Neither a pacifist’s nor a militant’s novel, Her Privates We is praiseworthy both for its unforgettable characters and for its compelling, if necessarily tentative, exploration of this mystery of personhood under extreme pressure…
Her Privates We by Frederic Manning (272 pages, Serpent’s Tail, 1999)
Almost everyone enjoys a good detective story, and Her Privates We is a mystery tale of the first order. Although not your typical whodunit, this novel—in its early editions—comprised three mysteries: First, who wrote it? Second, in what ways is war both a crime and a crime’s just retribution? Third, what is the secret that resides in every human being, and how can a person’s humanity and singular identity be preserved in despite of physical violence and spiritual degradation?
The first question was disposed of fairly quickly. In 1929, this book was published anonymously in a limited edition—520 copies privately printed—under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune. Then in 1930, it appeared in an expurgated edition, with the numerous obscenities in soldiers’ speech cleaned up, as Her Privates We, penned by “Private 19022.” (Both titles derive from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.) This abridged text became an international bestseller; in its first three months, it sold 15,000 copies.
Newspaper columnists tried to guess its author’s identity. T.E. Lawrence correctly deduced that the novelist behind the numeric pseudonym was Frederic Manning (1882–1935), the author of a collection of imaginative dialogues between historical figures—Scenes and Portraits (1909)—and a veteran of the Shropshire Light Infantry and the Battle of the Somme. Lawrence warmly admired Scenes and Portraits, an enthusiasm few today are likely to share. Not until it was reprinted in 1943 did the bowdlerized edition of Her Privates We contain Frederic Manning’s name.
And not until 1977 was the original, unabridged version published in a widely available text. Under its Serpent’s Tail imprint, Profile Books Ltd. (London) brought out an edition of this uncut work in 1999 in paperback; and this is the book that’s cited in the present essay.
Within the best literature—poetry and memoirs, as well as novels—of the Great War, Her Privates We occupies a special place. In a recent (April 8, 2016) Times Literary Supplement review of three books having to do with Scottish art and poetry related to war, the novelist and screenwriter William Boyd declares: “The First World War had its share of fine poets, but produced only one masterwork, in English, in the field of the novel: Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We.”
Not all critics would agree with this assessment, preferring instead Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28), Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier (1918), John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1921), Siegfried Sassoon’s Complete Memoirs of George Sherston trilogy (1928, 1930, 1936), or even William Faulkner’s debut effort, Soldiers’ Pay (1926). But Mr. Boyd’s appraisal is by no means an eccentric take on Manning’s war novel. Hemingway himself called Her Privates We “the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read. I read it once each year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them.”
“How things really were,” including the rough language soldiers used in speaking to one another, comes through so immediately in this novel that we can easily comprehend and credit Manning’s remark in his prefatory note that in writing this book his “concern has been mainly with the anonymous ranks, whose opinion, often mere surmise and ill-informed, but real and true for them, I have tried to represent faithfully” (vii). And we can also grasp—if not answer—the question embedded in Manning’s assertion about war as both offense and recompense, an ethical conundrum pointed to in this essay’s opening paragraph. In his preface, the author states that calling war “a crime against mankind” misses “at least half its significance,” for war “is also the punishment of a crime.” These matters of responsibility and guilt, ethical dilemmas that even a just—defensive—war presents, raise “a moral question, the kind of problem with which the present age is disinclined to deal” (vii).
Nor, understandably, would Manning the novelist essay answers to these philosophical questions in his realistic story of British soldiers in northern France in the second half of 1916. Instead, he approaches this second mystery by way of placing his readers in the thick of the third mystery: the question of the persistence of the self, including the effort to retain an undiminished sense of oneself, in defiance of all that would strip a person of his full worth and dignity. Neither a pacifist’s nor a militant’s novel, Her Privates We is praiseworthy both for its unforgettable characters and for its compelling, if necessarily tentative, exploration of this mystery of personhood under extreme pressure.
Bourne, the central character, is a gentleman who could have been an officer, but “he preferred the anonymity of the ranks” (23). His education gives him the capacity not only to perceive but also to articulate what he sees and feels. Thus “Bourne often found himself looking at his companions as it were from a remote distance” (39). Captain Malet, his commanding officer, observes that Bourne, unlike the other enlisted men, is unused to physical labor: “You ought to go for a commission,” he tells him. But Bourne answers: “I would much rather stay with the company, sir” (90).
At times, Bourne feels as if he’s lost his grip on his own being: Marching to St. Pol, the town where they would entrain for the front, he “felt a kind of melancholy, a kind of home-sickness, stilling the excitement which had lifted him a little while ago. He watched the colour draining out of earth…. He had the feeling that he had relinquished everything. It was not that silly feeling of sacrifice, the sense of being a vicarious atonement for the failure of others….” Nor did he feel bowed down by a sense of defeat. It was simply that “he had ceased, in some curious way, to have any self-consciousness at all….” (139)
Nonetheless, through it all, he somehow perseveres, holding at bay his permanent alienation. After more marching, a bit of singing, and some laughter, he and others in his depleted company bed down in a big camp on the grounds of a hospital, with Bourne settling in between his comrades Shem and Martlow. As he drops off to sleep, Bourne appears to regroup, wondering “what was the spiritual thing in them which lived and seemed to grow stronger, in the midst of beastliness” (141).
Not long afterward, we are provided with a sketch of Bourne’s most memorable colleague, Private Smart, whose countenance could have been called tragic “if it had possessed any element of nobility,” but instead “it was merely abject, a mask of passive suffering, at once pitiful and repulsive.” Inevitably, the men, “living day by day with such a spectacle of woe,” out of self-defense learn “to deride it,” and “it was this sheer necessity which had impelled some cruel wit to fling at him the name of Weeper, and make that forlorn and cadaverous figure the butt of an endless jest” (145).
Weeper Smart is hardly a prepossessing figure; some might even regard him as a deplorable to the nth power. He has the appearance of a vulture, with “wide, sloping shoulders,” a “narrow forehead,” a receding chin, “loose pendulous lips,” a “large, fleshy beak,” and skin that “was an unhealthy white.” His nostrils and the top of his nose have “a shiny redness,” as though he suffers from a perpetual rhinovirus; his skin is pimply. He is almost completely beardless, and the hair on his head is sandy, fine, and thin. His face could be that “of an imbecile, but for the expression of unmitigated misery in it” (145).
Shortly after we’re provided with this detailed characterization, we find Weeper living up to his nickname. Before an impending attack along a twenty-mile front, a briefing officer, Captain Thompson, begins to read aloud the concluding paragraph of an instructional letter to his troops: “It is not expected that the enemy will offer any very serious resistance at this point” (147). Smart’s reaction, in the midst of this gathering, is immediate; it comes in “a whisper scarcely louder than a sigh”—but still audible: “What fuckin’ ’opes we’ve got!” Captain Thompson dismisses the men “with great severity.”
“Where will some of us buggers be come next Thursday?” Weeper asks the others in the crowded tent, as he sinks into his place. The men around him laugh, and, enraged, he shouts at them: “Laugh, you silly fuckers!” And warns them: “You’ll be laughing the other side o’ your bloody mouths when you ’ear all Krupp’s fuckin’ iron-foundry comin’ over! Laugh! One big gun to every ’undred yards, an’ don’t expect any serious resistance from the enemy! Take us for a lot o’ bloody kids, they do!” A noncom tells him to shut his mouth and warns him never to talk on parade again with an officer present: “You miserable bugger, you! A bloody cunt like you’s sufficient to demoralize a whole fuckin’ Army Corps. Got it?” (147)
Yes, we get it—or think we do. This pale, sniveling coward feels he’s being abused by officers who don’t understand what the ordinary rankers have to go through: “They measure the distance, an’ they count the men, an’ the guns,” Weeper Smart observes, “an’ think a battle’s no’ but a sum you can do wi’ a pencil an’ a bit o’ paper” (154).
Sustaining their moral fortitude as well as their physical courage requires an effort of will on the part of all the men: “The problem which confronted all of them equally, though some were unable or unwilling to define it, did not concern death so much as the affirmation of their own will in the face of death.” For each man, coping with this challenge is a personal, unremitting struggle (184).
Toward the end of Her Privates We, Bourne’s company moves up to the front-line trenches. The actual historical setting is the battle of the Ancre (November 1916), which occasioned the final large British attack in the Battle of the Somme. Officers in Bourne’s sector decide that a night raid on the German position is called for in order to gain intelligence and to keep the enemy from having “too much of his own way” in no-man’s land. Captain Marsden asks for volunteers. Bourne agrees to join the raid, even though he’s “down for a commission” and will soon be leaving the ranks. Weeper Smart pipes up and solemnly declares, Ruth-like, “If tha go’st, a’m goin’.” The captain, amazed, puts his name down “provisionally” (241).
Bourne and Smart receive their orders and shortly thereafter find themselves walking together apart from the others. In character, the latter exclaims: “What ’opes ’ave us poor buggers got!” Which prompts Bourne to inquire, “Why did you come, Smart? I thought it was awfully decent of you.” Weeper indicates the source of his motivation: “When a seed that fuckin’ slave-driver [Captain Marsden] look at ’ee, a said to mysen, A’m 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. A’m comin’. ’t won’t be the first bloody raid a’ve been out on, lad. An’ ’t won’t be t’ last. Th’ast no cause to worry. A can look after mysen, aye, an’ thee too, lad. You leave it to me” (242).
Soon enough their time to start out arrives. They find the gap in the wire, as they hear the machine-gun and rifle fire. Star shells go up and burst overhead, casting a glare which briefly halts the men. Bourne hurries forward, feeling “a sense of triumph and escape,” which thrills him. Then it’s as if something kicks him hard in the upper chest, and he falls. Weeper, a few yards ahead, turns his head over his shoulder, listens, stops, and goes back. Trying to raise himself up, Bourne, gasping and suffocating, urges Smart not to bother with him: “Go on. I’m scuppered.” But Weeper answers, “A’ll not leave thee,” crying out “in an infuriate rage” (246).
Carrying Bourne’s lifeless body over his shoulder, Smart stumbles back through the wire and staggers into his outfit’s trench: “A’ve brought ’im back,” he says as he collapses with the body on the duck-boards. Soon he picks himself up and starts telling “his story incoherently,” mixing it “with raving curses.” Sergeant Morgan asks, “What are you gibbering about? … ’aven’t you ever seen a dead man before?” Hearing these questions, Sergeant-Major Tozer looks at Morgan “with a dangerous eye” and tells Smart to go down and get himself some hot tea and rum: “That’ll do you good” (247).
Later, Tozer reflects on Bourne. He was “more sorry than he could say. [Bourne] was a queer chap,” with “a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there’s a bit of a mystery about all of us.” As Tozer pushes aside the blanket at the dug-out’s entrance, he sees his fellow soldiers in “the murky light.” They’re preoccupied with their own musings, “as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid.” The infantrymen sit and wait in silence, “each man keeping his own secret” (247).
Both a solid conservative and a true liberal can agree on the irreducible mystery and value of every human being. Indeed, both properly oppose all authoritarian structures, all murderous regimes, that would deprive persons of their equal claims to liberty. If in the past conservatives have sometimes emphasized tradition and hierarchy to the detriment of equal opportunity for all, then classical liberals have usefully stressed not status attached to one’s place in society but rather the dignity inherent in each person: The abandoned baby on the rubbish heap possesses the same intrinsic worth as the squire in the country house on the hill.
The reason that conservatives have warned against the dangers of radical revolution—for example, France in 1789 or Russia in 1917—is that, as Roger Scruton has pointed out, revolution “leads to murder” because revolution “rids the world of the experience upon which the refusal to murder depends.” What is this crucial experience? It is what we come upon in a story like Her Privates We: the awareness—in Dr. Scruton’s words—of the “incarnate person: the animal in whom the light of reason shines, and who looks at us with eyes which tell of freedom.” Apprehending our fellows’ intrinsic dignity underlies our respect for them and prompts acknowledgment of their basic rights and of our corresponding duties toward them.
There’s a secret, a mystery, about each person which bids us, as Dr. Scruton makes clear, never to “treat another’s life and freedom as expendable,” or to use him or her as a tool for my own satisfaction, or “to weigh his survival in the balance of our own individual profit.” Precisely at “the threshold of the other,” in any civilized society, “our calculations stop short.” We recognize and affirm the sanctity of the other’s spirit and flesh.
Contrariwise, as Dr. Scruton notes, in all too many cases “the first effect of the revolutionary mentality is to undo this experience of the sacred.” Radical revolutionaries become as gods; they feel free to assault other persons’ souls and bodies in the name of their unholy cause. Then human beings’ freedom and flesh “can be placed in the balance of calculation, and discarded ‘for the public good’” (quoted in Roger Scruton and Mark Dooley, Conversations with Roger Scruton [London: Bloomsbury, 2016], 65–66.)
In this example, Dr. Scruton identifies one route to evil, but there are similar paths just as deadly. They lead to nightmare scenarios realized in daylight not only by the well-known ideology-intoxicated revolutionaries and totalitarian regimes of the last century, especially, but also by individuals, groups, gangs, countries, and pseudo-nations around the globe in our own day. In memorable prose and through vital characters, Her Privates We conveys a powerful sense of the “threshold of the other,” the sacred mystery of our fellow humans’ selfhood, at which boundary egocentric calculations and the will to dominate and debase ought always to stop short.
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