Wartime by Paul Fussell


One incident, from April 1940, stands out early in Wartime, Paul Fussell’s cultural study of the Second World War, a companion to the much-feted and better-known The Great War and Modern Memory.  When a German Heinkel bomber crashes at Clacton-on-Sea, the death of combatants is still novel. The crew of four are carried to the local cemetery with full military honours supplied by the RAF. Women sob and the coffins are laden with floral tributes of spring lilies and irises. It is a degree of ceremony that did not last, and could not last. When an airman later in the war parachuted, safely but blinded, into Wapping ‘they assumed he was German and smashed him to death’ in the words of a boy who was watching. The victim was an ally, a Pole. 

The sheer scale of the war still stupefies. Averaged out over the years between September 1939 and August 1945 twenty-seven thousand people died every day. In China an estimated fifteen million people died under Japanese occupation. Seventeen thousand Americans lost limbs on the battlefield, and one hundred thousand in industrial accidents back home. After the euphoric peace celebrations in Britain in 1945 the Soviet Union kept all its hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war. Ninety-five percent of the prisoners from Stalingrad vanished in the maw of their captors. From the Oder-Neisse boundary to the Pacific shore, citizens died for the next twenty years at the hands of their governments on an industrial scale.

Paul Fussell’s first two decades of academic life were spent with Johnson, Pope and Swift. Then he returned to the subject of war. It is a rare writer whose awards span a National Book Award alongside a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In 1944, the twenty-year old from Pasadena was in Belgium with pieces of shell in his leg and back. Red spray fell on him from a friend riddled with bullets. He later observed that historians of conflict have small idea how often soldiers are hurt by the violent impact of pieces of their friends.

Wartime by Paul Fussell 331pp, Oxford University Press 1989
by Paul Fussell
331pp, Oxford University Press 1989

Fussell’s literary mission was to keep honour with the common soldier and resist war’s sanitisation.  His chapter headings for Wartime are indicator: ‘Someone Had Blundered’, ‘Chickenshit: an Anatomy’ and ‘The Real War Will Never Get in the Books’. On page two he writes ‘by 1940 the Great War had receded into soft focus, and no-one wanted to face the terrible fact that military successes are achieved only at the cost of insensate violence and fear and agony, with no bargains allowed.’

Fussell knew that conflict is physical encounter. Before a single American or Britain has signed up, the first engagements in Wartime are being played out in Poland, Panzers versus cavalry. ‘In a few minutes’ he writes ‘the cavalry lay in a smoking, screaming mass of dismembered and disembowelled men and horses.’ On the Pacific coastline he observes ‘the bodies of Japanese men, women and children in the sea by the thousand.’ Eisenhower, now Supreme Commander, was once a younger soldier and Fussell recalls him at the Falaise Pocket in the Great War ‘It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.’ There are no trenches in Wartime but he records the cost of D-Day. ‘In six weeks of fighting in Normandy the 90th Infantry Division had to replace 150 per cent of its officers and over 100 per cent of its men.’

Wartime is in a genre of its own, a cultural study of the men, and women, who fought. Within the ranks, rumour is endemic, cynical and always anti-authority. Churchill is paid a royalty of fifty pounds, it is said, every time a tank bearing his name rolls off the assembly line. For the survivors of Dunkirk the military command intends to dock their pay to make good the items and equipment lost in the retreat. Sufferers of venereal disease are shipped, it is whispered, to a secret island for indeterminate detention. Rumours of bungling, greed and malice are so prolific as to render helpless the official purveyors of good news. A compulsory injection is to be delivered into the testicles of all soldiers via a needle with a square-shaped cross-section.  

Rumours of the home front are uncontrolled. Every soldier in North Africa has ‘heard’ of the fighter who returns home to find his wife has turned his house into a brothel to serve the newly arrived insatiable GIs. On the more optimistic side the generosity of Henry Ford escalates. It starts with a free Ford for the first hundred soldiers to hit the Japanese mainland and rises to a free car awaiting every returning prisoner of war.  

Fussell is a scholar of language and he is acute on both vernacular and official use. In the Blitz the question ‘Where did the bomb hit?’ is swiftly transformed into ‘Where is the incident?’ Attacks by the V-2 rocket bombs are designated by the authorities as ‘gas main explosions.’ The populace responds by calling the missiles ‘flying gas mains.’ When it comes to questions of morale, the military lies, and of course, the troops know it. Of the danger from sharks the US Navy states blithely ‘Sharks are amazingly over-rated, there being only three cases of shark bite in all Navy records.’  

Fussell is a rare writer who gets to grips with the scale of desertions (in a chapter well-named ‘Accentuate the Positive.’) In 1948 ten thousand deserters have still eluded the US authorities. Fussell gives the number of unapprehended British deserters as twenty thousand. He concedes that war has many secrets – the Ultra Project had to wait decades – and blunders are unmentionable. His view of the media in conflict is ‘an image of pseudo-war and pseudo-human-behaviour not too far from the familiar world of newspaper advertising….’ On a personal note, a family member of mine read in a distinguished broadsheet of a series of British military successes in the summer of 1940. When he looked at a map he noted that the locations for each ‘victory’ were moving steadily backwards towards the Belgian coast. The young are easily dismayed and he damned that particular newspaper for the remaining forty-six years of his life.   

Along with the voices of the common citizen and that of battling authority Fussell naturally captures a few literary voices. He does not care for E B White’s folksy Rockwell-ism one little bit. War is fought by the young. Olivia Manning’s Lieutenant Boulderstone, twenty years old, remarks of a major ‘an old fellow, thirty-five or more.’ Mailer and Heller are familiar names, Robert Lowry author of Casualty less so. His 1946 novel is a vehicle for deep anger. Fussell quotes a moving poem by Herbert Read ‘To a Conscript of 1940’ and ‘Load’ by Lincoln Kierstein, a rare poem that features pre-conflict masturbation

Wartime is distinguished by scholarship and sheer depth of knowledge of the war. German U-Boats carried quantities of animal intestines that they would release to deceive attackers on the surface that a hit had been scored. The Germans had a particularly effective mine that was known as the ‘Schu’. Fussell knows the thousands of ex-soldiers who throughout the 1950’s only felt safe when walking on asphalt and concrete. Every patch of grass is potential death or disfigurement. The Second World War has prompted books by the tens of thousands. Paul Fussell is among the first authors to be recommended to any reader coming new to the subject or who wish for the glimpse of truth beneath the trash.