It isn’t an historical novel this time, but a genuine recollection of wartime experiences, by one of my favourite authors, George McDonald Fraser, who sadly passed in 2008. I was moved to read it, not only because I like his unorthodox writing, but also because this book documents the British campaign in Burma, which my grandfather also took part.
It chronicles the fascinating story of the British campaign as they first repelled and then all but destroyed two Japanese armies as the British liberated Burma from under Japanese control. Fraser came late to the war, due to his youth, so we miss the earlier part of the campaign when the British successfully prevented the Japanese from reaching India and takes up the tale in 1945 when the British finally took the upper hand in the struggle for supremacy.
Fraser’s recollections, by his own admission, are sometimes sketchy but it actually makes for fascinating reading finding out the parts he recollects, and others that he doesn’t. For example, he remembers virtually every minute of a battle, at a temple wood, that is not recorded anywhere else, but very little of the liberation of a major town in the area, where he was also present, which is well documented in many military histories. The reason the second was recorded and not the first was that the latter had strategic importance, whilst the former – despite proving much more dramatic to Fraser’s mind – held none. It shows that if you ever want to write an authentic historical novel on any military period, you needn’t limit yourself to the major engagements or those of strategic value, because often what is more real and life-threatening to the soldiers fighting a campaign are long forgotten engagements that are rarely recorded anywhere.
His story centres on the Border regiment in Burma and the close-nit unit of Cumbrian solders that comprised his platoon. He recounts his comrades dialogue, using their strong colloquial phrases, which were relatively easy for me to understand as I spend so much time in Northumberland (which for those that don’t know is the county next to Cumberland) but might prove more challenging to others, and Lord alone knows what readers from the United States would think if they ever chose to read this very British retelling of the later part of the second world war.
His story is told with complete honesty and a no holds barred recount of what he was feeling then and now. This is why it will be difficult for many modern readers. He explains how he felt about the Japanese at the time and how that resentment lasted him into his old age. He also rails against the modern world, and often trails off into sermons explaining how his generation felt betrayed by modern politicians and their politically correct attitudes. This I found difficult reading too, and certainly less interesting, however that is what this book is all about – it is a warts and all recollection of his wartime experience and he doesn’t need, nor even want, the approval of anyone, he just wanted to retell the amazing story of the Cumbrian companions journey through the later part of the second world war.
After reading this book, I really feel that I have a better understanding of what my own grandfather must have experienced during his service in Burma. I can’t help but think that he would also have quite liked George McDonald Fraser, warts and all.
This book can be purchased at Amazon here.