Warriors for the working day, by Peter Elstob – book review

The thing about this series of war novels, curated by the Imperial War Museum, is that they provide such similar yet different perspectives of the life of the soldier: so From the City, From the Plough described, if I remember correctly, an infrantry battalion in the run-up to and immediately after D-Day, while The Patrol which we looked at last week inspired our outrage at the decisions that almost wilfully cost lives. With Warriors for the Working Day we return to Normandy and sweep through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany as part of a tank troop. Each of these novels shows us just how small an individual soldier’s view of the war might be and yet how their experiences are both universal and uniquely personal. 

Warriors presents the claustrophobic, relentless nature of military life. It is extremely careful to play down the physical aspects of battle and instead concentrates on the inner lives of the men. Peter Elstob tells his own story, and we watch as a starstruck wannabe becomes an excellent tank commander and then decays, worn from the constancy of manoeuvres. It is almost sarcastic, disrespectful even, to write about character development: under Elstob’s direction we understand that these are not characters. We really know these men, we are delighted when disagreements between them are settled, and their personal victories are our victories. If the life of a tank commander and his crew is one of intimate relationships, intimate too and largely affectionate is Elstob’s depiction of them: their rituals, their humour, their disgusting-sounding tea, the way they collectively choose what to gloss over – ‘they pretended to agree that they thought he was lucky’. That does not mean that he pulls his punches. Men win medals by losing limbs; some lose their family on the same page. Two of our friends die on leave. By and large we feel this is all quite authentic.

That authenticity gives Elstob the credibility to be the voice of the solider. By that I mean that he has the authority to call out characters like the snotty headmaster who writes pompous nonsense, but he is generally generous and from time to time tender, as when he describes Geordie. Elstob learns how to become a leader and in the same way he seems to have a sense of when to let something go. That is well applied to situations such as when the men visit a brothel, or go looting (or when there is a hilarious microphone malfunction).

Churchill comes up twice or so – for example in a joke involving Monty and the King. But generally this is a novel about the fatigue and fear of the front line: the men who only rarely see an 

‘inkling of the war as it would be written in the history books’.

And, again:

‘They knew they were frightened, but they knew that everyone else was frightened too, and had come to realise that wars are fought by a few frightened men facing each other’ 

There’s a huge amount of codswallop in our national discourse about the Second World War. This book should be read by anyone before they speak on the subject. We should be thankful to the IWM for reacquainting us with important first-person (if disguised) accounts of what it was like to put your body and soul on the front line day after day.

You can get Warriors for the Working Day here (affiliate link).

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

3 comments

  1. Most wars gradually fade from our detailed memory. But this hasn’t happened with the war against the Nazis.
    Normally I believe in diplomacy, not war. But Hitler only wanted to take over Britain without having to deploy his military resources. Even Stalin saw there was no future in that too.

    The discovery of the extermination camps stops letting this one fade away.

    Another tank commander was Alexander (Sandy) Faris, composer of the jingle for a well-loved sitcom serial.

  2. Thank you. I think I must read this. My father fought the war, but spoke of it rarely to me, and then only in wry terms, or in comical, about the inconveniences or indignities of army life. My mother heard more honest and disturbing tales of his experiences, but perhaps the most powerful account of all came in his nightmares: newly demobbed, and sleeping next to her at home, he sat up in bed one night and spat a long, cold, measured and unbroken litany of foul expletives at the wall. Then lapsed back into sleep with no awareness of the incident.

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