Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Writing about war

“Warriors for the Working Day” is a gripping tale of tank warfare in France after the Normandy landings in 1944.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

 

Although fictional, the story is based on the experiences of the author, Peter Elstob, who fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War before joining the British army on the outbreak of the Second World War.

The novel begins innocuously with a description of how tea is made inside the confined space of a tank before moving on to an account of a ‘scrounging mission’ by the crew as they scour a deserted French farm for anything of value.

Elstob was himself promoted to command a tank and his book tells the story of a character who, like him, is unexpectedly put in charge of a tank.

Death and suffering is described in a matter-of-fact way and there is no glamourizing of what happened after the Normandy landings as tanks and their crews made their way across northwest Europe and advanced into Germany.

Tanks are lumbering machines with an ontology of their own and Elstob precisely outlines what this is: “a preoccupation with defence ran through the troop like a shiver, and reminded them that they were imprisoned in large, slow-moving steel boxes full of explosives and gallons of readily inflammable petrol – and when they thought about that too much they changed from a hard-hitting asset to a slow-moving liability and were in even greater danger”.

There is sheer existential dread for the crew as a tank moves through a town where the enemy lurks unseen with bazookas.

“Patrol” by Fred Majdalany is also based on the author’s own wartime experience but the theatre of war is the North African desert and, in particular, a night patrol on foot by a small group of soldiers.

The central character, Sheldon, is only twenty four years old but his experiences make him feel considerably older and he is struck by the comradeship that develops between people who in other circumstances would have little in common: “He hoped he would never meet him after the war’, he remarks of someone whose company he enjoys, ‘he knew he wouldn’t like him”.

A third book in this excellent series of republished classics by the Imperial War Museum is “Trial by battle” by David Piper. One of the finest writers from the Second World War, Piper was serving in Malaya when captured by the Japanese in 1942.

He survived over three years as a prisoner of war and went on to write memorably of his experiences.

“Trial by battle”  is a fictional account of jungle warfare in south-east Asia and how its main character, Alan Mart, grapples with the racism of Empire and a cowardice that he recognises in his own soul.

It is one of the best books to emerge from a global conflict that produced fewer works of literature than might be expected.

“Warriors for the working day”, “Patrol” and “Trial by battle” are published by the Imperial War Museum.

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