I’ve finally got around to reading W. F. Morris’s Bretherton: Khaki or Field-Gray? (1930). And it really is one of the strangest and daftest books about the war that I’ve read, though thoroughly readable, and enjoyable enough to while away a long train journey.
The book is in three sections. The first, narrated by a British officer, sets up some puzzles. In November 1918, as the Germans make their final retreat, the officer enters a chateauand comes across some dead bodies. A beautiful aristocratic woman in evening dress, and a German general, seated at the piano. The odd thing is that the man is the very image of Bretherton, a British officer reported missing.
The second section, narrated by a different officer, takes us back to 1916. Bretherton is a tough and talented officer who has made his company one of the best in the Army. The reader is taken rather slowly through lots of detail about Army routine, and a few more mysteries arise – a missing map, for instance, and an unexplained photograph. Bretherton vanishes, missing believed dead.
Then, half way through the novel, we enter the third section, and the book goes mad.
(If you’ve not read Bretherton, I’d maybe better warn you, the rest of this post will contain what they call spoilers – I’m going to give away some of the plot.)
Up to now the tone has been one of more or less sober naturalism, but suddenly the author introduces some of the most outrageous and nonsensical tricks in the magic realist store cupboard. Identical doubles, two sets of twins, hallucinations and miraculously selective (and dramatically appropriate) bouts of amnesia.
Bretherton is captured by the Germans, you see, then escapes dressed as a German officer. He is knocked out and loses his memory, but wakes up in a German hospital and assumes that he must be his pre-war German friend, von Wahnheim (who happens to be his double). Von W is a Colonel in the German Army; Bretherton takes on the role, unaware of his British origins; with his flair for things military, he soon gets promoted to General. Nobody suspects him for a moment.
Then his memory flip-flops, and he’s Bretherton again. From that point he keeps on transforming – sometimes he thinks he’s von Wahnheim; sometimes he’s back to Bretherton; ocasionally he realises that he is both of them.
The action moves towards the death-scene featured in the first section, and mysteries are neatly cleared up. You realise that Morris has done some very clever Agatha Christie-style misdirection in the earlier parts of the book.
There is never any doubt that the book is on the side of the British, but Morris chimes with the spirit of 1930 by making his Germans decent. The original von Wahnheim was Bretherton’s double, morally as well as physically, we are given to understand; they just happen to have been placed on different sides of the war. Morris constantly draws parallels between British and German troops, whom Bretherton regards as equally admirable. In case we miss the subtler parallels, Morris gives us some blatant and not entirely credible ones. Each of his second-in-commands has a beautiful twin sister, with whom the hero, in his appropriate incarnation, falls in love.
So as well as being a detective story, a naturalistic combat narrative, and an amnesia fable, the book also touches on what I think of as the “Strange Meeting” genre – where a British officer meets his German counterpart, and recognises a soul-mate. Wilfred Owen’s poem is the classic example, but A.W.Wheen’s Two Masters is an interesting prose version. Bretherton is a bit too action-packed to explore the issues very deeply.
Anyway, for all its oddity, the book is a good read, and is a prize specimen for my collection of amnesia stories.