Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II
by George MacDonald Fraser, Skyhorse, New York, 2007, $14.95.
Two memoirs by those who fought in World War II qualify as great literature: E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here (first published in 2001). The former is undoubtedly familiar to many Americans; the other, however, is much less known, as it relates the experiences of a lance corporal in Field Marshal Lord Slim’s 14th Army in the Burma Campaign. Author George MacDonald Fraser, who passed away on Jan. 2, 2008, was best known for his wonderfully hilarious set of novels about that bounder of an officer Harry Flashman.
Under Slim’s extraordinary leadership, the mixed bag of units, races and nationalities that made up the 14th Army—Africans, Indians, Scots, Welsh, Gurkhas and English, among others—became the finest army the British would field during the war. To Slim, Fraser gives the best compliment any general has ever received from a private: “And when it was over and [Slim] spoke of what his army had done, it was always ‘you,’ not even ‘we,’ and never ‘I.’”
Fraser’s account, while dark at times, possesses a sense of bemused humor, making his tale less forbidding but no less moving.
Fraser, an unmotivated 18- year-old in 1943, flunked his exams to get into medical school and then failed to pass the officer selection board. His reward was assignment to Slim’s 14th Army as an infantry replacement. His end assignment was a section (squad) in the 9th Border Regiment, largely composed of Cumbrians—men from the borderlands between England and Scotland with a dialect that at times sounds completely disconnected from any known form of spoken English. This makes Quartered Safe Out Here a trial to those unfamiliar with such accents, though Fraser’s contractions, notes and re-creation of how soldiers really talk ultimately provide a wonderful window into the human spirit under the most terrible of circumstances.
Some war commentator has suggested that frontline duty is 5 percent terror and 95 percent boredom. What that observation overlooks is the constant flow of humor soldiers seize on to keep their sanity. No other author has captured that dynamic better than Fraser. The banter is crisp and sharp; the humor at times hilarious but not overstated; and the depiction of combat undertaken by his unit (often-times contrasted with official records) darkly realistic.
This is certainly not a book for the politically correct. In both his introduction and afterword Fraser makes clear what he and his mates thought of the Japanese. And toward the end he describes a debate he had with a philosopher who had not been in the war but felt justified in arguing that the bombs should not have been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. To paraphrase the philosopher’s argument, “So what if a few more soldiers died.” Fraser’s acid reaction, which applies to so many of the politically correct today:
But these armchair philosophers who live in safe havens in their minds, and take their extensive moral views without ever really thinking, or exploring those unpleasant dark corners of the debate which they don’t like to think are there—they can, as Grandarse would have said, get on my wick.
At the end there is the heartrending departure as Fraser leaves his comrades to attend officer candidate school—one that has no tears, no handshakes, just the silence of men who have shared the unspeakable.
I wanted to shout back, but I couldn’t. I could only wave, as the truck gathered speed, and for some daft reason…the only sound I could make was a whisper to myself of the words running through my head.…But if I couldn’t call goodbye, there was something else I could do. It came to me as I looked back, the thought: You must never forget this moment.…Salt it away in your memory, so that you’ll always be able to close your eyes and see the single file of dark green figures in the dusty sunlight, marching at ease, the bush hats tilted, the rifles slung.
And that is precisely what Fraser has done for us; those memories of Section 9 are now ours as well, to treasure and never forget as the last generation of World War II veterans passes on.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.