Patrol, by Fred Majdalany – book review

Contains some mild spoilers

The Imperial War Museum has reissued a further tranche of classic novels from the period of the Second World War. The promotion of these books has been pushed back a little due to the lockdown and I wonder if they had originally been chosen to mark the VE Day anniversary. Cafe thinking’s participation in the Patrol blog tour coincides with the anniversary of D-Day. Patrol is about as far from the glorification of war as you can get: the IWM leaves that kind of thing to others.

Fred Majdalany is certainly not interested in celebrating his service. He is furious about the whole thing. But he is keen to explain it. This short novel does three things: set up the circumstances of this night patrol in Algeria led by Tim Sheldon, flash back to describe Sheldon’s experiences when injured earlier in the war, before describing the patrol itself. Majdalany wants us to understand how badly the front line were supported by those back in headquarters with their selfish pursuits. There is an interesting exploration of class. You don’t need to know much about military rank (I know next to nothing) to be intrigued by Majdalany’s take on officer culture.

For such a slim volume, Majdalany takes the time to be detailed and vivid. The style of Patrol is quite stripped down but also musical. I kept stopping to re-read passages or to read them out loud. But we get straight to the point: everyone away from the front has their own perspective. Grandad in his London club splutters into his Daily Telegraph just as we imagine he would do today. The mess president will give false intelligence if it just means he can nip out to bag some wine. The general is a leader without a strategy. And we get an insight into brigade culture – the slang and rituals, with the occasional joke: the scene in the hospital with the missing thriller pages was a delight.

This novel was first published in 1953 and I am not sure if it was meant to shock. It wasn’t always clear with whom Majdalany’s sympathies lie. Certainly he wants us to like Meissendorfer, the prisoner of war, more than many of the Brits – and Sheldon the main protagonist certainly feels that 

they seemed almost to have more in common with each other than either had with those of his own kind who were not soldiers, and perhaps that is one of the subtlest evils of war

And again – after Slythe has taken Sheldon to a brothel – 

Slythe was unbeatable. He hoped he would never meet him after the war, he knew he wouldn’t like him. War makes it possible to be fond of the most extraordinary people. That, come to think of it, was what these comradeship people went on about really meant: managing to put up with people with whom you have nothing in common

But all this makes the second similar scene, at the Oulad Naïl, especially uncomfortable reading – as predicted in the introduction.

The second half of the novel, which describes the patrol itself, seems to capture the mix of high drama, tautened nerves and utter boredom of a night skirmish. But it is this that made me sit up straight:

War makes tiny things gigantically important for the moment…war has this one mercy of always giving you an immediate object…how many men in the other life know where they are going and why? That is why fools and lazy men enjoy war.

Fools and lazy men. We keep that thought in our mind. Majdalany remains furious to the end.

A powerful and compelling account just as important right now as in 1953. Thank you to the IWM for making it available again.

You can get Patrol here (affiliate link).

And check out our coverage of previous IWM titles:

Alexander Baron – From the City, From the Plough

David Piper – Trial By Battle

Anthony Quayle – Eight Hours from England

Thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour and to the IWM for the review copy.

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