When one begins listing writers of fiction about the Great War, Billy Bunter is not a name that springs immediately to mind.
In ‘A Lancashire Lad’s Luck’, a story which appeared in The Magnet in September 1915, however, Bunter is revealed as the author of ‘Through Mud and Blood’, a gripping and heroic narrative of the War.
This is his entry for a story competition organised by the Weekly World. Inspired by the prospect of a five-guinea prize, Bunter becomes creative, and produces a work of which he is extremely proud. Only two brief tantalizing extracts are printed in The Magnet. Here is the story’s beginning:
Through Mud and Blood
The shades of night were falling fast, and the silence lay silently on the sleeping camp, while the German guns thundered and roared with a terrific din. Captain Fearless stood in his dugout in Flanders, watching for the vile foe. ‛Aha!’ he muttered, his eyes flashing, his lip curling scornfully, his nostrils dilating, his hands clenching and his breath coming thick and fast. ‛Aha! They come!’
A second extract is presented with Bunter’s original (very original) spelling accurately reproduced:
‛Mercy!’ cride the shrinking Hun, as he fell upon his neeze. ‛Spair my life!’ Captain Fearless razed his gleeming blaid, and the Hun’s head roled in the dust.
‛Ha!’ cride our hearo. ‛Revvenge!’
Author ‛Frank Richards’ (Charles Hamilton, in this instance, as in all the best Greyfriars stories) has clearly had immense fun parodying the clichés of wartime writing. I can’t help suspecting that Bunter’s epic was based on those sent in to The Magnet’s editor by young readers fired with military enthusiasm and indignation against the Hun. Readers’ literary efforts were frequently referred to (and encouraged) in the editor’s weekly messages to his “chums”.
Bunter’s war story (of which he has an immensely high opinion) is contrasted with another competition entry, by Mark Linley (the ‛Lancashire Lad’ of the title). Linley’s story is based on his own previous experience, as he explains:
‛Wouldn’t be much good my writing a war story at my age,’ said Mark. ‛I don’t know anything about the war, excepting what I’ve read. A chap ought to know his subject before he starts writing. I’m trying a story of factory life in Lancashire. I know all about that; I’ve been through it.’
Writing about what you know was a maxim that Charles Hamilton took seriously, since he knew his little universe of Greyfriars and St Jim’s intimately. Each week he could select from a huge cast of characters to produce an exciting and funny – but often also a thought-provoking fable. Throughout the War years, The Magnet published stories that strongly suggest that enthusiasm for the war effort should not get in the way of the decencies of ordinary life. Most notable are the 1918 stories in which a conscientious onjector is treated with respect. There are also plenty of stories in which Coker, the bullying bighead of the Fifth Form uses the War as an excuse to impose his own bossiness on others. I’m delighted to see that one of these, ‛Coker’s Conscript’ from 1916, has been included in an impressive but absurdly expensive new multi-volume collection of First World War literature.
In 1916 the story was in a copy of The Magnet priced at one old penny. Today it’s part of a set priced at £450. Blimey!