Literature / McAuslan
George MacDonald Fraser
's other famous series. Chronicles the adventures/misadventures of young Lieutenant Dand MacNeill (who is in no way Fraser himself)
in a Highland Battalion in the wake of the Second World War. The series is named for
the dirtiest soldier in the world, who is part of MacNeill's platoon and whose horrific exploits are the source of amusement and disgust to both the reader and his fellow soldiers. Fraser's memoir of WWII Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here
, is a nonfiction prequel; the first McAuslan story literally takes up where the memoir leaves off, with Fraser/MacNeill's assignment to officer training at the end of the war.
The series consists of three volumes, each named after a story within: The General Danced at Dawn
, McAuslan in the Rough
, and The Sheikh and the Dustbin
. An omnibus edition exists called The Complete McAuslan
This series provides examples of:
- Achievements in Ignorance: considering how badly McAuslan fails at...well, everything, his successes are all the more amazing. Such as handing the Sergeant-Major the wrong club while caddying, thereby enabling him to make an impossible shot, or putting out the target lamp in a night exercise entirely by accident.
- A Father to His Men: Most officers, at least most of the time. Sometimes, it's recognized, it's just not the right approach.
- The old colonel is described as the kind who will probably show up early at the Pearly Gates on Judgement Day and bum cigarettes off St. Peter, just so he can put in a good word when one of his jocks shows up.
- MacNeill himself becomes this to his platoon—so much so that he still finds himself looking out for the eternally-benighted McAuslan, even after their demobilization.
- Armed Farces: Considering it's supposed to be at least within shouting distance of the truth, this trope is both invoked and demonstrated to be pretty much Truth in Television.
- Awesome Music: Referenced throughout the series. Many stories mention the battalion band and its pipe-sergeant. One story focuses on Piper George Findlater, who won a Victoria Cross in Afghanistan for playing the pipes while injured. Another story is about a Highland dance so rousing that it draws in Englishmen and Arabs. And dozens of classic tunes are name-dropped, particularly Johnnie Cope which is used to wake the junior officers on Friday mornings — from approximately two feet away.
- Benevolent Boss: The Colonel, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, and the other senior officers.
- Big Badass Battle Sequence: Strenuously avoided. There are three incidents in all three books that might be considered combat - and one of those is an unarmed wargame between friendly forces. Of course, it is peacetime.
- Bling of War: The Highlanders act as police numerous times, always with kilts and bagpipes, as this makes the Arabs sit up and take notice. More specifically, MacNeill changes the Guard at Edinburgh Castle, and compares this to his wartime experiences of standing guard on a burnt-out bank in full-dress uniform, and standing guard on General Slim whilst wearing skivvies. He concludes that there is an inverse relationship between the importance of what you are guarding, and the amount of BS that goes into the guarding process. nobody would seriously try to capture Edinburgh Castle, but if the Japanese could have got close enough to take out Field-Marshal Slim, they would have done.
- Blood Knight:
- Captain Errol, named after the character's charismatic similarities to Errol Flynn. Errol is also staggeringly insubordinate and a guerrilla specialist, having lost his commission and then earned it back leading partisans in Yugoslavia. The author implies very heavily that Errol ended a native uprising in Libya by assassinating its leader.
- He went on to be a mercenary after the war, finding peacetime soldiering too dull.
- Wee Wullie (though his fighting consists of bar brawls).
- Boisterous Bruiser: Wee Wullie, again. In night exercises his role is to whale the tar out of any opposing force, single-handedly, thereby letting the rest of the platoon sneak by unnoticed. He also has a crime sheet as long as his arm, rivaled only by his service record.
- In the story relating to "aid to the civil power" (i.e. keeping the peace during rebellious riots) MacNeill mentions that in cases of minor unrest the situation can be resolved by "sending Wee Wullie out with a pick-axe handle to shout 'imshi!'"note
- Boomerang Bigot: Any Anglo-Scots present, who are sometimes described as more English than the English themselves and often scornful of other Scots. Also the football team captain, who on playing versus the Celtics team (himself a devout Catholic), instructed his own team to "get stuck intae these Papes."
- Boot Camp Episode: The first story is largely this, as it depicts MacNeill trying to get into officer training by passing a series of ropes courses and other tests. In other stories, he reminisces about his recruit training as a private.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Mild examples in Captain Einstein, a brilliant lawyer who doesn't look it, and Captain Errol, who is incredibly informal and laid-back yet an expert soldier.
- Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: The bread and butter of the battalion. It's noted that even the Communist sergeant is still Sergeant Rough with his men.
- The clearest example is Lt. MacKenzie and Sergeant McCaw. MacKenzie is the son of a Baronet, intensely aristocratic and an arch-conservative of the first water. McCaw is a former welder-turned-union agitator from the Glasgow shipyards, who thinks nothing of defending his political beliefs with his fists. When not getting into heated political debates, they run the best turned-out platoon in the battalion.
- Catch Phrase: The corporal captaining the battalion football team says one before taking to the field at every game: "Awright fellas, let's get stuck intae these [insert unflattering nickname for opposition team]." Against the team composed of captured Afrika Korps troops, for instance, it becomes "Awright fellas, let's get stuck intae these Huns." Leads to the Boomerang Bigot situation as described above, where years later, when the man captained a professional team who was playing the Celtics on that occasion: he said a Hail Mary, fingered his crucifix, then told his team, "Awright fellas, let's get stuck intae these Papes."
- Colonel Badass: The Colonel, though he's certainly quiet about it.
- The Colonel is a thinly disguised real person. Who as a prisoner of the Japanese dared to say "no", enraging them into torturing him. He carried on saying "no". The book refers to "the leg the Japanese broke for him, on the railway" indicating he survived the worst captivity and slave labour the Emperor could offer his guests.
- Corrupt Quartermaster: The protagonist is introduced to his new unit's quartermaster as the 'biggest rogue in the army.'
- Court-Martialed: Happens to the hero for disoedience; he is acquitted.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: McAuslan, mostly by accident. Wee Wullie, the battalion drunk.
- Cultural Posturing: The Pipe Sergeant, who would be "a professional Highlander of the worst kind" if he wasn't also an all-round pleasant person.
- Cultured Warrior: Toyed with during battalion quiz night, being both simultaneously invoked and averted.
- Courtroom Antic: McAuslan's Court-Martial. You know you're in for quite a show when the judge proves himself more interested in learning choice Scottish epithets than in conducting the trial proper.
- The Determinator: Wee Wullie, during a WWII incident. McAuslan to an extent.
- The Ditz: McAuslan himself, the dirtiest, thickest soldier in the British Army.
- Do-Anything Soldier: As Fraser puts it:
As a subaltern, you get used to doing pretty well anything. In my brief time I had been called on to command a troop-train, change a baby's nappies, quell a riot of Arab nationalists, manage a football team, take an inventory of buried treasure, and partner a Mother Superior at clock-golf. This was in the days when the British Army was still spread all round the globe, acting as sentry, policeman, teacher, nurse and diplomat in the wake of the Second World War, and getting no thanks for it at all. It was a varied existence, and if I'd been ordered to redecorate the Sistine Chapel or deliver a sermon in Finnish, I'd hardly have blinked an eyelid before running to the RSM pleading for assistance.
- Ensign Newbie: Pretty much all the Lieutenants - even the ones with existing military experience are still quite young and unsure of themselves. Of course, they try not to show it.
- Epic Fail: McAuslan is prone to these, such as setting his lieutenant's sporran on fire while trying to brush it. In fact, often he fails so epically that it wraps around the scale and turns into an amazing success.
- Everything's Louder With Bagpipes: it's a Highlander regiment. The pipe band is a huge part of the regimental culture—and because they're so important and there's nothing a young lieutenant can do to stop them, they developed a tradition of waking up the junior officers by blasting Johnny Cope just outside their quarters every Friday. Eventually one of the subalterns gets revenge by arranging for the colonel to stay over at the junior officers' quarters on Thursday night, and not mentioning a word to either the band or the colonel. Needless to say...
- Fictional Sport: Private McAuslan once found himself forced to participate in The Pillow Fight, which is like a regular pillow fight but over a tank of hot soapy water. McAuslan was outraged at the insult to his personal hygiene and challenged the order all the way up to a military tribunal. After winning his case, he went and joined The Pillow Fight.
- The Pillow Fight is not actually fictional.
- Full-Frontal Assault: semi-invoked by MacNeill to explain McAuslan's trouserless appearance at the wargame's finale.
- Funetik Aksent: Fraser is very good at writing the Scottish brogue.
- And he does a good job of differentiating between Scottish regional dialects, e.g. Highlanders (the padre and the Pipe Sergeant) vs. the Glaswegians (many, if not most, of the other ranks).
- Glamorous Wartime Singer: Both invoked (in a few brief mentions of the officers' attachments to various local entertainers) and subverted (in the mention of the ranks' relationships to less savory local entertainers).
- Gossip Evolution: Discussed in Fly Men, in which an officer facetiously comments that Karl Marx had Scottish ancestry. Within hours the entire battalion are arguing over the exact details of this revelation, even though half of them don't know who Karl Marx was.
- Hillbilly Moonshiner: McLaren in The Gordon Women. The local landlords try to catch him in the act, with an unenthusiastic MacNeill in tow; McLaren has McAuslan and MacRae on his side.
- Homage is paid to the McAuslan series in an episode of M*A*S*H, The General Flipped At Dawn, when General Bartford Hamilton Steele The Third finally loses it entirely at Hawkeye's preliminary court-martial hearing (by dancing off to the tune of 'Mississippi Mud'.
- The Inquisitor General: The battalion is run ragged by an inspection, but it turns out the inspector is more interested in Highland dancing.
- Interservice Rivalry: Everywhere. Between Army and Navy, between Scottish and English regiments, between Highland and Lowland regiments, between Guards and everyone else, between Highland regiments.... MacNeill gets one in towards the Navy in conversation with McAuslan.
Buy them a couple of drinks. Fraternise a bit. Remember, they were on our side in the war.
- One particular rivalry of note is the one between MacNeill's own regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.note The pipe-sergeant, for instance, grudgingly admits after the inspecting general officer, General MacCrimmon (who had previously served in the Argylls), successfully organizes a 128-man Highland Reel:
General MacCrimmon had a fine agility at the pas-de-bas, and a decent sense of the time. Och, aye, he wass not bad, not bad... for a Campbell.note
- Iron Lady: MacNeill's Aunt Allison, as related in The Gordon Women.
- Also his MacDonald grandmother, who is of a stern Presbyterian disposition.
- The Jeeves: Played straight by John in The Servant Problem, and averted by every single one of MacNeill's batmen — including McAuslan and a goosestepping prisoner of war. Also averted by MacNeill himself as a recruit.
- The Klutz: again, McAuslan, who manages to break or mislay the most improbable things. On one occasion he broke the metal cover of a compass—"a feat comparable to biting a rifle in two"; on another he only avoids firing live ammunition at an inspection where the Royals are present because the Regimental Sergeant-Major snatched the ammo from his gun just in time.
- Occasionally MacNeill as well, who once set himself on fire while lighting a cigarette.
- Malaproper: McAuslan is prone to these, especially when trying to describe the constellations.
- The Men First: The attitude of pretty much every officer in the battalion—the final commanding officer may be the only obvious exception, and that's only because he's very new.
- When MacNeill goes home on leave and visits Lt. MacKenzie's father, he responds to a question about MacKenzie's performance by saying "his Jocks (i.e. his troops) like him." MacNeill has to backpedal slightly when the elder MacKenzie (who is a veteran but not of a Highland regiment) doesn't understand that this is the highest compliment MacNeill can think of.
- However, his host does ask him whether, as a private, he would have accepted MacKenzie as his platoon leader, and is very pleased when he gets an affirmative answer.
- Mildly Military: Highland units are noted as being this relative to other British Army units.
- Military Maverick: Captain Errol. Oh, so very, very, very much.
- Military Salute: Subverted; MacNeill is forced to salute royalty left-handed after suffering a wardrobe malfunction (the buckle on his kilt came undone, and he had to hold it up with his right hand).
- My Girl Back Home: The various families of the men (and of MacNeill himself). MacNeill ends up going on a tour of his men's various families and friends when he's on leave in England.
- National Stereotypes: Lieutenant Samuels, R.N., a walking example of the Welsh as financially sharp, possessed of low cunning, and capable of pulling all sorts of illegal chicanery in pursuit of hard cash. He even accuses MacNeill of being a typical Scotsman at one point.
- News Travels Fast: It's a military unit, so gossip is the order of the day. MacNeill is, but probably shouldn't be, flabbergasted by how quickly memes and news spread through the battalion.
- No Communities Were Harmed: Fraser is careful not to identify the regiment or its soldiers for the majority of the series, although in the Highland Games story involving all the Scottish units of the British Army, its identity can be deduced by elimination. Various real mottoes and incidents are also mentioned that can help knowledgeable readers trace the regiment.note The last story in the last book, which involves the Colonel asking Fraser to sign copies of the first two books, reveals the regiment as the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and names the Colonel: R.G. "Reggie" Lees, a genuine hero of WW2, identified in the books as Colonel J.G.F. Gordon. The story also discusses the semi-fictional nature of certain characters, including Wee Wullie and McAuslan himself.
- Non-Indicative Name: MacNeill recieves the nickname "Darkie" from his troops. It takes him quite some time to realise that he is "Darkie", since he is a white, grey-eyed, light brown-haired Scotsman.
- This may have been a subtle (and not too politically correct) dig at the fact that the author served in Burma with the 14th Army. Drawn mainly from India and Commonwealth colonies in Africa, 14th Army was very likely the most ethnically diverse fighting force in the second world war.
- Every time "Darkie" is referred to, he is apparently in a bad or "dark" mood.
- Odd Couple: Lt. MacKenzie and Sergeant McCaw. McCaw is an ardent communist and was a labor organiser in the Glasgow shipyards before the war. MacKenzie is the son of a baronet and "politically somewhere to the right of Louis XIV". Their (frequent) political debates tend to degrade into outright brawls, but as long as they can stay away from politics they work well together and their platoon runs like clockwork.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Both invoked and subverted—MacNeill tries to be this at times, but trips over himself on occasion - and on other occasions, it's simply not the appropriate response.
- MacNeill's friend Lt. MacKenzie is this in spades - the son of a baronet and "politically somewhere to the right of Louis XIV."
- Oh Crap!: Various.
- The point at which the officers learn there is smallpox in the battalion. Later, MacNeill's realization that a deserter has been exposed and could spread it to all of Tripoli if he isn't caught.
- Lt. Samuels when he realizes he has just bet his ship's funds, plus a month's pay for MacNeill's football team, on a game the team is bound to lose. Actually, they win (leading to MacNeill accidentally setting his sporran on fire as mentioned above.) However thanks to McAuslan the bet never gets placed, so Samuels misses out on winning a small fortune.
- MacNeill when he suffers a wardrobe malfunction in front of a huge crowd heavy with senior officers and royalty.
- Earlier in the same story, when one of the ceremonial guard ruins his kit and they realize they have to include McAuslan in his place.
- Old Soldier: Both Wee Wullie and the Colonel joined the battalion in 1914, and have not left since. Regimental Sergeant-Major Mackintosh hasn't been in the battalion as long as they (the Courtroom Episode states he started out in the battalion and came back later in his career, but did the bulk of his years in service in the Scots Guards), but as he's the RSM he certainly exudes the feeling that he's been around forever.
- A number of the sergeants, who have served long enough to have met old heroes of the regiment from the 1800s.
- The Pig Pen: McAuslan, again.
- Pass the Popcorn: Several cases: Troopers cheer on their seniors who are in a political argument, McAuslan eats steaming chips during the quiz show, and viewers fall over themselves laughing while MacNeill struggles to complete a ropes course.
- Plunger Detonator: Cunningly invoked to face down a mob.
- Police Are Useless/Police Brutality: Thoroughly discussed and deconstructed in the Captain Errol story. On the one hand, the British Army was known for massacring protestors in India, and on the other hand, an officer who is a Father to His Men may have no choice if he wants to keep his platoon alive in a riot.
- Priceless Paperweight: Inverted with a treasure trove of paper bills - that are no longer legal tender now that the war's over and Mussolini's finance ministry no longer exists to validate them.
- Played straight with the table service of the officer's mess, which is made up of priceless booty collected by the regiment over three centuries. The below-mentioned Rebel Leader donates a combat knife that becomes the battalion's cheese slicer.
- Proud Warrior Race: the Highlanders, and they know it. Completely Played for Laughs; the narrator jokes that the reason the Scottish regiments are all kept far away from each other during peacetime isn't so much that they'll start another Scottish Rising as that they'd probably tear each other to bits.
- On the other hand, they deliberately wear kilts and play pipes in tense situations to remind the Arabs what they'll be up against if they rise.
- Truth in Television: this is exactly why the American Army begged to borrow a Scottish unit to assist at a tense time during the occupation of Baghdad. The Black Watch fought alongside the US Army, taking care to bring kilted pipers, and had a significantly easier time of it than the Americans. It is suspected somebody in the US military hierarchy had been reading the McAuslan books and was capable of thinking both intelligently and creatively.
- Rebel Leader: The battalion ends up holding onto one of these for the French. They like him better.
- Romana Clef: See No Communities Were Harmed (above).
- Sadistic Choice: MacNeill has to deal with an Arab riot and has to choose between having his men killed by rioters, or shooting at the rioters and going down in history as a mass-murderer. Luckily, Captain Errol comes along and suggests a third option.
- But also played for comedy, as when the ceremonial guard at Edinburgh Castle has to choose between a soldier who has just been drenched with paint and a soldier whose name is McAuslan.
- Screaming Plane Baby: Or rather, Screaming Train Baby. In "Night Run to Palestine", MacNeill gets dragooned into taking charge of a troop train heading into Jerusalem after missing his connecting flight back to his unit at Cairo, and at one juncture he is forced into helping taking care of a married young couple's babies, including changing diapers while the husband is out looking for hot water. The twins are of course crying their heads off. MacNeill notes that after his own experience of fatherhood, he could have changed diapers in thirty seconds flat, but as a young Lieutenant the skill was quite beyond him at the time.
- Sergeant Rock: the Regimental Sergeant-Major. It's revealed that he used to be drill instructor for the Brigade of Guards—the fellows who guard the Royal Family. MacNeill isn't surprised at all.
- Also McGarry, the provost sergeant, the only man who can stand up to Wee Wullie.
- Serial Escalation: how many people can you rope into a Highland Reel? Try one hundred and twenty-eight.
- When you begin to run out of fresh Scotsmen, you pull in, first, English soldiers from the barracks next door; then German prisoners-of-war from the POW camp down the road; then Italian civilians resident in Tripoli; and finally Arabs riding in from the desert to check out the bagpipe music (noted as something loved by Arabs).
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: As in Quartered Safe Out Here, this is subverted; Fraser claims that he and his comrades never felt subject to it (certainly not to the same extent as today), although the older sergeants and officers seem a bit wistful when World War One is mentioned.
- Shrouded in Myth: Captain Errol. Rumoured to have served in the various hush-hush communities like the SOE in the War.
- Also Piper Findlater, who won the VC at the Heights of Dargai for playing the bagpipes whilst wounded. Nobody, including him, could remember exactly which tune he played. This is actually enshrined in the regimental museum, complete with a quote from the story.
- Southern-Fried Private: It's a Highland battalion. Unsurprisingly, they're more than a little Scotch.
- Spanner in the Works: McAuslan. Amazingly, sometimes he manages to invert the trope, by accidentally and completely unintentionally saving the day.
- Stealth Expert: Lance-Corporal Macrae, who worked as a ghillienote in civilian life.
- Subverted with MacNeill, who tries but fails on several occasions.
- This Is no Time to Panic: MacNeill is assigned to change the guard at Edinburgh Castle in front of royalty:
The Adjutant got on the other side of me and rattled instructions into my ear, impressing the necessity of perfect organization, split-second timing, immaculate appearance, and perfect coordination. He gave me to understand that the slightest slip would mean the ruin of the regimental reputation and my own personal destruction, and exhorted me to keep calm.
- Those Wacky Nazis: MacNeill encounters a number of ex-POWs from the Afrika Corps and describes the cordial hatred between them and the Scots, but the one that takes the cake is the extremely loud and regimented Prussian giant who acts as his batman in a transit camp.
- To Absent Friends: "Here's tae us!" "Wha's like us?" "Damn few!" "An' they're a' deid!"
- Trading Bars for Stripes: Fly Mendescribes a soldier offered remission of a prison sentence provided he enlisted in the Army. Dand McNeill drily states that when this particular man was called up, the Maritime Division of the Glasgow Constabulary held a celebratory party. This soldier, along with another enlisted under similar circumstances, deserts in Tripoli, and McNeill is tasked with recapturing them.
- Ultimate Job Security: Wee Wullie has it. He has a list of offenses longer than his immense arm, but the Colonel will shift heaven and earth to keep him with the battalion. The XO reveals that this is due to Wullie performing an astonishing forced march through the desert during the African campaign.
- In a later memoir (The Light's On At Signpost), Fraser reveals that although this story was true of another soldier, the bond between the Colonel and Wullie derives from them both having been prisoners of the Japanese on the Burma Railway. Wullie protected the Colonel by withstanding a protracted period of physical torture (i.e. over 24 hours straight) in his stead.
- Unorthodox Sheathing: The officers briefly experiment with drawing their claymores over their shoulders, and decide that appearing on parade sans their right ears would not make a good impression.
- Up Through the Ranks: Provides the page quote. The books are a fictionalization of the author's World War II service, and MacNeill starts The General Danced at Dawn having just been promoted to lieutenant from lance-corporal.
- This took some work, as MacNeill tried for a commission twice, and for lance-corporal four times.
- Averted by McAuslan, despite the well-meaning efforts of a brigadier who informs him there is a baton in his knapsack.
- Violent Glaswegian/Brave Scot: The better part of the battalion.
- Wardrobe Malfunction: Two of 'em:
- MacNeill loses his trousers in a water-filled trench. He uses this as an excuse to fail so miserably at the task of getting out of the trench that the watching officers take pity on him and allow him to pass officer selection.
- Two years later he is changing the guard at Edinburgh Castle and his kilt buckle breaks. Again he thinks quickly and escapes with his reputation, if not his dignity, intact.
- With Catlike Tread:
- Wee Wullie's approach to night exercises is to wander the exercise area dead drunk, happily whaling the tar out of any half-dozen or so of the opposing force who get close. At least it makes for a worthwhile distraction.
- Meanwhile, the description of the police raid on a local still in The Gordon Women has to be read to be believed. The leader/local landlord, a retired admiral, stresses the need for stealth—all while their car goes clattering up the hill, making a din to wake up half Perthshire, and backfiring like a Bofors gun to boot.
- With Due Respect: The Sergeants' (and the privates') normal approach with the junior subalterns. The Colonel also gets a lick in at The Brigadier when the latter suggests promoting Private McAuslan.
- World's Most Beautiful Woman: Ellen Ramsay. About every man of able age is instantly smitten with her, and the sight of her in tennis shorts is enough to make the regimental XO, "a Confirmed Bachelor who hated women", bite his pipe in half.
- Wrong Insult Offence: In McAuslan In The Rough one of the pipe-sergeants is recalling a heroic predecessor; Piper Findlater, who earned a VC on the Afghan border when he stuck to his task under fire and wounded because, he said, he didn't want his regiment to be beaten by a pack of "beastly niggers". One of the listeners (quite enlightened for 1950s UK) complains that Findlater should not have said that, and the sergeant telling the story remarks "Nor he shouldn't, and you're right for once. They wass not niggers; they wass wogs".