Joyce Cary’s Memoir of the Bobote

In 1912, aged 24, Joyce Cary, who was later to become famous for his novels of Nigeria and bohemian artistic life (a strange but autobiographical combination), went out to Montenegro to be a stretcher-bearer for the British Red Cross in the First Balkan War. He was fearful that if he did not take the opportunity to witness war first-hand, he would never have it again, war having been abolished by civilisation. Two years later the First World War, in which he was wounded, taught him otherwise.

He wrote a book on his return from Montenegro, Memoir of the Bobote, that was only published eight years after his death in 1957. It is a young man’s book that treats war as if it were something of a lark, an adventure holiday. When it was over, ‘we assured [the victorious Montenegrin general] that we had enjoyed the war very much.’ At no point in the book does he say what the war and its attendant slaughter was about (200,000 Turkish soldiers were killed in it). This was simply not a question for him; later, he changed his attitude, which perhaps explains why he did not publish it in his lifetime.

There were British and Australian doctors attached to the Red Cross, and also to the Red Crescent on the other side of the lines. How many lives they saved, or how much succour they brought to the injured, may be doubted. Cary tells the following story:

He [a medical orderly] could barely stand for fatigue, cleared the room of soldiers, spread sheepskins for his patients, and made his examinations. Two were hit in the legs, one thigh, one calf, no harm done, one in the forearm, but no more than a chip out of the flesh – the fourth was shot through the belly.

Cary continues:

The best thing that can happen to a man hit in the belly is to be forgotten. Let him alone, don’t shake him, and his gut will close up quickly. This man had been carried from Dramos, up and down three miles of stony hillsides, and was lucky if he escaped peritonitis.

Despite Cary’s generally jaunty approach even to his own discomforts such as infestation with lice, the pit of war sometimes shines through. There is in his pages one of the best descriptions of a man dying shot that I have ever read:

There were three [men] crossing those five yards at the moment, and the first and second stepped safely past under the wall. The third was an old man, wounded in the leg. He was within a yard of the wall, when a single shot sounded overhead – he made a noise like a small dog whose tail has been trampled on, twisted half round, and fell like a sack. His cloak bellied out in the wind, fluttered and settled down on him. He was dragged under the wall, but died in a couple of minutes. At that angle, the bullet passed through the body from end to end…

Against such wounds, Cary had a liniment composed of eggs, olive oil, turpentine and vinegar.

He dedicated the book to Martin Leake, one of two Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons to have been awarded Victoria Crosses twice. Only one other person has won two VCs: surgeons are the bravest of the brave.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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