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W V Tilsley: Other Ranks

I do have a certain fascination for books set in and soon after World War I. My list of books set in World War I was one of the first pages I created for this site. This book is a classic of the World War I genre. However, it was published, in a fairly small edition, in 1931 and has not been reprinted. It is very difficult to get hold of, whether in a library or through a bookseller and if you find it through an online bookseller, it will normally be very expensive and be snapped up very quickly. It is beyond me why it has not been reprinted. Maybe Faber will republish it.

As the title implies, it tells the fairly simple story of the ordinary soldier during World War I. In this case, the soldier is called Dick Bradshaw and is, presumably, an alter ego for Tilsley himself. It is perhaps interesting to compare it with another World War I novel of life in the trenches for the ordinary soldier – Le Feu (Under Fire). Barbusse’s approach is the war is hell approach, full of Gallic philosophising and doom and gloom. Tilsley is no great lover of the war and, like Barbusse, is more than happy to have a go at the war, the principle of war, the officers, the conduct of the war and the horrors they have to bear. But Tilsley/Bradshaw takes a more pragmatic, English approach. He and his fellows do moan and complain and many of them, though not Bradshaw, are always looking for a way to get a Blighty one (i.e. a wound that is not severe enough to cause any long-lasting damage but serious enough to have the victim sent back to Blighty (England)). In his introduction, Blunden says that this book is one of the most valuable warnings that have been written but I would consider the Barbusse book far more horrifying about the futility of war.

Bradshaw arrives in Flanders on 4 August 1914, the second anniversary of the declaration of war, as he points out. The novel – which may not be a novel as he says in the frontispiece None of the characters in this chronicle is fictitious – lasts fourteen months, till Bradshaw gets a Blighty one. He serves with the 55th (Cast Iron) Division, consisting of mainly Lancastrians. His friend, Jack Driver, has difficulty understanding the Lancastrian accent (as some readers might, as Tilsley does use it in the dialogue). Almost immediately, he finds an atmosphere of a lack of enthusiasm for the war. The war is not going well and the men are not afraid to say so. A Blighty wound is considered très bon. This perception is felt throughout the book, both from Bradshaw and his fellow soldiers. The war is conducted badly, the Germans always seem prepared for their attacks, there is little organisation or planning (he complains, for example, that there is no designated stretcher bearer corps and that individual riflemen have to act as stretcher bearers, with no allowances for what happens when one or more of them is injured or killed), the officers get priority treatment (e.g. in getting leave or even getting help from stretcher bearers, when a dead colonel is given priority over wounded men), the Germans have far superior planes, and the inadequate equipment that Bradshaw and Co. have to put up with. Officers are either aw reet or no bloody bon, mostly the latter. As well as criticism of the conduct of the war, there is a lot of description of the desolation. Whole villages have been destroyed, bodies lie strewn around and they continually find bodies when digging trenches. There is a pervading stench and, of course, as we know from many accounts, the trenches are places of horror – wet, cold, frozen in winter and liable to collapse.

Tilsley gives us an outline of Bradshaw’s career. He starts off as an ordinary infantryman. Much of his actions seems to involved being stuck in a cold, wet trench for two days. He is then allocated to a salvage party and, while in the salvage party, others of his group, including Jack Driver, are killed. He then becomes a stretcher bearer, for which he wins the DSM for digging a man out of a collapsed mine. He then becomes friendly with Ernie Bagnall, who will later be badly wounded. He is sent to NCO school and promoted to corporal but still very much remains one of the Other Ranks. Though not injured, he does suffer impetigo which requires treatment, though he is almost ashamed when wounded men ask him why he is in hospital. Gas, frozen trenches (and trench foot and frost bite) and continual shelling, not always just from the Germans, are just some of the indignities they have to put up with. He inadvertently causes the death of several of his own men, by sending them away from the trenches to a safe dugout, which then suffers a direct hit from a German shell. Finally he is hit on the heads and gets his Blighty One. He is in no way sorry to leave. In his view, this war is not a noble cause.

Publishing history

First published in 1931 by Cobden-Sanderson