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Time at War

Nicholas Mosley, (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2006), 185 pages, $29.50.

Nick Mosley is an unusual Englishman, and he fought an especially English war in Italy, 1943-45. His father was Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Blackshirts, his aunt the deranged Unity Mitford, who had an intimate prewar relationship with the Führer. This family background probably accounted for his lifelong stammer, which almost disqualified him from taking an infantry platoon commander’s commission.

Oswald, his father, was imprisoned by Winston Churchill and thought the war against Germany was a mistake, but Nick wrote, “This did not seem relevant to me.” A patriotic young Englishman, he joined up on his nineteenth birthday in June 1942. Not naturally pugilistic, he was fearful of fighting, and he writes—with extraordinary candor—how he vaguely hoped he might get a mild case of gangrene, or be taken prisoner.

Then he received an extraordinary communication from his incarcerated father, suggesting that—as a prisoner—he should be given a special password that would help him in a German POW camp. Nicholas was mystified how, at a time of total war, his father could still count on this link with the enemy, and it brought a strained relationship to the point of breakdown.

His training finished, Lieutenant Mosley was sent off to Italy. He spent the rest of the war there, miserably slogging through the savagely mountainous spine of that country.

Over recent years, I have read several accounts of the Italian campaign (not least Captain Professor, by Britain’s most venerated military historian, Sir Michael Howard). All tell the same story of horror, of pointless battering at well-defended lines, the steady attrition of casualties for what was yet another “forgotten army” of World War II. Though only 185 pages long, Mosley’s Time at War struck me as among the most outstanding, the most penetratingly honest.

The troops Mosley commanded were miserably equipped, with World War I rifles. In his first action, attacking the German lines in December 1943, he achieved his ambition of being taken prisoner. Suddenly he realized how mad he had been and managed to escape, declaring, “I shall be mad no longer.”

Mosley brilliantly describes the tragic assault on the exquisite eleventh-century monastery of Cassino, described by British General J.F.C. Fuller as “Tactically the most absurd and strategically the most senseless campaign of the whole war.” The cost in British, New Zealand, and Polish lives was horrendous. Wounded, Mosley found himself in a hospital.

Finally, his wounds healed, Mosley’s moment of glory came. He led a fierce attack on a farmhouse. Adrenalin up, no time for fear, “three Germans appeared through a door….I fired first and shot two of them in the legs.”

Most moving are his letters home to his sister, Vivien, to whom he writes after that engagement: “I have yet to meet a man who fought well because he believes in the cause for which he is fighting…it is always pride that incites and succeeds in war” and “the realization that out here the only thing that matters tuppence in a man is his ability to be brave.”

Awarded Britain’s Military Cross for the farmhouse attack, Mosley ended the war a reluctant hero. He says that what had sustained him was a dedicated belief in Jesus, a quest for Christianity, and the “perfectibility of man.” Nevertheless, on several occasions he stresses his pessimistic belief that “Humans are at home in war (though they seldom admit this). They feel they know what they have to do.”

For Mosley, the war in Italy ended in a heady, victorious pursuit of the broken Wehrmacht. Almost with a sense of shame, he writes how it made him understand “something of what those ghastly Nazi armies must have felt as they bludgeoned their way smiling across Poland, France, Russia; until Nemesis caught up with them.”

After the war, Mosley became one of Britain’s outstanding novelists. He later restored a modicum of filial relations with Oswald. Though it is short, Time at War to my mind rates as a true classic of the “face of battle,” quite simply one of the best I have come across in a very long time. I hope, though it is—as I have pointed out—peculiarly English, it will reach a wider readership in the United States.


Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.