As this three-part Write My Memoirs series comes to a close, I think you’ll enjoy the five favorite war memoirs listed by one of our Facebook friends. We’re quoting his comments on each.
- Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean. Probably the best memoir I’ve ever read. It has three distinct sections. In Part I, it’s the 1930s and Mr. Maclean is a secret agent assigned to the British embassy in Moscow. Chased across Soviet Central Asia by the NKVD on horseback—literally— he later was one of the few Western eyewitnesses to the 1938 Soviet show trial of Nikolai Bukharin. In Part II, it’’s WWII and Mr. Maclean joins the British Army, becoming one of the founders of the Special Air Service, a commando unit that became famous for its daring raids behind Rommel’s lines in North Africa. In Part III, Mr. Maclean is summoned back to London to meet with Churchill, who appoints him his personal representative to the Yugoslav partisan leader Josef Broz Tito and parachutes him into Croatia to help lead guerrilla operations against the Nazis. (After the war, Mr. Maclean—who was one of only two men in the British Army to rise from the rank of private to brigadier general during the war—served as a member of Parliament representing the constituency of Bute and North Ayrshire, in southwest Scotland, on the Firth of Clyde. He also ran an inn, I believe.) You will not be able to put this book down.
- With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge. A sergeant in the 5th Marines during WWII, Mr. Sledge later became a biology professor at the University of Montevallo, in Alabama. He wrote his memoir to explain his wartime experiences to his family. His wife eventually persuaded him to publish it (in the early 1980s, I believe), whereupon it was discovered and championed by the late military historian John Keegan, who called it one of the greatest combat memoirs ever written. I agree.
- Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser. At 17, the author, who later became famous for a ribald and brilliant series of novels known collectively as The Flashman Papers, enlisted in the British Army’s Border Regiment and was promptly sent off to Burma to kill Japanese. The title, incidentally, comes from the opening lines of Kipling’s Gunga Din: “You may talk o’ gin an’ beer / When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere, / An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it; / But if it comes to slaughter / You will do your work on water, / An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.”
- Good-by to All That, by Robert Graves. Before he wrote I, Claudius, Mr. Graves was a British infantry officer in the trenches of the Western Front during the Great War. A real horror show rendered with ineluctable poignancy.
- Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks. During WWII, Mr. Marks was head of communications for the Special Operations Executive, Churchill’s pet spy agency, where he revolutionized cryptography. Because of secrecy laws, Mr. Marks wasn’t able to tell his story—which is replete with tales of derring-do—until 1998. After the war, incidentally, Mr. Marks became a successful screenwriter and, oddly enough, played the voice of Satan in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.