Friday, June 19, 2015

No Man's Land by "Sapper"

But I maintain that the training, the ideals, the traditions, the morale of the good British regiment does produce, and has produced, a growth of character and a condition of mind in the men who belong to it which was largely conspicuous by its absence in civil life.
One of the stops on my recent walk up and down Manhattan (have you heard that I dragged my 43-year-old carcass 13 miles on foot?) was at Argosy Book Store. Argosy, like the Strand, is a sort of New York institution.  While the Strand is huge and always crowded, Argosy, up in the upper Fifties, is sort of elite and intimidating, with its shelves of antique leather bound volumes and bins full of hundreds of old prints.  I never feel like I belong there, with my unfashionable clothes, empty wallet, and the blood of working-class mechanics and housefraus running through my veins. It doesn't help that I somehow always end up at Argosy after a long walk on a hot or a snowy or a rainy day, my hair disheveled, my face dripping with perspiration or precipitation.  I rarely spend any money there, though on one of my first visits, back in my grad school days, I purchased a reproduction of Raphael's La Donna Velata which today hangs in my study, 1000 miles west of where I discovered it.  I recommend a visit to all readers of this here blog who find themselves in Gotham; Argosy is a strange old place, and heaven knows how long it will retain its unusual character.

La Donna Velata in her current place of honor; she has followed me
through eight different rental properties
The cover I saw at Argosy looked
like this 
Anyway, during my recent visit to Argosy I flipped through a selection of detached antique book covers, and among them came upon the pretty cool cover of No Man's Land by "Sapper."  I had that very week encountered a mention of Sapper (admittedly not a very flattering one) in George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, so my interest was already piqued. I decided that this was a sign I should read the book, which is about British soldiers in World War One Europe, a topic I'm already interested in anyway.

No Man's Land, published in 1917, was written by British Army officer and decorated Western Front veteran Herman Cyril McNeile; Wikipedia is telling me that, at that time, serving British Army officers were not permitted to publish under their own names, hence the pen name, which refers to the fact that McNeile was in the Royal Engineers.  McNeile would go on to write the Bulldog Drummond novels and other thrillers; No Man's Land, however, is the first thing by McNeile I have read.  I read an electronic version I got at internetarchive.org.

Most of the time when I hear people talking about World War One their attitude seems to be that it was just one idiotic blunder after another, that the entire war was an absolutely stupid waste, that the British government is perhaps as much to blame for the war as the Germans, that the conduct of the war by the British government and high command  was incompetent, etc.  (Contrast this with people's attitude about World War Two, at least the European theater, which we are always told was the noble work of the Greatest Generation and all that.)  McNeile, who actually fought in the war for more than a year, and who wrote and published No Man's Land and other fiction about the war while the war was actually underway, has an altogether more positive attitude.  He portrays the British soldiers as heroes, and the Germans as cruel monsters totally to blame for the catastrophe, and, perhaps even more controversially, argues that the war made real men out of its British participants, and could awaken British society from its Edwardian selfishness and decadence, instilling in people discipline and community spirit.  A recurring metaphor of No Man's Land is of the Western Front as a fertile field, the British men who go to it as seeds; those seeds that are healthy, well-tended, and lucky enough to survive, produce a rich harvest.  The war, as McNeile views it, doesn't psychologically ruin its participants, it improves them.

No Man's Land consists of four parts.  Part I, "The Way to the Land," is like 35 pages, and consists of vignettes related to Clive Draycott's travels at the outbreak of war.  He is on leave in England from service in Egypt when the war breaks out, and he travels via ship and train through France to Malta to get back to his unit.  Every town, ship and train is crowded to capacity with French and British servicemen trying to reach their posts, and civilians, Americans among them, trying to get out of the war zone. At Malta, Draycott gets word he is to return to England to prepare for service in France. The end of Part I sees Draycott arriving at the battlefield of Ypres.

Besides the overcrowded trains and ships, the eagerness of many men to take part in the struggle in France and the foreshadowing of the unprecedented death and destruction to come, one interesting theme of this first section of the book is the agony suffered by women back home while their husbands and sons are away at the battlefield.  Draycott, in a French restaurant, witnesses French women sharing a last meal with their husbands before they board the train to the front.  "...in half an hour her Pierre was going to leave her.  For him the bustle glamour of the unknown; for her--the empty chair, the lonely house, and her thoughts."  McNeile suggests that the soldiers, who enjoy camaraderie and a chance for adventure and glory, suffer less than their loved ones back home.

Lacking plot and climax, I thought Part I the weakest of the book's four Parts.  Because I was expecting No Man's Land to be a novel, I was surprised that Draycott didn't show up again.

Part II, "The Land," consists of eight stories (about 95 pages total) at least some of which appear to have been published earlier in magazines.  (I guess No Man's Land is what we would call, in the science fiction field, a "fix-up.")  These stories have a variety of protagonists, mostly officers and men of the fictional South Loamshire Regiment and members of the Royal Engineers attached to the same sector of the battlezone.  The value of these stories, to me, lies in McNeile's vivid portrayal of the physical realities of the Western Front--the way the trench system is organized; the difficulties of finding one's way in the devastated landscape; what the British soldiers see when back in reserve, or travelling forward in a communications trench, or peering through a periscope while at the firing line; and, how they fulfill their duties from day to day.  The actual characters and plots of the stories, unfortunately, didn't generate much feeling in me.

The stories contain quite a bit of humor, some of it directed at snooty and self-important colonels and generals; there are also characters with goofy nicknames and accents.  Some of the stories follow pretty standard genre fiction structures and conventions; "A Point of Detail" name checks Sherlock Holmes, for example, and follows the format of a detective tale.

In "A Day of Peace" and "Over the Top" we follow an officer in the Royal Engineers as he travels here and there along his section of the front lines, disposing of unexploded ordnance, seeing that collapsed trenches are repaired, providing advice on where to deploy a trench mortar, etc.

In the comedic "The Man-Trap," Percy FitzPercy, an officer known for his wacky ideas, improvises a pit with a trap door in hopes of easily taking some Germans prisoner during one of the periodic enemy raids; in the event it is an unlucky British general who falls into the trap.

"A Point of Detail" is a detective story, complete with a mysterious dead body and clues.  When a British officer on a night patrol is captured by "the Huns," an English-speaking German soldier puts on the Englishman's uniform and tries to infiltrate the British trenches.  One of the more detail-oriented British officers pieces the clues together and the German spy ends up in front of a firing squad.  This story includes the line "One is nothing; two are a coincidence; three are a moral certainty," which reminded me of the similar line, which I believe was later used by both Ian Fleming and Robert Heinlein: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action."

"My Lady of the Jasmine" is a supernatural story.  A sensitive and young British soldier (his comrades call him "The Kid") sleeps in a dug-out captured from the Germans, and he has a dream of a melodrama in which, in this very dug-out, a beautiful Frenchwoman committed suicide rather than agree to spy for the Bosche. Detective work by The Kid's fellows proves that the scene in his dream really happened a few weeks ago.  I thought this the weakest of the stories in Parts II and III; I don't believe in any kind of supernatural mumbo jumbo, and that, and the spy melodrama, was out of tune with the realism of most of the book.

"Morphia" is a sentimental tale: a terminally wounded soldier lying in a hospital, injected with morphine, hallucinates about his relationship with his fiance, who passed up more advantageous matches to promise herself to him on the eve of his departure for the battlefield.

"Bendigo Jones--His Tree" is one of the more entertaining tales.  Jones (cf. Inigo Jones) is an eccentric artist who produces abstract sculptures that the public is unable to appreciate, and McNeile comes up with lots of jokes targeting the absurd personalities and incomprehensible productions of modern artists.  The British Army puts Jones to work constructing camouflage, including a screen to hide a trench mortar pit from German reconnaissance aircraft and a fake tree stump from which the British troops can observe enemy positions.

"The Song of the Bayonet" is an officer's reminiscences about Sergeant Jimmy O'Shea, apparently a gentleman ranker, estranged from his aristocratic family and serving under an alias.  "O'Shea" trained the men in hand-to-hand combat, and excited their lust for blood by relating tales of German atrocities and what could very well be black propaganda.  O'Shea died fighting with his bayonet and knife in a German trench.

Part III of No Man's Land, "Seed Time," (around 55 pages) follows the military career of Reginald Simpkins.  Simpkins is a salesman at a department store; McNeile suggests that he is effete and effeminate because he sells silk stockings and lingerie.  Simpkins finds that women are not interested in him any more because he has not joined the service, so he answers the call and finds himself on the Western Front.  Here a master sniper and scout, Shorty Bill, takes Simpkins under his wing and teaches him camouflage, how to navigate between the lines at night, and how to kill the Hun with scoped rifle and clasp knife.  After mastering these skills, Simpkins learns the important lesson of subordinating the self to the good of the team; finally, after being made lance corporal, Simpkins learns the ultimate lesson of a soldier and of a man, that of responsibility for others.  He is then killed during a major British offensive.

The brief (8 pages) final Part of No Man's Land, "Harvest," clearly reiterates McNeile's main theme, that the war, though terrible, has improved individuals and can in turn improve society.  "Out of the evil, good will come; surely it must be so,"  he tells us.  In his argument that service in the Army can break down class barriers ("The duke and the labourer will have stood side by side, and will have found one another--men") and his arguments that service leads to greater discipline, respect for authority, and allegiance to the community ("In their civilian life self ruled...But from the tuition which the manhood of Britain is now undergoing, there must surely be a very different result...self is sunk for the good of the cause--for the good of the community") I'm reminded of the talk of Democratic Party pundits like Mickey Kaus and Markos Moulitsas about national service and military life.

As a piece of literature or entertainment, No Man's Land is just OK.  I was a little disappointed that it wasn't a true novel that followed one or a few characters through the course of their careers or a single battle or campaign.  I couldn't get emotionally involved in any of the characters or what happened to them.

As a close-up physical view and considered philosophical view of trench warfare in the Great War, from a man who lived it, I think it is much more valuable.  All the weapons, equipment, techniques, and slang are interesting (I was googling lots of stuff) and McNeile's philosophical asides are unusual and noteworthy.  I'd recommend No Man's Land as a primary document to students of social (there's plenty of class and gender stuff) and military history, and to Great War buffs, but maybe not those looking for a moving drama or thrilling adventure. 

No comments:

Post a Comment