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October 22, 2017

Two Famous, Forgotten WWI Novels

On this day of Remembrance, we remember two forgotten war books, both once highly-regarded, the second for raising a topic many would rather forget. Frederic Manning's fictionalized memoir, titled The Middle Parts of Fortune in its unexpurgated editions, Her Privates We in expurgated form, was published in 1929, as were a handful of war classics -- A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book is based on Manning's experiences as a Private at the Somme and at Ancre in 1916, and is praised by many who were there for its realism. "The finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read," said Ernest Hemingway. "I read it over once a year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them." One passage in Manning's book says that, from his fellow soldiers, a deserter would get only one judgment: "Shoot the bugger!" This was done 266 times in WWI by British military authorities, dozens of times more in the Commonwealth countries. The first novel to broach the subject, and suggest that the issue was more complex than most thought, was A. P. Herbert's The Secret Battle, written in 1919. Churchill wrote an introduction for it in later editions, describing it as "a soldier's tale cut in stone to melt all hearts."

One cut-in-stone tribute to such deserters is that put up to Private A. Ingham in a French village cemetery: "Shot at Dawn / One of the First to Enlist / A Worthy Son to his Father." The other stone tribute was recently installed in Britain's National Millennium Arboretum, Staffordshire, as center-piece in the highly controversial Shot At Dawn Memorial Garden: a sculpture of Northumberland Fusilier Private Herbert Burden, who lied about his age to enlist at 16 and was shot a year later for fleeing Ypres. Burden is surrounded by some 300 execution posts, each with the name of a deserter. The sculpture is in white stone; those shot at dawn were pinned over the heart by a piece of white material or paper, as target and symbol; those descendants of executed soldiers who now brave hostility to march in parades on Nov. 11 wear a white-centered poppy; the New Zealand Member of Parliament who introduced a bill, eventually passed, to grant that country's 5 executed soldiers a full pardon returned from the debate to find a white feather on his desk, as in The Four Feathers (A.E.W. Mason, 1902).

The Millennium Arboretum is in Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson, who thought patriotism was for scoundrels. And both of Frederic Manning's titles allude to an interchange between the most controversial literary coward of all time and two who decline no command. In Hamlet, II, ii, responding to the Prince's greeting, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern say that they have been so-so, living neither on Fortune's cap nor on her shoe, prompting Hamlet to conclude they must "live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors"; R & G play the straight man role out with, "Faith, her privates we," allowing Hamlet's trump: "In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true! She is a strumpet."

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