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‘Sword of Bone charmed me utterly . . .’

‘Sword of Bone charmed me utterly. If I apply the tried-and-tested dinner party criteria of ‘Would I invite the author?’ the answer is a resounding yes. Anthony Rhodes’s tone is laconic, cultured, ironic and witty. A reader could dip at random into the book and come up with a bon mot or two. Here is mine – Rhodes is discussing the night’s bombardment with the medical officer:

We agreed that the noise really had been excessive; the doctor said he would never have joined the war if he had known it was anything like this. We took very good care not to let anyone overhear our conversation because everyone else was saying what fun it had been. Bombardments were all the rage.

The doctor was gynaecologist in civvy street and, although an excellent procurer of champagne and paté for the officers’ mess, was rarely called upon to administer to wounded soldiers.

Why memoirs and not war literature? True, he was in France from October 1939 and evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940. But, as an officer in the Royal Engineers, charged with buying building supplies with which to construct the defences that took on from where the Maginot Line left off at the Belgian border, he was rarely in the front line. The German attack, as we know, struck at that weak point and split the armies in two, forcing the allied forces towards the sea. Rhodes, now in the retreat, sees German aircraft and their attacks on the columns of refugees, he hears the impact of German artillery, but of Blitzkrieg – nothing. Even his account of his days on the beaches of Dunkirk is understated and somewhat brisk. People tell him that he was privileged to be there but he does not see it that way.’

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