One of the finest military memoirs to be published since 1945, this is an account written by a young French paratrooper during the FLN nationalist uprising in Algeria. Despatched to North Africa at the beginning of the insurgency in 1954, Leulliette and his comrades were soon thrown into combat, staggering under heavy loads across the ridges and ravines of the Aures Mountains in pursuit of elusive FLN guerrillas. Although there is a brief and fascinating interlude when his battalion takes part in the 1956 Anglo-French Suez operation, the focus of the book remains the relentlessly brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria.
His cool, measured prose (ably translated in this edition by Antonia White) is ideal for describing the Goya-like horrors he encountered on a regular basis. Casualties were enormous: approximately 700,000 people died during the conflict, a figure compounded by the intense viciousness of the fighting. The FLN terrorised the civilian population into providing them with material support – mutilating and murdering to ‘encourage the others’ – while the French devastated Arab villages that provided the FLN with assistance, routinely torturing the inhabitants to provide intelligence.
One of many revealing incidents described by Leulliette occurs when the paratroopers capture an FLN gang deep in the mountains. Having plenty of time on their hands, the paras casually hang the insurgents by their feet from nearby trees, where they remain for several days, their faces turning black in the process. Those prepared to talk are cut down, interrogated and subsequently shot; those unwilling or unable to provide the necessary intelligence die slowly in agony.
St Michael and the Dragon is more than a catalogue of atrocity, however. Leulliette is both a fluent writer and a first-rate soldier – he comes top in the ferociously tough corporals’ course – and is uniquely placed to tell the story of the French paratroopers’ war with the FLN, whether deep in the Algerian bled or in the casbahs of Algiers. But his empathy with his comrades never clouds his unflinching gaze at the horror of this most cruel of wars.
Of the many World War I anthologies that have been issued over the years this book (first published in 1937) remains the yardstick against which others must be judged. The extraordinary quality of Vain Glory is a direct consequence of the work of its editor, Guy Chapman, an officer in the Royal Fusiliers who served on the Western Front and was the author of the classic trench memoir, A Passionate Prodigality.
Chapman ranged far and wide to compile this substantial collection, including accounts from most of the major nations and battle fronts. That British authors predominate is simply a consequence of the editor’s belief in the superior quality of British writing in World War I – a view difficult to contest. All of the many entries assembled here – ranging from a few apposite words to several pages – are of merit. Many are exceptional: among them the report on Austrian atrocities in Serbia; an NCO’s account of the 22nd Manchesters on the First Day of the Somme; and a narrative by an officer commanding the fore-turret on HMS Indomitable at the battle of Jutland. The last author vividly described the battle – an observer of the catastrophic disasters befalling the British battle-cruisers – before wryly concluding: ‘Should it be my good fortune to be engaged in another action, I shall take care that only one gramophone is taken into the turret. In my turret we had two, one in the gun-house and one in the working chamber, and during every lull in the action these two were started playing simultaneously, each with a different record. The result was one of the real horrors of the war.’
Chapman is good on the great set-pieces – First Marne, the Somme, Third Ypres, the 1918 Retreat – building a picture of the battle from a mosaic of separate yet related accounts. He also excels in locating the small vignette, whether the favourable reception given to a British conscientious objector by a group of rough soldiery (in contrast to vicious civilian reactions); the frantic despair of a French army cartographer attempting to print sufficient maps during the fast-moving 1914 campaign; or, in a prophetic look to the future, the chilling exchange of letters from a Great War German-Jewish medical officer and the newly installed Nazi authorities, who, in depriving him of the right to practice medicine, bring about his suicide.
In addition to the intrinsic quality of the extracts, their considered placement within the book reveals a droll, ironic mind at work. And while a basic knowledge of the course of the war is assumed by the editor, this is a knowledge well worth acquiring, such is the enjoyment of coming across a book of this penetrating yet humane intelligence.