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Article
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War
Writing

Frederic Manning and the greatest war novel of all time

Australian writer Frederic Manning wrote what many considered to be the best narrative of the Great War. For Ernest Hemingway, The Middle Parts of Fortune was the ‘finest and noblest book of men in war’, period. It’s a bold and arresting claim that calls for a quick look, if not a deeper dive, into Manning’s enigmatic life and work. This is particularly pertinent in light of the centenary of the Armistice this month.

Born in 1882, Manning had a privileged upbringing and both his father (Lord Mayor and MP) and brother (Attorney General) were prominent in NSW politics. His tutor, who relocated with Manning to England in 1898, had been private secretary to the NSW Governor. 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 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. It is, as his publisher Peter Davies suggested, a ‘profoundly democratic book’. This reflected Manning’s own experience; 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, and following actual events on the Somme and Ancre fronts. Bourne is educated, speaks French and is ‘not of their county… not even of their country’, but he resists the encouragement of his superiors to become an officer. He is a man who when troubled, ‘did not seek company, but solitude’, yet despite seeming ‘out o’ place in the ranks some’ow’, he is accepted by his fellows.

Comradeship is a key theme, and Manning’s exploration is insightful. 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 sixteen, 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, reunited, 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, an accounting for missing men; mourning their loss.

Manning challenges the stereotype of life on the Western Front as 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 marked by 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 curious publication history of Manning’s novel is as enigmatic as both its author and his protagonist. It emerged in 1929 during the wave of war writing of the period, including Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which incidentally featured another unsung 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 Manning’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 by Text in 2012 and 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 fifty-three. Two biographies have dealt with his short life. Despite this, and decades of praise, he remains an obscurity. Bourne’s Sergeant, Sergeant Tozer, moves at one point during the heat of battle to ‘‘ave a dekko’ at an officer’s wounded arm. Australian readers might, at the very least, take a dekko at the wounds of the Great War through the eyes of this distinguished and mysterious compatriot.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet, reviewer and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War. His reviews have appeared in Rochford Street Review, Porridge (UK) and Aurora. He’s presented internationally on the literature of the Australian Light Horsemen and at the National Library as part of the ‘Writing the Great War’ seminar.

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