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The Making of Flashman

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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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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, hard-as-nails warrior upon whom the British Army has always depended. We’re told what a tough, capable, uncompromising soldier Tich is, yet he’s kind and, ‘when least expected, as gentle as a nurse’. Among Tich’s command are a couple of professional soldiers like Parker, who has been in ‘one uniform or another since boyhood’, but most are lads from Westmorland and Cumberland who have volunteered for their local regiment to fight the Axis powers in the same way that their fathers fought the Kaiser. Even so, few of them expected to find themselves so very far from home and in such isolation as the jungles and swamps along the Sittang River. And this is where the economy of Fraser’s descriptions scores so heavily. The loneliness of Private Grandarse, his dislocation from a Cumbrian farm and his bewilderment at the monsoon are perfectly expressed by the man saying forlornly ‘grand growing weather, this’ as the rain sluices down. Then there’s ‘Nick’ Nixon. I had someone like him in my platoon in Crossmaglen. Nick’s the chronic pessimist, the man upon whom the rest of the world gangs up, the private soldier who knows how to run the campaign better than any general and who greets every plan of battle with the phrase ‘You’ll all get killed!’ But he never does. Nick survives the war, probably because he’s ‘cool and wise and never ruffled’. And there’s Wedge: there was a Wedge in my lot as well, always wondering why we got the shitty end of the stick and why he seemed to be on ‘stag’ – or sentry duty – for longer than any other man. Private Steele turns into Fraser’s closest mate after a rite of passage that I saw many times myself – the squaddie fight. A Carlisle man, Steele habitually baits the author by calling him ‘Scotch’. Fraser tolerates this until one day Steele adds the word ‘bastard’, and then fists fly. When the fight is over, Little first makes them shake hands and then puts them on stag together, after which they are inseparable. This family is at the core of Fraser’s account, and the death of The Duke shows how much they depend on each other and how close they have become. The Duke could be one of Kipling’s ‘Gentleman-Rankers’, for he is rumoured to be related to royalty, talks with a cutglass accent and, while courteous and obedient to his NCOs, is capable of treating senior officers like the ‘veriest trash’. After surviving a number of battles, The Duke is machine-gunned by mistake during the chaos of a night alarm just after a furious row with a man called Forster, who professes to hate The Duke’s privileged background. Even so, Forster volunteers to lower The Duke’s corpse into its grave. The brutality of combat is wonderfully understated. In the Flashman books, Fraser often describes death – though he never overplays it – but when he writes about the use of swords and bayonets in Burma, there’s a realism that suggests a deeper knowledge. So, after a particularly vicious fight, the Company Commander is seen to be just ‘frowning’ at his bayonet which is bent double having been pulled from a Japanese soldier. Similarly, an enemy whom Fraser has shot is dispatched by an officer ‘slashing at his head with a kukri’. How might this be described in today’s ‘war porn’, I wonder? Not as simply as this – and it’s simple because this author doesn’t revel in it or even regret it, it’s just his job. Above all, it is the frankness of Fraser’s own experience of fighting that is so arresting. The first time he shoots someone he says, ‘he gave a convulsive leap and I felt that jolt of delight – I’d hit the bastard!’ How many others would dare to say that about what they felt? Fraser is not exulting in death, he’s simply telling us how pleased he was to remove the threat of a man who was brandishing a sword and roaring a war cry and who clearly intended to butcher one of his mates. The memoir also reflects the way in which attitudes have changed. Fraser makes the assumption, for instance, that the experience of fighting a war of national survival (as had his father’s generation) left an indelible mark upon his friends that is almost impossible to understand today. He suggests that viewing his war through the telescope of values that haven’t been tempered by death or suffering is almost pointless. So he believes it was necessary to drop the atomic bomb, despite the fact that it is now thought that Japan was almost ready to surrender anyway. But ‘almost ready’ is too long for Fraser; ‘almost ready’ might have involved the death of Nick, or Grandarse or Wedge, and alongside these men thousands of Japanese simply did not signify. Above all I delight in Fraser’s unabashed love for his Cumbrians, his joy in their jokes and his clear respect for their courage and grit. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his reproduction and explanation of their dialects. All this combines to create an exceptional book, not really a war book at all, more a saga of deep trust and honour, yet the best tale of soldiering that I know. It made me regret I wasn’t there in Burma to share such things.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © Patrick Mercer 2012


About the contributor

Patrick Mercer served as an infantryman in Ulster and Bosnia, and was decorated four times, before becoming BBC Radio 4’s Today programme’s defence correspondent. He is now a writer and novelist and the MP for Newark.

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