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The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath #Review

  We travel back to the 12th Century for this gorgeous historical novel, The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath . It was published by Headline Accent on 18th July. 1191 and the Third Crusade is underway . .  It is 1191 and King Richard the Lionheart is on crusade to pitch battle against Saladin and liberate the city of Jerusalem and her lands. His mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine and his promised bride, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, make a perilous journey over the Alps in midwinter. They are to rendezvous with Richard in the Sicilian port of Messina. There are hazards along the way - vicious assassins, marauding pirates, violent storms and a shipwreck. Berengaria is as feisty as her foes and, surviving it all, she and Richard marry in Cyprus. England needs an heir. But first, Richard and his Queen must return home . . . The Lost Queen is a thrilling medieval story of high adventure, survival, friendship and the enduring love of a Queen for her King.   My Thoughts

Trial by Battle by David Piper #WartimeClassics #Extract

Today we are continuing the celebrations for the Imperial Museums Wartime Classics series. This has been released  to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, Here is an extract from the second in the series: Trial by Battle by David Piper. First, here is a little about the novel:
 October 1941. Twenty-one-year-old Alan Mart is posted to India and taken under the wing of the dogmatic, overbearing Acting-Captain Sam Holl. Following the Japanese advance on Singapore, the men are deployed to Malaya. What follows is a quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare and the indiscriminate nature of conflict.

Based on David Piper s own wartime experience in South East Asia, this new edition of a 1959 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds new light on the dramatic true events that so influenced its author. 

 Introduction to Trial by Battle

War literature is often associated with the First World War, with an explosion of the genre in the late 1920s. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was a bestseller and later made into a Hollywood film, while generations of schoolchildren have grown up on a diet of the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the words of Siegfried Sassoon.

Yet the novels of the Second World War – or certainly those written by individuals who had first-hand experience of that war – are often forgotten. First published in 1959 under the pseudonym Peter Towry, Trial by Battle very much deserves to be remembered, and to be part of the literary canon as a ‘wartime classic’. Its author David Piper was an officer educated at Cambridge who went on to become a distinguished art historian and the director of several national museums. The novel tells the story of Alan Mart, from his training in India to the intensive jungle fighting in the Malayan campaign. The critic Frank Kermode described it as ‘probably the best English novel to come out of the Second World War’, while V.S. Naipaul found the writing superb, and the novel to be ‘one of the most absorbing and painful books about jungle warfare that I have read’. The jungle was an alien environment for all the British, Indian and Australian soldiers fighting in Malaya. Very few novelists of the Second World War come close to Piper in evoking the claustrophobia, heat and intensity of this theatre. This very welcome reprint will bring this forgotten war novel to a new readership.

At the opening of the novel, the protagonist Alan Mart has just arrived in India, where Sam Holl is put in charge of Mart to show him ‘how an infantry battalion in the Indian Army should be run.’ On the outbreak of the Second World War India was still the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. The Indian Army was a part of the army based in India (alongside the British Army); this army was the main instrument of control for both internal security and defence of the borders, particularly the North West Frontier. Up until the Second World War, the Indian Army was largely officered by British officers in charge of Indian troops.

The huge expansion of the Indian Army at the beginning of the war meant that there was a desperate need for trained officers – hence Mart’s posting to this unfamiliar location. In 1939 there were just under 200,000 soldiers in the Indian Army, with only 1,912 British officers and 344 Indian officers. (In contrast, by the end of the war there were over two million in the army with c. 36,438 British officers and 15,747 Indian officers. It had become the largest volunteer army in the world.)  In 1940 three officer training schools were set up in India to accommodate the expansion of the officer corps (Alan Mart attends one of these, after leaving university). Following their training, newly commissioned officers elected to join their regiments in the Indian Army. David Piper, for example, attended Bangalore Officer Training School and then joined the 4th Battalion, 9th Jat Regiment. Then, just like Alan Mart, he underwent the signals course at Poona, becoming the signals officer in the battalion. The novel is very much based on his own experience.

The opening line of the novel introduces Mart to Holl, and theirs is the central relationship throughout the book. The contrast between the hard-drinking regular Indian Army officer, Holl, and the inexperienced wartime officer, Mart, is very apparent from the word go. In the first half of the novel, this manifests itself Alan’s rather bizarre decision to turn down a relatively easy and safe posting, teaching German to fellow officers in Simla. After a confrontation with Holl – and perhaps out of a desire to see action himself – Alan rather baffles his adjutant by rejecting the position (‘Did you say you did not want to go to Simla?’) Mart’s actions seem nonsensical, even to him. Later on in the novel, as Alan’s experiences leave him desensitised to army life, he develops a grudging, new found respect for Holl, the experienced soldier. He has adapted to cope with the fighting life both through the army, but also under Holl’s guidance. In the closing chapters, in the most desperate of situations, it is Holl who Alan seeks: 

He tried to find out whether Sundar had any idea what had happened during the night, but Sundar had none, apart from the certainty that there had been a great battle with great noise. For all Alan knew, Holl might still be there; there was no sound of action anywhere near, only the rumble far away to the south. His thought stopped at Holl as a terminus. There he had to go.

If we see Alan’s shock at Holl’s behaviour earlier in the novel, what the reader also witnesses is the intensity of army life, and more specifically the culture shock of being in a different country, so far from the familiar. This is revealed on numerous occasions, particularly Mart’s rather uncomfortable relationship with the men he commands. He struggles with his relationship with his orderly Sundar Singh – ‘Orderly? You mean he’s a soldier? But he’s a child. Can’t be a day more than fourteen’ – and finds effective communication with the men he commands extremely difficult:

He tried to talk to them and they answered ‘Yes, sahib,’ or ‘No sahib,’ in the gaps of his stumbling Urdu. They seem unknowable: they seemed to wish to know, at least to understand what he wished, as much as he did; there were foggy smiles, gestures left incomplete in the air, but there was no contact. He got to feel very little more at home with them yet; he certainly did not feel for one moment in command of them.

All of this combines to build a rather chaotic picture of ill-preparedness, and indeed the alienation experienced by Alan in such unfamiliar surroundings. 

Indeed if the officer training is insufficient, the six weeks spent with the training battalion for the Indian soldiers does not bode well for the fighting ahead. In effect the Viceroy Commissioned Officers (a level of officers between non-commissioned officers and the British commissioned officers) are the link between the men and the British officers. Holl tells Mart: ‘They’ll be very kind to you. Once the Hindu VCOs have drunk you under the table on tumblers of desi whisky and you’ve overeaten of goat curry with the Mosel ones, they’ll love you like a son.’ The paternalistic relationship of the British officers and the Indian soldiers is very evident in the book, sometimes bordering on racism, and problems with communication abound.

Evocative as these opening chapters of the novel are – where we see Mart’s youth and inexperience, his uneasy relationship with Holl, the confused and chaotic nature of some of the preparations – the book’s supreme strength lies in its depictions of jungle warfare once the men arrive in Malaya. The evocation of the claustrophobia, the heat, the fear and the tension can only be drawn from direct experience. Notable is Alan’s realisation early on that his equipment simply will not work in the jungle – a terrain almost depicted as an enemy itself:

‘Drums, sir’ said Alan fiercely, ‘We might be able to work something out with native drums.’

The glaring eyes popped, and blinked rapidly. Then they glazed with a wary caution. Alan saw Scrapings’ gaze wander and tangle in angry lost bewilderment amongst the endless trees, and recognizing the feeling, his own anger vanished as he suddenly he felt the full weight of responsibility on those elderly thin shoulders.

‘We’ll think of something, sir,’ he said gently but confidently.

Later that day that day, a message reached him from the C.O. [Commanding Officer] he was to proceed at once into Malacca again, and corner all native drums that might be available.  

Scenes of this nature are an accurate reflection of the reality of Piper’s true experience, as noted in the regimental history. From December 1941 to May 1942 the British Empire suffered the most humiliating series of defeats in its history, as Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore and Burma fell in rapid succession to the Imperial Japanese Army. The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 was considered by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ‘the worst and largest capitulation in history’. The Japanese had overrun the numerically superior Commonwealth forces in Malaya in just over two months resulting in more than 130,000 troops entering captivity. As a lieutenant comments in Trial by Battle: ‘Never have so many run so fast and so far from so few’. As with the ‘native’ drums scene, on numerous occasions we see how the men are not prepared for the theatre into which they have been sent – ‘I’m afraid our desert training will be somewhat supernumerary’, is the dry comment from the Commanding Officer.

Once in the jungle itself, the text becomes fraught with tension and a sense of isolation, ‘he looked up from the map at the solid bare trunks that dwindled away from them but nevertheless closed their sight at a radius of a hundred yards or so. They seemed like prison bars arrayed wilfully as a maze. It seemed to him that one could not hope within reason to hold country like this without much less than a man per tree, and he looked to Holl to say so, but swallowed the remark’. When Alan first sees action – having earlier heard the swirling rumours that ‘the Japanese take no prisoners’ – the text vividly describes his scramble for survival when his jeep is hit and he and Holl must try to make their way back to their own troops. As the situation becomes more desperate, the light-heartedness that tinges some of the novel’s opening chapters dissipates. Alan, and the reader, are far from the heady days of training at Poona. Particularly visceral and moving is the scene in which Mart feels he has no choice but to leave his wounded with the Australian padre, knowing what their fate will be. 

The throb and racket of the final Japanese attack had begun a mile or so away. Arcs of fire, red, yellow, orange, streamed across the sky; flares splashed glaring whiter and brighter than the moon, and sank slow as thistledown. The display raged in brilliant and beautiful violence, seeming to come from fore and aft of the position they had just abandoned, for perhaps twenty minutes, half an hour – then, over the deep clamour of explosives, there came the howl, thinned by distance but piercing eardrums like a glacier wind, of the Japanese infantry going in for the kill.

Alan’s eyes closed, and he rocked where he stood. The triumphant maddened howl was edged now by a scream that reached into the bowels of the little group who stood there listening, dragging every nerve in their bodies out searing through the skin. When Alan’s eyes opened again, the tears were flowing down his face, blurring the southern sky that now was lit by the pulsing leaping flame from trucks on fire.

David Piper served with the 4th/9th Jats in the Malayan campaign. They arrived in theatre in early January 1942, and fought alongside the Australians at Muar. Piper was the signals platoon commander in the battalion. He along with Major White (second-in-command) went missing on 18 January when their car was ambushed on the way to brigade headquarters and their driver killed. They spent the night by the side of the road, and attempted to return to the battalion the following day. Faced by Japanese tanks, they returned through the jungle – exactly as Alan Mart does in the novel. On 19 January 1942, the battalion was ordered to join up with the Australians. However they were heavily attacked, in the confusion there were many casualties. Piper, having got lost, managed to the make his way back to the 2/29th Australian Battalion but later became a prisoner of war. Mart’s experience in Trial by Battle is thus almost an exact replica of Piper’s own time in the jungle. 

After the surrender at Singapore Piper was a prisoner of war in Changi and then Taiwan (years later he wrote a very moving memoir and diary of his time in Shirakawa camp in Taiwan I Am Well, Who are You?). In 1944, in what was considered a major turning point for the war in South East Asia, the Japanese Army suffered defeat at the hands of the British and Commonwealth 14th Army at the Battles of Kohima and Imphal, and the later battles for Burma (modern day Myanmar). The transformation in the fortunes of the Commonwealth troops, in particular the Indian Army, was in a large part due to the development of jungle warfare doctrine and the resulting improvements in training, tactics and equipment. Unfortunately for many men such as Piper, these developments had come too late.  

After the war, Piper returned to Britain and married (he had his own ‘Lettice’ in real life). He published a number of books on art history and five novels under the pseudonym Peter Towry – Trial by Battle was the first, published in 1959. One of the possible reasons for the pseudonym was that some of the men in his battalion were still alive (Towry was his middle name and he had been known as Pete by his old friends). In the foreword to I Am Well, Who Are You?, a fellow prisoner of war wrote of Piper: ‘I was amused by the ironic detachment with which he coped with the circumstances of being a POW and the extreme modesty with which he regarded his achievements in the post war world. Those of us who had the opportunity to make something of our lives after the war were lucky. Many were not.’

Some comments about Trial by Battle:

 ‘A tremendous rediscovery of a brilliant novel.  Extremely well-written, its effects are both sophisticated and visceral.  Remarkable’
                                                                          William Boyd

‘one of the most absorbing and painful books about jungle warfare that I have read’
                                                                          VS Naipaul

‘probably the best English novel to come out of the Second World War.’
                                                                           Frank Kermode 

Book link: Amazon UK

About the Author

David Piper was best known as director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  The novel is based on his time serving with the Indian Army in Malaya where he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as a POW.  His son, Tom Piper, was the designer of the hugely successful Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War Centenary.

                  Imperial War Museum Wartime Classic Series 

In September 2019, to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, IWM will launch a wonderful new series with four novels from their archives all set during the Second World War – Imperial War Museums Wartime Classics. 

Originally published to considerable acclaim, these titles were written either during or just after the Second World War and are currently out of print.  Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience and takes the reader right into the heart of the conflict.  They all capture the awful absurdity of war and the trauma and chaos of battle as well as some of the fierce loyalties and black humour that can emerge in extraordinary circumstances.  Living through a time of great upheaval, as we are today, each wartime story brings the reality of war alive in a vivid and profoundly moving way and is a timely reminder of what the previous generations experienced. 

 The remarkable IWM Library has an outstanding literary collection and was an integral part of Imperial War Museums from its very beginnings.  Alan Jeffreys, (Senior Curator, Second World War, Imperial War Museums) searched the library collection to come up with these four launch titles, all of which deserve a new and wider audience.   He has written an introduction to each novel that sets them in context and gives the wider historical background and says, ‘Researching the Wartime Classics has been one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on in my years at IWM.  It’s been very exciting rediscovering these fantastic novels and helping to bring them to the wider readership they so deserve’.

Each story speaks strongly to IWM’s remit to tell the stories of those who experienced conflict first hand.  They cover diverse fronts and topics – preparations for D-Day and the advance into Normandy; the war in Malaya; London during the Blitz and SOE operations in occupied Europe and each author – three men and a woman – all have fascinating back stories. These are Second World War novels about the truth of war written by those who were actually there.

Check out the rest of the tour!



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