Frederic Manning, an Australian writer who settled in Britain in 1903, was little known before this fictionalised account of his experiences in the trenches was published in 1930, attracting praise from Hemingway and E M Forster. But while the wartime poetry of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke has become lodged in the collective consciousness, Manning’s extraordinary novel, reissued here by Serpent’s Tail, remains somewhat obscure.
The book’s themes are folded into that odd, iambic title. First of all, “Her Privates We” refers to the common soldiers who trudged through the mud and blood of the Western Front, “like flies through treacle”. Manning’s meandering narrative, book-ended by two vividly-described battle scenes, mostly describes the minutiae of their days together.
“Privates” is also an obvious sexual pun (the phrase is lifted from a passage of ribald wordplay in Hamlet, referring to lady fortune’s “secret parts”). And verbal courseness is key to Manning’s intentions, as he sets about rendering the soldiers’ speech in earthy, realistic detail. The idea that these heroes said “cunt” and “fuck” makes them seem all the more human and vulnerable; the enormity of their sacrifice somehow more intelligible.
“Private” has a more philosophical meaning here, too. “Every private soldier”, writes Manning, was a “man in arms against a world, a man fighting desperately for himself, and conscious that, in the last resort, he stood alone”. Each man is desperate to preserve a sense of privacy, of “self-reliance”, but at the same time reluctant to turn inward, for fear of confronting the “grotesque terrors” conjured by a shell-shocked mind. Such psychological acuteness marks this book out as both a precious document of the First World War and an imperishable Modernist masterpiece.