Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Flesh in Armour

By Leonard Mann
Univ. of South Carolina Press. 2006
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Australian Soldiers at a Destroyed German Trench,
Messines, 1917

Flesh in Armour is part of the Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series that republishes, through the University of South Carolina Press, fiction and personal narratives about World War I. The aim of the series is to rescue once influential books that have been out of print for a very long time and often forgotten. Nevertheless, the works have a message in them that would be applicable even today when surface-to-surface missiles instead of soldiers destroy cities.

Leonard Mann was a native Australian who enlisted with the 39th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force or AIF in January 1917. He experienced many of the bloodiest ordeals in Flanders including being blown up and buried at Passchendaele, an event which had a lasting impact on the rest of his life. It wasn’t until 14 years after war’s end that he decided to write a novel about the AIF experience. His decision came as the public’s desire for stories about the Great War experience had largely petered out. Mann could not get a publisher either in Australia or the United Kingdom. Consequently, he decided to print it himself. His work was well received by the public and garnered the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal for the best book of the year 1932.

Flesh in Armour follows three enlistees after they join the AIF in August 1917. The three are somewhat mismatched when it comes to forming a friendship but, nevertheless, they do. Bentley, the youngest, is the rapscallion of the group. He is 19, good looking, and a high school football star who wishes to get into the war as soon as possible. He is envious of those who have been on the battlefield such as his new mate, Jeffreys, who is a corporal and is returning to the trenches after a leave. He is 28 and a former state school teacher. And, finally, there is Blount, the oldest at 32, who has already spent time in the trenches also and recently recovered from wounds received. He has refused promotion because he doesn’t crave responsibility. . .

Australian Troops, Passchendaele, 1917

Even though these are the three main characters, the book does not want for additional names. Nearly everyone in the three characters’ platoon warrants a mention, as do the commanding officers. The reader becomes, in fact, part of the mob as it progresses through training in England, crossing the channel, and arriving at the front. Mann puts each battle scene into perspective by giving a brief, very detailed and factual summary of events leading up to the "shows" the trio and their platoon engage in. He also lays out tactical battle plans in detail, tracking battalion by battalion through a raid or battle. Dialogues are at times thick with Aussie slang and one almost needs a slang dictionary to get an understanding. It is a wonder that the women the three entertain in England were able to understand them!

But this is not a book solely concerned with the battalion’s war. During their training in England a few women become prominent. One in particular continues a correspondence of a highly personal nature with two of the trio unbeknown to either one. Bentley wants to continue an intimate relationship with the woman while Jeffreys places the woman on a pedestal and dreams of marrying her. Eventually, the duplicity is discovered and the two nearly come to blows when Bentley reveals just how intimate the relationship was.

There are many times when the pages are thick with information which may or may not have an impact on the story. The first third of the book, which deals with leave in England before shipping out, is of little interest except to give the trio character depth. The personal battle experience is as true to life as an author can get. There are no heroics; the soldiers shoot, bomb, and bayonet the enemy when the occasions occur. They also die or get wounded. Jeffreys suffers the same ordeal of being buried in an explosion that the author did. This is a book which clearly shows what someone meant by saying that if a soldier’s life in the Great War could be capsulized into one hour, that one hour would consist of fifty minutes of boredom followed by ten minutes of sheer terror.

Mann has captured the essence of the Aussie soldier in Flesh in Armour. Wade through and come away rewarded with understanding another layer of the Great War’s history.

Michael Kihntopf

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