Daily Archives: 11 January, 2010

Revisionism and Military History

Regular readers will not be surprised that I’m of the opinion that military history lags a long way behind other historical disciplines. Whilst other themes and eras in history see heated but formative debate, military history is perhaps subject to more assumptions, more orthodoxies, and more restrictive influences than any other area of study. The study of subjects such as class, economics, politics, crime, race and empire are at the cutting edge of the historical profession. They attract the most active minds, and the most scrutiny. Arguments are hotly debated in books, journal articles and at conferences. Various schools of thought spring up.

Revisionism is term used to describe any efforts to challenge an assumption. And as Military History is full of assumptions, it is pretty much ripe for being ‘revised’. Assumptions are most dangerous things in history – nothing should be assumed, everything should be researched, challenged and debated. Challenge is healthy, and results in strong arguments gaining credence, and weak ones fading away. An unchallenged argument is like an impressive looking Regiment that hasn’t seen action. Revisionism is not denialism, but it is certainly about busting myths.

Yet military history is still, by and large, the preserve of the military itself. There is a kind of subliminal, unwritten rule that only former officers can really ‘do’ military history. Civvie Historians are shrugged off, no matter their qualities. But it is a very dangerous world when we ignore somebody’s views just because they aren’t in our club or of our class. This is also a convenient way to protect heritage, regimental history and the reputations of former officers. History should be about causes, factors, themes, patterns, sources – not regimental ties.

Military History all too often tends to be overwhelmingly narrative, a stale story of events rather than a critical look at a subject or an event. Military campaigns are far more dynamic than a simple a-z history of a battle – they deserve far better debate and analysis. Too often military history books are poorly researched, poorly laid out, and poorly referenced. No wonder people get bored with it. Maybe the lack of debate is down to the military principle of not questioning orders, and always obeying your superiors – do these caveats permeate into military history? I think so.

I can think of perhaps two prominent examples of Revisionism in Military History. The popular belief is that Tommy marched off to France singing Tiperrary, sat for four years in a muddy hole in France eating bully beef, was led by buffons and either died going over the top or went home horribly scarred. Gordon Corrigan has done much to challenge this view in Mud, Blood and Poppycock. In terms of the oft-quoted but rarely debated ‘lions led by donkeys’ cliche, John Terraine, Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield have done much writing on this subject. And whilst no one argues that Haig, French et al were masters of the battlefield, perhaps there were good reasons why they struggled, and maybe they did better than we seem to think? My mind is still undecided, but at least the debate is there.

Another big myth is that of the Blitz. According to popular legend everyone had a good old east end style knees up, singing roll about the barrel while the Luftwaffe tried to break our spirits. Everyone was remarkably well behaved and we won in the end. Of course, this takes no account of the widespread looting, the fragile morale or the fears of panic and civil unrest. Angus Calder has done much to challenge these assumptions, as well as one of my old tutors, Brad Beaven.

Another military historian who did much to challenge assumptions was Robin Neillands. In a series of books on the war in North West Europe Neillands challenged the perceived view that Monty wasn’t really that good a general, and shows us that, perhaps, he was much better than the assumed orthodoxy allows us to think. Not only that, but Neillands does much to dismantle and expose the smearing of Montgomery by historians.

Another military historian who might be labelled a revisionist is William Buckingham. Writing on the battle of Arnhem, he exposes the traditional views of the battle as folly. The men of Arnhem were fine men indeed, but they were not quite the elite force we are led to believe. And it is hard to not find Boy Browning at fault for much of what went wrong at Arnhem, although his reputation has been fiercely protected by his family, friends and former regiment in the years afterwards. It might be uncomfortable, but there are little things called objectivity and the truth.

War is perhaps one of the most shocking yet pivotal experiences that humankind undergoes. The study of it should be fresh, and challenging, and should closely inform the present and the future. In no other profession can the repetition of past mistakes be so costly. War affects everyone, especially the ordinary men and women who are caught up in its whirlwind. The history of warfare is far too important to be left to the military alone. Military History should not be owned just by a small part of society: we are all trustees of our military heritage, through our ancestors experiences, and the consequences of warfare that we all live with to this day.

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69 years ago: the Portsmouth Blitz (pt 2)

Winston Churchill inspecting a devastated Guildhall

Winston Churchill inspecting a devastated Guildhall

On the night of 10 and 11 January 1941 an estimated 300 German bombers dropped 25,000 incendiaries as well as high explosives on Portsmouth, in a raid lasting seven hours. A total of 2,314 fires were recorded, and 60 water mains were fractured. 172 people were killed during the raid and 12 were still missing a month later. 47 had died when an underground shelter in a school was hit. 430 people were injured.

At daybreak on 11 January 1941 the people of Portsmouth woke up to a devastated city. The thirty-first air raid on Portsmouth, it was the heaviest and most destructive that the city suffered, and perhaps the darkest and most traumatic episode in the city’s history.

The Guildhall was still smoking, and when the fires were eventually extinguished days later only the walls remained. The civic silver and lord mayors chain were found unharmed in the safe deep in the basement. Firemen, Police and Air Raid Wardens tried to keep on top of the fires, but one incendiary bomb lodged in a ventialtion shaft and proved impossible to put out. The shopping centre in Commerical Road had also been destroyed. Kings Road also suffered, as did the Palmerston Road area of Southsea. Parts of Old Portsmouth were also heavily damaged: my great-grandparents house at 66 Broad Street was destroyed. The Power Station near the Camber was hit. Six churches and three were devastated, as well as the Clarence Pier funfair. The FA Cup, which had been won by Pompey in 1939, had to be dug out of the vaults of a Bank in Commercial Road.

Members of the emergency services performed bravely throughout the night. 29 year old Brian Biggs, a Leading Fireman, was killed in Kings Road. Frederick Marshall, a 28 year old Fireman, died in Bedford Street. The Dockyard Fire Service was also called on to assist with fighting fires. Stephen Bath was a 56 year old Dockyard Fireman when he was killed fighting fires near Colewort Barracks. Police Constable John Dunford, 34, was killed at the juncton of Pembroke Road and the High Street in Old Portsmouth. Frank Nicklinson, a 41 year old ARP Telephonist, died in the Royal Portsmouth Hospital. He was probably injured somewhere in the city and died later in the night.

The death-toll would almost certainly have been a lot higher if the majority of people hadn’t spent the night in air raid shelters. Even so, several shelters received direct hits and many were killed – including children at Bramble Road, Fratton and Arundel Street Schools. Victims aged from 9 months old to over 80. Days after the raid a mass open-air funeral was held at Kingston Cemetery for the victims of the 10-11 January raid. They were buried in a series of mass-graves, and memorials mark their location today.

The Lord Mayor, Dennis Daley (no relation, not the e) published a statement in the Evening News on 11 January 1941:

We are bruised but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive andf decisive victory

This was fighting talk indeed. But it was the Mayor’s job to boost the morale of the people of Portsmouth. How did morale hold up? Angus Calder has written about a ‘Myth of the Blitz’, suggesting that while the conventional view of the blitz is largely accurate, it does neglect to take account of episodes of panic and crime. Mass Observation, an independent body who specialised in observing people’s behaviour, reported that although there were indications that there had been serious emotional distress, the morale of Portsmouth held up remarkably well considering what it had suffered.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Portsmouth in February 1941 to inspect the damage, followed later by Winston Churchill.

The destruction of large parts of Portsmouth, although tragic and traumatic, did however give an opportunity to rebuild substantial parts of the city. A blank canvas awaited the city’s post-war planners and architects.

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Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two