Charles Samuel Bannell
Having just finished writing the introduction to Philip Child’s WWI novel God’s Sparrows (1937) for Dundurn (winter ’16/ spring ’17 publication date), I’ve decided to turn my attention to a poet named Charles Samuel Bannell, who served with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada during the First World War. Bannell was killed at Passchendaele in late 1917, and his brother published a posthumous collection of his poetry titled His Offering. There’s not a lot known about him outside the details offered in the brief introduction to the volume, but I’m hoping to fix that in short order.
A big part of my research process is to get a hold of absolutely everything connected to a writer and the unit he served in –basically it’s a grand excuse to indulge my book collecting. But researching Bannell has been especially rewarding because I’ve been fortunate enough to find several rare publications connected with the Seaforth Highlanders, with whom I was a private from 2001-04.
One such publication is A Short History of Captured Guns: The Great European War 1914-18, a pamphlet detailing how the war trophies around Vancouver were captured. Privately printed, it’s quite a rare item: Library and Archives Canada’s Amicus database lists only four copies in Canadian academic libraries. I found a copy at Kestrel Books on West 4th in Vancouver.
There’s often wonderful things in little pamphlets like this that don’t make it into larger histories. Just read this:
The surging battle line long since is still
And Cenotaphs are reared, and flowers spread
Across the meadow and behind the hill,
O’er all those hallowed gardens of the dead.
Dead! Not to us –though all the world forget
That hideous travail of a nation’s birth,
Your living memory is with us yet
Despite far scattered mounds of sacred earth.
And those of us –so few –who still remain
Cherish our scars –sore guerdon of the years
And, in remembering, almost bless our pain
That tells of tribute paid in blood and tears.
And so to you we raise this silent glass
And pledge ourselves to keep your memory bright
And pray we too, when comes our time to pass
May look with fearless eyes into the night.
Lt. Col. Robert Ross Napier.
I envision several hundred men raising a glass during that last stanza. A PDF of the pamphlet is below. Enjoy.
One of my long-term projects is to eventually track down some of the Australian & New Zealander fiction of the First World War, to see (amongst other things) how it compares to Canadian war fiction. Like ours, Anzac war lit is mostly out of print and neglected, which is strangely familiar (and disappointing) because the war seems to occupy a similar place in the national mythology down under as it does in the great white north.
I’d always thought Aussies and Canadians had similar sorts of reputations during the war, but rereading Robert E. Sherwood’s play Waterloo Bridge (1930) recently, I came across a passage where the protagonist Roy, an American serving with the RCR’s, offers his opinion of the other colonial army:
“The Australians are over-rated. They make a lot of noise and show off –but when it comes to proving anything in the line, well, they’re a lot of false alarms, if you ask me.” (Act II, Scene I, page 112).
Yikes! Sherwood served in the ranks of the Canadian Black Watch alongside Will Bird, and I was curious if his unflattering appraisal of the Australians was commonplace in the ranks of the CEF. I’ve read of the two colonial forces being competitive with each other but had never considered there might be outright animosity, so I was really curious about how Will Bird would treat the Australians in his short story Kind to Dogs from the May 1931 issue of War Stories.
Kind to Dogs is the only war story of Bird’s I’ve encountered (thus far) that centres upon the Australian army. At the outset we’re introduced to the hard-bitten Corporal Hurry (one of the great character names in the Bird cannon) of the “Coo-ees,” pride of the Third Australian Division. Bill Latcher is one of Hurry’s men, and frequently tests his corporal’s patience by always being thoughtful, decent, and honourable and never using the war as an excuse to compromise his personal integrity. Latcher is thus portrayed as a bit of a softie: according to his corporal “he’s too damn sentimental” and that will bring bad luck.
Preparing to attack “Ungodly Trench” at the base of the Messines Ridge, Bill exposes himself to German scrutiny to help a lost platoon, and then once the attack gets going, he silences a Maxim gun on his own. When Corporal Hurry sees Bill standing with the German gunner, he’s frantic:
“Shoot him, kill him!” yelled the corporal before he reached them, and he broke into sudden perspiration. That was old Bill every time, standing there like a ninny when the Kraut might act treacherous at first chance.
But Bill held up a protesting hand.
“He’s surrendered, corp,” he shouted to make himself heard. “No use killing him, he didn’t have no chance. Lookit here!”
The corporal looked and understood the desperate resistance. The young German had been chained to his gun.
“Plug him just the same,” he said hoarsely. “We ain’t got time to bother with him. Move over, if you don’t want to do it. I’ll fix him.”
“No, corp. Don’t you shoot him or I’ll report you,” said old Bill steadily. “He surrendered to me, just as soon as I got up close enough, and he had to stick it and shoot. You’d a done the same if you was him. I’ll bust that chain off him –I put his gun out of order already –and send him back as soon as there’s a chance.”
“All right,” grated the corporal. “Go ahead with your fool stunts. Some day you’ll get yourself and [a] lot of other men wiped out jist through your blasted sentiment.”
Given the Canadian reputation for killing prisoners, I’m surprised to find this exchange occurring between Australian soldiers –but then again, maybe that distance is what affords Bird the ability to write about it so candidly.
Bill Latcher continues to behave like an “old woman” according to his corporal: refusing to shoot a German dog in no man’s land, and then (if you can believe it) tending to a wounded German and letting him drink from his own water bottle! Things shortly go sideways during the Australian attack, and things are only righted through Bill’s fundamental decency.
Bird deploys one of his favourite plot devices in Kind to Dogs: a hidden trap door/secret tunnel that once again brings about a thrilling climax. And naturally, in what is becoming a running joke here, a corporal’s hiss is… (wait for it….)…. “sibilant.”
And so, to celebrate Dominion Day: a short story by a Canadian, about an Australian unit, featuring a protagonist that turns out to be a sentimental American.
I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.
This is the seventh post in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.
The ghost of Will Bird’s brother Stephen features prominently in both of Will’s memoirs of the war: 1930’s And We Go On and revised/rewritten edition Ghosts Have Warm Hands (1968). Bearing that in mind, it’s always fun to come across one of his short stories where the supernatural features prominently, as it does in Ghost Bayonets, from the August 1930 issue of War Stories.
Ghost Bayonets tacks towards the lighthearted end of the spectrum, but there are a lot of interesting things happening in what is otherwise an unapologetically fun story.
Our protagonist is Jimmy Blake, an American, who, with his buddy Pete Conner, has joined the ranks of an unnamed battalion in the Second Canadian Division, nicknamed the “Pig Stickers” for the pride they take in being some of the “best bayonet fighters on the Western Front.” As new men in a hardened outfit, they’re both being tested by the old hands, and as Yanks in a Canadian outfit, they’re subjected to even more scrutiny than usual. But being Americans, they don’t lack in self-confidence:
“What the hell made you kids come and join our mob?” the hard-boiled sergeant had asked. “Don’t you know that we’re the Pig Stickers?”
“Yeah, but that don’t sink so deep,” Jimmy had retorted. He was twenty and as big as the average. “Pete and me’s always lookin’ for excitement and so we thought we’d come over and play tag with Fritz until we got acquainted. Then when Pershing comes with his gang, he’ll make us generals on account of us knowin’ so much more’n the rest.”
“Is that so?” the hard-boiled one had sneered. “I’ll bet you fifty francs you ain’t got spunk enough to stick a man, and that you’ll puke the first time you smell a dead one.”
“Take your fifty,” said Jimmy. “Put up your money. I never tried my bayonet on a live Fritz and I’ve never been in the trenches, but my cash says that I can go anywhere you do.”
And that, dear readers, is how not to ingratiate yourself to your new sergeant. Jimmy realizes he may have been a touch too bold with this “bearcat” of an NCO as the battalion moves into Graveyard Corner, a supposedly haunted bit of no-man’s land between Lens and Hill 70. Rumour has it an old Frenchman with a black coat, top hat, and a deathly pallor has been seen wandering near the artillery-disturbed graves, and that one soldier supposedly died of fright after being warned by the ghost to stay away. It’s all very Sheridan Le Fanu. But having survived a German trench raid and acquitted himself well in the process, Jimmy is more concerned with not appearing cowardly in front of his comrades and sergeant than with self preservation.
As with the other instance of Bird incorporating “ghosts” into one of his pulp short stories though (see: The Ghost Hole) the spectral rumours have a Teutonic rather than supernatural explanation. Our American heroes (donning the Maple Leaf for the duration) will expose Fritz’s scheme via several of Bird’s favourite devices: the secret passage/hidden tunnel, mistaken identity, and swapping uniforms. It’s a bit of a lark, and there’s a marvelous scene at the end where Jimmy and Pete work out their stories for the officers, so as to keep Jimmy in the pink (his having been “recommended for a bunch of medals”) and Pete out of the clink for…well, you’ll have to read to find out.
I also think it’s interesting that Bird always finds a rational explanation for ghosts/rumours in his pulp stories; it is one of the many reasons I believe the ghost of his brother in And We Go On is a literary device and why his memoirs should be read as literary works as opposed to history. But I’ll save that discussion for another post.
Note: Bird’s fondness for “sibilant” continues unabated.
And so, without further ado: from the August, 1930 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s Ghost Bayonets. I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.
Two of my guilty pleasures are detective stories and spy novels; as I wade through the war-themed pulp fiction of 1926-36 (or so) I’ve been genuinely surprised that I haven’t come across more examples of war stories that cross over into these genres.
Spy & detective stories set in the trenches exist, to be sure; there are just fewer of them than one might expect. Given the near hysteria that swept through various fronts throughout the war whenever rumours of spies surfaced (Canon Scott wrote of “spy fever” infecting the men in The Great War As I Saw It), not to mention the opportunity to expose the deviousness and cunning of the Hun in such a tale, their relative scarcity in the Canadian war-lit canon seems notable.
It has occurred to me that rank might offer a partial explanation: as a private who was promoted to lance corporal (and then corporal in the final stages of the war), Bird had a common, but fairly limited view of the war. He writes the slice of the war he knew convincingly, but he doesn’t stray too far from that perspective: his protagonists are overwhelmingly privates and junior NCOs in the infantry, their concerns the predictable daily round of rations and working parties as they rotate through the trenches and sectors of the western front. Many things exist outside that infantry ranker experience in Bird’s fiction, but never in much detail. The artillery is there for example, but almost by magic: we never see them sight their guns or limber them up and move to new positions. We see medical officers but rarely the work they do, or the spaces they work in.
A spy or detective story requires the protagonist to move around a lot, chasing down leads and dealing with the battlefield and enemy (not to mention senior officers), from a perspective I don’t think Bird was entirely comfortable with. I think we see him working through some of these issues in the short story Bandages from the August 1929 issue of War Stories.
Bandages is a classic whodunnit. Set in Nollens (about fifty clicks east of Ypres on the road to Ghent), H company of an unspecified unit in the American army is experiencing a series of “unlucky” events: a relief that changed its plans at the last minute is shelled with precision on their way into the line, and then each following night the unit takes unlikely casualties “despite every precaution.” Lieutenant Ellis is sent from the regiment to investigate the goings on, and is killed in mysterious circumstances on his way to report his findings. Lieutenant Hart has been dispatched from on high to continue the spy-hunt, but the C.O., Captain Howard, has tasked the officious Sergeant Wayland to keep his eyes open in the mean time. Wayland begins investigating himself, and will act as Watson to Hart’s Holmes as they work together to root out the spy. The game is afoot! And it’s a fun story, so I’m not going to ruin it for you. Go read it.
But to return to the idea of Bird working through some problems in Bandages, I find there is a real vagueness here that is atypical of his pulp stories. The reader doesn’t discover the unit is an American one until eight pages into a fourteen page story, and the nationality seems like an afterthought. Bird is usually keen to incorporate regiments with appropriate reputations into his stories: so a story calling for a really smart, professional unit sees him use the RCR’s, one needing a kilted outfit great at night patrols gets the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, etc. And Bird is really good about adding regimental specific details: slang and unit specific kit, for example. But in Bandages there’s none of that. Perhaps the vagueness is just a deliberate attempt to avoid the offense of putting a spy in the midst of a real unit, but I do believe he’s wrestling with his limitations here.
About a year after the publication of Bandages, Bird’s “memoir” And We Go On, was published by Hunter Rose of Toronto. Therein he writes, “[o]fficers were simply men in uniforms designed to make them look better than the privates, and they had responsibilities that we did not realize” (96). The more he wrote, the more Bird seemed to become aware of what he didn’t know about the war, about the varying responsibilities and necessities of men outside the non-commissioned ranks of infantry: the staff officers and engineers and medics and gunners and ASC types, the veterinarians. In this story, Bird seems to have written himself into a bit of a corner, wanting to write a spy story but not quite sure how to pull it off successfully.
The most unsatisfying element to Bandages is that we never discover why the spy/traitor behaved as he did. We’re given a few paragraphs on the final page about how he committed his crimes, but not why, and that’s a gaping hole in the narrative. But then maybe I’ve just become accustomed to villains who soliloquize endlessly on their motivations, in the tradition of Blofeld.
As he was prone to do, Bird republished Bandages about a year later in the March 1st, 1930 issue of the Toronto Star Weekly magazine. I have not seen this edition.
A final note: the word “sibilantly” appears far more often in the Will Bird’s pulp war fiction than spies do. Thankfully, today’s story, Bandages, from the August 1st, 1929 issue of War Stories has both. I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.
Will Bird’s stories do get stronger once the 1930’s roll around: his pacing gets better, the stories become more focused and he becomes less prone to battering the reader with endless plot twists –at least by the standards of the genre and his earlier stories. In short, Bird was learning his craft and the results can be seen in marvelous stories like Strike Me Pink! from the June 1930 issue of War Stories.
Bird was never a fan of the officer caste, that much is clear. His protagonists, typically privates or corporals (with the odd sergeant tossed in for good measure) generally consider officers on a range somewhere between veiled antagonism to outright contempt. Strike Me Pink! fits this mould perfectly.
Our hero is Sergeant Tim Corry, who has been loaned to the London Scottish Regiment by the Wales Borderers, who in turn got him from the Van Doos: “th’ Frinch Canadians, av which I’m an original, though me father was an Irishman, and distant blood on me mother’s side is Eyetalian…” explains Corry when an irate officer asks him where he’s from.
Corry is on loan because he’s a patrolling specialist and Fritz is up to something near the British lines around Loos. When the Sergeant heads out to observe the hun lines from a crater in no man’s land, a runner very soon appears demanding a report for the company major. And then another shows up, demanding another report on one of the official pink forms. And then another. Corry is gobsmacked at the bureaucratic demands of the pasty, pudgy, behind the lines & stuck in the dugout crew, who can identify a major landmark on a map, but not by sight. In short, the officers of Strike Me Pink! are the worst sort of paper-pushers, and even when the sergeant comes hustling in with news of a pending attack, they want official reports rather than immediate defensive preparations.
Of course, Corry saves the day by stubbornly refusing the officer’s demands and by choosing the right plan of action as opposed to the officious one, and the regiment responds brilliantly to the German attack (at Corry’s prompting) in spite of their officer’s incompetence. All told, this is a fairly straightforward story about the difference between the men who do the fighting and the men who write the reports and file the paper, and is a very good example of what Bird is capable of writing in the pulp genre.
As a side note, Strike Me Pink! begs comparison on several counts to Humphrey Cobb’s novel Paths of Glory: both are concerned with officers obsessed with bureaucracy and paperwork, and though both Cobb & Bird served in Canadian outfits, both save their harshest fictional criticisms for officers from France and the UK.
And so, without further ado: from the June, 1930 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s Strike Me Pink! I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.
Today’s story by Will R. Bird is entitled, The Major’s Prisoner and appeared in the January 5th, 1928 issue of War Stories.
Reading Will Bird’s pulp stories of the First World War, it’s sometimes difficult to remember they weren’t intended to be read as literary fiction; they were written for an audience that demanded rip-roaring tales of daring-do and adventure –and in most cases, Bird was happy to oblige.
The The Ghost Hole (1928), is a prime example of one of Bird’s completely ridiculous, but nonetheless thoroughly entertaining stories. One simply settles in and enjoys the twists and turns, untroubled by more literary considerations.
As I uncover some of the more obscure of Bird’s pulp stories though, I’m finding a hybrid type of story that occupies a middle ground between the more serious/literary stories (i.e.: the ones that first appeared in Collier’s, Blue Book and MacLean’s and were later collected in 1946’s Sunrise for Peter), and the pure-pulp adventure stories. The Major’s Prisoner is one of these hybrids, and my response to it has been oscillating wildly between frustration and fascination.
The Major’s Prisoner is basically two stories. The first half is a thoughtful portrayal of Dicky Parsons, a hunting and fishing guide from rural Nova Scotia who lied about his age so that he could join up and “see the world.” Parsons is not too young to enlist, as one often sees in stories of the war, but too old, at fifty-three. Assigned to “the cook’s domain” he’s described as “apt and willing” and he soon became “a favourite at the kitchen.” But by 1917 there were shortages of men and so he winds up filling a draft for the Royal Canadian Regiment, the senior infantry regiment in the Canadian Army and one Bird describes as “one of Canada’s smartest regiments.”
Bird’s choice of the RCR’s is significant in that Dicky Parsons is joining a group of professionals, not civilian soldiers. (The RCR’s were one of the few regular force units in Canada before the war, and in fact were sent to garrison Bermuda in 1914 before shipping to Europe in late 1915 to become the cornerstone of the 3rd Canadian Division). In addition to his age, Parsons is described as “stocky,” he “wheezed” a question at a sentry (read: unfit), and there is a carelessness, an obvious lack of attention to detail about his soldiering. Though affable, he is continually exposed as a tourist: he makes one mistake after another until the other members of his company begin openly referring to him as “Jonah” or “hoodoo” (bad luck, bad omen, etc.).
Amidst this set-up, Parsons is confronted one day by the battalion second in command, Major McTaggart: a red-faced, fire-breathing, martinet type. As luck would have it, McTaggart had engaged Parsons as a guide on fishing expeditions back in Boar’s Head, Nova Scotia, and like Parsons, he is also an outsider in the regiment. Though a veteran of South Africa, he’s considered over-the-hill and is being sent home to Canada; recognizing Dicky’s plight, he’s determined to take him on as a batman so Parsons can stamp his passport home too.
Before the Major heads home though, there’s going to be a final hurrah: a night raid into no-man’s land to secure a prisoner. That’ll show the whipper-snappers that the old Major still has a trick or two up his sleeve! Naturally, Dicky Parsons needs to help save the Major from himself, and it all gets a little Keystone Kops for the rest of the story. Several frequent Bird plot devices get deployed: an impossibly difficult prisoner taking, adventures in secret/hidden passages and tunnels, impromptu disguises, getting lost in no-man’s land, and a chance to show-up staff officers for the cowards they really are.
It’s harmless and ends well, but the story begins with such promise I wish Bird had been able to write this particular story for a more serious publication. I would have liked to see a more psychologically accurate portrayal of men who were pushed aside or ostracized by their units because they simply weren’t able to soldier at the level that was expected, and yet despite their failings, still had something to contribute. Rather than a bungling comedy sketch, I was hoping I was going to read a trench-themed Jonah tale. But I suppose that’s not pulp fiction.
Note: Bird often published the same story in multiple magazines, and this one made its way into at least three. It was first printed in the August 1927 issue of The Busy East of Canada (making this a very early story), and then subsequently in the March and April 1928 issues of The Legionary, the publication of the Canadian Legion.
And so, from the January 5th, 1928 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s The Major’s Prisoner. I’ve cleaned up the images a bit. The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.