary poetry by Manning that directly addresses the book’s major themes. It’s a good time, then, to read what happens to Manning’s fictional alter ego. And we will note out at the outset that one advantage of the novel with an author-like protagonist is that it may be brought to an end at a different time and in a different manner than, say, a memoir…
After the battle, Bourne enters a period of grim, lonely despondency. He is well-respected–“liked” might be going too far–by many men and noncoms, but the fact that he will soon be sent home to train for a commission keeps many of them at arm’s length. In a surprising (and really quite cunningly prepared) literary move, the task of watching Bourne’s back falls to the Thersites of the battalion, “Weeper” Smart, a whining, pessimistic, physically powerful, widely-disliked brute.
Bourne is a man apart–his education has always set him above his fellows, and now his pending elevation to officerhood does–but he has been a decent soldier. Weeper Smart, since he complains at everything and thinks the worst not only of his fate but of everyone who collaborates in confirming it, is the ultimate arbiter of this fundamental criterion of a man’s worth. Bourne may be a lance-jack now and an officer to be, but he is no traitor to his fellow infantrymen, those dispossessed of freedom and dignity, the despised of the earth.
Although it was possible to date the battle, the novel is then vague about the passage of time. Several tours in the front line and several rest periods go by, so at least a few weeks pass. I am comforted in my lack of definitive research by the knowledge that Manning’s biographers didn’t bother to work out what might have happened to him after the disastrous attack of November 13th… Since Manning’s own whereabouts are a question, and since the book is vague, I don’t think it can be said with meaningful certainty whether the end of the novel is set in late November or early December. Which is good, since we’re running out of time: the novel closely tracks Manning’s actual experience, and he will be back in England before Christmas–shell-shocked, gassed, and ready for officer training. Now or never, then.
In addition to excerpting from the last scenes of the novel, I want to apply what little we know of Manning’s contemporary, century-back intentions. In a letter from this period he makes strides toward defining a new sort of heroism, one that is poised between the outmoded idea of successful, aggressive heroism and the “disillusioned” or complete rejection of the traditional terms of heroism in favor of furious fixation on the miseries and mortality of the infantry (that growing genre, mentioned above, which will be identified, pejoratively, as the literature of “passive suffering,” yet eventually win the battle of the syllabus).
Manning still values discipline and uncomplaining submission to orders, no matter how ineffective or unjust–but he sets himself aside. This is his voice, but it is also the voice of Bourne, among and apart from the rural laborers who fill the ranks of his battalion, respecting and selectively idealizing them, yet condescending:
I think the heroism of these men is in proportion to their humiliations; the severest form of monastic discipline is a less surrender. For myself I can, with an effort, I admit, escape from my immediate surroundings into mine own mind; but they are almost entirely physical creatures, to whom actuality is everything; that they can suffer as they do and yet respond to every call made upon them is to me, in some measure, a vindication of humanity.
Hence the best in the worst, and the emergence of “Weeper” Smart.
Some weeks back–before the battle, but after many chapters establishing the routine of the war, and particularly Bourne’s close friendship with Shem and Martlow–Weeper establishes himself as a principled outsider. He is the proud malcontent of a certain sort of folktale, or perhaps a Cynic philosopher.
That infantrymen share absolutely–whatever they possess–with their buddies, their closest mates, is expected. But the circle may or may not extend further than this smallest group. Bourne, feeling the need for a spree (and a gesture against the entrenched class-segregation of the army) has splurged on champagne, and the three men bring it back to their billet, when Weeper, who shares the space, accidentally intrudes on the party.
“Give us your mess-tin, Smart, and have a drink with us,” said Bourne.
Up went Weeper’s flat hand.
“No, thank ‘ee,” he said abruptly. “Tha needst not think a come back ‘ere just to scrounge on thee. If a’d known a would ‘ave stayed out yon.”
“Give me your tin,” said Bourne. “You’re welcome. It’s share and share alike with us. Where’s the sense of sitting alone by yourself, as though you think you are better than the next man?”
“A’ve never claimed to be better nor the next man,” said Weeper; “an’ a’ve got nowt to share.”
Bourne, taking up his mess-tin without waiting for him to pass it, poured out a fair share of the wine: he felt ashamed, in some strange way, that it should be in his power to give this forlorn, ungainly creature anything. It was as though he were encroaching on the other man’s independence. “You don’t mind taking a share of my tea in the morning,” he said with a rather diffident attempt at humour.
“A’ve as much reet to that as tha ‘ast,” said Weeper sullenly.
And then he was ashamed immediately of his surliness. He took up the mess-tin and drank a good draught before putting it down again, and breathing deeply with satisfaction.
“That’s better nor any o’ the stuff us poor buggers can get,” he said with an attempt at gratitude, which could not quite extinguish his more natural envy; and he moved up closer to them, and to the warmth and light.
This small gesture comes to mean a lot. When Martlow is killed, Smart is moved–very much against his nature–to speak words of consolation to Bourne. And then he begins to look after him.
Manning’s decision to write a novel set in the cold murderous mud of the fall of 1916 perhaps had much to do with a desire to humanize–or to refract through several characters–the sheer effort of will that it took to survive with spirit or psyche relatively intact. Were he only writing poetry–like these verses, composed during this very period–we would have a narrower sense of his experience:
These are the damned circles Dante trod.
Terrible in hopelessness.
But even skulls have their humour.
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke.
That murks our foul, damp billet.
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
But upon breaking that harsh poet’s “we” into several subjects, we get something different.
Some weeks after the failed assault that killed Martlow and wounded Shem–sometime around now, a century back–the battalion is back in trenches. Once again Bourne’s special destiny comes to the fore. He had refused to return to England before the attack–it would have felt like a betrayal–but now it seems that his deliverance from the ranks can come at any time.
Should a man in that position be spared, protected from disaster? One thinks of Roland Leighton, due for Christmas leave, but leading from the front.
Or should such a man take precisely the ordinary chances, so as not to bestir Nemesis? One things of the plot of any war story which hinges upon “one final mission.”
Or should a future officer get as much experience as possible, since Nemesis is a mental crutch and trench warfare practical reality?
There is a raid to be made by Bourne’s battalion. A raid–that strange deadly tactical fungus that grows from the humid soil of static trench warfare, to no one’s profit. There are no attacks in the offing, so the mere desire to “gain ascendancy in No Man’s Land” or to collect intelligence about the enemy opposite hardly seem like sufficient reasons…
Bourne, returning from a fatigue to company headquarters, meets with his company commander.
Captain Marsden looked up and saw him, muddy up to the thighs.
“Lance-Corporal, we’re to make a raid tonight. I believe you know something about the lie of the land up here. Do you wish to make one of the party? We’re asking for volunteers.”
“Lance-corporal Bourne is down for a commission, sir,” interposed Sergeant-Major Tozer, “and per’aps…”
“I know all that,” said Captain Marsden, shortly. “What do you say, lance-corporal?”
Bourne felt something in him dilate enormously, and then contract to nothing again.
“If you wish it, sir,” he said, indifferently.
“It’s not a question of my wishes,” said Captain Marsden, coldly. “We are asking for volunteers. I think the experience may be useful to you.”
“I am quite ready, sir,” said Bourne, with equal coldness.
There was silence for a couple of seconds; and suddenly Weeper stood up, the telephone receiver still on his head; and his eyes almost starting from their sockets.
“If tha go’st, a’m goin’,” he said, solemnly.
Captain Marsden looked at him with a supercilious amazement. “I don’t know whether your duties will allow of you going,” he said. “I shall put your name down provisionally…”
This is not subtle: the novelist’s limitless ability to inhabit the minds of his characters is contrasted with their hostile, fumbling interactions, while the prim speech of the officer comes to seem nastily schoolmarmish against the rough dialect and almost biblical directness of Weeper Smart’s declaration. Marsden makes some inscrutable–but nonetheless imperfect, compromised, and yet unchallengeable–judgment about Bourne and class and hierarchy and experience, but what is this to a man like Weeper Smart? It’s unworthy casuistry, the logic of oppression. Weeper speaks at once like an Anglo-Saxon out of the dark ages, for whom word becomes oath becomes spell, and with the tribal fealty of the Hebrew Bible–he is Ruth committing to Naomi, or God exhorting Joshua.
Then they went back to their several companies, with orders to assemble at nine o’clock by the junction of Delaunay and Monk trenches. Weeper and Bourne were alone together after a few paces.
“What ‘opes ‘ave us poor buggers got!” exclaimed Weeper.
“Why did you come, Smart? I thought it awfully decent of you,” said Bourne.
“When a seed that fuckin’ slave driver look at ‘ee, a said to mysen, Am comin’. A’ll always say this for thee, tha’lt share all th’ast got wi’ us’ns, and tha’ don’t call a man by any foolish nicknames. Am comin’. ‘T won’t be the first bloody raid a’ve been out on, lad. An’ ‘twon ‘a be t’ last. Th’ast no cause to worry. A can look after mysen, aye, an’ thee too, lad. You leave it to me.”
He was always the same; determination only made him more desperate. Bourne thought for a moment, and then, lifting his head, turned to his companion.
Weeper weeps no longer–but he’s smart. Clever, that is. And in his eyes Bourne is, however well-educated, merely a well-meaning innocent. Weeper feels duty bound to act as guardian angel to the man who shared his wine.
“I don’t suppose Captain Marsden meant to put things that way, you know, Smart. It’s just his manner. He would always do what he thought right.”
Weeper turned on him a fierce but pitying glance. “Th’ast a bloody fool,” was all he said.
It was enough. Bourne laughed softly to himself. He had always felt some instinctive antipathy against his company commander. “I’ll show the bastard,” he said to himself in his own mind; “if I get a chance.”
The question, then, is whether this is the sort of story in which men will have the upper hand, or the war?
Chance. They were all balanced, equally, on a dangerous chance. One was not free, and therefore there would be very little merit in anything they might do. He followed Weeper down into the dugout.
Yes, chance dominates, but how could that be otherwise? It’s the core experience of attritional war and the central theme of the book (note, again, the title, a sexual pun from Hamlet).
What is so striking about the last chapter of The Middle Parts of Fortune is the social redemption of Bourne. Not his reclamation by his proper class and education status–the coming officer’s commission that hangs over much of the novel–but the solidarity of his company. He has lost his two mates, and he waits to be elevated far beyond the rest of his comrades, but Weeper Smart cleaves to him, testifying, by deed–by his willingness to voluntarily share his peril–that Bourne’s efforts and intentions have been right. He may be an officer someday, but he is yet what he has been–a soldier of his company now.
The act–Weeper’s choice–is crucial, but more fundamentally it is the polyphony of the novel that permits this rounding of the perspective. It may well be fantasy–misfit educated rankers must have often dreamed of winning the respect of the roughest of their fellows–but in the novel it is a very effective device. In his own mind–and the novel delves often into his thoughts–Bourne can’t convince himself that he is not fundamentally alone. But Weeper Smart makes their fellowship true, for a moment, by an act even simpler than the words in which he commits to it. He will go out beside him, into No Man’s Land, on this night.
Before I include much of the last few pages of the novel, I want to bring in a few more bits of poetry that Manning wrote around now, a century back. The difference in emphasis–the difference in the potential for sympathy, empathy, and love–is very clear. On marching back from the line–a scene which also appears in the novel–he writes, in “Relieved:”
We are weary and silent.
There is only the rhythm of marching feet;
Tho’ we move tranced, we keep it
As clock-work toys.
But each man is alone in this multitude;
We know not the world in which we move.
Even more to the point is another contemporary poem entitled–in Greek–“Self-sufficiency,” which begins like this:
I am alone: even ranked with multitudes:
And they alone, each man.
So are we free.
And it closes:
I may possess myself, and spend me so
Mingling with earth, and dreams, and God; and being
In them the master of all these in me.
Fight for your own dreams, you.
This is highfalutin’ stuff, but if there were a life-model for Weeper Smart he would not have bothered to look at whatever the educated lance-jack was scribbling, nor troubled himself, perhaps, over the Greek title. It wouldn’t have mattered. If we must convert the poem into a philosophical statement it would be, simply, “soldiers facing death are both completely dependent on their fellows and utterly alone.” Which Weeper has already demonstrated that he believes–and while he won’t write a poem about this belief, he will put his life on the line for it.
Back, then, to The Middle Parts of Fortune. A few paragraphs later, the two men are alone, together, in No Man’s Land.
Bourne found himself crawling over a mat of wire, rusty in the mud; loose strands of it tore his trousers to tatters, and it was slow work getting through; he was mortally afraid of setting some of the strands singing along the line. Every sound he made seemed extraordinarily magnified. Every sense seemed to be stretched to an exquisite apprehension. He was through. He saw Whitfield and the other man slip into the trench, and out the other side. Sergeant Morgan gave him the direction with his hand. Weeper passed him, and he followed, trying to memorise the direction, so that he would be able to find his way back to the gap in the wire. They crossed almost together, Weeper taking his hand and pulling him up the other side without apparent effort. The man was as strong as an ape. Then they wormed their way forward again, until they found their position, where the communication trench formed a rather sharp angle with the fire-trench. The fire-trench itself still showed the effects of their bombardment; after passing the communication trench it changed its direction in a rather pronounced way, running forward as though to converge more closely on the British line. They were now in a shellhole, or rather two shellholes, which had formed one: Weeper looking down the communication trench, and Bourne along the fire-trench.
But then the raid, inevitably, is detected.
Suddenly they heard a shout, a scream, faint sounds of struggle, and some muffled explosions from underground. Almost, immediately the machine-gun in front of them broke into stuttering barks; they could see the quick spurting flashes in front of it; and Bourne threw his bomb, which went straight for the crack in the curtain. Ducking, he had another ready and threw that, but Weeper had already thrown. The three explosions followed in rapid succession. They heard a whistle. The machine-gun was out of action, but Weeper, leaping towards its wreckage, gave them another, and rushed Bourne into the trench. They saw through the mist their own party already by the gap, and Weeper’s parting bomb exploded.
The officer, Mr. Cross, kills the first German they come upon, and then they secure a wounded prisoner. The raid, such as it is, has been successful. They just need to get back through their own wire barriers and into the safety of the trench.
Weeper was ahead when he and Bourne reached the gap in the wire. Star-shell after star-shell was going up now, and the whole line had woken up. Machine-guns were talking; but there was one that would not talk. The rattle of musketry continued, but the mist was kindly to them, and had thickened again. As they got beyond the trammelling, clutching wire, Bourne saw Weeper a couple of paces ahead of him, and what he thought was the last of their party disappearing into the mist about twenty yards away. He was glad to be clear of the wire. Another star-shell went up, and they both froze into stillness under its glare. Then they moved again, hurrying for all they were worth. Bourne felt a sense of triumph and escape thrill in him. Anyway the Hun couldn’t see them now. Something kicked him in the upper part of the chest, rending its way through him, and his agonised cry was scarcely audible in the rush of blood from his mouth, as he collapsed and fell.
Weeper turned his head over his shoulder, listened, stopped, and went back. He found Bourne trying to lift himself; and Bourne spoke, gasping, suffocating.
“Go on. I’m scuppered.”
“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper. He stooped and lifted the other in his huge, ungainly arms, carrying him as tenderly as though he were a child. Bourne struggled wearily to speak, and the blood, filling his mouth, prevented him. Sometimes his head fell on Weeper’s shoulder. At last, barely articulate, a few words came.
“I’m finished. Le’ me in peace, for God’s sake. You can’t…”
“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper in an infuriate rage.
He felt Bourne stretch himself in a convulsive shudder, and relax, becoming suddenly heavier in his arms. He struggled on, stumbling over the shell-ploughed ground through that fantastic mist, which moved like an army of wraiths, hurrying away from him. Then he stopped, and, taking the body by the waist with his left arm, flung it over his shoulder, steadying it with his right. He could see their wire now, and presently he was challenged, and replied. He found the way through the wire, and staggered into the trench with his burden. Then he turned down the short stretch of Delaunay to Monk Trench, and came on the rest of the party outside A Company’s dugout.
“A’ve brought ‘im back,” he cried desperately, and collapsed with the body on the duck-boards. Picking himself up again, he told his story incoherently, mixed with raving curses.
“What are you gibbering about?” said Sergeant Morgan. “Aven’t you ever seen a dead man before?”
Sergeant-Major Tozer, who was standing outside the dugout, looked at Morgan with a dangerous eye. Then he put a hand on Weeper’s shoulder. “Go down an’ get some ‘ot tea and rum, of man. That’ll do you good. I’d like to ‘ave a talk with you when you’re feelin’ better.”
“We had better move on, sergeant,” said Mr Cross, quietly.
“Very good, sir.”
The party moved off, and for a moment Sergeant-Major Tozer was alone in the trench with Sergeant Morgan.
“I saw him this side of their wire, sergeant-major, and thought everything would be all right. ‘Pon my word, I would ‘ave gone back for ‘im myself, if I’d known.”
“It was hard luck,” said Sergeant-Major Tozer with a quiet fatalism.
Sergeant Morgan left him; and the sergeant-major looked at the dead body propped against the side of the trench. He would have to have it moved; it wasn’t a pleasant sight, and he bared his teeth in the pitiful repulsion with which it filled him. Bourne was sitting: his head back, his face plastered with mud, and blood drying thickly about his mouth and chin, while the glazed eyes stared up at the moon. Tozer moved away, with a quiet acceptance of the fact. It was finished. He was sorry about Bourne, he thought, more sorry than he could say. He was a queer chap, he said to himself, as he felt for the dugout steps. There was a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there’s a bit of mystery about all of us. He pushed aside the blanket screening the entrance, and in the murky light he saw all the men lift their faces, and look at him with patient, almost animal eyes.
Then they all bowed over their own thoughts again, listening to the shells bumping heavily outside, as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid. They sat there silently: each man keeping his own secret.