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.