Marching on Tanga

Penguin covers, 1940 and 1941

Now here’s an oddity. The same book, issued by the same publisher. One edition is labelled fiction, the other travels and adventure. From what I can gather the first was published in 1940, the second in 1941.

With books about war, it’s often difficult to tell novel from memoir. Novels can contain big chunks of the writer’s experience; memoirs can contain much that is invented. I’ve come across books that were first marketed as memoirs, and then (a bit more honestly) as novels – Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet…, (by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’), for example. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one first labelled fiction, and then sold as a memoir.

Francis Brett Young was a prolific novelist, and this book was based on his experiences fighting with Smuts in German East Africa. The book had first been published in 1917. Randall Stevenson calls it ‘an outstandingly vivid vivid account of campaigns in East Africa.’ Maybe it was the vividness that made Penguin at first think it was fiction. Young later properly novelised his war experiences in Jim Redlake (1930).

I’ll try to find out what happened, though with research libraries shut for the foreseeable future, this could take a while.


  1. janevsw
    Posted February 19, 2021 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve found (as someone working from home) that many archivists are doing the same and are able to answer queries.

    FBY’s correspondence seems to be here:

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted February 19, 2021 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I know this is a bit different, but when I first began to read omnivorously in WW1 ‘first person’ prose, back in 1963 when I was fifteen, the first book that came to hand was Sherston’s Progress. The old orange Penguin was on my parents’ bookshelves. It was orange, so in my mind it was fiction – but ‘Rivers’ in the opening section was [of course] real, although I didn’t know that at the time. He felt real, though.

    Then I bought and read Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and found Siegfried’s Journey in the local library, followed by the two earlier ‘real’ memoirs, but in the wrong order ie The Weald of Youth followed by The Old Century.

    Then I found the complete three-volume Sherston for five bob in a second-hand shop [still got it] and read Memoirs of an Infantry Officer last of the six books.

    Being fifteen in the 1960s was confusing enough, but this immersion in the ‘same’ story told from two angles and with two sets of names was bewildering and fascinating at the same time.

    I wouldn’t want to take an exam on which story or memory comes in which trilogy; or what ‘really’ happened.

    • Posted February 20, 2021 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      Sassoon is a complicated case. The Sherston trilogy were published as novels, though clarly based closely on Sassoon’s experience, and featuring real people among the fictional characters. But Sherston is very unlike Sassoon – not a poet, not Jewish, not homosexual.
      The second trilogy is in some respects closer to the truth of Sassoon’s experience (though once again leaving out the homosexuality that was a large part of his life).
      But the first trilogy are better books. Using a persona helped him to expres things clearly that get blurred in the second version.

      • Tom Deveson
        Posted February 21, 2021 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        With Sassoon, there’s an added complication as to what’s ‘real’ when you read some of the poems:

        I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
        From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
        And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
        A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
        To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
        And, all because his brother had gone west,
        Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
        Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
        Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
        Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

        It seems to be based on an event that actually happened. But is it ‘true’ in prose as well as verse?

  3. Posted February 20, 2021 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve ordered both Marching to Tanga and Jim Redlake. The latter arrived this morning. A novel of 787 pages. It may be a while before I come back with a considered judgement on Francis Brett Young…

  4. Posted February 21, 2021 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    To slightly complicate even more the question of Marching on Tanga‘s genre – in the ‘By the same author’ list in Jim Redlake, Marching on Tanga is labelled neither fiction nor memoir, but Belles Lettres.

  5. Posted February 22, 2021 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Hello George
    I wonder if this is to do with the fact that the original manuscript went to the bottom of the ocean and that Francis had to rewrite it. In Letters to Jessie published by the FBY society he talks about the book being lost while also giving instructions for the publisher. I imagine the first print – which I’d not seen before – was the consequence of this protracted correspondence whilst he was still out in Africa. Time has precluded me from checking the Letters but this should hopefully give you enough to do your own investigation.
    Thanks for picking up on this change from fiction to non-fiction. Greatly appreciated.
    All the best

    • Posted February 22, 2021 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Anne. But the 1940 edition is a reprint (I don’t know if it was revised at all) of the 1917 original, so I don’t think the mislaid manuscript would explain this confusion.
      I suspect it’s more likely that Penguin offered to reprint the earlier book (Because in 1940 there was an interest in books from the earlier war?) and found it so vivid they thought it must be fiction.
      At which FBY or someone else protested, and the clasification was put right with the next reprint.

  6. Steve Paradis
    Posted February 23, 2021 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    The revised edition from 1919.
    Fiction rarely includes maps and photographs. Then again, maybe someone at Penguin thought a novel would sell better.

    • Posted February 23, 2021 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link. It’s a handsome edition. I like the paintings especially.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] has been an interesting discovery about the first print of Marching on Tanga by Francis Brett […]

  2. […] – Marching on Tanga (with General Smuts in East Africa) – see Great War Fiction for a publication conundrum1917 – Five Degrees South – war poetry1918 – The Crescent Moon – a […]

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