A Corporal's War
Review by Alyce Wilson
A Corporal's War is a vivid recounting of World War II, told from the point-of-view of British Corporal Norman Wickman, author Pauline Hayton's father. Corporal Wickman served for five years at the height of the war, and the book traces his service through colorful stories, detailed recounting of his experiences, and additional factual information, such as maps, courtesy of Hayton's rigorous research.
Most fascinating are the details derived from Corporal Wickman's wartime journals and letters. His own words paint a portrait of a good-hearted, hard working soldier with a sense of humor, who wasn't above the occasional prank or mischief but who also had capacity for great empathy and selflessness.
Hayton illustrates these accounts both with her father's personal photos and with archival photos from the Imperial War Museum, showing many of the locations, battles or actions Corporal Wickman mentions.
Interestingly enough, Corporal Wickman started out in one of the harshest front line situations possible: trying to push back the Germans in France in the early part of the war. When this action failed, they had to retreat through Dunkirk. This was a very violent battle, and Corporal Wickman described the devastation, as well as the resolve of those determined to rescue as many British soldiers as possible. Thousands of soldiers were bombed by German airplanes as they waited for an inadequate number of ships to slowly board soldiers and take them home.
As an engineer, Corporal Wickman was sent in to repair the wooden walkways used to board the ships, after they were bombed by the Germans.
Following this harrowing start to the war, the corporal was sent to India, at that time still a British colony. There, he shared details about the local culture, the weather and the conditions his unit endured.
Eventually, the fighting found them there, as well, and his unit, along with some American forces, were positioned to keep the Japanese from advancing through Burma into India. Corporal Wickman tells amusing and revealing stories about how the Brits and Americans bickered with each other, showboating, bragging, and even pilfering each other's supplies, only to realize, eventually, that on the battlefield they were all equal.
Cover to cover, A Corporal's War is a fascinating read for anyone who has wondered what a soldier's experience is truly like in battle. Some of the stories are dramatic or tragic, while others recount mundane trials, such as dealing with a bedbug infestation, or suffering through the muddy monsoon season.
Such a book could easily be turned into a movie, with a little bit of trimming, perhaps limiting the number of characters mentioned by name. However, for the purpose of a detailed, personal reminiscence of the war, it's easy to understand why Hayton chose to include all of Corporal Wickman's friends in his unit, each with a colorful nickname. Taken together, they represent a "band of brothers," who while they may be indistinguishable to the reader, represent the camaraderie of soldiers in battle.
Now is a great time to read this entertaining, well-written personal view of World War II: not only because this year marks the 60th anniversary of D-day, but also because it could provide insight into the experiences tbeing faced today by coalition soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
iUniverse Inc, 2003; ISBN: 0-595-23052-3