‘Sapper’ paper online


A couple of years ago I was fortunate to be invited to the conference of Les Amis du Roman Populaire in Amiens. The topic was popular fiction of the First World War, and I gave a paper on ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama. This tried to explain how ‘Sapper’ ( Herman Cyril McNeile), who began as the author of realistic vignettes about the war, developed into the author of lurid and improbable thrillers. I traced a continuity between the wartime writing and the later work.

The paper was published (in French translation) in an issue of Le Rocambole, the society’s journal, and I had vaguely thought of enlarging and adapting it for an English-speaking  audience. I think  now that I shall be doing any more work on ‘Sapper’ in the near future, so I have put the English version of the paper online, among the pieces of longer writing on this site.

Because I was addressing a French audience who mostly knew nothing at all about  ‘Sapper’, I had to explain things that a comparable British audience would already know, so experts on the subject may find parts of the paper a bit elementary. I hope, though, that some at least will find it interesting.

Click here for the paper:  ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama.



  1. Compere
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Very good idea! Rocambole is delighted at it and is going to indicate this article to all his(her) English-speaking readers!

    Posted July 23, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr.Simmers, Many thanks for sending me your latest newsletter. I’m looking forward to reading your article on Sapper as soon as I have time to concentrate on it. I’ve been taking more interest in the Great War since discovering recently that I have an ancestor who took part in it. He was a Manchester man who joined the RAMC in the summer of 1915 and was invalided out with a pension in 1919, and I’ve been reading as much as I can about what he might have experienced. My conclusion so far, which admittedly is mainly a gut reaction and which I might revise as time goes on, is that people who see the war as a vast, unnecessary squandering of life, are probably right. I wonder if you have the time to recommend a few books which represent that point of view (I believe John Laffin’s ‘British Butchers and Bunglers’, which I’m about to read, is a notorious example)? I’d be very grateful if you could refer me to a few worthwhile titles. Many thanks. All the best, Harry Warren

    • Posted July 23, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Harry –

      There have been plenty of books – from Alan Clark’s The Donkeys onwards – that have presented generals as butchers and bunglers. I have not read any that I would fully endorse. I have not read Laffin’s book, but there is an analysis raising significant doubts about his historical approach, online at http://www.johndclare.net/wwi3_laffin_polemic.htm

      But why do you want to read books that reinforce your own point of view? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to look at works that take a different approach? Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory might be a good place to start.

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