We come to war from many different directions. My own experiences are probably similar to those of some Slightly Foxed readers: a father who survived, just, serving in the trenches in the Great War (which he never talked about); an older brother who served in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War (which he hardly ever talked about); and childhood memories of men filling sandbags, of crouching in the cellar during air-raids, of the blackout and rationing, and the night we thought Hitler had landed in our small Worcestershire town, like something out of Dad’s Army.
Many people’s experience of war, however, will have come only through books such as The Cruel Sea or the works of Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning, or, in the case of the younger generation, primarily through films and television programmes – The Dam Busters, Ice Cold in Alex, Band of Brothers. Collectively, these fictional or fictionalized accounts have become our great warehouse and museum of images of war. But there is another much more immediate source, less well-known perhaps, but entirely true to the spirit of the times.
By the spring of 1942 the war in the Middle East had reached a critical stage. After fierce tank battles around Tobruk, Rommel’s forces advanced to within fifty miles of Alexandria. Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein reversed all those Allied defeats, but that was not until November. In the middle of all this ferocious military action (the precise date is not known), three servicemen – Denis Saunders, a South African airman, Corporal Victor Selwyn, and David Burk, an ex-journalist – met up in a coffee-room in Cairo. They wondered whether anyone was writing poetry about their war as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had about the Great War, and in the course of their casual conversation began to discuss the possibility of compiling a Middle East anthology of servicemen’s poetry.
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