On this day of remembrance, we remember two forgotten war books, both once highly regarded, the second for raising a topic many would rather forget. Frederic Manning’s fictionalized memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune (in expurgated form, Her Privates We), was published in 1929 — as were A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That, and All Quiet on the Western Front. The book is based on Manning’s experiences as a private at the Somme and at Ancre in 1916, and is praised for its realism by many who were there. “The finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read,” said Ernest Hemingway. “I read it over once a year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them.”
One passage in Manning’s book says that, from his fellow soldiers, a deserter would get only one judgment: “Shoot the bugger!” This was done 266 times in WWI by British military authorities, dozens of times more in the Commonwealth countries. The first novel to broach the subject, and suggest that the issue was more complex than most thought, was A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle, written in 1919. Churchill wrote an introduction for it in later editions, describing it as “a soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts.”
The centerpiece of Britain’s National Millennium Arboretum, in Staffordshire, is the highly controversial Shot at Dawn Memorial Garden: a sculpture of Northumberland Fusilier Private Herbert Burden, who lied about his age to enlist at 16 and was shot a year later for fleeing Ypres. Burden is surrounded by some 300 execution posts, each with the name of a deserter. The sculpture is in white stone, recalling that those shot at dawn had pinned over their hearts a piece of white material or paper, as target and symbol. Some descendants of executed soldiers who now brave hostility to march in parades on Nov. 11th wear a white-centered poppy.
Now he was being introduced to the Marine major. The person who was performing the introduction was telling the major that Billy was a veteran, and that Billy had a son who was a sergeant in the Green Berets — in Vietnam. The major told Billy that the Green Berets were doing a great job, and that he should be proud of his son.
“I am, I certainly am,” said Billy Pilgrim.
He was under doctor’s orders to take a nap every day. The doctor hoped that this would relieve a complaint that Billy had: Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping. Nobody had ever caught Billy doing it. Only the doctor knew. It was an extremely quiet thing Billy did, and not very moist.
–From Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, born on this day in 1922
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.