Frederic Manning and the Greatest War Novel of all Time – Malcolm St Hill

A Star Shell exhibited 1916 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

Image: A Star Shell – Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1916


Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle, Australia and is a poet, reviewer and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly the work of Australian soldier-poets.

Frederic Manning and the Greatest War Novel of all Time

The Australian poet and novelist, Frederic Manning, wrote what many considered to be the best narrative of the Great War. For Ernest Hemingway, who read The Middle Parts of Fortune ‘once each year’ the novel was the ‘finest and noblest book of men in war’ period. It is a bold and arresting claim and calls, at the very least, for a brief exploration of Manning’s enigmatic life and work. This is particularly relevant in the spotlight of the recent centenary of the Armistice in November 2018.

Born in 1882, Manning had a privileged upbringing and both his father (Lord Mayor of Sydney and Member of Parliament) and brother (Attorney General) were prominent in New South Wales’ politics. His tutor, who relocated with Manning to England in 1898, had been private secretary to the Governor of New South Wales. Aside from sporadic visits to Australia, Manning spent most of his adult life in England where he became ensconced in literary circles. His coterie included giants of twentieth-century literature such as E.M. Forster, Ezra Pound, and T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). T.S. Eliot wrote Manning’s obituary.

Despite his place in polite society, Manning wrote his book from the perspective of the common soldier and it is, as his publisher, Peter Davies suggested a ‘profoundly democratic book’. This reflected Manning’s own experience where he served as a private in the crucible of the trenches during the latter half of 1916. He championed the cause of the ‘anonymous ranks’, having seen that they were voiceless, often blamed for the blunders of the ‘brass hats’ and treated as mere ‘material’ in the order of battle.

Manning captured the essence of these men, this ‘very decent generous lot’, through his character, Bourne, a Manning surrogate, following actual events on the Somme and Ancre fronts. Bourne seems ‘out o’ place in the ranks some’ow’, being educated and ‘not of their county… not even of their country’. He speaks French and is something of a connoisseur, yet he is accepted by his fellows and resists the persistent urgings of his superiors to become an officer.

Comradeship is a key theme, yet Manning’s treatment is insightful and fresh when compared to the cursory use of the term today. In contrast to friendship, ‘it has its own loyalties and affections; and… an intensity of feeling which friendship never touches.’ This is particularly true between Bourne and Charlie Martlow, a boy of 16, who idolises Bourne as one might an older brother or father. Martlow is upset, in a manner that only the closest of relationships will manifest when he hears third-hand that Bourne has finally decided to take a commission.

The work begins with Bourne crossing no man’s land, stupefied and separated from his unit, returning from the mess of battle. Shortly afterwards, he returns to camp and sleeps. It’s not until he wakes from ‘the formless terrors’ of a nightmare, and his mind reaches ‘back into the past day, groping among obscure and broken memories’, that the reader is taken through the battle. This non-linear beginning to the work typifies Manning’s mastery of prose. It is a battle from which many men, ‘shattered and eviscerated… emptied of life’, would not return. The following chapters trace the aftermath, the small comforts (shaving for example) and the ‘long business’ of the roll call, accounting for missing men; mourning their loss.

Manning challenges the stereotype of life on the Western Front as being one of rolling battles and mud and horror, the majority of the work being set behind the lines. The men march from town to town, frequent estaminets and practice manoeuvres. Although often marked by boredom and monotony, life in this environment is also one of anticipation, a counterpoint to uncertainty and fear; a longing for the next ‘show’ to begin.

Manning provides profound insights into the nature of war and translates this into a broader view of the human condition. Although war ‘strips man of every conventional covering’, there ‘is nothing in war that is not in human nature’. Manning does not preach. His penetrating reflections are measured and placed flawlessly throughout the narrative. There are touches of wit also, especially in reflecting on the army as an institution. According to Bourne, ‘the war might be a damned sight more tolerable if it weren’t for the bloody army’.

The publication history of Manning’s novel is as curious as both its author and protagonist. The work emerged in 1929 during the wave of war writing of the period, including Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which coincidentally featured the work of another remarkable Australian, Arthur Wheen, the classic work’s original translator. The Middle Parts of Fortune was originally published anonymously in a limited run of 520 copies. The use of ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’, precluded mainstream publication. A clean version appeared as Her Privates We (both titles are taken from Hamlet) in 1930, and became a bestseller. The author was identified only as Private 19022, Manning’s army number.

Although his identity was an open secret in literary circles, it wasn’t until 1943, eight years after Manning’s death, that the work was eventually published under the author’s name. The unexpurgated edition was republished in 1977 by the original publisher, feeling that ‘with today’s revised standards of propriety the public should no longer be denied access to it’. With withered copyright, various facsimiles have appeared, most recently in 2014 as a Penguin Modern Classic. The original 1929 version can be downloaded from the University of Sydney website.

Manning died prematurely, ‘beaten to the wide’ after a long battle with asthma and emphysema, aged 53. Two biographies have dealt with his short life. Despite this and decades of praise, he remains something of an obscurity, particularly in his own country. According to Sergeant Tozer, Bourne’s sergeant, ‘there was a bit of mystery about him’. While symbolic of Manning himself, there is, as Tozer continues, ‘…a bit of mystery about all of us.’

This is a modified version of a review which first appeared in Overland in November 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s