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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All peace is happy (in a very relative sense)..., 5 Mar 2012
This review is from: Her Privates We (Paperback)
... each war is unhappy (by contrast) in its own way. With apologies for roughly paraphrasing, and utilizing Tolstoy's first sentence in Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics).

Frederic Manning was an Australian who saw action on the Western Front, with the British Army, during World War I. He enlisted, and served as a private, in the trenches, along the Somme sector. He missed the day of ultimate devastation for the British Army, July 1, 1916; on that date approximately 20,000 British soldiers were killed, 35,000 were wounded. Manning spent four months in this sector, in the autumn of 1916. This novel is heavily based upon his experience; to use an expression from a later war, it is a "grunts-eye" view of war, one of the unhappier ones in terms of utter carnage. Manning probably had some "personal problems" prior to the war; as is so often the case, they were only exacerbated by the war, and he heavily relied on the "medicine" that is alcohol to "help him get through the night." The "catharsis" of writing this book was not sufficient. He died at age 52.

Manning loved his Shakespeare. Each chapter commences with an epigraph from The Bard. The title is a quote from Hamlet (Classics Illustrated), from a dialog, I had long forgotten, between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It refers to the ultimate arbitrator in war: Fortune, which Hamlet calls a strumpet. And in her private parts is where R & G dwell, as well as soldiers in the Somme sector.

World War I was the end of an era which spanned numerous millenniums in terms of how wars were fought. From the battles between the ancient Greeks and the Persians, through the Roman Empire, up through the American Civil War, wars had overwhelmingly been conducted by having groups of men on opposing sides, charge each other, and fight, uptight, and personal. After WWI, "death at a distance" through aerial bombing and artillery, became much more the norm. Manning depicts the "over the top" charges of the infantry, and the small unit combat.

But the greater portion of the book is not about actual combat. It concerns the living arrangements of the men along the front, the friendships that are established, and the views of the privates towards the military hierarchy. It is the lice, and the rats, as well as the weather. French civilians continued to live near this very active battlefield, and the soldier's interactions are described. It was possible, apparently, for the soldiers who were not in the front-line trenches to go to the equivalent of a local, low-class pub. One of Manning's quips is that the French beer is so bad that it is enough to make you pro-German! There are the distinctions between the enlisted men and the conscripts which I noted a half century later. Manning can be more than sardonic towards what we called the REMF's (which must remain as initials for those with "sensitivities"): "You can't put eight hundred fighting men into the line, without having another eight hundred useless parasites behind them pinching the stores" (p.191). Manning seemed to get so much right, that transcends the particularities of WWI. In terms of the wounded: "...but he had vanished completely, so completely that Bourne did not even expect to hear from him again. Men passed out of sight like that, and seemed to leave very little trace. Their term had been completed."

William Boyd, in his introduction, discusses how this is the "unexpurgated version." When it was first published, in 1929, it was seriously "bowdlerized," for the above mentioned "sensitivities." It reminded me of the person who had written into Life Magazine, after they had published pictures of the My Lai massacre, criticizing the magazine for publishing a photo that included the bare bottom of an infant who had been killed. The letter writer was a metaphorical descendant of those whose primary concerns were about "bad language" in describing one of the ultimate horrors of the last century. I had to chuckle when Boyd stated that T.E. Lawrence "claimed" that he had read the book three times within six weeks of its publication. Boyd was wise enough to use the term "claimed" for someone famous for his elasticity with the truth.

This was Manning's one great book. One of the best written by a British author on WWI. For the quintessential book on this war, I still believe it came from the other side, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. More succinct, and more comprehensive, at the same time. The denouement to both novels is the same, however. 5-stars for Manning's stellar effort.
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