I was delighted recently to discover that A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle, a somewhat neglected First World War novel, had been digitised by archive.org and was made available as public domain. The 1919 British edition is here; Open Library links to a few more.
I talk about this book a lot. It’s mostly unknown now; it received some mild critical acclaim before falling prey to the fact that in the early 1920s, no-one really wanted to talk about the war. It wasn’t until five or ten years after it was published that the boom in war writing really began, by which time it was mostly old news and its author had become firmly established as a light humorist – dredging up a novel he wrote as an impassioned and scarred twenty-six year old was not high on the publishing agenda. It was the first novel to focus on Gallipoli as well as the Western Front, one of the first to openly challenge the practice of execution for desertion, and an early example of the trope of the veteran as a damaged victim of the war, rather than a hero emerging from it.
I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him…
The protagonist, Harry Penrose, leaves Oxford in the summer of 1914 and enlists in the ranks, later taking a commission; he serves at Gallipoli as a junior subaltern, and on the Western Front. There, for years, his spirit is worn down; he wants to be a good soldier, and tries hard, but he is relentlessly put upon by circumstances. One day, he breaks a little more than usual and turns back in the face of shellfire. And the System then breaks him, completely and without feeling.
A court-martial is ordered, and it finds the bare facts of the case; he was leading his men to the front line, they were fired upon, and he turned back. Desertion in the face of the enemy, a clear and unarguable conviction. As an honest man, he cannot challenge the facts, and as a sensitive one, he cannot quite convince himself he is not, after all, actually a coward. Justice, such as it is, is served; a week later, a decision is taken by some high authority to “make an example”, and one fine spring morning he is taken to be shot, for the good of the nation’s moral fibre.
It is crushingly sad, all the more so when you realise that Penrose is – in surprising detail – drawn from the author. He knew of a case where an officer in his division had been shot like this, in similarly dubious circumstances, and asked himself – had I stayed on the front lines longer, had I not been sent home, wounded, to a safe job, would I have cracked like this? What would have become of me? But, of course, he feared he already knew the answer.
Churchill wrote that “like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon it should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means”, and as so often he seems to have put his finger on it. Penrose’s war is not glorious, not romantic, not successful, not admirable – but it is real, and stark, and honest, and final.
…[and] that is all I have tried to do. This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty — I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.
That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice — and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.