Will R. Bird’s “Kind to Dogs” (1931)….

23104_A5AC55E545A4CThis is the eighth post in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

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.

23041LRPreparing 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.

img981Will R. Bird – Kind to Dogs

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Will R. Bird’s “Ghost Bayonets” (1930)….

This is the seventh post in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

23096_67CB7F6142E4BThe 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.  23107_3899EAE775E0DRumour 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.

img968Will R. Bird – Ghost Bayonets

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Will R. Bird’s “Bandages” (1929)….

23032LRThis is the sixth in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

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.

23054_5328355042A6F

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 23094_672272C7A31C6needing 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.

img925Will R. Bird – Bandages

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Will R. Bird’s “Strike Me Pink!” (1930)….

23098_F346F1FB71895-1This is the fifth in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

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.

23083_B17AAD85757DA

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.

img911

Will R. Bird – Strike Me Pink

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Will R. Bird’s “The Major’s Prisoner” (1928)….

23098_F346F1FB71895This is the fourth in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

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.).

23064LRAmidst 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.

img895 (1)Will R. Bird – The Major’s Prisoner

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Will R. Bird’s “Heap Bad Medicine” (1927)….

23074_49DABB7ED26E1This is the third in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

Today’s story is one of Will R. Bird’s very early efforts, Heap Bad Medicine from the November 10th, 1927 issue of War Stories.

The story centres upon two privates in the “25th Canadians” (the Nova Scotia Rifles, though they’re not referred to as such) –“Scotty” MacBeth, a hard drinking Scot with a charge sheet as long as your arm, and Isaac “Eagle Eye” Knockwood, the battalion sharpshooting ace from the Micmac Indian tribe.

Ordered to the Major’s dugout, MacBeth notices some brass hats carrying two bottles of premium Scotch Whiskey into the officer’s shelter, and he and Eagle Eye start scheming on how best to relieve them of it.  After being given orders to venture out into no man’s land to deal with a sniper who had notched five kills in their sector, Eagle Eye “accidentally” drops a smoke grenade in the dugout, our heroes make off with the bottles, and they head out on their mission.

As one might imagine, much chaos ensues, interrupted by a barrage of clichés.  Eagle Eye is naturally a stoic fellow, prone to grunting his approval when he’s not speaking in broken English about the mighty warriors in his family and the scalps hanging from the ancestral wigwam that prove it, and though he’s “the best shot in the battalion” he “could get drunk the quickest and easiest of any man in uniform.”  Oh, dear.  But it gets w16018_575C569830A9Borse: naturally the two men take a prisoner, and Eagle Eye wants to scalp him.  Only through his white man cunning does Scotty prevent this by having his Indian comrade swear an oath and kiss a bible, before his red friend tucks into the better parts of two bottles of Scotch.  Yikes.

Heap Bad Medicine is not a particularly good story; it’s entertaining enough in its way but the racism is pervasive and well, dull.  Late in the story, Scotty MacBeth is knocked unconscious by a brick to the temple, and Eagle Eye thinks he’s been killed; his reaction is to place him in a tree to honour his fallen friend, following the burial practice of his ancestors.  The tree chosen just happens to be hiding the sniper’s nest they’ve been sent out to find.  Eagle Eye deals with the sniper, scalps him, and leaves Scotty MacBeth up there as well.  And then Scotty wakes up:

“Summoning his strength he turned his head and stared for thirty seconds –closed his eyes and shuddered like a man in convulsions.  Not two feet from his own was the pallid face of a Hun, coarse-lipped and unshaven.  Yet it was not the nearness of one of the enemy that was so startling, but evidence of gross butchery belonging to the Dark Ages.  The German’s head had been almost severed, it lolled at a nauseating angle, and his scalp had been slashed hideously.”

I was really, really hoping that the story was going to turn here, and that Bird was going to make some remark about the savagery of the war, man’s inhumanity to man, the assumptions of advanced civilizations vis-à-vis “primitive” ones –in short, anything that could have justified the preceding nonsense.  But no.  The story closes with Eagle Eye losing the prisoner they managed to secure earlier and, roaring drunk, he war-whoops into no man’s land.

There’s no two ways about it: this is probably Will Bird’s weakest story of the war, and there’s not much to redeem it.  Though scornful of drinking men in And We Go On, Bird saw the humourous potential in besotted characters, and uses them to some effect later on in his “Clancy” stories that appeared in the Toronto Star.  Unfortunately we don’t see much of that here.

As was his wont, Bird republished the story a couple of years later under a different title, Delirious Tree-Men, in the June 1929 issue of Canadian War Stories.  I haven’t seen the later incarnation, but based on other examples where stories of his were republished elsewhere, I suspect it’s more or less unchanged.

I’ve cleaned up the images a bit.  The PDF is below the cover image.  Enjoy….?

img849 (1)Will R. Bird’s “Heap Bad Medicine” (1927)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

W. Redvers Dent’s “The Original” (1930)….

23077_5CEF8C9BD19E6Like so many young men of the period, Walter Redvers Dent (1900-1963) lied about his age and joined up at fifteen years old in 1916.  He served in the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles before being wounded in August of 1918.  Recovering, he then served in the Canadian Machine Gun Corps during the Siberian expedition.  He later re-enlisted during WWII (in the R.C.A.F.) where he served in Canada & was discharged in 1944.

In addition to his war novel, Show Me Death! (1930), Dent published at least twenty short stories and twice as many articles for a wide range of periodicals & newspapers in Canada, the USA and Britain between 1930 and his death in 1963.  One can find his work (with a bit of digging) in MacLean’s, The Legionary, Adventure, The Popular Magazine, Cassell’s, Saturday Night and The Toronto Star Weekly, amongst others.  His last major work was Reason For Living (1959), an examination of faith and individualism.

1930 was a big year for W. Redvers Dent.  The fall would see the publication of his novel, Show Me Death! by Harper & Brothers in the UK and America, and in Canada by Macmillan.  But before Show Me Death! would join what my friend Brian Busby eloquently calls “the lengthening cortege of Great War novels,” Dent published two excellent pieces of Canadian war fiction in the pulp magazine Adventure.

The first, a novella called Cry Havoc! was serialized in the two February 1930 issues; the second, a short story titled, The Original, appeared in the July 1st, 1930 edition.

23089_E52CCA480AB41Like much of Dent’s war fiction, The Original was written under the nom-de-plume “Redvers.”  Within its sixteen pages, we see a fascinating examination of several key elements of the Canadian experience of the war.

The story centres upon one Corporal Arthur Hill, an “original” in an unnamed Canadian battalion who has been through five major battles as the story opens.  He’s exhausted, emotionally and physically, and as an NCO (non-commissioned officer) he’s responsible for not only reporting the deaths in his section but has also taken it upon himself to make sure the letters & personal effects of those killed make their way back to the families of the fallen in Canada.  This is not his responsibility, in fact Hill is supposed to turn everything over to his superiors, but he’ll be damned if he’ll allow one last letter to get lost in the vast bureaucracy of the war: he owes his men more than that, but it’s taking its toll.  When we first meet him, Corporal Hill is carefully washing blood and mud off the letters he’ll send home.

In short order, replacements arrive to reinforce the battalion, and in the view of the hardened vets they’re a sorry lot: the latest draft is “[d]amn poor material.  No good soldiers left; all sissies.  Canada is milked dry….” (21); the latter sentiment echoed a few pages later when a private grouses to his corporal, “if this war keeps on there won’t be a man left in Canada” (23).  Perusing the roll of draftees, Corporal Hill notices the name of his younger brother Donald, who proves a capable and eager soldier, though young and naive.

23072LRWhat ensues follows the familiar arc of many a WWI story: soldiers train, move into the line, march back out for rest, and finally move up again for a big push.  In the midst of his sixth major battle, Corporal Hill finally cracks under the pressure, and he can no longer hold the shell-shock at bay.  Witnessing it, his younger brother Donald thinks him a coward, and helps ensure his big brother will get a blighty wound to get out of the front line; this is not done from empathy, but shame.  Later, the younger Hill will be set straight about his older brother’s bravery as he himself transitions from innocence to experience in the trenches.

There are some fascinating elements to the story, especially for anyone writing about the Canadian experience of the war.  Canadians were well known for their lack of discipline-for-discipline’s-sake, and there are two good instances of it:

 

“Hill did not bother to salute, nor did the O.C. [Officer Commanding] expect it” (22).

And in another instance an officer says to Hill,

“Batman may be all right in the English army, but in the Canadian it’s a joke.  My last batman used to sleep in my bed, even use my clothes and uniform.  I was convenient for borrowing money from, and he wouldn’t budge an inch unless I bribed hell out of him” (24).

Another typically Canadian concern that arises with some frequency in our in war fiction deals with the issue of prostitution and venereal disease; after listing fatalities, casualties and other concerns to his C.O., Corporal Hill adds,

“There’s one man I would like to report sick, sir.”
Again they exchanged glances.
“There are a few others in other platoons; I will tell the M.O. [Medical Officer] about it and get them sent to field ambulances” (22).

23009LR

In context, this is clearly an allusion to V.D. and not the mumps.

In Show Me Death! W. Redvers Dent is particularly critical of the how women back in Canada created, upheld and perpetuated mistaken notions of right, patriotism, martial expectations, etc. because they failed to understand the realities of the front (and here I’m thinking particularly of the scene where women are shaming boys not in uniform).  In The Original, Corporal Hill considers his mother:

“What would his mother say?  Women were funny that way; she would expect the older brother to shelter him, even at the cost of his own life.  They wouldn’t see that it was impossible, they would simply take it for granted.  And if the kid got it, she would always think he had been a bit neglectful, to let the Germans get him. (29)

Finally, the portrayal of shell-shock throughout is particularly moving, especially on page 31 when Corporal Hill finally breaks under the pressure.  Furthermore, men are shown as being tender to each other amidst the physical and psychological battering of trench warfare, and there is an acknowledgement that the various coping mechanisms the soldiers employed were exactly that, and not bravado or jingoism.  After an action, there is the following dialogue:

“Hullo, Hill.  Well, Fritzie missed you again, did he?”
Gurgling chuckles, head shakes, loud laughter, slaps on the back –a booster convention to the life.”
“No shell has got my number yet.”

“Hello, Corp!  How Fritzie ever misses you, I don’t know.”
Corporal Hill preened.
“I’m just unbreakable, that’s all.”

All the while each man was looking furtively and anxiously for some particular friend, who was in another section, to appear.  No word was said about casualties, or the dead.  That was an unwritten law.” (21)

The Original is a very good Canadian WWI story, with a lot going on that’s worthy of examination.  The framing device doesn’t quite work, and Dent probably needed another ten pages to bring the story to a more satisfying end and to make the younger Hill character as complicated as his older brother, but on the whole it’s a solid addition to our war literature.

From the July 1st, 1930 issue of Adventure, W. Redvers Dent’s The Original.  The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.

img01W. Redvers Dent – The Original

51006

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment