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The Secret Battle by A. P. Herbert

The Secret Battle

by A. P. Herbert

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As a writer [a:A.P. Herbert|5061807|A.P. Herbert|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/m_50x66-82093808bca726cb3249a493fbd3bd0f.png] was known for his comic work. This, however, his first book, is an altogether darker affair.

The Secret Battle, published in 1919, might be the first of the British novels/memoirs of the First World War. It tells the story of a high strung young soldier called Harry Penrose who enlists in 1914 and is executed for cowardice in 1917. Herbert, who fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, vividly evokes the squalor of both theatres, more so than in some better known books. Penrose's slow approach to his inevitable fate is powerfully told.

In Britain much of what is generally believed about the First World War comes from the poems, plays, novels, and memoirs it produced (the latter categories indistinguishable in some cases). The notion of 'shot at dawn' is particularly widespread; of shell-shocked men being summarily shot for cowardice by a brutal military. This book lends much weight to that. Indeed, there was a man, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, in Herbert's regiment who was shot for cowardice in 1917 and the circumstances of the case certainly raise the eyebrows of a civilian reader a century later.

But, if Herbert is telling Dyett's story, he certainly does so with plenty of poetic licence. And, as [a:John Terraine|225975|John Terraine|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1367005763p2/225975.jpg] explains in his excellent introduction, capital punishment was very rare in the British Army in World War One.

The Secret Battle is far better than some better known books. But, with the blend of memoir and novel which that war's literature generated, the reader must always question which, exactly, they are reading. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Nov 9, 2015 |
A sad and moving story of the British infantry man's experience in the trenches of the First World War. A. P. Herbert's style is as calm and measured as the events he describes are horrible.

Our hero is Harry, a delicate Oxford Scholar filled with fear and self-doubt but driven by a relentless need to conquer it. Through the lens of trenches in Gallipoli and France, the book looks at the "wind up" (what would now probably be called PTSD) and considers what constitutes courage, and how it differs from soldier to soldier. ( )
  Will-Hart | Feb 6, 2014 |
Proof of the fact that as early as that people grasped the meaning of shell-shock/PTSD and how much the army doctrines were resented. ( )
  Steelwhisper | Mar 30, 2013 |
One of the great forgotten novels of the war, this was published in 1919, and promptly fell from sight; it regained popularity with the surge of interest in the mid-1920s. It set one of the most abiding conventions of the genre - the innocent young soldier "shot at dawn" - and was the first novel to deal with Gallipoli as well as the Western Front. It's not rousing, but it's moving; it's beautifully, calmly, well-written and it presses itself upon you. Churchill ranked it alongside Sassoon's poetry, and that must count for something.

The protagonist is a young officer - almost a carbon-copy of the author - a good man who 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

It's an exceptional novel, very unlike anything else Herbert would later write. Maybe something in particular about it appealed to me; I don't know. But it certainly deserves to be better known. ( )
1 vote generalising | Oct 13, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
A. P. Herbertprimary authorall editionscalculated
Churchill, Winston SIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riddell, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Sir Alan Patrick Herbert CH (usually writing as A. P. Herbert or A. P. H.; 24 September 1890 - 11 November 1971) was an English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist. He was an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford University for 15 years, five of which he combined with service in the Royal Navy. "The Secret Battle" is a novel by A. P. Herbert, first published in 1919. The book draws upon Herbert's experiences as a junior infantry officer in the First World War, and has been praised for its accurate and truthful portrayal of the mental effects of the war on the participants. It was one of the earliest novels to contain a detailed description of Gallipoli, or to challenge the Army's executions of soldiers for desertion. It is noticeable as being sharply different from Herbert's later work-there is no note of humour or lightness in the novel, simply a stark and simple narrative. (Excerpt from Wikipedia)… (more)

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