Alamein to Zem Zem: Keith Douglas in the Western Desert by John Owen Theobald

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“I am not writing about these battles as a soldier,” claimed Keith Douglas, but “as my first experience of fighting” (9). His WWII memoir, Alamein to Zem Zem, hailed as a classic of war literature since its publication in 1946, traces the experience of a well-educated, eager 21 year-old shipped to the North African campaign. Douglas always wanted to be a writer, but knew he needed the proper experience to shape his creative output. “I never tried to write about war,” he later said, “until I had experienced it” (Letters, 295). He followed a long and frustrating road to gain the experience.

Douglas was in many respects a confident and rebellious young man who thrived on defying expectations. He requested that the biographical note accompanying his published poems read, “I am interested in clothes, drawing and painting (my own and other people’s), horses [line cancelled] music, ballet, stage design. Recreations, tap-dancing, rugger, water-polo, competitive swimming” (195).[1] At Oxford, Douglas wrote anti-war poems, and he used his position as undergraduate editor of The Cherwell to condemn militarism. But when war came, his curiosity took hold: “Whatever changes in the nature of warfare, the battlefield is the simple, central stage of war: it is there the interesting things happen” (9). He knew, for his own sake and the sake of his writing, that “the experience of battle is something [he] must have” (10).

Douglas enlisted in the cavalry, hoping to learn how to do “incredible things with swords on horses.” He was forced, as were many undergraduates at the time, to wait two years to see this fulfilled. His army life begin with five months training in armoured cars in Gloucestershire. Frustrated at his distance from the theatre of war, Douglas was relieved when, in June 1941, he was posted to the Middle East. He was shipped to Cairo and then to Palestine, ready to join the tank battalions advancing across the desert. After spending his first month in hospital with a serious illness, he learned that he would be remaining behind at Headquarters. He furthermore learned that there were no tanks in which to train, and that the soldiers at camp spent most of the time playing rugby (and actively excluding newcomers).

Fighting broke out at El Alamein in 1942, but Douglas was instructed to remain behind to provide camouflage training. Even this proved impossible. The staff officers who arranged the training programmes “invariably forgot to include camouflage,” and laughed off his reminders with condescending choruses of ‘old boy, old boy’ (10). The absence of “real” war experience, particularly while others nearby received it, frustrated him: “The push in the Western desert seems to be doing well – if they don’t look out they won’t leave anything for us to do. I should look silly if I came home without ever Going into action.” He complained bitterly of the prospect of missing out: “I certainly seem to be in for cellophane preservation while the others do the dirty work and get all the experience I wanted” (Letters, 209; 217).

After the regiment suffered heavy casualties in late October in Alamein, Douglas decided it was time to act. He stole away in a truck (a ‘soft vehicle’), drove the 20 miles to the front, and reported to Colonel E.O. Kellett. Douglas wasn’t prepared for the disorder and chaos that awaited him in the Eighth Army:

For eight months I had done no mechanized training, my regiment was equipped with tanks, guns and wireless sets which I had never handled, scarcely seen, in my life; and it seemed possible, and even likely, that my colonel who had applied for me before the battle, would not want an untrained officer to join him during action and endanger everyone’s life while learning his job. (10)

He also was not prepared for the repercussions should his gamble backfire: he claimed his plan was to abandon his division and drive across the Sinai desert “to amuse myself until I was caught and court-martialled.” Douglas’s disobedience was quickly discovered. But the Colonel was so desperate for officer replacements that he posted him to A Squadron of the Sherwood Rangers.Douglas’s determination to join the fray put his career, his life, and the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk. But the young and bold soldier finally got his wish. He was soon leading a troop of Mark III Crusaders into action across North Africa.

Cut free from the “whole net of inefficiency and departmental bullshit” of Headquarters,Douglas was filled with excitement and boldness – “a feeling of almost unstable lightness.” It was all “very dramatic” (17). But Douglas had no illusions about the purity of war: “We talk in the evening, after fighting, about the great and rich men who cause and conduct wars.”

But it is exciting and amazing to see thousands of men, very few of whom have much idea why they are fighting, all enduring hardships, living in an unnatural, dangerous, but not wholly terrible world, having to kill and to be killed, and yet at intervals moved by a feeling of comradeship with the men who kill them and whom they kill, because they are enduring and experiencing the same things. (3; 9)

His enthusiasm is a marked contrast to his conviction that he would not survive the war. Douglas was a reckless soldier as well as a reckless man.[2] He craved the experience of battle, despite the price he felt certain he must pay.

He liked to rehearse events mentally, and he knew all about the horror and the pity of war from the War Poets. This was a new kind of war, however, beyond the experience of Owen, Sassoon, and Blunden: as he set out to join his new squadron, Douglas could not remember “any account which gave [him] a clear idea of tanks in action.”[3] Furthermore it was a desert war, and nothing prepared him for his first sight of the battlefields:

As far as we could see across the dunes to the right and left stretched formations of vehicles and weapons of all kinds, three-ton and heavier supply lorries of the R.A.S.C., Field workshops with huge recovery vehicles and winches, twenty-five pounders and quads, Bofors guns in pits with their crew lying beside them, petrol fires everywhere, on which the crews of all were brewing up tea and tinned meat in petrol tins. (12)

But the lure of battle was strong – “to see these tanks crossing country at speed was a thrill which seemed inexhaustible” – andDouglassoon found camaraderie among his fellow tankers (16).

The inexhaustible thrill of tanks crossing country soon proved anything but. “The view from a moving tank is like that in a camera obscura or a silent film,” he wrote, “in that since the engine drowns all other noises except explosions, the whole world moves silently.” The sensation was akin to being a part of a “soundless pageant”: “Men shout, vehicles move, aeroplanes fly over, and all soundlessly: the noise of the tank being continuous, perhaps for hours on end, the effect is silence.” The country they moved through therefore felt like “an illimitably strange land, quite unrelated to real life.” Literature has no answer to this vacuum, and Douglasultimately likened to the experience to the German silent horror film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The books Douglas chose to bring with him for the crossing “ranged from Alice in Wonderland and a short Survey of Surrealism” (47; 22; 92).

Douglas saw his first dead body, and it soon became commonplace. This was a different type of death than he had read about – the thrashing, drowning death of gas and the trenches of Owen’s poems. In the open mausoleum of the desert, corpses were preserved by the heat and dust. He described such a corpse, from the New Zealand infantry, and he took two attempts to draw the scene in the text:[4] “He was like a cleverly posed waxwork, for his position suggested a paroxysm, an orgasm of pain. He seemed to move and writhe. But he was stiff. The dust which powdered his face like an actor’s lay on his wide open eyes, whose stare held my gaze like the Ancient Mariner’s.” Covered in blood and flies, the sight of the man struck Douglas deeply. His response was opposite to Owen’s redeeming compassion: “It filled me with useless pity” (44-45; 52).

This was not the tightly-packed horror of the trenches: “We increased speed again; but there seemed to be no one ahead of us. I began to suppose we had passed Andrew in the mist, and realized that we were lost, without any information of our position or objective.”Douglas refers to their charge to meet up with the rest of the regiment as “like a shortsighted little dog who has got lost on the beach” (27). But the desert was anything but a beach.

Alamein to Zem Zem follows Douglas’s steep learning curve of the techniques of this new type of war. Told to leave his tank and dig slit trenches for the night, the regiment soon found themselves under mortar fire.Douglas ordered his men back inside the protection of the Crusader. After a few moments the Sergeant’s head appeared over top of the turret: “‘what are you skulking in there for, man? If you stop digging every time a bit of shit comes over, we’ll never get finished. Come on out of it, now, and do a bit of bloody work.”Douglas applied the same honesty and clarity to these humourous incidents as he did to the moments of battle. He acknowledged the exaggeration in the Sergeant’s reaction, the “insurance against real seriousness” offered by the men’s constant sarcasm, and the obvious acting hidden beneath the “awful vein of banter” (23; 25).

The men did what they could to keep spirits up. During their ‘brew-ups’ they talked of home,  of rugby, of girls – “the exchange of banalities did us both good” – as well as participating in deeper emotional and symbolic acts: keeping one another company during moments of shock, painting the eye of Horus (“the nearest thing in Egypt to the God of Battles”) on the side of a tank (25; 59). Without these gestures, fear took hold. “These were the intensest moments of physical fear, outside of dreams, I have ever experienced,” he wrote. In the heat of battle though, fear gave way to exhilaration: “Twilight increased to near-darkness, and the air all round us gleamed with the different coloured traces of shells and bullets, brilliant graceful curves travelling from us to the enemy and from him towards us” (36).

Despite the opposition to pity of Owen and Sassoon, there is a strong link in Alamein to Zem Zem to the WWI poets. In a moment of victory, he quoted Hulme, as Douglas and his crew shared their plunder beneath “the old star-eaten blanket of sky” (60).Douglas announced his view of military authority with an early reference to “Sassoon’s General.” This continued to be the case even afterDouglas left HQ: “At five o’clock I woke the Colonel, who lay in his opulent sleeping-bag, in his pyjamas, his clothes and suede boots neatly piled beside him; a scent of pomade drifted from him as he sat up. I told him the time and about the snipers…” When the experimental Churchill tanks were sent to join the regiment, they were immediately fired upon and destroyed: “whoever arranged these tests sitting safely behind a cavalry moustache and a desk at G.H.Q,Cairo, had omitted to inform the combatant troops” (26; 43).

As in the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, contempt for military authority allowed Douglas to feel a real connection to the men he was ordered to fight against. When a German prisoner denied knowledge of the Nazi atrocities in Poland and Russia, Douglas believed him. “Why should he have known anything about them? The whole theory of the German system seems to be that they concentrate their thugs and perverts, and use them apart from their decent fighting men” (64).

Alamein to Zem Zem tells of the eerie, alien world of desert warfare, where the men lived among sandstorms, flies, mosquitoes (“not forgetting the fever bringing diminutive sandfly,”), desert sores, blind valleys, endless wastes of sand, roasting days and frozen nights, mirages and tricks of the light, machine-gun bullets visible against the clear starlight, booby-trapped corpses and derelict vehicles.[5] Douglas described his physical and mental state as the regiment advanced on Tripoli: “The dust was like a blanket, and made breathing continually difficult, at times scarcely to be attempted. My left eye and forehead had swelled up inexplicably, the skin smarting and my head and eye aching dully, an ache as sensitive to sudden movements as an alcoholic headache.” Food and water could not keep up with their trek across the desert: “The water, what there was of it, tasted so strongly of disinfectant and salt that even whisky was lost in it” (101; 97). Massive, empty, and silent, it was no wonder that Douglas scribbled across the manuscript, “I look back as to a period spent on the moon/ almost to a short life in a new dimension.”

Douglas gained the experience he so determinedly sought and, as he anticipated, it helped him shape a new type of war literature. Tragically, his other prediction also came true. Weeks after he returned from the desert campaign, Douglas participated in the invasion of Normandy, where he was killed by mortar fire on 9 June 1944, at the age of 24. Alamein to Zem Zem vividly details the horrors and heroism of the desert campaign, and shows how Douglas wrestled with the influence of the WWI poets and found his own voice.

Next month we turn to the stark, detached, and haunting poetry that secured his fame.

This is the Fifth installment in the year long series War and Literature in the Western World by John Owen TheobaldJohn, originally from the East Coast of Canada, holds a PhD from the historic University of St. Andrews and now lives in London, England. 

* All images courtesy of Wiki Commons. 1) Official publicity shot of a South African rifle section patrolling sand dunes; 2) Keith Douglas, 1943; 3) Cameron Highlanders and Indian troops march past the Great Pyramid, December 9, 1940; 4) British tanks in Egypt; 5) British tank in Western Desert, photograph credit Craig Bellamy; 6)  Grave of a German tank crew, Western Desert, 29 Sept 1942; 7) Crew of the Headquarter tank for the Royal Scots Greys, Western Desert, 16 Sept 1942; 8) British anti-tank 6-pounder guns under attack;  9) A British Crusader tank passes a burning German Pzkw Mk IV tank during Operation Crusader, 27 November 1941.


[1] His letters are filled with examples of him defying expectations. In a letter to a lover: “I think the ‘bang’ of curls on your forehead gives you the appearance of a rather ‘odd’ lady novelist, or else a retired prostitute, but it may be something to do with the lighting,” 231. And to his mother fromPalestine: “The Jews en masse are horrible and I can sympathise with anyone who feels an urge to exterminate them,” 221.

[2] Douglas was very nearly court-martialled for another incident only a few weeks later. After an accident where Douglas struck and killed a local man with his truck, the Major confiscated the vehicle and placed him on Orderly duties. Douglas, however, had tickets to see the Palestine Orchestra and instead of reporting for his punishment, attended the concert in Cairo. He escaped being court-martialled but was assigned a further week of Orderly duties. Letters, 213. He later refused to take undeserved credit for capturing several German prisoners, and was told by the infantry officer: ‘You were a bloody fool to say that, sir. You’ve as good as thrown away an M.C.’ 33.

[3] He ran into similar problems during inaction, as loading the tanks onto transporters proved a formidable and hazardous challenge. 75-76.

[4] In a short piece he wrote at the time, “The Little Red Mouth,” he describes a similar corpse in even more haunting terms. See Letters, 360-1.

[5] See Letters, 199.



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