‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ by George MacDonald Fraser

quartered

That title, which is taken from Kipling’s Gunga Din, is a misnomer, as George MacDonald Fraser was not quartered safe out anywhere during his war, not for long anyway. He went to Burma as a nineteen-year-old in 1945 to confront a desperate enemy ready to fight to the death, and he was lucky to get out of there with his skin. We should be grateful that he did. Twenty-odd years later he embarked on the immortal Flashman series of novels for which he will be best remembered. These volumes are more instructive of 19th century history than almost any other stack of books, as well as being wildly entertaining and highly addictive once you start on them. Quartered Safe Out Here is essential reading for anyone with a Flashman habit. Fraser writes with the same pace and literary verve he brings to his novels, and the pages practically turn themselves. There is a portrait of a real bona fide genius fearless headcase English officer, of the kind that often crops up in the Flashman books. There is even a teasing hint that the character of Flashman may have been in some small part based on Fraser himself: one of his comrades remarks on how brown he is and tells him that if he put on a dhoti he could easily pass for a native.

This book will also appeal to anyone interested in military history, particularly the soldier’s-eye-view kind. It’s packed with fascinating details of a WWII rifleman’s life: his daily routines; the gear he uses; the food he eats; how his section reacts when its corporal gets killed. The value of such memoirs is that they remind us that even though the overarching events may be momentous, to any given individual, war is always fought on a small and very personal scale. Fraser tells us that ‘up the road’, at the sharp end of a war, a soldier’s first loyalty is to his section, which is a unit of ten men. All experiences, hardships, and dangers are shared among these men, and the bonds that form are closer than any outside those of the nuclear family. The front line soldier does not give a lot of thought to the larger formations of company or regiment, and he does not worry much about the ‘big picture’. Fraser belonged to Nine Section, part of the Border Regiment. Its members were mostly Cumbrians, rough hewn, aggressive men, not well educated, sons of an historical breed noted for cattle theft, raiding, and murder. Their leisure time activities consisted largely of bitching, sniping, and thieving, and Fraser writes of them not so much with affection as with a fathomless respect, bordering on awe, for their courage and essential decency. They were, he says, the most honest men he has ever known, and the reason he wrote this book.

Although Nine Section might have been a very small world in itself, what was at stake for its members could not have been higher. Fraser had comrades shot down beside him, fought hand to hand with Japanese, and was bloody near blown up by his own side, in actions that warrant a few bland words in the regimental history, if any at all. So you can understand why he wasn’t losing sleep over the big picture: his own little picture was big enough. He writes rivettingly about his feelings in the heat of combat, or the moment before stepping into a Japanese bunker. They range from near-paralysing fear to joy. The fear needs no explanation, the joy he makes us understand.

The Fourteenth Army he fought in was known as the forgotten army, fighting a forgotten campaign that dragged on for months after the war in Europe had been won. On this, Fraser can be quite as sardonic as Robert Graves, author of arguably the greatest of all war memoirs, Goodbye To All That. When he notes that modern youngsters will have heard of D-Day and Alamein, but not the Battle of Imphal, he adds, ‘There’s no reason why they should; it was a long way away.’ Any reasonable enemy would have surrendered along with Germany, but the Japanese preferred to go down fighting. Those left behind in the hospitals would kill themselves rather than be taken, and Fraser tells us of his own experience, near the very end, of facing a half starved, half naked foe rushing at him out of a bush with a bamboo stake and no very friendly intention. Fraser hated his enemy then, viscerally, and he still does, he says, writing fifty years later. He prefers to avoid even the current generation of Japanese, polite and decent though he is sure they are. On the day Nine Section’s corporal was killed, Fraser says that the strongest emotion he felt was the delight of shooting a Japanese soldier. And he mentions several incidents where his own side killed prisoners in cold blood and readily accepts that they were war crimes. These things do not trouble him.

Before the Enola Gay, the Japanese looked set to continue the fight through Malaya, China, the Pacific approaches to Japan, and then the mainland itself. There was talk of the war going on until 1950. The use of the atom bomb was obscene and barbaric, Fraser believes; and also justifiable, because it prevented all of that. He does not accept that any Allied soldiers should have been made to fight on and lay down their lives when this other solution, dreadful as it was, was at hand. I am not qualified to comment, but I imagine that when he says this, he is thinking specifically of the men of Nine Section. And I can only speculate on why he waited five decades to write this book, but it might be because he wanted to set down for the record who these men were, and their deeds, and their voices, while he still could.

On the subject of their voices – and this is really just an aside – I would like to quote one of Fraser’s examples of the Cumbrian dialect they spoke: ‘Est seen a coody loup ower a yet?’ which means, ‘Have you seen a donkey jump over gate?’ Varieties of English and language change is of some interest to me professionally, and it is with mixed feelings that I think about the levelling out of British dialects that we’ve seen since WWII due to the mass media and motorways. In an earlier life, in the 90s, I worked on a call centre that covered all of north west England, and I had to deal with the amazing array voices from the Scottish borders down to the Welsh, and out east to the Pennines. But it was only the older people who were ever hard to decode, the people of Nine Section’s generation. The young Cumbrians did not speak like they did; their English was standard.

And it is on the men of Nine Section that this piece should finish. Fraser wrote his book because of them; because of Tich, Nick, Grandarse, Forster, Steele, Stanley, Wedge, the Duke, and Parker. The following might explain why – and this is another piece of speculation, but this time from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Fraser himself. He has given some thought to his section being presented with a hypothetical choice in August 1945 either to fight on, knowing that it might take years and that they would likely not all survive; or to have the war ended by the atom bombs, and knowing the horrors that would be visited on Japan as a result. Fraser believes they would have sat silent for bit, then griped and bitched and sniped for a bit, then strapped on their gear and picked up their Lee Enfields and got back up the road.

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