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Partly because of contemporary censorship, and partly because so many of the writers of the time were well-educated, middle-class boys, there is sometimes a tendency to imagine everyone from the First World War speaking in cut-glass Eton English. ‘Ready to give the Boche a damn good thrashing, Blodger?’ ‘Lumme, I should hope so old man,’ and so on. I mean you know logically that people still swore and cursed in the 1910s, but its hard to take it on board instinctively when theres so little record of it. And then again, maybe people really were a bit more reserved in those days…?I have fallen into that trap before; and linguistically speaking, The Middle Parts of Fortune has been a necessary corrective for me. Here, privates in the trenches are more direct:‘Fuckin slave drivers, thats what they are!’ said Minton, flinging himself on the ground. ‘Whats the cunt want to come down ere buggerin us about for, avent we done enough bloody work in th week?’As soon as you read it, you think: ah. Yes. Of course thats how people spoke. I can hear people I know saying that.Capturing this dialogue is one of Mannings key aims in this novel, and it was also one of the reasons the book got into trouble when it first came out (anonymously) in 1929. A year later it was bowdlerised and re-released as Her Privates We, the title under which its still published by many modern editors, although its not clear to me which version of the text is being used by who.Its a great book anyway, and one that reminded me very much of Henri Barbusses Le Feu. They have many incidents in common, but they also both depend stylistically on naturalistic slang, and they both spend the bulk of their time examining the interminable boredom that comprised ninety percent of soldiers lives – the forced marches, billeting in tiny French villages in the rain, linguistic misunderstandings, trench philosophising, drinking binges in two-bit estaminets, the petty politics between different officers. All the time trying not to think about the next ‘show’: it was an existence based around rejecting the immediate future – what Manning describes as ‘their subterranean, furtive, twilight life, the limbo through which, with their obliterated humanity, they moved as so many unhouseled ghosts’.As perhaps you can tell already, some of the prose is of quite an elevated register, especially compared with the speech. Manning is not averse to throwing in some rare archaisms like venusty to try and ratchet up the emotional effect of some scenes; Im still not sure how I feel about that. I think the dialogue was more successful than many of the descriptive passages.He does write very incisively, though, on many aspects of trench life, like its enforced masculinity. The lack of female interaction brings about all kinds of strange psychological symptoms – it instils a ‘sense of privation, which affected more or less consciously all these segregated males, so that they swung between the extremes of a sickly sentimentalism and a rank obscenity’, as demonstrated in several scenes.I think ultimately Le Feu might be a better book. The Middle Parts of Fortune was very slightly let down for me by the central character, Bourne, who seems to move through a series of scenes that are designed to show off the excellence of his character: he is always the most level-headed, the most intelligent, the most judicious of his companions, and since hes a thinly veiled version of the author, this struck me as slightly off-putting. On the other hand, the portraits of other soldiers are very moving here, and I cared about some of them more than I cared about anyone in Barbusse.They had nothing; not even their own bodies, which had become mere implements of warfare. They turned from the wreckage and misery of life to an empty heaven, and from an empty heaven to the silence of their own hearts. They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each others shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other.The book ends with his company going over the top, and by this stage, after so much detailed uncertainty and procrastination, the effect is very powerful. My palms were sweating. Manning handles it perfectly: it feels as though you too, as a reader, have been waiting the whole time, with a sort of sick anxiety that can only be the tiniest shadow of its original, for this final, dreadful rush into hell.

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