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.