Saturday, 28 October 2006

quartered safe out here

The George MacDonald Fraser memoir was good. It did have some ‘reactionary old man’ passages, but I didn’t mind them really - someone who has fought their way through a war has earned the right to say what he thinks about issues relevant to his experience, and much of what he says is valid. An interesting perspective on the atomic bombs, saying, understandably, that those who wish they hadn’t been used are wishing the death of more allied soldiers, and that he values the lives of himself and his colleagues, and crucially his children and grandchildren, more than any number of others; so the issue in retrospect is obvious, but ‘I have a feeling that if - and I know it’s an impossible if - but if, on that sunny August morning, Nine Section had known all that we know now of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have been shown the effect of that bombing, and if some voice from on high had said: “There - that can end the war for you, if you want. But it doesn’t have to happen; the alternative is that the war, as you’ve known it, goes on to a normal victorious conclusion, which make take some time, and if the past is anything to go by, some of you won’t reach the end of the road. Anyway, Malaya’s down that way... it’s up to you”, I think I know what would have happened.’

Another example he gives of how knowledge isn’t what it could be is of one respectable historian wrote that a particular weapon, the piat, was never used in Burma, but in fact GMF himself used it. I knew the Japanese were well-known for not surrendering, but I hadn’t realised the depth of it - the rumour that a man might have surrendered was big news; in one hospital more than a hundred wounded had committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner. The odd but not unusual experience of two sections going into an action or area essentially side by side, and one having its strength reduced by half while the other encounters no one.

It made me realise I know very little of the war in the East (awful POW experiences, and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum), and should read something more about it. I often see the statue of Slim on Whitehall.

Stanley ‘had been in the o.p. with Wells, and when Jap arrived they had cut out for the wire. Stanley had made it into the perimeter, only to find that there was no sign of Wells. So he had slipped out again, without a word to anyone, when the fighting was at its height, into the Jap-infested dark, to look for him. By sheer luck he found him, near the o.p., dying of bayonet wounds; there was no way of helping him, but Stanley had stayed with him; he could have sought cover for himself, but he didn’t. I suppose he brought the dead man in at dawn, but my informant - who was not Stanley himself - wasn’t sure of all the details: he had only learned the bare facts months later. ... whenever I hear the word “hero” loosely used, as it so often is of professional athletes and media celebrities and people who may have done no more than wear uniform for a while, I think of Stanley going back into the dark.’

‘My parents knew I was in Burma, and that (with the possible exception of air crew) it was generally believed to be the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service. Those months must have been the longest of their lives; whatever anxieties the soldier may experience in the field can be nothing to the torment of those at home. I don’t know how parents and wives stand it. Perhaps family experience is a help: 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.” Her uncle had served in the Crimea, her brother had died in the Second Afghan, two of my aunts had lost sweethearts in the Great War, my father had been wounded in East Africa, and two uncles had been in the trenches; probably it was a not untypical record for a British family over a century, but whether it made my absence easier or harder to bear, who knows?’

A fellow soldier was shot in a battle and actually shouted, ‘They got me! The dirty rats, they got me!’

A Highland and a Gurkha unit go into action next to each other against a Japanese position in trees. ‘One of the Highlanders told me later that when they came out again they found the ground before the position littered with Gurkha rifles: most of them had gone in with kukris alone.

‘There was another occasion when a Gurkha platoon close to us held a position against two companies of Japanese who wouldn’t take no for answer, but kept coming time and again, yelling “Banzai!”; the Gurkhas just stood fast and stopped them until the position was littered with Jap dead. When the Gurkhas were finally withdrawn it was discovered that they hadn’t a single round of ammunition among them.’

‘It’s all in the point of view: armchair strategists can look at the last stages of a campaign and say there’s nothing left but mopping-up, but if you’re holding the mop it’s different.’

No comments: