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on 11 December 2008
I have only read this book in it's censored version, and it is still one of the best books written about the the Great War. It is moving and uncompromising and gives a fascinating insight into life as a private in the trenches. Now it is back in print, definitely buy it. Up until recently it has been very difficult to get hold of. While you're at it, buy 'All Quiet on The Western Front' as an interesting view from the other side.
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on 8 January 2009
Yes it is a novel, as is 'All quiet on the western front', but it gives a great sense of what it was like for the ordinary soldiers. Most WWI memoirs were written by officers, and that gives them a very different point of view. The overall feel is very similar to 'All quiet..', but I find this a better read and I am surprised that it is not more famous than 'All quiet...'.
This book was quoted by a number of Great War veterans as being the best description of what it was like. In contrast, numbers of British veterans openly expressed doubts that Remarque was ever at the front -Wikipedia will give you some clues.
This is an essential read for anybody interested in WWI.
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on 31 October 2013
Another example of a book describing the horror of the trenches ten years after the end of the First World War. I was interested in the extent of the swearing. How authentic was this? There is little documentation of the extent of swearing at the time; and one should be wary of 'there must have been' as an argument. Manning's story is different from many in that most of the action takes place behind the front line, but still shows how dangerous life was, and how sudden death and injury could affect anyone anywhere near the front line. He conveys well the boredom, the waiting, the sudden fear and the sense of suddenly doing unspeakable things. One of the strongest texts I've read from the 'ten years after' period.
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on 3 August 2014
Bourne is a private in the 1916 battles of the Somme. He’s resigned or mildly depressed, thoughtful, educated (he speaks French and can type), and disillusioned without being outwardly cynical. The novel begins with a battle, then follows Bourne and his closest friends Shem and Martlow through a period of recuperation during which they try to amuse themselves in estaminets, and plan how to get treat themselves (they seem to live on tea, rum and bully beef) and talk a lot about the officers and other soldiers, and occasionally about bigger subjects. They are never out of danger - some are bombed from the air while queuing for food. They suffer petty annoyances: the best wine is labelled ‘reserved for the officers’; and they are never told where they’re going or what’s going to happen next. They hate the Hun, but aren’t clear what they’re fighting for. They sense the unfairness of things but are disdainful of the deserter. Then they return to the front line for yet another miserably misconceived offensive, during which...

Because it’s written in such a documentary way – like an adapted diary - lots of it is quite dull, but I didn’t mind because it really felt like having a close, detailed picture of what Western-front WWI was like. And there are some awesome scenes near the end where they’re waiting beneath the artillery barrage to go into battle, and the final attack itself.
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on 21 January 2014
Funny how you can think you know a lot about a period like the First World War from a historical perspective - the battles, the campaigns, the huge loss of life, the 'big picture' - and yet understand nothing about how the ordinary man caught up in the conflict actually experienced it.

This brilliant book lets you see it through the eyes of an ordinary soldier - and it was after all written by a man who had been there, done that and lived to tell the tale. Its not an all-action, rip roaring adventure nor an exercise in jingoism. It focusses on the day to day detail of the soldiers life in a measured tone. What sets it apart for me is the ability of the author to get into the heads of the men and expose their inner thoughts - sometimes rage, sometimes fear, but often a sort of resignation or deliberate evasion of thought about what is going on or what is about to happen. Its this cool but totally engaging description that provides huge emotional impact when the real action starts.

I found it to be a very moving read and feel even greater respect for the men of all nationalities who were part of this terrible war.
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on 6 February 2014
An excellent portrayal of the personal lives, friendships, relationships, fears and hopes of the ordinary soldiers in WW!. We share their tents, trenches and loos; our companions include lice, rats and the unwashed; and military glory with its medals and decorations is nothing in comparison to our desire for mouldy bread, disgusting wine and the rare flash of female flesh. Truly this book is an antidote to all the glorious charges of cheering light-brigades. A must read!
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on 31 October 2013
TE Lawrence, (spent a bit of time dabbling in the arabian desert) and Ernest Hemingway (wrote a few books) described this as one of, if not the, best accounts of man and war ever written. I'm not going to argue with them.
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on 15 December 2014
Frederic Manning is an oddly elusive figure. Born in Australia in 1882, he migrated to England as a teenager. A friend, at various times, of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and T. E. Lawrence, he was regarded by many contemporaries as a fine writer, and his literary ambition was considerable. But he was affected throughout his life by a weak chest. Also, he drank. In the end he was really only ever known for one book, and little else that he wrote is much read today.

That one masterwork was published in 1929 under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune; soon afterwards, an expurgated version was brought out as Her Privates We. Today it can be found as either. Both titles are taken from the same dialogue in Hamlet:

Guildenstern: On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.
Hamlet: Nor the soles of her shoe?
Rosencrantz: Neither, my lord.
Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

This quote explains itself, for Her Privates We is about the ordinary serving solder, tossed about by the fortunes of war.

The book concerns Bourne, a private soldier; although not in the first person, it is written from his point of view, and we mostly see no other. It is set in the second part of 1916, after the Somme offensive. The book opens with Bourne groping along, dugout by duckboard, away from the trenches as his unit is withdrawn; it finishes with the unit’s return. In between, they are marched from one place to another behind the lines, supposedly resting. The book is thus set mostly not in the trenches, but it does begin and end there. In any case, the fact that it is mostly not set in the front line does not decrease its value, as troops spent much of their time behind the lines.

The book’s first chapters are not always easy to read. Some of the early passages are wordy and philosophical. It begins well, as Bourne and his unit withdraw from the front line, but then runs into the sand as Bourne, awake while his fellows sleep, smokes and ruminates on the nature of their presence there. It doesn’t add much. If the whole of the book were like this, it would be a self-indulgent bore.

But it’s well worth persisting because, after that awkward beginning, it becomes a vivid portrayal of a soldier’s life. The book has a number of insights for modern readers curious about the war, including the attitudes of the solders themselves to it. A century on, we have a picture of wildly patriotic young men flooding to the colours, but reading Bourne, one wonders whether this was the whole truth. Almost nowhere in Her Privates We does anyone express support for the war; they just accept it as a fact. They are angry with a deserter, because he left them to fight without him; but his betrayal of the Crown concerns them little. More important are the commonplace stupidities of authority. A major training exercise, planned to perfection, is brought to a halt by the fury of a peasant woman because the troops are trampling her clover, and she will have no feed for the winter. On another occasion the unit is sent up the line as a work detail, but because someone has recorded their fighting strength as their pay strength, everyone must go, including the cooks, and there is nothing to eat in the morning. War and authority are quite random:

“There’s a man dead outside, sergeant,” he said, dully.
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Yes, sergeant; most of the head’s gone.”

The book is packed with petty incident in the life of a soldier. The men pick the lice off their bellies, avoid guard duty, and try to have “a bon time” at estaminets where the beer is poor. There is detail here that never made the history books. Planes communicate with troops on the ground using klaxons. When the weather turns cold the men are issues with fleece-lined leather jerkins and, as a result, the lice multiply. As Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia: “In war all soldieries are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

The narrative is punctuated with darker events. The deserter is returned, perhaps to be shot; a popular officer dies on a work detail; a pointless parade leads to the death of several men when it is shelled. There is also an underlying, ugly, theme: class. In Her Privates We, the soldiers are reminded constantly that they are inferior. Bourne’s boot is split at the heel by a cart he is towing, and he is lucky to be issued with boots that are of a higher grade, being for officers. In the estaminets, the best booze is labelled “For Officers Only”. Towards the end of the book, Bourne and his fellows come across a Forces canteen with “hams, cheeses, bottled fruits, olives, sardines, everything to make the place a vision of paradise for hungry men.” Entering, he is refused service by a man who “turned away superciliously, saying that they only served officers.” Another attendant is friendlier and tells him he can get cocoa and biscuits at a shed in the yard. Bourne is incensed, knowing that the goods in the shop have been paid for by public subscription and were intended for them all.

But the class distinctions have more subtle dangers. Bourne is pressed to apply for a commission, because it is obvious that he is not from the same background as the others. Reluctantly, he does so. Meanwhile, in the trenches, thinking he has seen a sniper, he reports to an officer. The meeting is a tense one, for they are of different rank but the same class, and the officer therefore treats him coldly. Anyone brought up in the multi-layered jungle of the British class system will recognise this; someone who appears to have “slipped”, or to be playing an unexpected role, is treated with suspicion – the officer is not quite sure what to make of him, and responds with dislike. The tension between them ends with Bourne being sent on the patrol that ends the book. Yet at the same time, Bourne’s descriptions of the soldiers he serves with suggest that he himself had a wide, and class-free, sympathy with one’s fellows; his immediate companions include an urban Jewish soldier and a rural gamekeeper’s son, and the narrator appears at ease with, and attached to, both.

How much of this account reflects Manning’s real experience? One suspects, quite a lot. Bourne, the lead character, is a little different from the others; he is better educated, there is a hint that he is not 100% English (as mentioned above, he was born in Australia – though this distinction would not have been so important then). He is also under pressure to try for a commission, having turned one down on enlistment. Also, the period in which the book is set seems to cover the last few months of 1916, after the worst of the Somme offensive.

This does match Manning’s own life – up to a point. Already 32 in 1914 and in poorish health, he made several attempts to enlist before finally being accepted as a footsoldier in the King’s Shropshire Regiment. In Her Privates We, Bourne maintains to a superior that he turned down a commission on enlisting as he felt he did not know enough of men to command them. In real life, Manning, an aesthete, may indeed not have known enough of working men to have led them. However, he did not turn down a commission. John Francis Swain, who included a concise and informative biography of Manning in a 2001 doctoral thesis, reports that he was accepted for one – but was caught drunk during officer training, and was returned to his regiment as a private. He joined it on the Somme in August 1916. He had missed the bloody start to the battle but he did fight. At the end of 1916 he was again sent for officer training and this time was commissioned, into the Royal Irish Regiment. His time in France therefore corresponds to the book. Her Privates We is based, then, on just three or four months in France.

Frederic Manning never returned to the field. As John Francis Swain records, he did not settle to life as an officer, and took again to drink. Early in 1918, he was allowed to resign his commission on health grounds. Although he did try to pick up the threads of his life after the war, he never really recovered from his chest problems, and died in 1935 at the age of just 52. For all his ambitions and distinguished literary friendships, he would quite likely have left us little had it not been for his brief, undistinguished part in the war. But because of that, he has left us with a book that probably tells us as much about the real life of the soldier on the Western Front as any book ever written.
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on 19 July 2014
Beware this is exactly the same book as 'The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre,1916' The title was originally used for the cleaned up version published in 1930. The current publisher has reverted to the original version of the text complete with expletives so there is no need to buy both books you will only get two of the same, albeit with different introductions
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on 3 December 2014
Frederic Manning was a professional poet most of his life and a volunteer soldier in His Majesty’s infantry from October 1915 to February 1918. In 1928, a literary colleague, citing the large public appetite for books about the Great War, urged him to write a novel about his wartime experience. The result was Her Privates We, a title (and the best pun I can remember) taken from dialogue in Hamlet that is the book’s epigram:

Guildenstern: On Fortune's cap we are not the very button.
Hamlet: Nor the soles of her shoe?
Rosencrantz: Neither, my lord.
Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

Each chapter then begins with a passage from Shakespeare, not the pithy aphorisms found in Bartlett’s Book of Quotations but obscure lines with difficult syntax that force the reader to study each word and still wonder at the precise meaning. The passages form perfect companion pieces to a literate memoir that describes war with lyrical dispassion. There is no plot, only an unfolding of events. There is abundant absurdity, but it is the opposite of funny. Death is not the least bit heroic, and there is no glory.

Reading this book is often a slog, just like the war it describes. The narration can be pedestrian for pages on end, but then Manning will produce something that zeroes in on what makes the soldier’s life unique. Two examples stand out for me. The first appears midway through the book when the main character Bourne is home on leave and is asked if he has a friend among the men. He replies, “In some ways, good comradeship takes the place of friendship. It is different; it has its own loyalties and affections; and I am not so sure that it does not rise on occasion to an intensity of feeling which friendship never touches. It may be less in itself, I don’t know, but its opportunity is greater. Friendship implies rather more stable conditions, don’t you think? You have time to choose.” The second appears in the prefatory remarks that Manning wrote after he had finished the novel and should be inscribed on every war memorial everywhere. “War is waged by men; not by beasts or by gods. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”

Perhaps the biggest revelation of Her Privates We, though, is the dialogue. Soldiers in 1914 sound just like men in 2014. They make liberal use of the F-word, the C-word and slang that is still alive. There is a school of literature that says an author should never attempt accented vernacular, but Manning has done it in a way that, if not exactly accurate, pinpoints his characters by class, region and temperament.

Frederic Manning’s lone novel received an initial printing of 500 copies and was credited to “Private 19022.” Manning was not identified as the author until a second printing in 1943, eight years after his death from a respiratory ailment when he was just 52. The novel garnered high praise from Ezra Pound, T.E. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom, it is presumed, read the first printing. Hemingway called it 'The finest and noblest book of men in war.' Make that finest, noblest and truest.
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