Military history

GEORGE MACDONALD FRASER

Quartered Safe Out Here

Dividing up a dead comrade’s possessions

While Germany was collapsing into unconditional surrender in May 1945, the war against Japan in the Pacific and South-East Asia continued. George MacDonald Fraser (the author of the Flashman novels) was then serving as a private soldier in the 9th Battalion the Border Regiment, a unit of war-service soldiers from the English Lake District counties of Westmorland and Cumberland. A tough lot of hill farmers, fishermen and shipbuilders, they soldiered against the Japanese in a spirit of dour determination to get the war over and get home. Nine Section, a group of less than a dozen infantrymen, had no particular love for each other. They recognized, however, that the life of each individual depended upon the unconditional support of all the rest, and regarded the death of any one of them as a diminution of the group’s chances of survival. Phlegmatic, unemotional, they found their own silent ways of mourning a comrade’s death in battle. Here Fraser describes how they said their farewells to Tich Little, a Nine Section soldier who had died in battle with the Japanese. This author later became an officer of a Highland regiment in the war’s aftermath. His memoir, published in the 1990s, of life as a private soldier in a remote and bitter campaign is one of the classic literary achievements of the Second World War, indeed of any war.

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The aftermath was as interesting as the battle. Fiction and the cinema have led us to expect certain reactions from men in war, and the conventions of both demand displays of emotion, or a restraint which is itself highly emotional. I don’t know what Nine Section felt, but whatever it was didn’t show. They expressed no grief, or anger, or obvious relief, or indeed any emotion at all; they betrayed no symptoms of shock or disturbance, nor were they nervous or short-tempered. If they were quieter than usual that evening, well; they were dog-tired. Discussion of the day’s events was limited to a brief reference to Gale’s death, and to the prospects of the wounded: Steele had been flown out on a ‘flying taxi’, one of the tiny fragile monoplanes to which stretchers were strapped; it was thought his wound was serious. Parker was said to be in dock in Meiktila (and a few weeks later there were to be ironic congratulations when he returned to the section with a romantic star-shaped scar high on his chest; penicillin was a new marvel then).

Not a word was said about Tich Little, but a most remarkable thing happened (and I saw it repeated later in the campaign) 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 — not, of course, his private possessions, or any of his clothing — were placed on a groundsheet, and it was understood that anyone in the section could take what he wished. Grandarse took one of his mess-tins; Forster, his housewife [sewing and mending kit], making sure it contained only Army issue and nothing personal; Nixon, after long deliberation, took his rifle, an old Lee-Enfield shod in very pale wood (which surprised me, for it seemed it might make its bearer uncomfortably conspicuous); I took his pialla, which was of superior enamel, unlike the usual chipped mugs. Each article was substituted on the groundsheet with our own possessions — my old pialla, Forster’s housewife, and so on — and it was bundled up for delivery to the quartermaster. I think everyone from the original section took something.

It was done without formality, and at first I was rather shocked, supposing that 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. Nick worked the bolt, squinted along the sights, hefted the rifle, and even looked in its butt-trap [which housed the pull-through and oil bottle for cleaning the rifle] before nodding approval; Grandarse tossed his old mess-tin on to the groundsheet with a mutter about the booger’s ’andle being loose. 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 Hollyvood heart-searchings or phony philosophy. Forster asked ‘W’ee’s on foorst stag?’; Grandarse said ‘Not me, any roads; Ah’s aboot knackered,’ and rolled up in his blanket; Nick cleaned Tich’s rifle; I washed and dried his pialla; the new section commander — that young corporal who earlier in the day had earned the Military Medal — told off the stag roster; we went to sleep. And that was that. 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.

But that was half a century ago. Things are different now, when the media seem to feel they have a duty to dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and to encourage its indulgence. The cameras close on stricken families at funerals, interviewers probe relentlessly to uncover grief, pain, fear, and shock, know no reticence or even decency in their eagerness to make the viewers’ flesh creep, and wallow in the sentimental cliché (victims are always ‘innocent’, relatives must be ‘loved ones’). And the obscene intrusion is justified as ‘caring’ and ‘compassionate’ when it is the exact opposite.

The pity is that the public shapes its behaviour to the media’s demands. The bereaved feel obliged to weep and lament for the cameras (and feel a flattering importance at their attention). Even young soldiers, on the eve of action in the Gulf [1991], confessed, under a nauseating inquisition designed to uncover their fears, to being frightened — of course they were frightened, just as we were, but no interviewer in our time was so shameless, cruel, or unpatriotic as to badger us into admitting our human weakness for public consumption, and thereby undermining public morale, and our own. In such a climate, it is not to be wondered at that a general should agonize publicly about the fears and soul-searchings of command — Slim and Montgomery and MacArthur had them, too, but they would rather have been shot than admit it. They knew the value of the stiff upper lip.

The damage that fashionable attitudes, reflected (and created) by television, have done to the public spirit, is incalculable. It has been weakened to the point where it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of ‘counselling’; that soldiers will suffer from ‘post-battle traumatic stress’ and need psychiatric help. One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling ‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing. Certainly, a small minority needed help; war can leave terrible mental scars — but the numbers will increase, and the scars enlarge, in proportion to society’s insistence on raising spectres which would be better left alone. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it.

It is a long way from the temple wood to Sheffield — and not only in miles. I knew a young Liverpudlian who, following the Hillsborough disaster [in April 1989, ninety-six Liverpool Football Club supporters were crushed to death during a game at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield], stayed away from work because, he said, of the grief he felt for those supporters of his team who had died on the terraces. He didn’t know them, he hadn’t been there, but he was too distressed to work. (Suppose Grandarse or the Battle of Britain pilots, with infinitely greater cause, had been too distressed to fight?) One shouldn’t be too hard on the young man; he had been conditioned to believe that it was right, even proper, to indulge his emotions; he probably felt virtuous for having done so.

Fortunately for the world, my generation didn’t suffer from spiritual hypochondria — but then, we couldn’t afford it. By modern standards, I’m sure we, like the whole population who endured the war, were ripe for counselling, but we were lucky; there were no counsellors. I can regret, though, that there were no modern television ‘journalists’, transported back in time, to ask Grandarse: ‘How did you feel when you saw Corporal Little shot dead?’ I would have liked to hear the reply.

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