David Trotter has an article on war fiction in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War . (One of a series popular with sixth-formers and undergraduates, because it gives them a nice range of wider critical reading, all in one book).
David Trotter talks about “the paradigmatic war novel”, which he identifies with the kind of combat novel that “relies on a familiarity with a form of warfare which, although not altogether unprecedented, had never taken place before on such a scale, or to such devastating effect, and did not take place again.”
The paradigmatic fiction to which he is most attracted is the 1930 novella The German Prisoner by James Hanley, born 1901 (probably). He apparently saw some military service in 1918, though I am not sure how extensive this was. The novella, which does not seem to be closely based on experience, is the harrowing story of two British working-class infantrymen separated from their patrol, who encounter a young German. He surrenders and becomes their captive. He is then beaten, sexually tortured and murdered.just before the two British troops are themselves killed in a bombing raid.
In other words, this is the most violent and horrible of war books; its characters are perversely and deliberately brutal. It is certainly not a typical war book, and if it is paradigmatic, then the paradigm referred to must be one that sees personal violence as the essential ingredient of a war book. Yet the distinguishing feature of the Great War was that so much of the violence was impersonal – the artillery barrage delivered at a distance by men who hardly knew what they were hitting. Of course personal hand-to-hand violence occurred, and of course both sides treated prisoners badly on occasion, but the incident described is quite unrepresentative of war literature in general.
What Trotter seems to be looking for in a war book is the extreme of violence that exposes the horror of war, rips away the idealism and the moral pretensions, and shows up its cruelty. He seems to have decided on what he wanted war novels to say, and then hunted until he found this extremely untypical one that delivers his message.
I would contrast Hanley’s novella with another book that includes an episode in which German prisoners are mistreated. Wilfred Ewart in Way of Revelation makes it clear that such incidents happen in war, though he does not dwell on them:
When the platoon sergeant inquired what he should do with his prisoners, Eric said:
“They’re a couple of the swine who fire the minenwerfer, I suppose. Do what you like with ‘em!”
“Oh, send ‘em down to Brigade Headquarters, Eric -” protested Adrian.
“Come along!” said his company-commander, cutting him short. “They’re no use to us.”
The platoon-sergeant laughed.
Passing back that way half-an-hour later, they found the Germans lying dead in the trench…
In Way of Revelation, the atrocity is not lingered over; it is presented as a moral conundrum, and part of the wider pattern of the novel, which deals (novelistically, not sensationally) with all sorts of issues that are raised when a civilian takes on the role of soldier. Reading Way of Revelation (though it is by no means a perfect novel) ought to make anyone recognise that the critical viewpoint that makes The German Prisoner paradigmatic must be a pretty limited one.
The book was published only in a limited edition (which was less likely to attract the notice of the dispproving than a general trade edition); there are claims that it was “censored”, but, as often, this comes down to publishers being afraid to publish because of the possibility of prosecution. Hanley’s book does not seem to have been prosecuted, though publishers clearly thought there was a risk of prosecution. When Hanley’s 1931 novel Boy was prosecuted (because it too contained lots of sexual violence, this time aboard ship) however, some copies of The German Prisoner were seized by the police as well. Boy had originally been published in a limited edition, without problems. When a general trade edition (at a much cheaper price, and therefore not just for the elite) was published, a complainant egged the authorities into prosecution.
I’ve never read Hanley’s scandalous Boy, but I think I shall. An interesting essay on the book makes its descriptions of sex sound rather fun:
When Fearon is raped by The Hernian ‘s steward in chapter six, the narrative shifts to a description of the raging sea outside while the abuse is taking place, and Hanley resorts to abstract surrealist prose during the Alexandrian sex scenes of chapters ten and twelve. At one point the phrase “the girl had caught hold of something he possessed”is used to avoid a direct reference to the penis, and, even more quaintly, “philosophic centre” is substituted for “vagina” later on.