Ice Cold in Alex

I think most of my research on medical care and casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War is now complete, though there are still some loose ends to tie up and some more interviews/oral histories to listen to on-line courtesy of the wonderful Imperial War Museum.   So I spent much of the summer working on the very different situation in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War: the material – at the IWM and the Wellcome Institute – is just as rich, though much less worked over.

If the First World War was the first industrialised war yet still  fought, for the most part, at short range, the campaigns in North Africa involved mechanised war fought over vast distances.  I had anticipated some of this in ‘The natures of war‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), particularly since some of my evidence was drawn from vivid accounts by volunteer ambulance drivers from the American Field Service working with the Allies, but now I’m finding that early essay on the entanglement of the desert terrain and the soldier’s body needs to be supplemented – often dramatically so – once the wounded body is brought into the centre of the frame.

The Battle of Egypt, 1942: New Zealand and Indian Infantry Casualties (Art.IWM ART LD 2722) image: Interior of a tent with casualties lying on stretchers, main figure with arm and leg in makeshift
traction Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/11555

For the Western Front I’ve experimented with how to bring together the systems of evacuation that were put in place (with all their delays and dangers, imperfections and improvisations) with the wounded bodies that were moved through them, and – as regular readers will know – I’ve tried to incorporate the imbrications of those bodies with the changing and highly variable technological apparatus that made all this possible.  You can see some of my first attempts in Anatomy of another soldier

At the end of that essay, I worried about two issues: an anthropomorphism and a functionalism (in which everything that is pressed into service works inexorably to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain).

The spur for all this was Harry Parker‘s remarkable Anatomy of a soldier (see here and ‘Object lessons‘: DOWNLOADS tab), about the experience of a young British soldier who suffers traumatic blast injuries from an IED in Afghanistan.

But I’ve now found another, much earlier example that speaks directly to my work on North Africa.  And while the anthropomorphism remains a problem, as you’ll see the functionalism is much less secure – and for that very reason.

I’ve just finished Christopher Landon‘s Ice-Cold in Alex, a novel published in 1957 that provided the basis for J. Lee Thompson‘s celebrated film the following year, starring John Mills, Harry AndrewsSylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle.  (For a reading of the film, see Michael Leyshon and Catherine Brace, ‘Men and the desert: contested masculinities in Ice Cold in Alex’, Gender, place and culture 14 (2) (2007) 163-182).

The story describes a desperate drive in a British military ambulance from Tobruk, where the Afrika Korps is closing in, across the trackless desert to safety in Alexandria (and to a bar where the beer is always ‘ice-cold’).  Landon served with the 51st Field Ambulance and the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa during the war, and knew what he was writing about.

Before the party sets off, Landon describes the Sergeant-Major lying underneath a lorry:

‘Above him, the bowels of the engine – gleaming crankshaft and loosened connecting rods , tied to the sides of the crank-case with wire – seemed to be grinning.  It was a challenging grin – “what’s wrong with me?”  He started back, up at the glint of metal, framed in the black space where the sump had been removed.  “It’s easier for doctors,” he thought.  “Patients can talk.  But machinery goes on uncomplaining, until it breaks.”‘

Later he has a similar conversation with one of the nurses they have been ordered to escort to Alexandria:

‘”Not so difficult, or different from your job.  They’re like humans, really.  If you give them the right food and drink – a dose occasionally – and don’t overwork them, they obey all the rules.”  He was moving the fan blades to and fro, feeling with the other hand behind it.  “The only trouble – and difference – is they can’t talk.  So that by the time you know they have a pain, it’s usually too late.”

But between these two passages Landon has given the ambulance a voice.

I’m going to be rehearsing these issues at a seminar tomorrow at the Wall – I’ll be interested to see how this year’s Scholars can  help me think this through….  And I’ll be posting more about my work on the Western Desert in the months ahead.

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