The view from the men in the action
In Quartered Safe Out Here, George MacDonald Fraser aims to share what his slice of World War II was like to him and his comrades, and he succeeds very well. This is personal history concentrating on a double-handful or so of men, mostly English from Carlisle and he as the lone Scotsman. This section fought in the 17th Infantry Division (India) of the British IV Corps during the final half-year of the war — although of course they didn't know they were nearing the end, even after they heard rumors of American super-bombs dropping on Japan. Fraser tells the war as it was felt by men at its cutting edge, on the ground. He leads off with a valuable assertion, illustrating with an official example and then his personal detail:
By rights each official [military history] should have a companion volume in which the lowliest actor gives his version (like Sydenham Poyntz for the Thirty Years' War or Rifleman Harris on the Peninsula; it would at least give posterity a sense of perspective,
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 without 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. It was a long night; perhaps memory makes it longer.
Fraser takes his title from Rudyard Kipling's famous 1890 poem, "Gunga Din"; and quartered safe, as for the soldiers in the poem, is definitely what they are not. The three years' Burma Campaign sometimes has been called the "forgotten war", waged by the "forgotten army", although it was a vital theater of war, and a tremendous effort in its own right. More in Britain than in America, and naturally in the liberated "Captive Nations" of Europe, there was a tendency to feel that on V-E Day, the war was over; but it wasn't:
Oh, God, I'll never forget the morning when we were sent out to lay ambushes, which entailed first an attack on a village believed to be Jap-held. We were lined up for a company advance, and were waiting in the sunlight, dumping our small packs and fixing bayonets, and Hutton and Long John were moving among us reminding us quietly to see that our magazines were charged and that everyone was right and ready, and Nixon was no doubt observing that we'd all get killed, and someone, I know, was murmuring the old nonsense "Sister Anna will carry the banner, Sister Kate will carry the plate, Sister Maria right marker, Salvation Army, by the left — charge!" when a solitary Spitfire came roaring out of nowhere and Victory-rolled above us. We didn't get it; on the rare occasions when we had air support the Victory roll came after the fight, not before. While we were wondering, an officer — he must have been a new arrival, and a right clown — ran out in front of the company and shouted, with enthusiasm: "Men! The war in Europe is over!"
There was a long silence, while we digested this, and looked through the heat haze to the village where Jap might be waiting ... and then someone laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of "Git the boogers oot 'ere!" and "Ev ye told Tojo, like?" and "Hey, son, is it awreet if we a' gan yam?" [all right if we all go home?]
The reader will have noted the direct dialogue reported; there's a great deal of it in Quartered Safe Out Here, which helps greatly to recall the characters and their actions to life. The soldiers are real individuals, but Fraser uses nicknames throughout to allow his years-later and admittedly patchy memory, with his fine novelist's skill, to reconstruct the dialogue as true to himself and the other men in their time and place. It seems to me that this works exactly right. It's an impressionistic history rather than a chessboard strategist's play-by-play, but often suspenseful as we follow these infantrymen from camp-and-march jostling to side-by-side battle, and back on the road again. We may remember some of them long after we put the book down.
Even official histories of the reconquest of Burma might profit by more than personal color from Fraser; here's a historical point he calls "trivial":
I have read, in an essay by a respected military journalist, that the weapon known as the Piat (projector, infantry, anti-tank), while then in existence, was never used in Burma. Well, I carried the bloody thing, and fired it five times, with startling results.
And in fact a good little bazooka-tale develops about the Piat. Of much larger import is George MacDonald Fraser's heartfelt wish via his living, breathing, shooting, and swearing history in Quartered Safe Out Here to help subsequent generations (not just "experts") understand what kind of men fought their hardscrabble war day and night, often dying far from home; why they fought; and how they kept soldiering on until the war was won.