Trial by Battle, by David Piper – book review

It’s right there on the front cover: the clue that this reissued wartime classic is going to be different. The review, by William Boyd, includes the clause, ‘Extremely well-written’. It’s reassuring, but it’s disconcertingly vague. I have this sense of being dislocated, of not quite getting it, and this feeling lasts for most of the novel.

Trial by Battle cover

Alan Mart is 21. He doesn’t quite get it, either. He’s trying to choose a career (academia, maybe?) and spend time with his girlfriend. But, as there’s a war on, off he goes to India, and then to Malaya, to lead men in the jungle. It is a task for which he is ill-suited, and yet – almost through embarrassment – he has turned down the plum (and safe) posting of German teacher in order to do it. He has no business there, really. He knows nothing about the people he’s leading, and he’s there by accident of class and colonialism. The attitudes (and the language through which they’re expressed) are of their time though there is a recognition of the preposterousness of the whole thing. As George, a slightly more clued-up colleague who has no problem in taking up Alan’s German-teaching gig, points out, it’s very improper that they should be in command of Indians.

I’m thinking that the Imperial War Museum has selected this novel very carefully and cleverly as part of its series of reissued Second World War fiction. The novel seems in large order uninterested in war. We don’t learn about strategy and although there is a lot of soldiering going on, I’m not sure we learn a huge amount about that either. Sam Holl, Alan’s experienced teacher and, later, sort-of peer, primarily seems to be there so that Alan can relate to him and be influenced by him. Partly because of Alan’s own detachment from his own men, we feel detached from the whole enterprise. We never quite get how Alan moves from wide-eyed innocent to leader of men. With 21 pages to go, I’m unconvinced that Alan will ever do something soldier-like. And then, finally, he does, in a most unsoldierly but utterly authentic way, and the whole novel comes together incredibly.

What we get is something extremely unusual: this, as Michael Hymers said in the Home Front re-enactment TV show The 1940s House, is how it would have been. We’re so familiar with war stories involving a couple of paragraphs of back-story here and there while our heroes apply their learning. But in providing Alan’s inner voice, David Piper gives us something that is relatively unexplored: that of the accidental officer. This is battle at its most personal and least professional. The last thought of Alan’s that we read about is about his finest sporting moment, captaining the second cricket eleven aged 12. We shake our heads. And we wonder just how many Alans muddled their way through Malaya, doing their best. And we remember that this was less than 80 years ago.

You can get Trial by Battle here (affiliate link).

Thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy. See also my review of From the City, From the Plough which is also in this series of Second World War reissues.

Trial by Battle blog tour poster


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