Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Lot of Swearing behind the Eastern Front: Her Privates We

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Her Privates We is a fictionalised account of the authors time in Khaki during World War One. If you're wondering yes the title is a reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and each chapter has another quotation from Shakespeare about war. How relevant the references are is beyond me quite frankly, It's a good thing most books more then a decade old come with detailed blurbs and forwards or I wouldn't of noticed the connection and probably left the book on the library shelf. Anyway Her Privates has been described as the British All Quiet on the Western Front, and while it isn't an exact comparison since All Quiet was explicitly anti war while Her Privates is only so by circumstance, it's the closest match I can think of.

Her Privates also caused quite a stir, it was originally privately printed with 600 copies run off due to its page after page of swearing, and I do mean swearing, words like shit, buggar, fuck and cunt are so common its more unusual to read a page without a four word cropping up somewhere. Afterwards a cleaned up version was published and sold thousands, fortunately though the unedited version is back in circulation. I say not just because I enjoy casual swearing, but because it sounds far more natural. As well as a commercial hit, it was a favourite with the intellectual circles of whom the author Frederic Manning was a minor member having published some small books on Greek mythology and a few articles in magazines like the Criterion. Among the big names who rate the book are Ernest Hemingway who said that Her Privates was `The finest book of men in war that I have ever read.` High praise in deed considering Hemingway also wrote a book about his experiences in the Trenches called Farewell to Arms, which was also a reference to a very old poem. And Ezra Pound, a man I have some issues with.

That the author is a man of learning is quite obvious not only does it explain the obscure title and the Shakespeare quotations, it also explains the unusual main character private Bourne an older and educated private much like Manning was when he enlisted. I get the strong impression that as fiction this is one of those `The names have been changed to protect the innocent` types of stories with the usual embellishments. I say that because the level of detail is so rich that most of it must of happening, like the anecdote of a section mate about the time he got into a fight with a miner on leave it starts at the bar of the pub and ends in the urinal with the squaddie rubbing the poor sods face on the floor. The whole book is crammed with and revolves around anecdotes and incidents in the lives of the men of Bourne's company. Curiously for a war novel the men spend very little time in the trenches exchanging fire with the `Hun` most of the pages are devoted to there time on leave in French towns, or preparing for a major offensive in the Somme (the story starts after the first major battle of the Somme which depleted the Company) that's delayed constantly.

And almost unique for a book that touches upon war it doesn't really have a set agenda, what messages it does seem to have come naturally from the characters all of whom seem like people who actually existed (again reinforcing the changing names of people Manning had met) for example, they have a complex attitude to their officers. In general they know they're apart from the `brass hats` and stripes but have different views on each. They have a measure of respect and in a few cases even like the officers who go over the top with them and treat them with restraint, they have nothing but contempt for the officers in the back, especially the ones in GHQ whom draft up the orders. At one time an order is issued instructing them not to stop and help the wounded, they then spend a good hour in a dug out insulting whoever came up with that idea and to a man declare they'll ignore the order and do what's right.  Another related strength is that the characters all manage to avoid stereotyping, Shem one of Bourne's closest chums is Jewish and you wouldn't know this until half way through when Bourne Shem and some others are sitting around poking fun of each other. Another interesting character is the unfortunately named Weeper Smart, when Weeper showed up and it became clear he was a minor character and not just a name to a one page appearance I thought this was where the book would start unravelling.

But fortunately that wasn't the case, Weeper is the most critical man in the Company, he hates the war, he hates the officers in general he hates everything. He's the closest character to a peacenik or `Conshie`  that Her Privates have, he also looks a bit odd and is constant complainer, to the point everyone else picks on him. In general when reading something about warfare you can tell the authors views on the subject by the character ratios, if theirs a minority of peaceniks its pro war and those characters will have a bad end, or admit they were wrong, in extreme cases they'll be revealed as traitors. If like in All Quiet its the other way round with the bloodthirsty guts and glory types being in short supply then its an anti war plot. Her Privates is different most of the men hate the war an resent being the ones in firing line, they look down on the conscripts sent to replace their losses because they didn't volunteer, they hate the folks staying back home in blighty, especially the Miners because they're not only exempt from service but are on a pay rise in order to keep up war production, they hate the politicians for sending them to fight, and they hate the brass hats for staying comfortable and safe in manors and officers clubs behind the lines. However they mostly believe the Hun are responsible for the war and they need to be stopped otherwise they will be an invasion of Britain, which is a perfectly reasonable assumption, the Germans did launch an invasion of Belgium and France after all. The only dissenting opinion is Weeper whom believes many Germans also don't want to fight, so I thought he would turn out to be the vile peacenik which I found odd since the book seemed vaguely anti up to that point. But no its just that characters beliefs, the men while tired of his constant grumpiness respect him as a fellow soldier and know he'll always be dependable in a fight. When Weeper loudly declares his intentions to disregard the orders about leaving the wounded no one contradicts him. Later on his character warts and all is compared favourably to a deserters.

The deserter Corporal Miller is also a source of complex emotion and opinion, in general the men hate him, not because he betrayed the country (indeed patriotism is in short supply, and a source of complaint when it does appear) or his officer (which was the official charge for desertion) but because they feel he betrayed them. But strangely enough when he keeps escaping and making the officers look stupid he wins some admiration. So while it may strike us as unusually blood thirsty it does make sense that the men despite wanting nothing more then to chuck the whole lot in resent quite bitterly the one who does so while leaving them in the lurch.

So if a tale of a clever man trying to scrounge up some good whiskey and wine in French estaminet for his chums, whilst ducking pushes for commissions and the occasional shell while peppering his speech with gratuitous and colourful swearing give Her Privates We a read, despite the opaque title it is refreshingly down to earth.

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