Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes

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Reviewed by Simon

They’ve done it again! Slightly Foxed have brought out yet another fascinating, entertaining, and well-written memoir – and another one that I would never have heard of without their curated collection in Slightly Foxed Editions. This time, it’s the memoir of a billeting officer during the Second World War – with the added interest that it was originally published in 1942 when, of course, the war was far from over.

Rhodes is apparently best known now for a three volume study of Venice (so it is appropriate that I read this book in Italy), but I didn’t discover this until after I finished the book. To me, he was simply a soldier detailing his time spent between the beginning of the war and Dunkirk. And it is a truly astonishing portrait of Dunkirk – being an event that I have heard so much about, but never read about from an authentic first-person perspective.

“Three of our officers have just got married,” said the officer who welcomed me at the mess. “Seems like war doesn’t it?”

It was 3 September 1939 and it seemed even more like war two days later when a general visited us and addressed the troops for a quarter of an hour.

“Officers and men,” he said. “The test has come and we are at war. The enemy is strong and cunning but we can defeat him. You fellows are now going to put all your knowledge – and all your training to the test, the acid test – the test of war,” he said sternly. “… I know you will not fail, you are all Englishmen.”

There were two Welshmen in my section who were very offended by this, and out of the two hundred and fifty men in the company only a very small proportion had been to more than two Territorial camps, so that it was hardly fait to talk about ‘all our training’; but it appeared that in spite of this we were destined to go abroad very shortly as part of a regular division. The general who had addressed us that morning was fortunately not going to command us in the field, he was merely touring the area making encouraging valedictory speeches. Our own divisional general certainly had no illusions about us or the state of our training; he ordered our major to make us work like navvies.

This is how Sword of Bone opens, and it gives us a good sense of Rhodes’ tone from the outset. He is not the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Tommy who is unthinkingly patriotic and keen to get into the sway. Rhodes is an intelligent, wary, and brave man who wants to make the best of the situations in which he finds himself – and wants to support those around him – while also recognising that war means, essentially, hell.

His intelligence is clear throughout; he quotes Herrick and Goldsmith, he speaks of Balzac, and (as Michael Barber points out in his introduction), he ‘is even familiar with the concept of feng shui some forty years before it became a fad in the West’. Even the title of Sword of Bone is a quotation from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (which doesn’t quite, to my mind, justify what an off-putting title it is; if this weren’t between Slightly Foxed covers, I suspect it would have been enough to put me off reading the memoir).

We witness Rhodes experience through the phoney war, finding housing and provisions for his men while many of them are champing at the bit for a chance to fight the enemy. He does not have this sort of foolish spirit himself. Indeed, when inspecting the Maginot Line he discusses the Germans as ordinary men who are equally unlikely to want to fight – an unpopular way of writing in 1942, one imagines – and has less friendly things to say about aggressive or stupid men on his own side. Incidentally, his investigations of the Maginot Line and the men living in it are fascinating in humanising and detailing a world that has become something of an embarrassing footnote to history; he is far more charitable than legacy has been to this line of defence; more charitable even than 1942 was, it seems. He has some stern words for critics of ‘Maginot mentality’.

This is one of many ways in which Rhodes doesn’t tread party line at all times, and shows aspects of soldiering that were seldom exposed at the time – from the men’s frequenting of brothels to the occasionally poor choices of the high-ups (his men are assigned a doctor who speaks little French and specialises in gynaecology). None of this is done with the spirit of framing an expose, however; he simply writes about army life as it was, with solid, engaging intelligence.

But it is the final sections, describing a blow-by-blow account of Dunkirk, which will stay with me the longest. We see the confusion, the fear, and the changing plans. We see also the boredom beforehand – the long queues of traffic to the coast. And then the secrecy, the lying to the locals and refugees who believed that the Brits were there to protect them. Every detail is here, and though the tension is not absolute – we know broadly what happens, and we know that Rhodes must have survived in order to write this book – he still does an excellent job at portraying the uncertainty and drama of that extraordinary day.

There are any number of war memoirs out there, but I don’t think any can equal the immediacy of Rhodes’ – nor the (to use the word again) intelligence. To write and publish it when the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt was an extraordinary feat – and helps preserve it as an astonishing record today.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Anthony Rhodes, Sword of Bone (Slightly Foxed: London, 2016). 9781906562922, 319pp., hardback.

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