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On the North West Frontier

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Wallace Breem is one of those authors who, if he is remembered at all, is probably known only for his first novel, Eagle in the Snow, which received high praise and achieved excellent sales on its first publication in 1970. Sadly, Breem’s next two novels were largely ignored by the critics and the public. Their comparative failure and the pressure of his job dissuaded him from writing a fourth, although he did contemplate one on the disaster that befell Quintilius Varus and his legions in the Teutoburgerwald forest in AD 7; but by the time of his premature death in 1990 he had only produced some notes for a preliminary draft.

I was first introduced to Breem and his wife, Rikki, some time in the ’60s when several of us used to meet in the old and extremely uncomfortable gallery of Covent Garden Opera House. Born in 1926 and educated at Westminster School, he entered the Indian Army Officers Training School in 1944 and was commissioned into the Guides, one of the crack regiments of the North West Frontier Force. This came to an end with Partition in 1947 and, British service holding no attraction for him, he returned to England. He then held a variety of jobs which included assisting a veterinary surgeon, working in a tannery and collecting rent in the East End before joining the staff of the Inner Temple Library in 1951. Librarianship proved congenial and he was to remain there for the rest of his days. When I first met him, he had recently been appointed Chief Librarian and Keeper of Manuscripts at the Inner Temple, a post he was to hold with distinction. This was recognized by the institution of a memorial award set up in his name jointly by the Benchers of the Inn and the Association of Law Librarians of which he had been a founder member and President. He was rather shy and seldom looked fit, working, as he did, very long hours in the Library to the great benefit of the Benchers and students of the Inn.

However, it soon became apparent t

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Wallace Breem is one of those authors who, if he is remembered at all, is probably known only for his first novel, Eagle in the Snow, which received high praise and achieved excellent sales on its first publication in 1970. Sadly, Breem’s next two novels were largely ignored by the critics and the public. Their comparative failure and the pressure of his job dissuaded him from writing a fourth, although he did contemplate one on the disaster that befell Quintilius Varus and his legions in the Teutoburgerwald forest in AD 7; but by the time of his premature death in 1990 he had only produced some notes for a preliminary draft.

I was first introduced to Breem and his wife, Rikki, some time in the ’60s when several of us used to meet in the old and extremely uncomfortable gallery of Covent Garden Opera House. Born in 1926 and educated at Westminster School, he entered the Indian Army Officers Training School in 1944 and was commissioned into the Guides, one of the crack regiments of the North West Frontier Force. This came to an end with Partition in 1947 and, British service holding no attraction for him, he returned to England. He then held a variety of jobs which included assisting a veterinary surgeon, working in a tannery and collecting rent in the East End before joining the staff of the Inner Temple Library in 1951. Librarianship proved congenial and he was to remain there for the rest of his days. When I first met him, he had recently been appointed Chief Librarian and Keeper of Manuscripts at the Inner Temple, a post he was to hold with distinction. This was recognized by the institution of a memorial award set up in his name jointly by the Benchers of the Inn and the Association of Law Librarians of which he had been a founder member and President. He was rather shy and seldom looked fit, working, as he did, very long hours in the Library to the great benefit of the Benchers and students of the Inn. However, it soon became apparent to me that one of his chief interests outside his work was the study of Roman history, and Roman military history in particular. He told me he had been working on a novel set at the time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century ad. This had been intended for inclusion in a series of educational stories for children that was being planned by Pergamon Press. However, as his script grew, it became clear that it would not fit into Pergamon’s plans so I suggested he adapt the book for the adult historical fiction market. This he did, and in due course he gave me the completed typescript to read. I was greatly impressed by it and, as he did not have a publisher, Breem asked if I might try and find him one. I had recently joined the Times Literary Supplement as its Advertisement Manager, a job that entailed getting to know a great many publishers, so I was in a good position to help. I showed the script to Giles Gordon who was then a commissioning editor with Victor Gollancz. He immediately saw its potential and Eagle in the Snow was duly published. The novel is set at a time when the Roman Empire is crumbling in the west and tells the story of Paulinus Gaius Maximus, who assumes command of the XXth Legion. Its task is to defend Rome’s Rhine frontier from invasion by the Germanic tribes, but this proves well-nigh impossible. At the height of Empire, 80,000 men had guarded the frontier but, by the end of the fourth century, these had been reduced to 6,000. The climax of the book comes with the freezing over of the Rhine in AD 406 which enabled the tribes to cross the river and overrun Gaul, despite the efforts of Maximus and his small force. The story is told in the spare, straightforward prose that a soldier would use, which makes it all the more gripping and, finally, tragic. The reviews were uniformly good, the only dissenting voice coming, somewhat ironically, from the Times Literary Supplement. Unfortunately Ian Hamilton, then the Fiction and Poetry editor, had given the book to a fellow poet, David Harsent, who was clearly out of sympathy with fiction of this type. The notice aroused the wrath of Mary Renault who wrote a scathing letter to the Editor, praising the novel and lambasting the reviewer ‘whose facetious indifference to history is, in your columns, something of a shock’. She also wrote a personal letter to Breem, while Rosemary Sutcliff was sufficiently enthusiastic to seek his advice on Roman military matters. Breem struggled with his second ‘Roman’ novel, The Legate’s Daughter (1975), which was largely ignored by the reviewers, and its sales were modest. His third, and last, The Leopard and the Cliff (1978), was also on a military subject, though set on the North West Frontier, and was, in a way, complementary to Eagle in the Snow. It was a fictionalized account of an actual episode during the Third Afghan War. Here I should declare an interest, for I am the book’s dedicatee and am naturally biased in its favour. Be that as it may, I believe it has many of the qualities of the first novel and it saddens me that, until now, no one has seen fit to reprint it. Although published thirty years ago, its subject is still topical. The year is 1919 and the setting is the no man’s land between British India and Afghanistan. A small British-led force made up of Indian soldiers and locally raised auxiliaries is ordered to withdraw from its remote outposts when faced by a sudden uprising of the surrounding tribes. The commanding officer is killed on the first day and his place is taken by his second-in-command, Charles Sandeman, a passed-over Major who is deeply concerned for his wife who, far away in Simla, is expecting their first child. To Sandeman falls the task of leading the withdrawal through extremely hostile territory and under ceaseless attack from local tribesmen. Water is very short, men die of heatstroke and there is treachery and desertion. Before the end Sandeman is the only surviving Briton. Eventually he succeeds in getting the other survivors through to safety but at the cost of his own life. The final pages bring the story irresistibly to a bitter and yet noble end and contain some of Breem’s finest writing. In this novel Breem made good use of his military experience and first-hand knowledge of the tribes and terrain of the North West Frontier. The character of Sandeman is skilfully drawn and the problems involved in commanding his mixed force of Indian regulars and local tribal militia give a clear foretaste of what our troops are now experiencing in that region. Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that, if some of our leaders had read The Leopard and the Cliff, they might have thought twice before committing troops to fight in such hostile terrain. However, it is good to know that it has now been reissued by Faber in their Faber Finds series. The book deserves a second lease of life, especially at a time when so many of our men are losing their lives at the hands of the descendants of the tribesmen so graphically described in its pages.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Bruce Coward 2010


About the contributor

Bruce Coward worked at the Times Literary Supplement for a number of years in the ’60s and has also been a publisher and bookseller. He is now retired after fifteen happy years running the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon, which he and his wife bought from Christopher (Robin) Milne.

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