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billmills1968

A Passionate Prodigality by Guy Chapman

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billmills1968

As an enthusiastic but ignorant devotee of all matters relating to the Great War, I became aware that this book is part of the canon. It is often mentioned alongside the work of Graves, Sassoon, Richards, Carrington, Coppard and so on, as a "classic of Great War literature."

Having just finished it, I thought I would try to say why I think this book not only sits comfortably in such distinguished company, but even that it deserves a certain preeminence.

The author is clearly remarkably well-educated and extremely intelligent. His style seems slightly curious. There is a fair sprinkling of literary allusion which is, as far as I can tell, apposite. There are no cliches in Chapman's writing. Occasionally his English seems slightly archaic and his turn of phrase odd, but I think this is not affectation, it is the upshot of the rigour of his education and of his having practised law and as an historian. Judged merely as a piece of prose, this book possesses great merit. His style is addictive and whenever I put this book down, I couldn't wait to get back to it. He is very observant and is well able to distinguish fact from opinion, hearsay from what he actually saw and heard.

Consequently, he inspires great confidence in the reader that this account is reliable. The book is not impressionistic and the author does not play around with facts in order to heighten the narrative. There is a quality in the character of Guy Chapman, as it emerges in the book, that he shares with George Coppard - that everything he says can be implicitly believed.

The combination of an alert and critical eye, a strong sensibility and an idiosyncratic style, brought to bear on the astonishing raw material that was his experience of the War - all of these things combine to produce an effect that is uncanny. It is actually quite a disturbing book.

The biographical arc of the story is conventional. It starts with his enlistment and finishes when he enters Germany with the occupying forces in December 1918. Accounts of battles and life in and out of the line are vivid, heightened greatly by Chapman's ability to select the particular incident or conversation that epitomises an experience. He spends some time, under compulsion, as a junior on the divisional staff and loathes it, and is mightily relieved to return to the battalion. He is an unsentimental commentator and dislikes with equal vehemence shirkers and incompetents, of whom he seems to encounter a good many. His shock at the callousness he sees and hears is conveyed powerfully, the more so for being understated. This is not a simplistic tale of a man becoming disillusioned, embittered or cynical. Rather, his sense of himself is corroded: by the loss of his friends and comrades, and of his individuality as the industrial character of the War becomes apparent. He grows to loathe the England of the later war years, and feels that his only home is the battalion. This is all pretty conventional stuff. It is Chapman's forte that he is able to describe how the war erodes his humanity, as it were by attrition, so that at the end of the book he appears to have lost everything except his life. The battalion has been disbanded, most of the people he knew are dead. The War seems to have been an experience without meaning.

Chapman's relationship with his men (he was a platoon, then a company commander) seems to have been a mixture of love, respect and exasperation. He savours the more characterful officers and other ranks he knew with superb written sketches. He describes brilliantly how it feels to be on the march with the battalion and how the sense of being one of many men unified in step can lift one out of oneself and be exhilarating. He is clear-sighted though and knows that such moments are rare.

The Armistice finds Chapman almost indifferent. It seems that he had not expected to survive and was therefore caught out. His sense of sadness at the end of 1918 seems to have been intense, enhanced by the prosaic but pressing need to find an alternative future, now that the War is over. In fact, he elects to stay in the Army of Occupation.

In summary, I rate this book very highly indeed.

Edited by billmills1968
Correcting the paragraphing.

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centurion

Very simply - I agree

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Stoppage Drill

Years since I read it. Isn't it the one with the "oh, death I suppose" - "My boys, you can't do it" court martial incident ?

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billmills1968

Yes, that's right.

Chapman relates his first court-martial. He and his friend Gwinnell were sitting with Major the Honourable George Keppel in the case of an elderly pioneer sergeant. He was found guilty of being 'drunk in the trenches.'

The two young inexperienced lieutenants had no idea what the prescribed punishment was so they looked in the Manual of Military Law, where apparently death was specified. Assuming that they were bound by this, when asked by the Major for their opinion on what sentence should be given, they thought that the only permissible answer was "Death."

The Major was not of a draconian bent and pleaded in mitigation on "the old ruffian's" behalf, and happily the sentence was suitably adjusted to a reduction in rank to corporal.

I believe Lieutenant Gwinnell was one of very few of Chapman's friends amongst the officers of the 13th Batt. Royal Fusiliers who survived the war.

Chapman tells the story against himself, really, by way of illustrating his naivety. On the same day he has a bad fall from a horse, and he wonders whether it is divine retribution for his earlier bloodthirstiness.

Edited by billmills1968
Correcting the paragraphing.

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Martin Bennitt

One of the first Great War books I bought and one I re-read on occasion with great pleasure.

The dedication reads 'To the memory of certain soldiers who have now become a small quantity of Christian dust this faint reanimation and for R.A. Smith.

R.A. Smith may be mentioned in the book, I don't recall and haven't time at the moment to thumb through it, but if not, who was he/she?

I see also he wrote a book on the Dreyfus case -- having a keen interest in l'Affaire, I must try to find it. Guess it`s long out of print

cheers Martin B

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billmills1968

R.A. Smith was Lieut.-Col. Robert Arthur Smith of the 13th Batt. Royal Fusiliers.

Chapman liked and respected him and so, it appears, did the men. Smith won the M.C. and the D.S.O. and, as a captain, had been Chapman's first company commander in France.

Smith is frequently mentioned in the book and my impression is that he was capable, courageous and effective.

There is a funny account near the end of the book of an heroic night at Christmas 1918 where Smith is reckoned to have taken a drink with each of the men, ultimately succumbing and having to be assisted to bed at 9.00pm.

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Jim Clay

One of the first Great War books I bought and one I re-read on occasion with great pleasure.

The dedication reads 'To the memory of certain soldiers who have now become a small quantity of Christian dust this faint reanimation and for R.A. Smith.

R.A. Smith may be mentioned in the book, I don't recall and haven't time at the moment to thumb through it, but if not, who was he/she?

I see also he wrote a book on the Dreyfus case -- having a keen interest in l'Affaire, I must try to find it. Guess it`s long out of print

cheers Martin B

I see amazon have a couple of copies for £0.01 + £2.80 p&p ...

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Martin Bennitt

Oh dear, a bit red-faced am I. :blush:

Only excuse is I was rushing out, the missus was calling from downstairs and I had no time to check anything.

cheers Martin B

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CarylW

I haven't read the book but plan to rectify that (thanks Jim) but may I say, what an excellent review! (although I possibly shouldn't comment until I've read the book but your review made me want to read it)

Caryl

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CarylW

I see amazon have a couple of copies for £0.01 + £2.80 p&p ...

Where Jim? Or maybe the copies at that price have all been sold (?) A few still have copies but pricier. Thought it may be available on Gutenburg/archive.org but it isn't

Caryl

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Jim Clay

Where Jim? Or maybe the copies at that price have all been sold (?) A few still have copies but pricier. Thought it may be available on Gutenburg/archive.org but it isn't

Caryl

I was talking about the Dreyfus book :P - 1p copies here. - they're asking £12.35 and up for the book under review :whistle:

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Martin Bennitt

going off topic here, but why 1p fro; one supplier and £50 from another?

cheers Martin B

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CarylW

I was talking about the Dreyfus book :P - 1p copies here. - they're asking £12.35 and up for the book under review :whistle:

Oh I see Jim. My wires are well and truly crossed!

going off topic here, but why 1p fro; one supplier and £50 from another?

I know. I've never quite come to terms with this disparity between sellers of books, especially when I've found and bought older titles that I think may be quite rare and more valuable, only to find some have it for sale at higher prices and others have the 1p + postage selling price. How do they make a profit I wonder?

Caryl

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billmills1968

I haven't read the book but plan to rectify that (thanks Jim) but may I say, what an excellent review! (although I possibly shouldn't comment until I've read the book but your review made me want to read it)

Caryl

Thanks Caryl. It's great that you have decided to read "A Passionate Prodigality". I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

Bill

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Marilyne

Bill,

Thanks for this excellent review. I'm directly adding the book to my bibliography (item Nb 179); My usual libraries do not have it, maybe I should ask my dear mum to look it up at her bookshop!!

Marilyne

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Jaqueline Dubois

Marilyne,

Is this bibliography a list of books you have read or that you intend to read?? I am always looking for books worth reading. Could yoiu share it??

Jack

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Marilyne

It's actually a list of books read, to read or somehow proved interesting because often used as a source. I've read about 40% of the whole list, and commented every book read. They're classed in 9 different categories, + articles and really relevant sites.

Maybe I'll share it one day, if the demand is there from the forum. I just don't want a whole threat started on how I keep track of books and on the comments. But not ruling it out

MM.

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old joe

An excellent review and I am going to look for a copy of it today.

Regards,

Joseph

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Jim Hastings

Thank you for the excellent review - bought it late last night as a result (yet to tell wife, as caught her counting my Great War books the other day!!)

Jim

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billmills1968

Thank you for the excellent review - bought it late last night as a result (yet to tell wife, as caught her counting my Great War books the other day!!)

Jim

Jim, Marilyne and Joseph

Thankyou for your kind remarks,

Bill.

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Rob Connolly

I knew this book was recognised as a classic and have just finished reading my recently-bought copy. I echo billmills1968's review of the book, utterly engrossing and with matters mentioned in passing that Forum members will "get" that might escape unblooded readers. Chapman's descriptions of "Tower Hamlets" during 3rd Ypres are a very stern corrective for anyone associating war with glory. On the other hand there is humour - witness the whimsical British artillery observers carefully calling in airburst shrapnel, strafing the German rear areas - in order to have the German postal orderly drop his letters - Two thumbs up from Mr Connolly.

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Guest Loretta7

I found this forum when searching for details of this book. My great uncle served in this regiment and was killed on 11th April 1917 at the battle of Arras. He is buried at Monchey le Preux with 19 others from his battalion. Does the author mention names of those he talks about in his book? I do intend to buy a copy but wondered if it is possible he could be mentioned.

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Loader

One of the first books I boughton WW1 when I was 14 yrs old. Had to save allowance for a month to get it & still on my shelf!

Been yrs since I read it now. Does he tell the story of a fellow officer who wore a metal shield under his tunic & a bullet hit & was deflected but into his body & killed him? May not be this one but seem to recall it. A very good book indeed & he does mention names in the copy I have printed in the early 1960's.

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other ranker

I have a spare 1933, third impression copy of this spare if anyone is interested.

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