Like 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.
Like 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.
What 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).
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.