‘Spy’ by Bernard Newman

The excellent news that came to me this week is that the grandchildren and step-grandchildren of Bernard Newman have taken control of his literary estate, and are engaged on the project of republishing his books.
I have therefore spent two very enjoyable train journeys reading his Spy of 1935.

This tells how he, Bernard Newman, enlisted in 1914 as a motor-cycle dispatch-rider. His skill at speaking German attracted the attention of the authorities, and he became involved in intelligence work. His experience as an actor came in handy, too, as did a flair for disguise. Soon he was on operations behind the German lines, eventually in a privileged position in Ludendorff’s head-quarters, secretly working to demoralise the great German commander and sabotage his plans.

It’s an amazing story. Here is the cover of the Gollancz first edition:

The publishers carefully say that they are ‘not in a position to guarantee the truth of Mr Newman’s astounding narrative’, and ask the reader to make up his or her own mind.

I’m rather a connoisseur of Great War fake narratives, and think that Gollancz’s presentation of this one is rather classy. The reputable publisher John Lane simply pases off Coningsby Dawson’s The Love of an Unknown Soldier (6189) as a genuine document, and the utter rogue Netley Lucas/Albert Marriott colludes with Evadne Price to produce Not So Quiet... and pretend it is a real memoir of women at war. Gollancz prefers to engage the reader in a game of ‘Judge for yourself: Fact or Fiction?’
The ambiguity was continued in the advertising.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews, and they join in the game of speculation, hinting strongly that the book is fiction, but leaving open the possibility…
It is fiction, of course. According to Wikipedia, his war career (in which he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant) went like this:

Serving in the trenches during World War I, and with reasonable fluency in French, his regiment’s French liaison officer occasionally used him to go undercover in Paris. Accompanied by a female French agent, they investigated loose talk by Allied soldiers about troop movements. It was here that his interest in espionage began.

The book is an immensely enjoyable and fast-moving story, with episodes that are terrific if not entirely credible. My favourite is Newman’s escape from the condemned cell when sentenced to death by firing-squad. His plans succeed stunningly, his disguises are impenetrable, and lovely women will go to any lengths to help him.
Newman, of course, is the author of The Cavalry Went Through (1930) the alternative history of the war, in which a colonial general uses lateral thinking and unconventional tactics to break the stalemate of the Western Front. Spy also has something to say about the bone-headedness of the General Staff, who typically fail to make full use of the information that the fictional Newman has managed to grasp (at the cost of great personal danger) from enemy headquarters. Liddell Hart pops up in a cameo role in Spy, described in terms verging on hero-worship.
So the book is highly recommended, and you will enjoy it even more if you know that in 1968, when he died, the New York Times obituary re-told the events of this novel as though they were the true facts of his life.

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted September 25, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    In that vein, you must have heard of this:
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/07/31/faked_photos_combat_scenes_from_wwi_were_staged_using_models.html
    While it’s been long known, I have no doubt these will reappear as authentic in some centenary hackwork.
    The article in Smithsonian by Edwards Park (January 1985) reported the whole story. Park, a combat pilot himself, took a benign point of view–if Archer was a fake, he was a real fake, spicing up a novel based on his own service with staged photos.
    Sadly, I can report that the novel itself is rather ordinary.


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