Lost Sheep by Captain Vere Dawson Shortt

Lost Sheep by Vere Shortt.  Published by John Lane, The Bodley Head, London.  January, 1914.  312 pages.

Here is a remarkable book and one of the best early French Foreign Legion novels I’ve ever read.  Lost Sheep has been my personal version of the “Great White Whale”–always very elusive when looking for a copy and in all cases way too expensive whenever one surfaced in the book market.  I waited for years but finally this March I was poised to purchase an expensive hard copy when I stumbled on the digital version of the book recently uploaded last October by The Library of Congress to the Internet Archive.   I was ecstatic then and by coincidence a month later another hard copy of the book popped up on eBay (and way more affordable too) which quickly became part of my library.  So I felt, after reading it, that I needed to share this gem with everyone.

Note that in a post here, back in July of 2012, I mentioned Lost Sheep and provided some information about the author and a couple of articles he wrote about the Foreign Legion.  The author has a very interesting background.  Captain Vere Dawson Shortt was born at Moorfield, Mountrath, Queen’s County, Ireland (now County Laois) in 1874.  Prior to WWI he had experience in South Africa as a cavalryman in the Cape Mounted Rifles and during the Boer War with “Steinacker’s Horse”.  He also began writing short fiction of the “weird” and “occult” variety that was popular at the time and had several pieces published in minor periodicals such as The Occult Reveiw.  In his articles on the Foreign Legion he said that he was himself a former “legionary” and wanted to set the record straight on some things relating to that corps.   If Vere Shortt was actually in the Foreign Legion it would have been sometime between 1902-1913 but his sister never mentions this service in a short biography she provided after his death to the editor of The Occult Review.  Because of his military background he was commissioned at the outbreak of WWI and went off to war in France as a Captain in August of 1915 and was subsequently killed in the Battle of Loos on 27 September 1915 while leading his men from the 7th Battalion of the Northhamptonshire Regiment.  He is memorialized at the Loos Memorial at Pas de Calais, France.

Lost Sheep is basically a longer-than-most pulp fiction story published in book format.  It must be noted that it was also published in the U.S. in an actual pulp magazine –the July 1915 issue of Short Stories (v84 #1 No. 302).  Because of the two column format of most pulps it was easy to squeeze the 312 pages of the book onto 77 pages of 7″ X 10″ pulp paper.  The book has no illustrations but I’m sure Short Stories provided their usual ink drawings for the story.

The plot begins with our English cavalryman, James (Jim) Lingard, barely holding on to his position in the 31st Hussars due to his financial (gambling) problems.  The remains of his small inheritance is literally rolled away on a one-night binge at a casino so he reluctantly resigns his commission.  Sulking around London he gets fed up with the society he is no longer a part of and impulsively flees to Paris.  Lingard is fluent in French (his mother was French) but his money does not last any longer in Paris and he makes the fateful decision to join the French Foreign Legion (about page 35).  This is when the author’s knowledge of the Foreign Legion really kicks in as he describes Lingard’s enlistment, travel to N. Africa, the Legion’s culture and customs and the various and odd legionnaires he meets.  Lingard quickly makes corporal and then is posted to the Mounted Section of the 2nd Company and made a Sergeant.  While stationed at the desert outpost of Ain Sefra he begins to feel a despair and carelessness that he quickly diagnoses as le cafard.  Seeking some remedy to his melancholy he seeks out trouble and mischief in the form of the bars of village negre and a mysterious house nearby.  Intruding inside the house he meets the mysterious and very alluring girl known as Amine but he is warned away by her bodyguard and threatened with death if he enters the house again.  Of course this does not stop Lingard and he visits a second time before heading off with the Legion to Douargala on an offensive operation near the Saharan desert (he is also promoted to adjutant).  At the oasis of El Rasa his unit is attacked by a hoard of mounted Senussi fanatics and Lingard and his commander, Lt. Morsec, are captured.  From page 188 onward the story leaves the Foreign Legion behind and becomes something you might read in a Weird Tales pulp with plenty of ancient magic and dark spirits.  The two captives are taken deep into the the Saharan desert and kept by the Senussi in a mysterious fortress nestled in the Hoggar (Ahaggar) Mountains.  Of course, Amine is there because she is actually a queen of the Senussi but she has fallen hard for “Jeem” Lingard and arranges for the escape of the two legionnaires (which they do after some narrow escapes and close quarters combat).

The plot is not as tight as A Soldier of the Legion ( by C. N. & A. M Williamson) which was also published in 1914 but the parts about the Foreign Legion more than make up for this (for me at least).  There were also several items that were left hanging in what seemed to be a rushed ending such as how did the emir of the Senussi happen to be an Englishman and did the French ever eliminate the massed Senussi forces.  I also didn’t like some of the unexplained supernatural events in the latter half of the book as they were a bit contrived and shallow.  Nevertheless, I’m sure readers will enjoy this book.  It’s tragic that Shortt’s life ended just when he started on a promising career as an author.  He might have become a prolific writer of Foreign Legion fiction like P. C. Wren or Georges Surdez.  NOTE:  the .pdf file below is from the Internet Archive and the text is a bit faded but fully readable on a tablet or PC. 

Lost Sheep

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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