By Michael Edwardson | Published: August 15, 2011
George MacDonald Fraser, author of the famous Flashman novels, joined the Border Regiment straight out of school, and first saw active service in 1944, at the age of 19, in the ‘forgotten front’ of the Burma campaign. In his memoir, Quartered Safe out Here, Fraser remembers his experiences with his infantry section, employing all the considerable skills of his craft to roll back half a century and bring that terrible jungle campaign to life.
It is satisfying, and at the same time slightly eerie, to read in an official military history of an action in which you took part, even as a very minor and bewildered participant … For example, on page 287 of The War Against Japan: volume IV, it is briefly stated that “a second series of raids began…and X Regiment suffered 141 casualties and lost one of its supporting tanks…”
That tank burned for hours, and when night came it attracted Japanese in numbers. We lay off in the darkness with our safety catches on and grenades to hand, watching and keeping deliberately quiet. The Japs milled around in the firelight like small clockwork dolls, but our mixed group of British, Gurkhas, and Probyn’s Horse remained undetected, although how the enemy failed to overhear the fight that broke out between a Sikh and a man from Carlisle (someone alleged that a water chaggle had been stolen, and the night was briefly disturbed by oaths in Punjabi and a snarl “Give over, ye bearded booger!”) remains a mystery. It was a long night; perhaps memory makes it longer.
“On yer feet!” roared Sergeant Hutton, and as we stood up: “Wait for it.”
This was it, then, the moment you read about in books and see in films—and by God it was happening to me. Ahead the wood still seemed to be sending back the echo of the cannonade, but now the foliage was steady again, and the dust had settled. There was a long moment’s stillness, broken only by the growl of the Sherman, holding its ground twenty yards ahead. A branch, hanging by a thread after the bullet-hail, suddenly fell, sending up a little swirl of dust. Grandarse had one foot on the bank, leaning forward; beyond him were two of the new men, the lance-jack and the reputed deserter. Parker, on my left, had his rifle at the port, and beyond him Steele was adjusting his Bren-sling, the big IMG resting on his hip; Stanley was removing his hat and replacing it firmly. I found I was hissing a tune through my teeth, and recognised it as “Bonnie Dunee,” but I hadn’t time to digest this peculiar reaction when Little was walking forward between Parker and Steele, crossing the bank, and Hutton was shouting again: “Advance! Keep yer distance, now! Advance!”
Up the bank and over, the shuffle of boots in the morning quiet, the slight creak and rustle of equipment, the dark green figures on either side moving in a slow, steady advance; the stationary tank, its tracks clogged with earth and coarse grass, ten yards to my right front, the slight figure of Corporal Little, rifle at the trail, his head obscured by the tilted bush-hat, to my left and out in front—and there was a faint crack, like a cap-pistol, from the wood, and Little gave a sharp cough, spun half-round, and went down like an empty sack.Hitting the deck, face down on scrubby earth, automatically whipping rifle to shoulder in the lying position, puffs of dust leaping from the ground to my left, Parker rolling over, yelling, the left breast of his shirt blood-stained; a scream from the right, a blinding cloud of dust and gravel striking me in the face, the rattle of machine-gun fire from the wood and the irregular cracks of rifle fire. Someone was balling, “Cover fire!” and I was shooting obediently into the wood at ground level, aware that on my right Grandarse was doing the same, and that Parker was crawling rapidly to the bank—one glance I took, and he was dripping blood as he scrambled to the bank and over. Caught in the bloody open, flat-footed—Jesus! Beyond Grandarse the lance-jack was trying to pull himself clear, with his leg trailing, and the deserter was absolutely sitting up! (I still don’t know why). I pumped off another couple of shots, realised the futility of it, looked left, and Steele had the Bren at his shoulder, left hand on the stock, right hand reaching forward for the magazine. There was a sharp clang, a silver streak appeared on the side of the magazine, and Steele reared back, his face contorted, scrambling up on to his knees. Blood was streaming down his arm—the bullet had gone through hand and shoulder. He yelled something and—this I shall never forget—actually shook his uninjured fist at the wood before turning to run for the shelter of the bund.
And there was the Bren gun, the section’s most precious possession, lying unattended. I’ve asked myself a thousand times: did I hesitate? God only knows, and perhaps some day he’ll tell me, for I genuinely am not sure. Probably I wanted to, and this is what has made me wonder; that, and the knowledge that with four men hit all around me in as many seconds, and the shots kicking up the dirt in what seemed to be your proverbial hail of lead, that Bren was about as untempting an article as I’ve ever seen. And then I was starting to crawl towards it, and Hutton, flat on the ground behind me, was yelling and signalling to Stanley, the Bren’s number two, and Stanley, who had been face down just beyond it all the time, was grabbing its handle and hauling it away.
Not a word was said about Tich Little, but a most remarkable thing happened which I have never heard of elsewhere, in fact or fiction, although I suspect it is as old as war. Tich’s military effects and equipment were placed on a groundsheet, and it was understood that anyone in the section could take anything that he wished … I think everyone from the original section took something.It was done without formality, and at first I was rather shocked, supposing it was a coldly practical, almost ghoulish proceeding—people exchanging an inferior article for a better one, nothing more, and indeed that was the pretext … But of course it had another purpose: without a word said, everyone was taking a memento of Tich. An outsider might have thought, mistakenly, that the section was unmoved by the deaths of Gale and Little. There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phony philosophy. Forster asked “W’ee’s on first stag [picket]? Grandarse said “Not me, any roads; ah’s aboot knackered”, and rolled up in his blanket; Nick cleaned Little’s rifle, I washed and dried his pialla … It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said. It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow. The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.