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Friday, August 9, 2013

Reading List: Quartered Safe Out Here

Fraser, George MacDonald. Quartered Safe Out Here. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, [1992, 2001] 2007. ISBN 978-1-60239-190-1.
George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the author of the Flashman historical novels set in the 19th century. This autobiographical account of his service in the British Army in Burma during World War II is fictionalised only in that he has changed the names of those who served with him, tried to reconstruct dialogue from memory, and reconstructed events as best he can from the snapshots the mind retains from the chaos of combat and the boredom of army life between contact with the enemy.

Fraser, though born to Scottish parents, grew up in Carlisle, England, in the region of Cumbria. When he enlisted in the army, it was in the Border Regiment, composed almost entirely of Cumbrian troops. As the author notes, “…Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion, and murder; in war they were England's vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn't changed much in four centuries, either…”. Cumbrians of the epoch retained their traditional dialect, which may seem nearly incomprehensible to those accustomed to BBC English:

No offence, lad, but ye doan't 'alf ga broon. Admit it, noo. Put a dhoti on ye, an' ye could get a job dishin 'oot egg banjoes at Wazir Ali's. Any roads, w'at Ah'm sayin' is that if ye desert oot 'ere — Ah mean, in India, ye'd 'ev to be dooally to booger off in Boorma — the ridcaps is bound to cotch thee, an' court-martial gi'es thee the choice o' five years in Teimulghari or Paint Joongle, or coomin' oop t'road to get tha bollicks shot off. It's a moog's game. (p. 71)

A great deal of the text is dialogue in dialect, and if you find that difficult to get through, it may be rough going. I usually dislike reading dialect, but agree with the author that if it had been rendered into standard English the whole flavour of his experience would have been lost. Soldiers swear, and among Cumbrians profanity is as much a part of speech as nouns and verbs; if this offends you, this is not your book.

This is one of the most remarkable accounts of infantry combat I have ever read. Fraser was a grunt—he never rose above the rank of lance corporal during the events chronicled in the book and usually was busted back to private before long. The campaign in Burma was largely ignored by the press while it was underway and forgotten thereafter, but for those involved it was warfare at the most visceral level: combat harking back to the colonial era, fought by riflemen without armour or air support. Kipling of the 1890s would have understood precisely what was going on. On the ground, Fraser and his section had little idea of the larger picture or where their campaign fit into the overall war effort. All they knew is that they were charged with chasing the Japanese out of Burma and that “Jap” might be “half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.” (p. 191)

This was a time where the most ordinary men from Britain and the Empire fought to defend what they confidently believed was the pinnacle of civilisation from the forces of barbarism and darkness. While constantly griping about everything, as soldiers are wont to do, when the time came they shouldered their packs, double-checked their rifles, and went out to do the job. From time to time the author reflects on how far Britain, and the rest of the West, has fallen, “One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling ‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing.” (p. 89)

Perhaps it helps that the author is a master of the historical novel: this account does a superb job of relating events as they happened and were perceived at the time without relying on hindsight to establish a narrative. While he doesn't abjure the occasional reflexion from decades later or reference to regimental history documents, for most of the account you are there—hot, wet, filthy, constantly assailed by insects, and never knowing whether that little sound you heard was just a rustle in the jungle or a Japanese patrol ready to attack with the savagery which comes when an army knows its cause is lost, evacuation is impossible, and surrender is unthinkable.

But this is not all boredom and grim combat. The account of the air drop of supplies starting on p. 96 is one of the funniest passages I've ever read in a war memoir. Cumbrians will be Cumbrians!

Posted at August 9, 2013 21:58