History buffs rarely come across First World War stories told by the men who fought in the trenches, but book club members at the Prince Township Public Library were recently awed by one tough survivor’s story.
A Boy from Botwood, by Bryan Davies and Andrew Traficante, moulds the spoken record of Private Arthur Manuel, a sawmill worker from Botwood, Nfld., into a gripping narrative of his service with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and months of abuse as a prisoner of war.
In a recent presentation at the library, Davies explained that the RNR had “the terrible, terrible luck of being in the thick of the fighting in places where the British were not expecting to win.”
Ten Botwood men joined the regiment, most to escape grinding poverty, Davies said. Seven did not make it home.
After the war, Manuel underwent treatment for extensive injuries in Toronto’s Christie Street Veterans’ Hospital. He settled in Windsor, Ont., and became a hotelier.
For 60 years, Manuel refused to speak of the misery at Gallipoli, and the bloodbaths at Beaumont-Hamel and Passchendaele, where he was taken prisoner by the Germans and shipped in a cattle train to a slave labour camp in occupied France.
But, in 2011, his grandson, David Manuel, discovered a shoebox containing 60 hours of tapes his grandfather had recorded at 84, along with a typed 400-page transcript.
Davies, a Whitby, Ont., author who specializes in historical and legal topics, said David Manuel met him in a pub and offered him his grandfather’s materials.
Davies then teamed up with Traficante, a secondary school teacher with the Algoma District School Board and long-time family friend. When they researched Manuel’s transcript, they knew that they had a gem.
“Everything Arthur Manuel says in this book is either true as a hard-core fact or certainly true as he believed it to be … based on his experiences and overlaid by 60 years of reading, writing, and his life experiences,” Davies said.
“He didn’t forget the events and he didn’t forget the sense of betrayal — the fact that the British didn’t treat the colonial guys like the Newfoundlanders as well as they treated their own soldiers.”
Traficante said he and Davies stayed in constant contact over the year and a half it took to write A Boy from Botwood to ensure that the text maintained a consistent voice.
He noted that Davies’s writing style predominates in the supplementary materials that introduce each chapter to provide added context.
Traficante’s task was to condense Manuel’s transcript and organize it chronologically into 10 chapters. What amazed him the most was that Manuel, who left school at age 12, told his story so fluently.
“The body of the chapters is 100 per cent Arthur’s text, mainly unadulterated,” Traficante said. “It’s like polished writing. That he dictated it into a machine is absolutely incredible.”
Davies added that “one of the nicest compliments” they received was the fact that their editors at Dundurn Press made only minor tweaks to their finished project.
The two are now planning another First World War title, The Baron from Botwood.
The book will follow the career of flying ace Carl Falkenberg, born in Botwood to a family descended from Swedish nobility. Falkenberg joined the Royal Flying Corps., and was credited with downing 17 enemy planes.