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Keith Douglas


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Keith Douglas was probably the finest poet of the second world war. At the outbreak of war he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, but he volunteered for service within days of the declaration of war. His training started in July 1940 and he passed out of Sandhurst in April 1941. In August of that year he was posted to the Middle East, where he found himself at Cairo and in Palestine, serving behind the lines as camouflage officer. Meanwhile his Regiment, who were in tanks, suffered severe losses in the decisive Second Battle of Alamein. Frustrated by inactivity as well as an unhappy love affair, Douglas commandeered a lorry and took off for the front against orders. This disobedience might have had serious consequences but Douglas later smoothed things over with an apology. On his arrival at the front he was given a tank troop to command by the Colonel and took part in the fighting. This book describes his experiences.

In his prose, as in his poetry, Douglas provides exact observation with no overt emotional overtones. For many readers—certainly for me—this restraint makes the impact of what he describes all the more powerful. You feel you are there with him, seeing what he sees, feeling the same heat, thirst, and fear as he does himself. This effect is enhanced by his line drawings, mostly showing dead soldiers lying amid the detritus of war. Here is his description of what he found in a wrecked Italian tank where he had come to look for a Biretta handgun.

Gradually the objects in the turret became visible; the crew of the tank … were, so to speak, distributed round the turret. At first it was difficult to work out how the limbs were arranged. They lay in a clumsy embrace, their white faces whiter, as those of dead men in the desert always were, for the light powdering of dust on them. One with a six-inch hole in his head, the whole skull smashed in behind the remains of an ear—the other covered with his own and his friend's blood held up by the dully steel mechanism of a machine gun, his legs twisting among the dully gleaming gear levers. About them clung that impenetrable silence I have mentioned before, by which I think the dead compel our reverence. I got a Biretta from another tank on the other side of the railway line.
There are quick character sketches, not always flattering, of men and fellow-officers. The colonel is a particularly colourful character, dandified and referred to throughout as Piccadilly Jim. Hot-tempered and impulsive, he ticks Keith off unfairly for supposed incompetence and subsequently almost, but not quite, offers an apology. Douglas himself, incidentally, is addressed as "Peter" throughout, for reasons that are unclear.

The climax of the story comes when a 50mm shell crashes through the turret of Douglas's tank, narrowly missing him. When he recovers his senses he reports that his tank has been disabled ("my horse has copped it") and is again told off by Piccadilly Jim: "King Five, that's the second time. You must not say such things over the air." Not long after this, Douglas finds that he is surrounded by wounded men and there is a German tank about fifty yards away. His main fear, oddly, is not of being shot by the machine-gunner in the tank but of being captured. But he makes his way back to his own lines, intending to get help for the wounded soldiers although feeling guilty in case he is really running away. He reaches some forward British vehicles and tanks but then sets off a mine and is seriously wounded.

It took eight months for Douglas to be fit enough to return to the battle. By this time the Allies had been victorious, but the Regiment had been severely mauled, with the deaths of a number of senior officers, including Piccadilly Jim—killed, characteristically, standing up in his tank, shaving while under shellfire.

Douglas, now promoted Captain, returned to Britain in December 1943 and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. He was killed by enemy mortar fire on 9 June. His remains now lie in the Tilly-sur-Seulles war cemetery.

1 December 2010

%T Alamein to Zem Zem
%A Douglas, Keith
%I Faber and Faber
%C London
%D 1961
%P 152pp
%K military history
%O introduction by Lawrence Durrell
%O drawings by the author

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