Top critical review
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Not as good as I expected
on 30 May 2014
Originally from Australia, Frederic Manning settled in the UK in 1903, and when war broke out in 1914 he enlisted in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry as Private 19022. He saw action at the Somme, experiencing at first hand life in the trenches, and in 1929 published The Middle Part of Fortune, the book that grew out of his wartime experience. This book we now know as Her Privates We and it is a chronicle of the lives of ordinary soldiers in the trenches, centred around Bourne, an enigmatic and detached character, based on Manning himself.
Widely regarded as one of the best novels of World War One, and one of the best war novels ever published, it is an authentic and visceral account of the horror, brutality, fear and sheer tedium and discomfort of war, the dirt and squalor, the difficulties of daily life, the gulf between officers and soldiers. Essentially it is a novel not about combat but about the relationships between men, the loyalty, the tenderness beneath the roughness, the compassion beneath the banter, incorporating the realistic and earthy conversations of men under permanent stress.
I can understand why this book is so acclaimed, but I found it hard to engage with. Bourne himself is not a likeable character, and although he inspires friendship amongst his fellow soldiers, he remains aloof and controlled, always an outsider. It reads more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary rather than a fully fleshed novel. It is often compared to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but I think it is the lesser book, perhaps because it is less emotional. Nevertheless, it is indeed a powerful and sometimes moving portrait of ordinary soldiers at war, and in its unsentimental and hard-hitting descriptions will surely remain a classic of war literature.