Major W.F. Morris wrote a masterpiece of First World War fiction that won strong acclaim at the time from critics and fellow authors. Not only was it an authentic account of conditions at the Front, it was also a remarkable thriller, with a highly unusual plot, which won him comparisons to John Buchan and the best of the espionage writers.
One of the first to recognise him was Arnold Bennett. Writing in the Evening News in 1929, he observed that the two best war novels so far were The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert, and The Spanish Farm Trilogy by R.H. Mottram: but now a third could join them. This was “Mr W.F. Morris’s Bretherton.” Bennett recalls that he has previously stressed the importance of mystery novels having a full human interest: this book provides that, “on a very generous scale”. He concluded: “Eight experienced readers out of ten will enjoy it, as I did. The ninth will say it is the finest English war-novel yet issued. The tenth will be rude about it. I understand that it is a first novel.”
He was right: it was the first novel by Walter Frederick Morris, a Norwich man who was born there on 31 May 1892, stayed there – apart from his war service – and died in that city in 1969. Morris had been commissioned at the age of 22 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 13th Cycle Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in November 1914, went to the front in 1915, and by the time he was demobilised, at the late date of June 1919, no doubt a rather old 27, was a Major. He was to write six more novels after Bretherton. And as yet, it has been hard to uncover very much more biographical information about Major Morris. There is a self-effacing, fussless, just-get-on-with-it quality to some of the most attractive characters in his books, that I suspect their creator may have shared.
Arnold Bennett was not the only perceptive commentator to notice Bretherton at the time. John Squire, the influential editor of the London Mercury, was one of those “ninth” people Bennett accurately predicted. Squire said “of the English war-books, undoubtedly the best is Bretherton.” And he was not alone. The Morning Post thought it “one of the best of the English war novels. I do not expect anything much better.” The Sunday Times pinpointed its dual attraction: it was both “a mystery as exciting as a good detective story and an extraordinarily vivid account of trench-warfare.” A critic who was no particular friend of popular fiction, A.C. Ward, also praised it: “ W.F. Morris’ Bretherton [is] an adventure-mystery war-novel with an admirably ingenious and leak-proof plot. This book combines a brilliant exercise of creative imagination with a remarkable ability to reproduce, vividly, first-hand experiences, and there is one brief battle-scene…which is memorable.”
Bretherton (1929: US title, "G.B.") is set in the confusion and futility and weariness – but also the elation - of the last days of the war, when a British raiding party stumbles upon an eerie tableau in a ruined chateau, under fire. Following the strains of a familiar tune, “Just a Song at Twilight”, and understandably perplexed by who would be playing a piano in the middle of an ambush, they discover a British officer, dead across the keys, with a beautiful but also dead woman, in a fine formal gown, lying on a couch close by. And the British officer is in German uniform, the uniform of a General. The scene gives force to the book’s sub-title: Khaki or Field-Grey?
The rest of the novel unravels the clues to the meaning of that haunting scene. But it also does so much more than that. Four qualities give the book its particular force and attraction. The first of these is its handling of humour, a gentle, pervading quality that is integral to the book, not a forced contrivance. Morris seems to faithfully recall the banter and badinage in the trenches, the absurdity of incident, the incongruities of civilised men in distinctly uncivilised conditions, as well as the gallows humour and a seasoning of satire at the fatuities from the high gods of HQ. However tense his plot, however squalid the scenes, there is never far away this under-stated, lightly ironic counterpoint.
The second is Morris’s handling of the mystery element. This is built up subtly by well-placed minor incidents, by half-glimpsed perspectives from characters who enter the narrative at a tangent, by shadings and hints. The mystery is the focus of the book, yet the work is not subservient to it.
The third quality, and the one that struck contemporaries most, is its realism. One said that “men who went through the war will have respect for and interest in Bretherton”. There are unflinching, but brief, scenes of horror, such as we know also from the memoirs and literature of his more celebrated contemporaries. There is – unemphasised but clear – evidence of the futility of hard-won advances swiftly abandoned. The boredom and the banal brass-hattery of the war comes across well too, though lightly done. Morris evokes well the camaraderie of the trenches, but he is also not afraid to acknowledge the rivalries, dislikes, vexations and minor feuding.
Lastly, there are the things that Bretherton is not. It is not preachy: it has no overt agenda. There is no “King and Country” stuff, no sentiment, no prejudice against the enemy: and, indeed, perhaps uniquely, it is written from both sides of the war. All of these elements make Bretherton an astonishingly finely balanced, quiet masterpiece.
That Bretherton was no accidental achievement is evident from two at least of Morris’s subsequent novels, both with settings involving the Great War. Just as in Bretherton, they are concerned with questions of identity, allegiance, chance, concealment and self-discovery. His second book, Behind the Lines (1930), is almost a match for Bretherton, and a commentator noted that “in spite of the flood of war books”, Morris was able to achieve “a quite different viewpoint from all the others”, and his book was “an outstanding success”. A subaltern is forced to flee when he accidentally kills an overbearing, taunting fellow officer: appearances are all against him and he does not trust to trench justice. He becomes a fugitive and has to make alliance with other deserters, lost soldiers and outlaws in a hand to mouth existence in the no man’s land that the opposing forces aren’t occupying. A clever, and just plausible, plot twist sets matter right.
His third novel, Pagan (1931), though set in peace time, unravels a macabre mystery that derives from the war, and again is founded upon the themes of lost identity, the outsider and tested loyalties. It is almost as powerful as the first two. Again, it has a sound mystery element, engaging characters, and well-described settings in the French countryside, still torn from the war. It is somewhat harder to find than the first two. All three books have at their heart a Jekyll & Hyde type theme, where both Jekyll and Hyde are understandable and may win our sympathy: a very difficult feat to pull off.
After these, Morris wrote four more novels that are more conventional adventure thrillers, but with his trademark flair for keen action, lively characters and unusual plotting. They followed at a pace of one every two years, until the last in 1939.
In the first of these, The Hold-Up (1933), the setting is the Auvergne in France, whose mountains, gorges and forests Morris evokes with a fine warmth. An Englishman, a war veteran, is a passenger on a country bus careering along the steep cliffside roads, when it is held up by a masked bandit and hostages taken. Yet there was an odd familiarity about the voice and the manner of the disguised villain – something which takes him back to the war. And the deportment and bearing of the young peasant woman who was one of his captives was not quite in character. As in his earlier books, Morris sustains a compelling mystery using concealed identities and characters who are more than they seem, though the plot is perhaps rather more in the run of the thrillers of the day. The book was still well-received, though. The Evening News thought it was “A first rate tale of adventure, romance and danger.”
The title of his next book, Something to His Advantage (1935), is from the wording of adverts placed by solicitors to trace missing legatees named in wills, asking them to make contact to learn about their good fortune. A young solicitor and his detective-novelist friend journey to a remote Norfolk village to give just such news to a reclusive beneficiary – who does not survive to hear it. The pair launch their own investigation. It’s a breezily-written, engaging enough yarn, but missing the strangeness and originality of his earlier work.
In No Turning Back (1937), two ex-soldiers with a flippant wit and devil-may-care attitude are drawn into a treasure hunt for Spanish gold. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones after it and find themselves chased – or chasing – halfway around the world. Both characters are enjoyably drawn and are a cut above the Sapper type of heroes, not least because they don’t take themselves too seriously.
They return in Morris’ last book, The Channel Mystery (1939), in a plot which takes its lead from Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands. Only here, the enemy is lurking in the minor rocks and islets of the Channel Isles. It was perhaps fitting that the author who wrote so compellingly of the First World War should end with a warning of what was to come in the Second. After that, it is not clear whether Morris stopped writing or could no longer find a publisher.
Yet there was one more ringing tribute. When in 1952 a master of the spy thriller form, Eric Ambler, identified his top five spy stories, four of them were very well known: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers; The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad; The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; and Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham. The fifth must even by then have seemed more obscure to Ambler’s readers. It was Bretherton by W. F. Morris.