I was brought up on a diet of George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero Flashman as he roistered and rogered his way around the Empire, and I reread many of the books while serving in Northern Ireland. But it was only later that I found out why so many of the details in the books rang true. Fraser had himself experienced war in all its facets.
There seems to be a bottomless appetite for military literature, ranging from grand strategy to tank spotters’ manuals, most of it concentrating on the heat of battle. But Fraser’s wartime memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), is about ordinary men and how they cope with the breadth and depth of war. It’s not showy, it’s not sensational, it’s just wonderfully, almost mesmerically, written.
The book follows the doings of a handful of men in the 9th Battalion, Border Regiment, during their fight against the Japanese in Burma, and the obscure title is deliberate. The phrase comes from Kipling’s poem ‘Gunga Din’ and is redolent of Queen Victoria’s troops and their tribal enemies, for throughout the book, Fraser emphasizes how dated were the weapons and tactics and how primitive was the fighting.
If you want a litany of blood-letting, glamour and glory, then thisis not it. Here is a beautifully drawn but simple story of what infantrymen do on campaign – most of which involves tedium, tiredness and the turgid business of living with disease and discomfort. Occasionally, the book strays into the brutal work of killing, but for the most part it’s about the pleasure that an educated man gets from the company of his uncomplicated comrades.
The blend of rough-cut affection between the troops in Fraser’s section wraps itself round you from the very start, as a sort of khaki family emerges, with Corporal ‘Tich’ Little at the head of a brood of ill-assorted siblings. I suspect Tich soldiered at Agincourt and I’ve seen him in Afghanistan recently, for Fraser describes the longserving, h
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