Page 1 of 1

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser

Posted: Sat May 7th, 2011, 2:02 am
by annis

Life and death in Nine Section, a small group of hard-bitten and (to modern eyes) possibly eccentric Cumbrian borderers with whom the author, then nineteen, served in the last great land campaign of World War II, when the 17th Black Cat Division captured a vital strongpoint deep in Japanese territory, held it against counter-attack and spearheaded the final assault in which the Japanese armies were, to quote General Slim, ‘torn apart".

Best known for his rambunctious Flashman novels featuring a blaggardly Victorian adventurer, Fraser‘s compelling memoir of his experiences in Burma during World War II stems from his desire to honour his wartime comrades and to show the human reality of war missing from dry official military histories.

“By rights”, he says, “each official history should have a companion volume in which the lowest 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 it supporting tanks…’ That tank burnt for hours, and when night came it attracted Japanese in numbers. We lay off in the darkness with our safety catches on and grenades in hand, watching and keeping desperately quiet. The Japs milled around like small clockwork dolls in the firelight, but our mixed group of British, Gurkhas, and Probyn’s Horse remained undetected, though 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 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.”

Quartered Safe Out Here is a brilliant picture of the chaotic, random nature of battle for the private soldier, who often lacks understanding about the wider "how" and "why" of events he's participating in. This has been a universal experience for the common soldier throughout history, and as anyone who's read War, Sebastian Junger's record of time spent with a US army unit in Afghanistan, can see, not much has changed. For the soldier on the ground it's still about right here and now- an ongoing struggle to survive minute-to-minute and counting on your buddies for support. Greater issues of national and international politics and overall campaign strategies are pretty much irrelevant to their situation.

Fraser is very clear about his attempt to “illustrate the difference between ‘then’ and ’now’, and to assure a later generation that much modern wisdom applied to the Second World War is not to be trusted. Attitudes to war and fighting have changed considerably, and what is thought now, and held to be universal truth, was not thought then, or true of that time”.

His own account is fierce, uncompromising and disdainful of modern retrospective views, which he sees as frequently inaccurate and distorted. It owes nothing to revisionist interpretation or political correctness, but expresses the beliefs and opinions of the time. Fraser is, for example, totally unrepentant about racist attitudes towards the Japanese or the pride he and his comrades felt in fighting for the British Empire; in fact, the ironic title for his book comes from the poem Gunga Din, Kipling’s hymn to the footsoldiers who were the backbone of the British Empire.

Quartered Safe Out Here is deservedly a classic. Fraser’s fluid prose, brutal honesty, humour, and keen eye for vivid detail and a colourful character make this one of the great WWII memoirs.

Posted: Sat May 7th, 2011, 6:39 pm
by MLE (Emily Cotton)
Great review, Annis. I loved Quartered Safe Out Here, and put if on my keeper shelf for reference any time I write battle scenarios. The gritty down-and-dirty descriptions could apply to any century. Do you remember when the sergeant got his hands on Henry V? He insisted that Shakespeare must have been a soldier, he captured it so well.

Posted: Sat May 7th, 2011, 9:16 pm
by annis
Your mention of the book on another thread inspired me to drag QSOH off the top shelf and give it another read, MLE. Fraser brings his collection of idiosyncratic characters to life brilliantly. It's one of my small collection of military memoir "keepers".

The others are

Cecil Lewis
Sagittarius Rising, the memoirs of a WWI RFC pilot

Ulrich Holz
Too Young to be a Hero, the personal story of a young soldier in Hitler's Wehrmacht

John Masters
Bugles and a Tiger, Masters' account of his time spent fighting with the Gurkhas on the northwest frontier of British India just before WWII

Sir Harry Smith
The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith; 1787-1819
Sir Harry was one of the influential British commanders of the Napoleonic Peninsular War campaign. He was a "neck or nothing" type full of energy and enthusiasm, and despite being nearly 200 years old, his memoir is fresh and lively, and reads just as if he were talking to you.

Julius Caesar
The Gallic War