Book review

Quartered Safe Out Here

by George MacDonald Fraser

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser

I know George MacDonald Fraser as the author of the marvelous, albeit deeply non-PC, Flashman series, and so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get here. What I found was a heartfelt autobiographical account of GMF’s time as a young solider in the British Indian Army’s 17th “Black Cat” Infantry Division. They had the singular distinction of being continuously in the field for the last three years of the war in Asia, and the author joined them as a 19 year old at a crucial point as they fought their way out India against the invading Japanese. The book follows the author and his comrades in Nine Section as they fought their way down Burma, towards the ultimate target of Rangoon where they hoped the “big ships” of the British Navy would take them home.

The book is really about Nine Section: the ten or so men in it, mostly hard-bitten toughs from Cumbria, who came from a part of Northern England that had been fighting and dying for the British Army for generations. The author is a Scotsman, but he too came from a family that understood the soldier’s life:

every generation of my people, as far back as we knew, had sent somebody to war, and my grandmother’s comment on Chamberlain’s speech on September 3, 1939, had been simply: “Well, the men will be going away again.”

The book very deliberately takes the front-line soldier’s view on the conflict. It’s about how they lived their day to day lives, and what was important to them. Hence passages like:

“I am not modest about this: I am probably the greatest tea-brewer in the history of mankind. It is an art, and I have the unanimous word of Nine Section (even Forster, eventually) that I brought it to the pitch of perfection.”

This means that the descriptions in the book are blunt, from the author and the other infantrymen, often very bluntly expressed. He’s blunt about how it felt to be a solider, about the Japanese were viewed at the time, about “armchair strategists” judging their efforts both then and now.

Throughout the book, the author is honest, and clear. You may not like everything you read, but you have to respect the men in it. In one section he describes how very high the feelings ran at times in the Section about orders handed down to return once again to the front lines, but how after a few minutes of raging and very colourful language, they were followed.

There are a number of descriptions of combat in here – not large scale actions, but tiny pieces of man to man combat, in a sodden field or patch of jungle or a dirt bunker. Fraser is very lucid in these moments. Long periods of slogging on the trail, followed with a few seconds or minutes of adrenaline-charged action and terror and bravery, still clear to the author fifty years later.

“It’s hard to say where fear and excitement meet, or which predominates. The best way I can sum up my emotions in that wood is to say that a continuous nervous excitement was shot through with occasional flashes of rage, terror, elation, relief, and amazement.”

The author tries very hard to convey the feel of actually being in the Section: this extends to the dialects of speech of the various members. He attempts to capture in text the dialects and idioms of the soldiers (more or less successfully, to my untrained eye). This therefore features a lot of writing like this (after one of the other men had read his copy of Henry V):

“Was Shekspeer ivver in th’ Army?” I said that most scholars thought not, but that there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head. “If ’e wesn’t in th’ Army, Ah’ll stand tappin’. ’E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man.”

Much of it I had to read out loud in my head, as it were, to parse it. I got used to it, and it certainly added charm and atmosphere, so I ended up rather liking it. If you have never heard some of these British accents, it may be rather obscure to you, I can’t say!

Overall this was a book with both a story and a message. The story was about the Section and the men in it and what they went through; the message is very much directed to a modern audience (the book was written in the 1990s), suggesting we not judge them by our modern views. As he says at one point of a particular sequence:

“If you think that atrocious – well, it is, by civilised lights, but they don’t shine, much, in war-time. (They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.)”

I found this an important and interesting book, giving as it does an honest view from the front lines of one of the more obscure battlefronts in WW II. Overall, a strong four stars, but not going to be to everyone’s taste.