War is hell, the adage goes. "So awful," Farley Mowat adds in this memoir of World War II frontline service, "that through three decades I kept the deeper agonies of it wrapped in the cotton-wool of protective forgetfulness, and would have been well content to leave them buried so forever." Turned away from the Royal Canadian Air Force for his apparent youth and frailness (though, he writes, he had been living off the Saskatchewan countryside and was in fine shape), Mowat joined the infantry in 1940. The baby-faced second lieutenant quickly earned the trust of the soldiers under his command, especially when, as he gleefully recounts, he bent army rules to suit such exigencies of the field as securing a stout drink and finding warm, if non-regulation, clothing. Somewhat happy-go-lucky at the outset, Mowat and his colleagues soon adopted a darker view of the war after engaging elite German forces in the mountains of Sicily.
Ever the naturalist, Mowat recalls that he learned to identify German weapons by their sounds, "a discovery which excited me almost as much as if I had stumbled on a batch of new bird species." But the war was no game, and Mowat's memoir grows ever more sombre as friends and compatriots fall, one by one, to enemy fire and illness. His book, a graceful work of personal history, does his fellow warriors honour even as it protests the madness and destruction of war. --Gregory McNamee
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There is a deceptive quiet to the beginning of this recollection by Farley Mowat of the hell he and his comrades endured in the bloody Sicilian and Italian campaigns of World War II. And the undersized, baby-faced young man the author was three decades ago, eager to "get a damn good lick in at the Hun," seems, in the first few pages, unendurably callow, striking attitudes as false and dated as his slang. But he grows up fast and the battles he survived as a second lieutenant in the Canadian infantry are clamorously, jarringly real - justifying epigraphs from Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden. In 1940 at age 19 Mowat joined his father's old outfit, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, known as the Hasty Pees and made up of men from southeastern Ontario. A bird-watcher and something of a loner, he ends up in command of a platoon of hard cases and misfits, a iamb among lions. They were thrown into the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943 and Mowat soon loses the illusion that war is little more than an exciting form of battle game. "For the first time," he writes laconically, "I truly understood that the dead were dead." Then, as the Canadians are put through the meat grinder attempting to storm a German mountain-top fortress, he comes to know an unshakable fear; each time he finds it a little harder to blind himself to the death or mutilation he is certain awaits him. Mowat not only gets his emotional responses right, but he also makes the actual battle operations intelligible. A memorable book from a practiced hand. (Kirkus Reviews)
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