Review: With the Jocks
- Published: 30 April 2010 30 April 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
If you are interested in first person accounts then this is a must-read book. Peter White was a second Lieutenant and platoon commander in the King’s Own Scots Borderers, in 52nd Division, and saw service from October 1944 to May 1945. During this time he participated in the assault on Walcheren, the defense of the Meuse, Operation “Blackcock”, the clearing of the western banks of the Rhine, the battle for Wesel, the battle for Ibbenbüren, and the final operations east and west of the Weser river towards Bremen, good worm’s eye perspective descriptions of which are included in this book because, against orders, he kept a diary, and it is based on this that the memoir was written.
Unlike his colleague Sydney Jary, author of the famous memoir “18 Platoon” and the longest-surviving platoon commander on the western Front in 1944-45, French was not born for war, and least of all for the infantry business of killing people up close. He was also a very religious man, a teetotaller and had a strong artistic bent, which shows in the very high quality of the good number of sketches which illustrate the book. This distance to the business he had to perform is what gives the book a unique quality.
French volunteered for service and served in the anti-aircraft artillery before being transferred to the infantry in 1944. He started with the AA section of the battalion before being transferred to command of a rifle platoon. French’s observations on the life of the infantry are sobering. When reading the book, the amount of misery and hardship endured by the soldiers is overwhelming at times. Unlike other authors, French does never stop to consider the life lived by him and his soldiers as something extraordinary and weird. His diary is full of reflections on this life, his thoughts about the civilians through whose life he is passing – either being taken in by newly liberated Dutch, or turning out Germans of their homes requisitioned for his platoon. At times, the writing has a lyrical quality about it that lets one enter into the scene easily.
The occupants of the flat I had selected for Platoon HQ were a very well dressed, portly, red-faced man who was suffering from most obvious mental turmoil in trying to know what manner to adopt towards us. […] The mother, like the daughter, had a sleek, trim elegance akin to a Dresden figure which was added to by expensive well-cut clothes in soft tasteful colours. In their startling contrast to the Jocks, they made the latter look like heaps of mud-smeared vegetables.
White also writes a lot about his thoughts of the men he is commanding, their attitudes and behaviour, and the book provides a list of all those who did not make it through the war, a large part of the men who he commanded, while he himself escaped unscathed.
There are harrowing accounts of combat, the worst of which is probably the battle accident (friendly fire incident) at Ibbenbüren when his platoon is shot up by a platoon of British self-propelled guns with high losses in killed and wounded.
In conclusion, I have not read anything like this in a long time. The book is a compelling read – although I would recommend the winter for reading it, to be better able to relate to the hardship suffered by French and his men. I can not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to get a glimpse into the world of the men who fought to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation.
(Reviewed by Andreas Biermann)