Review of ‘Bretherton, khaki or field grey?’ By WF Morris

I have no idea, now, how I came across this rather peculiar book. It is one of the Casemate classic war fiction series.

It is set in the first world war, a period which I know to be a period of poetic flourishing, but had always assumed to be rather under-represented by fiction.

W F Morris first published this book in 1929, and it reads very much as though he was there. Indeed, I cannot remember having read a book of prose in which the way of life at the front is so vividly depicted. No Mans’ Land, the minor and major forays across that blasted ground, the barrages, the spotter plans, the strafing, the Verey lights, the landscape – grass and tree and cottage – torn to shreds; the comparative comfort of a billet behind the front lines, the calm acceptance of a duty to be done. What is not in the book is the sort of condemnation of the war that one finds in the later WWI poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Blunden and others. A task is being performed as well as possible by men who maintain a sense of humour and drink a lot of scotch. It is surprising, perhaps, how believable that is. Or perhaps it is not surprising at all.

The plot of the novel is complex and to hint, even, is to give too much away. Suffice it to say that this reader believed three times that the denouement had arrived when it had not. The book meanders through the story in an apparently random way, which is actually cunningly crafted so that every time one thinks, ‘Ah! So that’s when/how/why …’ it actually isn’t. Morris put together a fine mystery in 1929 and told it beautifully. It has stood the changes of fashion in fiction remarkably well, and certainly merited unearthing and reprinting in this current Casemate series in 2016. Although Casemate might have made a better fist of proofing the last third of the book. Most of the errors are just little irritants, but on a few occasions they lead to puzzles for the reader.

If you are interested in WWI I recommend this to you without reservation. Despite the proofing errors, holistically it is a really interesting and well written novel.

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