By Les Howard
Published by The Book Guild Ltd, Pavilion View, 19 New Road,
Brighton BN1 1UF
ISBN 1 84624 077 8
What do you when you pick up a book in a shop? If, like me, you have a look at the pictures and read the dust jacket then you will usually see some sort of endorsement from a well-known person. Les Howard has done pretty well because he got Professor Richard Holmes, who says:
‘The frank and gritty story of life in a good infantry battalion in a freezing Bosnian winter. This is the best account I have ever read of day to day life on operations in the Balkans, written with an ordinary soldier’s unerring eye for detail and scorn for bullshit. If you want to understand the real British army, this is a good place to start.’
That’s me, done then. Ah but, that wouldn’t be like me, would it?
Since the first Gulf War we have seen a whole range of first hand experience books from the likes of Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, the Johns Nichol and Peters, sundry brass hats and exalted types like Johnson Beharry VC and Tim Collins. We’ve had the American view from Somalia and Afghanistan and it’s fair to say that the whole bunch have been a hit and miss affair. To be frank, not all of these books have been what one of the tabloids used to call a “right riveting read”.
Professor Holmes is spot on. This book is a classic. There isn’t any combat, little obvious heroics and no amateur dramatics. But there is an absorbing tale of life in a truly rotten Bosnian winter. The enemy is the cold, the tedium, landmines, the irritating rules of United Nations operations and a smattering of thoroughly unpleasant locals. I loved this book.
Mr Howard writes in a straightforward style and his book is awash with acronyms and army-speak. I was grateful for the very thorough glossary and had regular need for it. But all this khaki patois cannot hide a strong talent for description and this is where the book wins. When he says he is cold or dirty or hungry, or more commonly a mix of all three; you feel every minute of his discomfort. When he describes the sort of prat with a stripe up who makes you want to run a mile, you reach for your trainers.
For MV fans there are plentiful descriptions of operating Warriors, 432s, all kinds of CVR(T)s and the odd Land Rover. A smattering of French, Dutch and Yugoslav vehicles make an appearance. There’s even a M36 Jackson and talk of naughty ZSU 2-34s.
Descriptions of the local warring factions offer as unpleasant a picture as you might expect. This book, after all, is set around a modern tragedy of war crimes, untold suffering and ethnic cleansing. This all serves to keep things in perspective. Richard Holmes is entirely correct to highlight Les Howard’s eye for detail. The author doesn’t miss a trick.
I’ve been lucky lately, and not read a book I would readily give away. Somewhere in the queue of upcoming stuff is a book by an Iraq War Lynx helicopter pilot. He will have to go some way to meet the standard of Les Howard. Put this one on your list.