Frederic Manning, the author of this book, which is also known as Her Privates We, was a well regarded Australian writer and poet who settled in the United Kingdom in the early years of the 20th century. He moved in bohemian circles and was frail in health and a heavy smoker despite suffering from asthma. He was nevertheless keen to enlist when war came in 1914 and predictably had some difficulty persuading the Army to accept him. In 1915, however, he managed to enlist in the Shropshire Light Infantry as a private soldier. He failed his officer training course. In 1916 he took part in the battle of the Somme and proved himself an able NCO. Subsequently he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and transferred to the Royal Irish Regiment where he proved to be unsuccessful officer material. His combat experiences, inebriation and poor health had taken their toll and he resigned his commission in 1918. Manning continued writing, producing poetry, novels and non fiction. This book, originally published anonymously, is based on Manning's authentic wartime experiences, but it is a novel. Its principal character, Bourne was named after a small English town where Manning had spent much of his time. The Middle Parts of Fortune is now considered to be one of the few true classic of the literature of war and tells the story, in the starkest terms, of ordinary men enduring the privations and dangers of the Western Front during the Great War.
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He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which it needed, he moved towards the ladder. Martlow, because he was nearest, went first. Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with Vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one’s boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one’s feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself.<br>
They were drawn up in two lines, in artillery formation: C and D Companies in front, and A and B Companies in the rear. Another shell hurtled shrieking over them, to explode behind Dunmow with a roar of triumphant fury. The last effects of its blast reached them, whirling the mist into eddying spirals swaying fantastically: then he heard a low cry for stretcher-bearers. Some lucky bugger was out of it, either for good and all, or for the time being. He felt a kind of envy; and dread grew in proportion to the desire, but he could not turn away his thought: it clung desperately to the only possible solution. In this emotional crisis, where the limit of endurance was reached, all the degrees which separate opposed states of feeling vanished, and their extremities were indistinguishable from each other. One could not separate the desire from the dread which restrained it; the strength of one’s hope strove to equal the despair which oppressed it; one’s determination could only be measured by the terrors and difficulties which it overcame. All the mean, piddling standards of ordinary life vanished in the collision of these warring opposites. Between them one could only attempt to maintain an equilibrium which every instant disturbed and made unstable.<br>
If it had been clear, there would have been some light by now, but darkness was prolonged by fog. He put up a hand, as though to wipe the filthy air from before his eyes, and he saw the stupid face of Jakes, by no means a stupid man, warped into a lopsided grin. Bloody fool, he thought, with unreasoning anger. It was as though Jakes walked on tiptoe, stealing away from the effects of some ghastly joke he had perpetrated.<br>
“We’re on the move,” he said softly, and grinned with such a humour as skulls might have.<br>
Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn’t know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hun barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Fritz had been ready for them all right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. <br>
As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralisation: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shell exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air.