Frederic Manning is generally acknowledged as the finest novelist of the Western Front, but Her Privates We was not written until ten years after the War. During the War years he saw himself as a poet rather than a prose writer.
I find most of his poems, with their archaisms and delicate Nineties texture, difficult to appreciate, but The Trenches, one of the very few that he wrote about the War, is different, a very evocative piece of descriptive writing. It was published in 1917, I think.
Endless lanes sunken in the clay,
Bays, and traverses, fringed with wasted herbage,
Seed-pods of blue scabious, and some lingering blooms;
And the sky, seen as from a well,
Brilliant with frosty stars.
We stumble, cursing, on the slippery duck-boards.
Goaded like the damned by some invisible wrath,
A will stronger than weariness, stronger than animal fear,
Implacable and monotonous.
Here a shaft, slanting, and below
A dusty and flickering light from one feeble candle
And prone figures sleeping uneasily,
And men who cannot sleep,
With faces impassive as masks,
Bright, feverish eyes, and drawn lips,
Sad, pitiless, terrible faces,
Each an incarnate curse.
Here in a bay, a helmeted sentry
Silent and motionless, watching while two sleep,
And he sees before him
With indifferent eyes the blasted and torn land
Peopled with stiff prone forms, stupidly rigid,
As tho’ they had not been men.
Dead are the lips where love laughed or sang,
The hands of youth eager to lay hold of life,
Eyes that have laughed to eyes,
And these were begotten,
O Love, and lived lightly, and burnt
With the lust of a man’s first strength: ere they were rent,
Almost at unawares, savagely; and strewn
In bloody fragments, to be the carrion
Of rats and crows.
And the sentry moves not, searching
Night for menace with weary eyes.
This has to be a poem based closely on experience. Did composing it one night help him to keep awake on sentry-duty? Mostly it itemises what he sees, though there is some trying for effect, where he loses sight of the physical reality and lurches into rhetoric – ‘Each an incarnate curse’ and ‘like the damned’. Not too much of this, though.
What the poem gets across is the weariness and tedium of war, as well as its horror. The soldiers in it are a group, going through a communal experience, but each man described is alone. The sleeping murmur, to nobody in particular, but those who cannot sleep are silent. Despite ‘feverish eyes’ their faces are impassive masks. Like the sentry who ‘moves not’, they ahave a disturbing similarity to the ‘stupidly rigid’ dead.
So it’s a good poem, and a chilling one, but not in the same league as his novel, which takes its time to show the soldiers as complex human beings, living together in a society with its peculiar rules and conventions. Mostly I’m sceptical about the claim that novelists could not write about the War till ten years after the event (There are too many who, when Journey’s End was a success, dusted off previously unsaleable manuscripts and sent them off to publishers) but I think that Manning was someone who at the end of the twenties wrote something that he could not have done before he was able to recollect the experience in tranquility.