By Vikas Datta
Can a story about soldiers in peacetime be of any interest for an ordinary reader? What attraction could a fairly predictable routine of a regimented life, with repetitive tasks and drills under stern discipline, have for civillians? But remember “Humour in Uniform” in “Reader’s Digest”?
Soldiers too can find themselves facing situations for which no training or manual can prepare them – this young officer is tasked to manage a football team, change a baby’s nappies, guard a haunted fort, defend regimental honour in a general knowledge quiz, and have the dirtiest soldier in the world under him.
All this – and much more – was the lot of author George MacDonald Fraser, who was commissioned as an officer towards close of the Second World War (after serving in the ranks during the Burma campaign). And luckily for us, he thought it would make for some good stories.
Even as the first installments of his eventually most famous work were appearing – the Flashman series about a cowardly, lecherous anti-hero in various trouble spots throughout the 19th century – Fraser also penned a collection of “fictionalised” stories of life in a Highland regiment.
“The General Danced at Dawn” (1970) has many unforgettable characters – the apparently easy-going but perceptive colonel, the effervescent adjutant, the pessimistic padre, the meticulous sergeant-major, and so on. Fraser appears as Dand McNeill (a play on regimental motto “Bydand” or standfast in Gaelic), while others also appear under different names.
“Monsoon Selection Board” details his torturous route to officerhood and efforts to fit in his new regiment, posted in Libya, in “Silence in the Ranks” – which also introduces the dirtiest soldier – Pvt. J. McAuslan: ” … he lurched into my office (even in his best tunic and tartan he looked like a fugitive from Culloden who had been hiding in a peat bog) …”
Among the funniest are “Play Up, Play Up and Get Tore In” where MacNeill, shepherding the battalion football team around the Mediterranean, has to deal with a naval officer gambling heavily on the team including with official funds, “The General Danced at Dawn”, where a general on inspection likes their Highland dancing, joins in and attempts to set a record – for which, by dawn, are drawn in the neighbouring Fusiliers, military policemen, an Italian cafe proprietor, a few Senussi tribesmen, and three German prisoners of war, “Night Run to Palestine” about commanding an overnight troop train to strife-hit Jerusalem, and not only having to look out for Zionist saboteurs but also interfering seniors, women auxilliaries, a chaplain worried about morals, an army wife with twins and an Arab Legion soldier who locks himself in the toilet (as MacNeill learns on coming across a small group singing “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be?” outside) and “McAuslan’s Court-Martial” – a study in inspired, clever advocacy – while the presiding officer finds the abuses very interesting!
“McAuslan in the Rough” (1974) has, among others, “Bo Geesty” where MacNeill’s platoon manning a fort on Sahara’s edge, finds strange things happening when they try to drill a well, “Johnnie Cope in the Morning” about being woken every Friday by the band going full blast outside but also about a new recruit (a Negro) wanting to join the band and the complicated discussions – one of the funniest passages in English – it entails (he is eventually allowed), “General Knowledge, Private Information” about the quiz contest where McAuslan saves the day, “Parfit Gentil Knight, But” about McAuslan falling in love, and “McAuslan in the Rough”, where the battalion back in Britain, gets drawn into a golf challenge – and the slovenly McAuslan is the caddy for the impeccable regimental sergeant major.
“The Sheikh and the Dustbin” (1988) has among others “Captain Errol” where a new officer is so nicknamed since he resembles actor Errol Flynn, and has the same casual, reckless approach – until a crisis pops up, “The Constipation of O’Brien” where a night exercise descends into farce, the title story about the battalion saddled with an Arab rebel from contiguous French territory till he can be shipped back to the Devil’s Island, and “The Gordon Women”, a superbly comic tale involving poachers and illicit distillers set in Scotland. Finally, Fraser writes about meeting the colonel, now an octogenarian, and both reminiscing how some of the most improbable stories are the most true and the colonel (identified as R.G. Lees – who was second in command at the Japanese POW camp whose story inspired the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) stumping him by correctly identifying all the characters.
A valuable picture of the postwar world as the British empire was in retreat and a whole way of life was changing, the books are an engaging account of an army that fought throughout WWII and emerged victorious. They are also among the funniest.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )