London: Metheun & Co. Ltd., 1928. Third British edition. This inscribed author’s presentation copy of his First World War novel is notable in several respects. This third British edition was the first to include an Introduction by Winston S. Churchill. This copy is inscribed by the author to a friend who wrote a favorable review of the book. The inscription, inked in four lines on the front free endpaper recto, reads: “’A.B.’ | With many thanks | from | Alan Herbert.” Moreover, as evidenced by an attractively elaborate leather bookplate affixed to the front pastedown, this book has noteworthy provenance beyond the author’s inscription. Condition is near fine, the blue cloth binding remaining clean, bright, and tight with minimal shelf wear to extremities, the contents clean and crisp with no spotting, the blue topstain showing no appreciable fading.
When The Secret Battle was first published in May 1919, the publisher advertised it as “A novel describing the human side of the soldier – his fears and everyday distresses of his life; of the gradual decay of his illusions; of his courage and his failure.” Winston Churchill apparently concurred. Herbert wrote to Churchill on 2 January 1928, asking him to write an introduction to the new edition. Churchill agreed and wrote that the book holds “a permanent place in war literature”, describing it as “one of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops… like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon [it] should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means.”
This praise is not inconsequential; Herbert’s novel was among the earliest novels to portray Gallipoli – the disaster for which Churchill was scapegoated and driven from the Cabinet and after which Churchill served as a Lieutenant Colonel leading a battalion in the trenches at the Front. The Secret Battle also challenged execution of soldiers for desertion. Churchill was Secretary of State for War when the book was first published, and afforded no amnesty for deserters still imprisoned after Armistice, though he did extend amnesty to tens of thousands of Second World War deserters during his second and final premiership in 1953. Neither Herbert’s sober novel nor Churchill’s sternly admiring introduction display the leavening wit for which both men were known.
Alan Patrick Herbert (1890-1971), better known as “A. P.” Herbert, was an English humorist, novelist, playwright, and law reform activist who served as an MP for Oxford University from 1935-1950, when university constituencies were abolished. Herbert, known as a “great parliamentary wit” himself, admiringly observed that words on the printed page could not do Churchill justice “without some knowledge of the scene, the circumstances, the unique and vibrant voice, the pause, the chuckle, the mischievous and boyish twinkle on the face”. (Roberts, Walking With Destiny, p.86) Herbert’s roots as a humorist are evident in his inscription to ‘A.B.’ (a play on his own “A.P.”). The inscription is almost certainly to English writer and journalist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). The two men were evidently friends and Bennett wrote a favorable review saying that the book was “written with classic restraint and something of classic beauty”. Three years after receiving this inscribed presentation copy, Bennett died.
Subsequent ownership is also of note. The only ownership mark in the book is the bookplate of noted collector, lawyer, and American Bar Association President Frank J. Hogan (1877-1944). Hogan’s impressive roster of clients in the 1920s and 30s included oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, industrialist and U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and President Warren G. Harding. Hogan indulged an avid interest in rare books and by the time of his death his library reportedly ranked among the world’s most valuable private collections. Hence the Carlyle quote on his bookplate: “The true university of these days is a collection of books”.
Reference: Cohen B36.1. Item #005964