This is a book not published until 1953, but it has its roots in the real lived experience of a soldier in wartime. The author almost uses his chief protagonist, Major Tim Sheldon, to relate some of his own experiences, struggle and frustrations of leading a patrol. Not that this is a heavy book; it recounts the realities of being stuck in a hospital and his tentative exploration of Algiers’ night life, the conversations with other soldiers, the thoughts that go through a soldier’s mind when he knows he must just move forward. It is a testament to the mistakes and inefficiencies of an army unit which is short of men to maintain a position, let alone mount an offensive. It is the story of little details that make an unusual situation feel like the only one possible. Its stream of consciousness style feels more modern than its date would suggest; this is an honest view of life in the war.
Sheldon thinks of himself as having been born in 1939 with the outbreak of war; he has no ties back in Britain, he has no memories or experiences that have prepared him for this totally immersive experience of war. Exhaustion, world weariness, the need to do his duty to the best of his ability is what dominates his thoughts. This is a book that covers a time period of only some twenty four hours, with a prolonged account of an earlier experience, and its comparatively short length packs a well executed punch that will linger in the memory. As a choice of a book to republish by the Imperial War Museum Classics series, it is a well written and powerful experience in fiction.
The Captain who suggests that the patrol takes place picks it on a whim, while really thinking about something else; thus a life or death situation is plucked out of the air. It soon emerges that the Battalion in this particular position is woefully undermanned. It has seen so much action over a short few months that casualties have been relatively heavy, that there have been tiny numbers of reinforcements, that there is an enormous dependence on a very few officers of any experience. Many of the junior officers are very young, in their mid twenties but prematurely aged, exhausted mentally and physically. The medical officer warns of a deep battle weariness, but the numbers and need override his arguments. Sheldon goes out to establish his route, but as he does so he recalls his experience of being wounded in a previous skirmish, being moved back to a hospital in Algiers, and encountering the most graceful of nurses. He recalls his innocence and contiving to have a good time, even if it shocks more modern readers. This is the idealism of an alternative life, a grasping for something different, a memorable era in a challenging life.
By its nature this is a male dominated book, but it speaks to anyone who has had experience of going beyond what is comfortable and safe, of pushing on despite exhaustion. I found it a short and incredibly powerful read, a memorable testimony of what was a terrible situation. It is so well written, reflecting Sheldon’s voice though not narrated by him, a strong book of war and humanity.
The Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series is an important project to make available novels written from war. This is the fifth book I have reviewed in this series, and have found it a series which has encompassed quite a variety eve within that small number. Well worth keeping an eye open for – not a niche series at all!