John Verney, 1913-1993, was a writer, painter, and illustrator who served in the British Army during World War II. He wrote Going to the Wars: A Journey in Various Directions about his military experiences. Some years later, he wrote Dinner of Herbs which covers more of his military adventures in Italy. Both books have been republished by Paul Dry Books, Inc.
In recent months, I have picked up several books relating to particular individuals who served in World War II. Along with reading the broader histories covering battles, campaigns, and leaders, it is important to read the accounts about and by the men who served in the wars. One type of book complements the other. Without understanding the overall scope of the war, the personal account will sometimes be confusing. Without seeing the war from the perspective of the man who was there, the real individual cost of war is lost in the numbers.
John Verney’s two books are quite different from most of the books I have read written by actual participants in the war. Verney was a literary man, as well as an artist with a love for the moderns. The two books have a literary flair that often creates an atmosphere more like a novel than a memoir. His experiences were varied and fascinating.
Verney’s actual military service began in the Middle East where he was serving in a mounted unit. We forget how prevalent was the use of horses in World War II. Verney was in the region around modern day Israel and Syria, and his unit rode from place to place dealing with either the French or natives of the area. The main theaters of the war were to the west in North Africa or to the north-west in France and Britain. In time, Verney’s unit, the North Somerset Yeomanry, entered the “modern war” and he became part of the Royal Armoured Corps. His main activities came about when he became part of the Special Air Service.
Verney and others were sent on a mission that bears the feel of a war dramatic movie. They were taken to the island of Sardinia and tasked with blowing up airplanes located on that island which was part of Italy and occupied by both Italian and German forces. This stealth activity was successful, but the men then faced the task of traveling across the island to reach a rendezvous point where they would be rescued. Along the way, they encounter a number of peasants, most of whom thought they were Germans, and some Italian forces. After a few narrow escapes, they were captured and held. Being good soldiers and men with quite a bit of derring-do, escape was their great hope and mission.
The prisoners in Sardinia were transferred to the Italian mainland. More of this story is taken up in Verney’s second book, A Dinner of Herbs. The Italians were, by most World War II standards, more accommodating and considerate of their prisoners than some other countries. (Meaning, you would not want to be in a POW camp run by Russians, Japanese, or Germans. Americans and British were the most civil of the countries involved.) At times, Verney was able to actually enjoy aspects of prison life. He was able to read, work on his art, enjoy good conversations, and survive with a minimum of difficulties.
It was the expectation of being liberated by the Allies that helped make the prisoners’ lives even more bearable. But that hope was always hindered by two factors. First, in spite of capturing Sicily rather rapidly in the Mediterranean campaigns, the invasion of the Italian peninsula was a long, slow, costly process. Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944 aptly chronicles this part of the war. Second, the Germans moved quickly to occupy Italy after that country toppled Mussolini and surrendered. That meant that the prisoners were facing the likelihood of being put under German control and being shipped to Germany.
It was during this time that Verney and two other soldiers escaped. For a long period, they lived in the mountains and caves of Italy and were cared for by Italian people who risked their own lives and sacrificed their own goods. All along, the expectation was that the Allies were just days away, but the actual time when Verney was able to get back to his side was much longer.
In Dinner of Herbs, Verney alternates the narrative between a visit that he made back to Italy years after the war and his experiences in the war itself. He was able to meet the people again who had rescued him. He was able to climb the mountain and look at the cave he and his friends once lived in.
As I often tell my students, I could not have survived World War II if I had just been assigned the task of feeding old cavalry horses in some obscure military post in North Dakota. Compared to many, Verney’s experiences were difficult, but not filled with unending horror. Nevertheless, he was separated for years from his wife and a young child he had never seen. He and his friends suffered from bitter cold, some bouts of hunger, and constant danger.
Still, he had a certain elan and adventurous spirit about him. As I said, the books read like a novel. His friends were amazing and quirky characters. Being in a prison and later living together in the mountains, they were able to share lots of stories, conversations, and ideas. One man, Mark Gruffy, was a literature and history scholar, and he was a talker, so he recited and commented upon poetry endlessly. As is the case in war, some companions never made it back; others were separated by time and events, but the memories remained strong.
I had first wondered why these two short books were published separately. Together, they would comprise a book of about 400 pages. Nevertheless, in spite of both being written by the same man about the same time period, the books stand alone quite well. A Dinner of Herbs could be read without previously reading Going to the Wars. Likewise, the first can be read without reading the second. I think that the reader who loves the military aspects of World War II and the adventures of soldiers who still had a bit of the swashbuckler about them would enjoy the books. But the reader whose taste is less for the guns and guts of war could also enjoy these books.
The recent movie Tolkien is really a story about male friendship. That is a concept that is endangered in our times for lots of reasons, but it was a real part of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life leading up to World War I when all of his close friends but one were killed. John Verney’s books are similar in his recounting the close, the irritating, the good, and the bad types of men he spent lots of time with in the war. Those of us who have never served are thankful for being spared the difficulties, but the human bonding is something that we have truly missed out on in our lives.