On my fist visit to Britain we stayed with my first wife’s aged relative in Hanslope, a little village in NE Buckinghamshire – thatched cottages and a high-steepled church. It has now been swallowed up into the new city of Milton Keynes. They were cutting wheat in the paddock across from the house, there were mole-hills in the lawn and in a shed at the bottom of the garden potent cobwebbed bottles of cowslip, elderberry and dandelion wine. The England of my expectations.
A neighbour and close friend had fought in Burma, now Myanmar. He said ‘It was hell. I’ve seen the world and I didn’t like it.’ He refused to elaborate and was amazed that we’d think nothing of going to London for a night to see a show or even motoring over to Stratford-on-Avon to take in a Shakespeare play. He had worked in the Wolverhampton workshops on the royal carriages from his army discharge to his retirement. He had never left this environment since his return from action.
His comment questioned my concept of Burma. Rudyard Kipling’s poem – used as a song ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ shaped my early view of that country. George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant’ added another dimension to the picture. But the basic image was one of gold pagodas, the worship of Buddha, naïve peasants, an atmosphere of luxuriant tranquillity, lotus land - India without its disadvantages. .
I knew nothing about the fighting in Burma. I’d read Russell Braddon’s book ‘The Naked Island’ about the fall of Singapore. I’d seen the movies ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about my visits to Japan and enjoyment and fascination with its culture. .
So it was with interest I read a book Oliver lent me ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’. It’s by George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the Flashman novels. (Which I’ve never read). Only nineteen years old he served in Burma in the last year of the Second World War. It’s a vivid account of the conditions, camaraderie, horrors, fears, and boredom. VE Day happened. But even after that they had to slog on.
Fraser focuses on the ten-man infantry section of the 14th Army in which he ended up lance corporal. He is novelist so he writes with narrative power and uses the device of an earthy, pithy dialogue to convey the sense of being there coping with raids, patrols, snipers, booby-traps. The reader feels the bullets flying past, sees the effect of artillery fire. He never uses the term Japanese. It was always ‘Japs’. Some of his comrades die, once by friendly fire.
Even in battle the mutual ,earthy ribbing of matesmanhip continues. These hard-bitten Cumbrians are presented heroically in action in the combat zone. Their stoic professionalism shows them coping with danger, heat and monotony. The villagers are presented as sullenly neutral. (Why shouldn’t they be – their land is being fought over by two would-be distant conquerors). There are moments of comedy.
Coming back from a patrol, water-bottles near empty, the section discovered a deserted well. They had anti-diarrhoea tablets in their kit. But how to get the water is a problem. It was decided Fraser as the lightest would be lowered head first down and use his helmet as a scoop. An ambush! They dropped him. Floundering around with heavy boots he thought he’d drown. But no; they came back and rescued him. Shortly after he got his promotion and they found themselves in a dicey situation the most grizzled grumbler of the section said if he were in charge this is what he would do but fat chance that the brass would consider that?
‘I was glad to have come out of it, but even then I felt what I feel now, and what every old soldier feels; a gratitude for having been there and an abiding admiration amounting to awe for the sheer ability of my comrades. Nowadays the highest praise a soldier can get is the word ‘professional’. Fourteenth Army weren't professional. They were experts.’
Do I glory in these records of brutality? No! But they fascinate me – accounts of the forces around during my formative years. They reveal the adaptability of the human spirit to circumstances beyond control and the ways in which people respond to their lot. Down the centuries soldiers grumble and gamble, it is their nature.
Discovering Fraser had been reading Henry V a superior officer asked if he could borrow it. When he returned the book he claimed Shakespeare must have been a soldier. He knew how they felt. George Bernard Shaw was never a soldier. But his foot soldiers in ‘Saint Joan’ accurately spoke the lingo and knew the way of life. Fraser might be a novelist looking back at his experience. But his book has a ring of authenticity. I enjoyed it. And I know that in time, as Fraser does, the hatred eases though matesmanship doesn’t.