Joining up

Angus Calder

  • Soldier, Soldier by Tony Parker
    Heinemann, 244 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 57770 7
  • Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark 1914-1919 edited by James Munson
    Oxford, 304 pp, £10.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 212984 8
  • The Unknown Army: Mutinies in the British Army in World War One by Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill
    Verso, 178 pp, £18.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 86091 106 3
  • Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle by John Keegan and Richard Holmes
    Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, £12.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 241 11583 3

A major in the Royal Anglian Regiment talks to Tony Parker about battle:

I’ve only been in that kind of situation where someone’s been shooting at me, a total of about twelve times altogether – in Ireland, in Aden, and we had a couple of dust-ups with the Eoka lot in Cyprus. You get a little bit of headiness out of the situation, you do, because that’s what you’ve been trained for. You don’t feel frightened, you feel excited. This is the test: are you going to come through, are you going to get them or are you going to do something damn stupid and let them get you? You go cool and thoughtful, like you’re trained to. But you’re disciplined and your men are disciplined: it’s no good you all rushing round like a bunch of trigger-happy hooligans. You know you’re in danger and that you’re going to have to fight your way out of it. In a sense it’s like thoroughbred racehorses in the Grand National: they go round the course and they jump every obstacle, some fall and don’t get up again, and others carry on right through to the end. It’s a strange feeling of excitement that you can’t describe to someone who’s never been involved in it.

What ethical code controls that voice? What does it echo, in the long history of warfare examined by John Keegan and Richard Holmes in their book-of-the-television-series, Soldiers?

It looks to me as if fighting men have adhered to perhaps half a dozen different codes. There is the ‘rape and pillage’ style: a gang of men sets off to plunder a wealthy place, seize women, take slaves and valuables, maybe settle down as rulers. In retort to such predatory activity the ‘defence of the homeland’ model arises: people fight for their property and their families, but, ideally, with a civic or patriotic pride which invests their actions with nobility. Between the two, and able to meld with either, there is ‘Holy War’ to propagate or defend a religious or political creed. But ‘Major Bert Price’s’ voice, as tape-recorded and edited by Parker, evokes none of these three traditions.

This voice has told us that ‘Price’ joined the Army as a regular while on National Service in 1953, inspired by the Coronation of a ‘very pretty young woman who was our new Queen’. It rejoices later over the memory of ‘being presented to the lovely Queen Mother’. So, though patriotism doesn’t figure in Price’s account of emotions during battle, we can’t assimilate him to a fourth sort of a soldier, the mercenary – nor is there the faintest suggestion of the samurai. His reference to the Grand National faintly recalls one of the earliest of all models of warfare, which makes it much like a sport – as in small ‘tribal’ communities where battles between neighbouring groups are ritualised and rain might stop play. In certain Pacific Islands once under British rule, a version of cricket has apparently replaced inter-village battles: see Scyld Berry’s article in Wisden 1981.

But Price surely represents a sixth type, the modern career professional. The Army has given him a steady livelihood with sharp upward social mobility from a labouring job (no O levels) to a commission and the officers’ mess. His two ‘fine boys’ have got university degrees, and while he regrets that they won’t follow in his footsteps, he thinks ‘it could be said that they wouldn’t have the opportunities in the Army that they have with the qualifications they’ve got in civilian life.’ The ‘security’ of our ‘realm’ now depends on men who are on the whole unheroically motivated, who think of ‘security’ in that civilian sense which applies to careers and pensions, yet who form a society-within-society.

Parker’s presentation of their world is marvellously readable and piquant. He was a conscientious objector in World War Two and remains a pacifist. Yet the Ministry of Defence gave him almost unlimited scope to interview, live with, even go on patrol with, the Royal Anglians. He interviewed 181 people, some of them half a dozen times. He taped the General, he taped new recruits, he taped Army wives. He has cut excerpts from these interviews together brilliantly. His own voice is almost always cut out, yet we sense his presence in each conversation – friendly and respectful to all ranks, anxious to know and believe the best of everyone, so that where interviewees expose themselves as fools or rotters they are well and truly so exposed. Most are neither.

What comes across, very movingly, is the great diversity of characters, social origins, opinions, within a unified hierarchy which dominates each individual life. A captain’s wife who was once a pacifist now sees ‘a lot of good in the Army’: it’s ‘a peace-keeping force and it’s protecting people, making sure they have democratic freedoms’. She likes to think that she and her husband have their ‘own coterie of fairly reasonably minded people’. This is one of many points in the book where one thinks one hears Parker’s own excised murmur. ‘Yes,’ she goes on, as if in reply to it, ‘they’re all Army, of course one has to say that. I think that’s because of the very nature of the job: you live in a very enclosed world of Army Army Army all the time – and of course we live here in an Army house.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in