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on 7 April 2009
This first-hand account of the battle of El Alamein by a tank commander who was also a well-regarded poet is well worth reading. While it is rather more gung-ho, the closest parallel I can think of is some of Wilfred Owen's poetry from the Western Front of the previous round of Unpleasantness. I was particularly struck by something that is very common in real military memoirs but almost entirely absent from fictional ones: that soldiers - even officers - rarely know what's going on, are frequently confused, spend far more time waiting around than they do fighting, and that their biggest enemy is often the environment as opposed to the other side's soldiers. Some of the confusion seeps through to the pages. In a very short book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is who in Douglas's squadron, but whereas in a work of fiction that would be terribly important, in this true account it really doesn't matter - the overall impression is what counts. In short, this is one of the few books that I can whole-heartedly recommend to absolutely everyone, no matter whether your normal diet is great literature or formulaic pot-boiler thrillers. Buy it. Now.
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on 30 April 2013
I first read about Keith Douglas in The 20th Century in Poetry - also available from Amazon - an excellent anthology edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae:

Page 271 : ‘A young tank officer, Keith Douglas, served in the North Africa campaign, and wrote an excellent memoir about his experiences, Alamein to Zem Zem. ‘In tank warfare you only saw your enemy when he surrendered or when as in Vergissmeinnicht, you came upon his rotting corpse.’ Douglas was killed himself in Normandy a year later, leaving arguably the best war poems of any Englishman in the conflict.’

I’ve grown to be wary of such accolades – especially the ‘arguably’ – which often seems to be used as an rear-guarding caveat, for just about anything can be so described – but my interest in the literature of war; the even tenor of the introductions to the various sections of the anthology and the selection of poems were good enough for me to order Keith Douglas’s book from Amazon.

I found that reading material by a person whom you know was killed a short time later (Alamein took place in November 1942 and the author was killed in July 1944) was quite special but in a way I find difficult to define. I can however say that it’s very different from reading the memoirs of someone you know didn’t die until some considerable period of time after they had written a book e.g. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe.

I wonder what the mechanics of setting down Alamein to Zem Zem were? At the very least he must have scribbled in down in a jotter and then passed it on to get written-up. Also, how did he manage to find time to write? There seems something of Isaac Rosenberg in his hurried scribblings, something quite noble.

On re-reading his poems after having read the book I definitely found more in them than I had on first reading. Of course this is often the case on re-reading poetry but I believe that knowing more about him and the situation he was in aided my understanding and appreciation of his work. However, I still feel that some of the claims about him being the Wilfred Owen of WW2 is stretching things a bit far – but then I’ve only read a small number of Keith Douglas’s poems.

The tone of his writing reminded me of the best sort of BBC political commentator such as John Cole or Nick Robinson : lucid, factual, honest and non-judgemental.
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on 1 January 2013
One thye really great literary accounts which emerged from World War II. There is no better account of the war in the weestern desert. It's beautifu;l;ly written, very honest and often very funny.
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on 12 June 2002
This book is really good. It has great descriptions of the North African battle environment, and it does a great job in describing the life of an infantry soldier in battle. Other than just the informative descriptions, that make a great book on their own, the author's thoughts and impressions of the battle routine, other soldiers, commanders and the war mentality in general reflects well in the book. The book has it's own unique sort of philosophy on the war, and the author did a great job in putting it into words. The fact that the book was written by an English infantry soldier while he fought in the battle of El-Alamein in WWII, and later died in Normandy, makes the words stand out even more. I enjoyed the book very much.
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on 1 January 2011
An outstanding and very personal exposition of life in a tank in combat in North Africa by an equally outstanding war poet...
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on 16 November 2012
One of the most gripping war memoirs I've read, written elegantly but very graphically by a man who would probably been Poet Laureate had he survived the War. A few rough edges caused by his having to prepare the book in desperate haste whilst preparing for D-Day. And all too short, like its author's life. You should also read his insightful war poetry. Keith Douglas, poet and tank commander, died in Normandy on 9 June 1944, aged 24.
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on 11 April 2015
Riveting evocation of day to day existence in a tank unit fighting across N Africa. Stretches of boredom (fascinatingly described!) punctuated by explosive chaos and terror. Beautifully judged sketches of regimental characters, many of whom we get to know just in time to lose them tragically in action. Virtuosic writing from this impossibly young writer, battle-wise and tough as iron at 22.
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on 14 February 2014
As with any diary this was a very personalised record of an important time in WW2 and gives a detailed picture of tank warfare over a small space of time and led me to look at Douglas' poems.
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on 12 May 2013
Superbly written, clear, factual, no false emotion or sentiment, no self pity or evading the contradictions inherent in war. Hugely illuminating.
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on 13 October 2015
Superb and concise account of a tank commander in North Africa in and around Alamein
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