By David Wrolson
High Plains Scout
George MacDonald Fraser is probably best known for the Flashman series of novels. These are a collection of books that place the hero (lightly speaking) at almost every historical point from the British disaster in Afghanistan in the 1840s to the Charge of the Light Brigade to Custer’s Last Stand and beyond. Flashman always comes out as a hero in these adventures and ends up as a highly decorated General. However, as we learn in the books, he is really a coward and a rogue and quite the ladies’ man.
However, the Flashman books are not the focus of this post. Instead, I am looking more at the actual Frontier Partisan aspects of George MacDonald Fraser’s life. Also, while I enjoy the Flashman books, I am much fonder of some of his other works.
Quartered Safe Out Here
Quartered Safe Out Here is Fraser’s other well-known work. It is a memoir of his World War II service in the latter stages of the Burma campaign. Quartered Safe out Here is often mentioned as one of the best combat memoirs by a soldier in WW2.
Fraser’s war consisted in large part of small unit infantry actions, night patrols in the jungle and really odd activities as the war wound down. By definition, his war was a “Frontier Partisan” war. He arrived too late to catch the great battles around Imphal and Kohima in 1944, but he was part of the decisive battles in central Burma around Mandalay and Meiktila and the drive to Rangoon in 1945.
The title of the book is taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem and, as Fraser says in the book, he caught the last gasp of Kipling’s world in the Burma campaign. All the warrior races of India were there, along with truck drivers from Africa, and Gurkha units from Nepal with their famous Kukri knives.
Fraser’s service in Burma was with the Fourteenth Army. He sings the praises of the bush hat that was worn with pride and the dependable Lee-Enfield Rifle. Of the hat he says “Fourteenth Army’s distinguishing feature was the bush-hat, that magnificent Australian headgear with the rakish broad brim…..In some ways it was a freak, ….but we wouldn’t have swapped it. It looked good, it felt good.”
Shown below-Fourteenth Army soldiers with their magnificent hats and their Lee-Enfield rifles.
I have many favorite episodes in the book, but I will only mention a couple. At one point, his sergeant points out to him that since their section is the very front section of Fourteenth Army on the drive to Rangoon and since he (Fraser) is section scout that means he is the very leading soldier in the war against Japan.
Another episode is actually from another book The Light’s on at Signpost. He mentions a bizarre episode from the closing days of the war, when he suspects — but is not sure — that he may have been duped into running guns into China. He says it may have been legitimate but he doubts it and he can blame, among other things, the fact that there were some damned odd characters floating around the Far East in 1945.
As a die-hard fan of George MacDonald Fraser, I count it fortunate that his war service was in Burma. I don’t think he becomes the same writer if his service had been in the final stages of the European campaign in 1945. I think he needed that exoticism to become the writer he was.
Given its high ranking among World War 2 memoirs; Quartered Safe Out Here is a book that should be read by everyone and is accessible to the general public. Note that Fraser is a “light” writer so humor is inherent throughout the work. My goodness, his story of falling down a well in the last great battle of World War 2 is worth the price of admission alone.
Internet research indicates that the photo below is of George MacDonald Fraser in uniform with his “Magnificent” hat. He looks much older than his age of 20 or so.
The Private McAuslan Stories
It is important to note that Fraser’s war service in Burma was as an enlisted man. However, the Private McAuslan stories are based on his service as a young officer in the Gordon Highlanders in North Africa and Great Britain after the war.
The Private McAuslan Stories are a collection of short stories originally published in 3 separate works. These stories are semi-autobiographical sketches built around Private McAuslan who is the “Dirtiest soldier in the British army.” McAuslan is also not the brightest bulb in the box.
Fraser, who appears in these stories as “Dand McNeill” later said in other works that these stories are essentially true with a few composite characters and so forth.
This cover of one of the books gives you a mental picture of McAuslan. He ended up caddying for the strait-laced Regimental Sergeant Major in a golf tournament and things did not go well or did they?
The next picture is a cover of another book and shows McAuslan regaling a very interesting Arab prisoner with the wisdom of the world.
I absolutely love these stories, which are infused with understated British humor and I highly recommend them and could write a little about each one but I think I will limit myself to “Bo Geesty.”
McNeill’s (Fraser’s) unit is sent to garrison a fort at the edge of the deep Sahara. Real “Beau Geste” stuff with a haunted fort, buried treasure and desert nomads and Private McAuslan at his best. No one but McAuslan could get lost climbing a ladder.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fraser’s description of a beautiful woman, his widowed aunt, from another adventure that has McAuslan poaching stags and hiding stills in the Scottish Highlands.
“She had been a great beauty, one of your tall northern blondes with eyes like sapphires, and even when she was white-haired she continued to flutter the hearts of such susceptible local bachelors as the Admiral and Robin Elphinstone, much to her amusement.”
There are many stories in this collection to attract the Frontier Partisan, but I have long thought that the tale of the trivia contest deserves distribution to a wider audience.
As we see in these Private McAuslan stories, George MacDonald Fraser found himself at the far edges of empire in the waning days of the British Empire. Readers who have only found Flashman may not realize how much adventure Fraser himself lived.
Light’s On At Signpost
The title of this book is a metaphor that death was approaching for Fraser. Light’s On is another favorite of mine. It mostly describes his work in the film industry with a few interludes of short political essays. Fraser is most noted for his screen plays for the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers. These 1970s era movies are widely regarded as the definitive Musketeer movies.
I recommend this book for background on Fraser’s screenwriting life. However, most relevant to the Frontier Partisans world are some biographical essays in the back where he notes that his father served as a doctor with the Legion of Frontiersmen in East Africa in World War 1.
He says at one point somebody asked him about his knowledge of H. Rider Haggard for a screenplay and he says his father buried Allan Quatermain. Quatermain was Haggard’s hero and was based on Frederick Courteney Selous who was the leader of the Frontiersmen and who was killed in combat and apparently tended to by Fraser’s father.
Other Works of Note
Mr American is a lengthy stand-alone novel that I can’t recommend. While there are a few favorite passages in this book that I re-read occasionally, I am not a fan of the book as a whole.
Hollywood History of the World looks at history through the lens of Hollywood movies. I have found this book most useful in coming up with movie ideas.
The Steel Bonnets: A History of the Anglo-Scotch Border Rievers: It has been too long since I have read this book. I need to re-read it soon.
Other works by George MacDonald Fraser are beyond the scope of this essay.