Ian Hamilton

  • Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War by Paul Fussell
    Oxford, 330 pp, £15.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 503797 9
  • War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the Forties by Andrew Sinclair
    Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp, £17.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 241 12531 6

In a 1982 essay called ‘My War’ Paul Fussell described how – at the age of 20 – he became a full-time ironist: one who, by means of his experience in combat, had learned to perceive ‘some great gulf, half-comic and half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds’. And in his book The Great War and Modern Memory, the soldier poets and memoirists who featured most prominently were those who had found themselves stranded in that same ‘great gulf’, learning firsthand how wrong they had been in their imaginings of what awaited them in France.

Although Fussell was indulgent of those younger-brother writers of the Twenties and Thirties who eased their war-complexes by engaging in ‘adversary playfulness’ or by filling their works with images of disjunction and collapse, it was evident throughout that his real sympathies were reserved for the bona fide Great War vets, the front-liners who actually lived through or died in that ‘abyss of blood and darkness’ (Henry James). In one of his most telling sequences, Fussell reported on a visit to the Somme. Finding it, in the early Seventies, ‘a peaceful but sullen place, un-forgetting and unforgiving’, he tried to conjure some picture of what it might have been like, day by day, for a combatant in 1917. His sense of fellow-feeling came through.

When Fussell joined the US Army in 1943, he was an adolescent with vague but rigid notions about military glory, fighting the good fight and splendidly wiping out the ‘mad dogs’ who threatened the correct interests of his divinely-sponsored native land. His own ‘modern memory’ was evidently free of taint. In combat, he believed, he would achieve a virtuous manhood. He might also lose some weight: at junior college, we learn here, Fussell was ‘fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind’.

Two years later, after serving through the dreadful European winter of 1944-5, Fussell looked back on such illusions with anger and contempt. Wounded himself, he saw others slaughtered, and as a leader of men he believed that he had failed. In one attack, thanks to his ‘cowardice’, several of his men had died: a lieutenant, Fussell had lingered ‘as far in the rear’ of his platoon ‘as was barely decent’:

before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court-martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine-gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine-gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

A little later in the same attack, Fussell’s trusty sergeant was also killed (it is to this sergeant’s memory that he dedicates The Great War and Modern Memory) and when the day finally was over, Fussell’s platoon had been ‘virtually wiped out’ and he was ‘in disgrace’. His own wounds were bad, but not bad enough to keep him from reaching an evacuation hospital thirty miles behind me lines. In the hospital ‘all my affectations of control collapsed, and I did what I’d wanted to do for months. I cried, noisily and publicly, and for hours. I was the scandal of the ward.’

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