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Book Review – ‘Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II’ by George MacDonald Fraser

Quartered Safe Out Here is the personal account of George Macdonald Fraser on his time as a rifleman in Slim’s 14th Army during the Burma Campaign[i]. This excellent memoir brilliantly recounts the frontline action he saw while serving as a young soldier during the British army’s savage campaign against the Japanese. The authenticity of his story, merged with the talents of a gifted novelist, result in an unforgettable read. There is little doubt that soldiers of all ranks and experiences will find great resonance with the humor, horror and camaraderie described.

In his own words Fraser states that, ‘by right, each official history should have a companion volume in which the lowest actor gives his version…it would at least give posterity a sense of perspective’. Quartered Safe Out Here is a soldier’s memoir; it discounts the big events in order to focus on the personal experiences of the individual. In Defeat into Victory by Field Marshall Slim, a reader will find an excellent General’s book on campaigns and operations, on the big things[ii]. But for a view from the exhausted, muddy and bloody soldier at the sharp end, Quartered Safe Out Here provides the personal aspects of the experience of war. This is done by focusing on Fraser’s Nine Section; just a tiny piece of the Fourteenth Army[iii].

Fraser’s style makes it all seem tremendously genuine, but not in an overly dramatic manner. This memoir honors his wartime comrades and illustrates the human reality of war; commonly absent from soulless official military accounts. The story commences the day he joins the men of Nine Section in the preparations for the capture of Meiktila, then continues through his war until he is sent to an officer selection board. The value of his personal account is in his observations of those things that concern the individual in continuous close combat. Amongst other issues he reflects on the self-doubt he felt as a junior commander, fear and apprehension, understanding one’s enemy and allies, emotions involved in killing, of dealing with the death of a section mate and the close relationships found only within a section. The insignificant but deeply personal moments of war.

Quartered Safe Out Here is a vivid representation of the confused, haphazard nature of battle for the junior soldier within a large formation; where they frequently lack detail or awareness of the great events they are participating in. For the soldier and section in the close fight, it’s about the moment they are in, the minute-to-minute struggle and dependence on your section; politics and strategy become quite irrelevant. Serious issues are tackled via practical narrative, occasional brutal simplicity and sometimes a touch of levity. There are deeply humorous episodes, mostly via the good-natured camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. All amusement is further intensified by Fraser punctuating the story, with the jocular Cumbrian dialect of his comrades; often requiring footnotes to assist translation. The narrative is designed to entertain, but always feels realistic and heartfelt.

The memoir contains multiple contemplations on the virtue of war and killing from the standpoint of an unrepentant and hardened veteran. Quartered Safe Out Here is not an appeal for peace or reconciliation, nor is it a purging of personal demons like other similar memoirs. He simply seeks to provide a chronicle of his experience and to honor his comrades. Rigid and contemptuous of retrospective views, he sees them as habitually inaccurate and distorted. He states at the start of the memoir, ‘You cannot, you must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it. You may not like what you see, but do not on that account fall into the error of trying to adjust it to suit your own vision of what it ought to have been’. Fair warning to those with a delicate disposition, some of the content may be received as tremendously unseemly today. Fraser doesn’t deny having enjoyed killing enemy soldiers, is openly disdainful of revisionist history, and resents the way the media misuses soldiers. He presents astute and unflinching views on war, what it meant to him and what it has come to mean in the modern-day.

Quartered Safe Out Here is an authentic story from a gifted novelist. Soldiers will profit from reading it. As a minimum they will relate to the camaraderie of the men of Nine Section; how they lived and fought beside each other, and their bonds of loyalty and trust. Fraser’s memoir is aimed at a wider audience than those purely possessed of a fondness for military history, strategy or an interest in battles. This book concerns the human foundations of conflict, the small elements that make the machinery of war turn, and a reflection on what it means to be part of it. Above all, it will reassure the reader that in principle, the essence of the Army and battle hasn’t transformed as much as it is popular to think.

Copies of Quartered Safe Out Here are available from the Defence Library Service


About the author:  Benjamin Gray is currently posted as the Staff Officer Grade One Joint Effects (Plans) at Headquarters Joint Operations Command. He has served in a range of operations and training appointments within the Australian Army, including overseas service in the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters of Strategy and Security and a Masters of Military and Defence Studies.

 

[i] Fraser, George MacDonald. Quartered Safe Out Here, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.

[ii] Slim, William Joseph Slim. Defeat into Victory, London: Pan, 2009.

[iii] The Burma Campaign of the 14th Army was arguably one of the most successful operations executed by the British Empire during World War Two. It was preceded in January 1942 by the British suffering an embarrassing defeat as the Japanese drove them out of Burma. The combined force of British, Indian and Burmese troops retreated 900 miles in five months, losing 13,000 men. The British campaign to retake Burma would see General Slim and the 14th Army allocated the task of driving the Japanese retaking Burma, and would eventually serve the Japanese perhaps the greatest defeat of her land army in the Pacific theatre.

 

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