Wednesday, April 29, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

I would be surprised if most readers of this blog had not already treated themselves to the amazing series of fictional reminiscences that comprise the Flashman novels, in which the late George MacDonald Fraser combined the historian’s skill at accumulating and synthesizing data with the novelist’s talent (genius, in Fraser’s case) in spinning facts into some of the most enthralling yarns of the last thirty years. Fraser also brought his skills to bear in producing an outstanding personal memoir of military service in WWII. Quartered Safe Out Here, originally published in 1992, is the story of Fraser’s experience as a young enlisted man (19 years old when he joined up) with the “Black Cat” Division and its big push against the Japanese in Burma.

In the introduction, Fraser opines that, “By rights each official work [of military history] should have a companion volume in which the lowliest actor gives his version…For example, on page 287 of The War Against Japan: volume IV (The Reconquest of Burma), it is briefly stated that ‘ a second series of raids began…and ___ Regiment suffered 141 casualties and lost one of its supporting tanks…’

That tank burned for hours, and when night came down it attracted Japanese in numbers. We lay off in the darkness with our safety catches on and grenades to hand, watching and keeping desperately quiet. The Japs milled around in the firelight like small clockwork dolls, but our mixed group of British, Gurkhas, and Probyn’s Horse remained undetected, although how the enemy failed to overhear the fight that broke out between a Sikh and a man from Carlisle (someone alleged that a water chaggle had been stolen, and the night was briefly disturbed by oaths in Punjabi and a snarl of ‘Give ower, ye bearded booger!’) remains a mystery.” The eye for dramatic detail and the ever-alert sense of the comical twist that made the Flashman novels so irresistible are on full display in this book.

Among many fine passages, there is a moving tribute to General William Joseph “Bill” Slim. Here Fraser tells of an almost casual, understated address to the troops. “Slim emerged from under the trees by the lake shore, there was no nonsense of ‘gather round’ or jumping on boxes; he just stood with his thumb hooked in his carbine sling and talked about how we had caught Jap off-balance and were going to annihilate him in the open; there was no exhortation or ringing clich├ęs, no jokes or self-conscious use of barrack-room slang – when he called the Japs ‘bastards’ it was casual and without heat. He was telling us informally what would be, in the reflective way of intimate conversation. And we believed every word – and it all came true.”

Quartered is such a well-written book that it easily lends itself to quoting – but I’m not going to do any more, because you need to read it from beginning to end, the whole, gripping narrative, without further chopping from me. Truly, this volume carries my highest possible recommendation.


Anonymous said...

Seconded. I read this last summer and liked it alot.


PS: I can't believe I've already read one of your Thursday books. You usually out obscure me!

cac said...

Anything recommended by the good folks at Paco Inc of course needs no further recommendation. But in case anyone is in any doubt whatsoever, Quartered Safe Out Here is simply the finest military memoir ever written.

Not sure how familiar US readers are with Slim but British and Commonwealth types generally agree he was one of the finest generals of the second world war as well as a very popular Governor General of Australia. His military memoirs are also worth reading, particulary "Defeat into Victory".

Paco said...

cac: Thanks for the tip on General Slim's memoirs. Can you also recommend a good biography? I'm off to Carolina on a book-buying tour next week.

Paco said...

BTW, I saw a documentary about Slim - can't remember the series, possibly from The Generals or maybe The World at War - and he has always been one of my favorites.

cac said...

"Slim the Standardbearer" is one that comes to mind although there are a few around. I will check my study shelves and advise. We have a few biographies at home as my father knew his son quite well so we've always had a particular interest in the good Field Marshal.

One interesting aspect of Slim is that he seems to have been an exception to the rule that good wartime generals were either somewhat unpleasant people or mad as hatters - see Montgomery or Wingate for instance. In Slim's case there seems to be general agreement that he was a thoroughly decent human being as well as a great general and I think this is a point Fraser makes as well.

Paco said...

That is the same impression I have of General Slim (from what I remember in the documentary, and from reading Fraser).

bruce said...

Some terrific stuff from southern Indian friends on the Burma campaign here:

And other stuff on that blog you might enjoy Paco. I should mention that "sh*t" is a very common syllable in old Indian words and names so no one baulks at it.

Minicapt said...

Try "Slim, Master of War: Burma and the Birth of Modern Warfare".
- also "Slim: The Standardbearer : A Biography of Field-Marshal the Viscount Slim".
But "Defeat into Victory" is a brilliant essay on leadership.


cac said...

Paco, back in the study and I find I have two, both of which I can recommend:
Slim: The Standardbearer by Ronald Lewin, Leo Cooper, 1976 and Slim as Military Commander by Geoffrey Evans, Batsford, 1969.

The latter was written by one of Slim's divisional commanders (General Sir Geoffrey Evans, if you please) and thus may not be completeley unbiased.

I'd also recommend "Churchill's Generals" (Weidenfield 1991), not just because it's edited by Sir John Keegan, one of the finest military historians but also because it includes biographies of such luminaries as Wingate and de Wiart as well as Slim. Slim may be unique as a fighting general in his essential decency. Most of his compatriates were to put it midly not nice people although they did get the job done. De Wiart and in particular Wingate though were verging on insanity - very successful generals though. In any environment other than total war they'd be lucky to escape the nuthouse, let alone aspire to high command. In contrast thoroughly decent men such as Wavell and Auchinleck ultimately must be seen as military failures despite their high rank.

Paco said...

Many thanks for the recommendations.

Boy on a bike said...

I have loved "Quartered Safe Out Here" ever since buying it a good decade ago. The way he captured the regional accents of the troops was amazing - hard to read and understand, but amazing. I have lent it to several friends to read, who all loved it (and thankfully gave it back).