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Quartered Safe Out Here is unusual in the world of military memoirs in that it is written by one of the 'other ranks', the ordinary working man who, in the age of conscription found himself in the front rank of his country's fighting forces. Fraser was, before being selected for a commission, enlisted in the ranks of a Cumbrian regiment sent to fight the Japanese in the far east. His war is not one of grand arching strategies and larks in the officers mess but of trying to stay dry and making it to the next brew up.
Life for Fraser revolves around his immediate comrades in Nine Section. These at are the men that he loves and would risk his life for, not Churchill or Montgomery. Fraser's war is, like most, one of long periods of tedium separated by brief flashes of action. The slow periods are enlivened by Fraser's recollections of the absurd moments of war - being terrorised by a centipede and falling down a well spring to mind but it is his description of the action where he truely shines. Whether the terror of clearing bunkers at bayonet point or shooting at Japanese soldiers in cold blood Fraser isn't afraid of revealing his true feelings.
This book is very immersive - you will feel you are fighting in the war as a squaddie in Nine Section (Cumbrian accent and all) but it is the reflections of Fraser that hit you hardest. His continuing hatred of the Japanese and his fierce patriotism (he recalls singing the full national anthem, 'un PC second verse and all' at a remembrance event) are just two indicators of what a defining period his time with Nine Section was for him (as it must have been for tens of millions of other temporary soldiers in both of the world wars), despite his late war experiences as an officer (foretold by his comrades - with my permish you'll get a comish!).
Quartered Safe Out Here is the late George MacDonald Fraser's memoir of his time in World War II Burma as a young soldier. As part of Fourteenth Army, Fraser served in 'Nine Section', a group of eccentric but 'hard-bitten' Cumbrian borderers as they took part in 'the last great land campaign of World war II.' In addition to providing a vivid account of what life was like living and fighting in the jungle, Fraser also looks at modern attitudes to war and contrasts them with the attitudes of his generation.
There is also an epilogue which takes place fifty years after the end of the war. The book runs to just under 350 pages and includes one map.
"It is satisfying, and at the same time slightly eerie to read an official military history of an action you took part in," writes Fraser at the beginning of the book. He talks about how dehumanised military history has to be and contrasts passages in history books (In this case 'The War Agaisnt Japan') with his own experience. He quotes the dry analysis of an incident in the book with his own memories of a tank burning for hours and Japanese soldiers appearing in the moonlight like 'small clockwork dolls'. He takes another passage which relates how General Slim decieved the Japanese with a fake crossing of the Irrawaddy river. "He confused Nine Section too," writes Fraser and relates how they had to dig into three different positions in as many hours, disturbed a nest of black scorpions and blamed everyone from Winston Churchill to Vera Lynn!
One of the strengths of this book is that it paints a real picture of what it was like to be taken from an ordinary British town and placed in the middle of a war in one of the most extraordinary locations imaginable. The vastness of the Burmese jungle and life within it as a footsore soldier is brought home to the reader in a fascinating manner. Fraser also does an excellent job writing about the rest of Nine Section. Their grumbling, arguments, jokes, adventures, losses and journey through the war.
He includes an author's note about Cumberland dialects and writes the dialogue of Nine Section in this style. It's a little confusing at first but you get used to it. It adds a note of authentcity to the book and is often funny. Fraser has an excellent sense of humour and uses it well in the book. There is a very funny pasage where he is charged with carrying a huge tin of fruit that Nine section have found and another great bit where Nine section help an officer unload supplies and, Bilko style, manage to pilfer half of them for themselves. Fraser is accidently dropped down a well while trying to find clean water and asked what he is doing down there by a colleague peering down. "I'm attacking Pyawbwe by submarine!" is his exasperated reply. "That idiot dropped me!"
Fraser is also very good at writing about the fear and unreality of war and harrowing moments like when a half-starved and crazed Japanese soldier charged out at him from an old bunker.
A sense of life in the jungle is brought home very well in this book by Fraser's style. "The first time smelt Jap was in a deep dry-river bed in the Dry-Belt...I can no more describe the smell than I could a colour but it was heavy and compounded of stale cooked rice and sweat and human waste...quite unlike the clean acric-smoke of an Indian village or the rather exotic and faintly decayed odour of he bashas." 'Bashas' being the term for the elevated village huts of Burma. A glossary included in the book translates these words. For British soldiers in Burma, 'dekko' was 'look', 'bund' was 'small hill', 'doolally' was 'madness from sunstroke' and so on. The use of these terms adds greatly to the flavour and authentic feel of the book.
There are many wonderful moments in the book. Fraser remembers hearing General William Slim, the legendary Commander of Fourteenth Army, speak in person. "There were no cliches or jokes," writes Fraser. "When he called the Japs 'bastards' it was casual and without heat. He was telling us what would be in the form of intimate conversation. We believed every word and it all came true." Fraser also tells a story about Slim snapping at a soldier he'd found driving a jeep with a human skull on the front. "It might be one of our chaps," adds Slim gently. "Killed on the retreat."
There are some gripping moments in the book. Fraser explains how at night in the jungle they used to camp inside a perimeter fashioned with steel wire and traps. One gap would be guarded and password protected. In the darkness it was the outline of the Japanese soldiers socks that sometimes gave them away as foe not friend. Fraser details a tense moment when he awoke inside the perimeter to shouts of "Japs in the wire!" and explosions and gunfire.
It's very interesting to read about the rations of the soldiers and how they ate and brewed tea and used the local produce to boost their food supplies. Fraser has a great fondness for the Ghurkas and writes warmly and amusingly about his experience of them, writing about them playing huge football matches like enthusiastic children. "That was the thing that was hard to remember," he writes. "That this delightful little man with his ungainly walk and impish grin, who barely came up to your shoulder, was also probably the most fatal fighting man on earth. Their reckless courage was legendary."
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating book. The end of the war and the monsoons are well described and Fraser's farewell to his colleagues is very nicely done and poignant. The epilogue is also, as Fraser joins in the events and marches to mark fifty years since the end of the war. The sense of a 'job well' done prevails although Fraser uses his book to have several digs at the way things have panned out in Britain since the war.
It's very interesting to read his thoughts about the use of Atomic Bombs on Japan too, which I won't spoil.
Quartered Safe Out Here is a fascinating book from an excellent writer about an extraordinary campaign. As Fraser writes:
"I imagine that every teenager today has heard of Stalingrad and D-Day but I wonder how many know the name Imphal, that 'Flower Of Lofty Heights', where Japan suffered the greatest catastrophe in its military history? There's no reason why they should...it was a long way away."