Monthly Archives: April 2010

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown by Tim Lynch

One of the biggest probems with writing history is the danger of hindsight. Its often far too easy to look at a long-gone event, and for our understanding of it to be influenced by what came after. Dunkirk is certainly one of those events. Over the past 70 years it has become part of the British psyche that in 1940 the French turned tail and ran, while the BEF was gallantly rescued from Dunkirk to fight another day. While there are some elements of truth to this, there are also many more aspects to Dunkirk than we hear about. This book by Tim Lynch goes a long way to shedding new light on an often misunderstood campaign.

while the book is titled ‘Dunkirk’, the analysis goes much deeper. Lynch looks at the British Army’s preparations for war, and how these were inadequate and too little, too late. The Army’s leadership and organisation was also not up to the job of fighting a modern war. In particular Lynch looks at the men of several territorial divisions that were sent to France as labourers, but ended up fighting in the front line. They were seriously undertrained and unprepared for the task that fell to them.

Regarding the question of the French Army’s conduct in 1940, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the French Generals seriously let down their men. While there were many examples of French troops fighting hard – often in hopeless positions – Gamelin had virtually no grip on the battle, and Weygand was far too unstable. Among this unsatisfactory set-up the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort, was far too passive and was out of his depth. Unbelievably, it is generally agreed that Gort was only sent to France as the Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, could not stand him and wanted him out of Whitehall. Whether he was right for the job does not seem to have mattered.

The fate of the Lines of Communication come in for special attention from Lynch – in particular, the Labour Divisions aforementioned. The manner in which the British and French allowed themselves to be turned, outflanked and cut off led to the vulnerable lines of communication being flayed open. Therefore many non-front line troops found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This turbulent situation also led to the loss of so much equipment. While some historians might criticise Montgomery as a materiel commander, this ‘insult’ holds no water, given Gort’s ignorance of logistics and the disasters that this caused.

Another misconception about Dunkirk is that the whole of the BEF was evacuated through the sand dunes of the channel port. On the one hand, much fighting went on elsewhere. And in terms of the lines of communications, they were forced to fall back on places such as Dieppe, Rouen and even the Brittany ports. A second BEF was also landed in Normandy, but swiftly evacuated.

Lynch also suggests that the 51st Highland Division was sacrificed at St Valery as a sop to encourage the French to keep on fighting. Given the evidence this assertion is clear. Furthermore, the authorities should have realised at that point that the battle was lost – another Division evacuated to Britain would have been a godsend. While Anglophobes in the French Government and society might hold to the contention that Dunkirk represented the British abandoning their allies, it is hard to see what else the BEF could have done.

This book is a credible effort. I found it very readable indeed – Lynch’s experience as a writer for Britain at War Magazine no doubt helps. Lynch makes a good balance between personal stories and strategy, has found some good illustrations, and has used a wealth of sources.

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown is published by The History Press

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WW1 Prisoners of War

Regular readers will be well aware that I have long had an interest in the history of Prisoners of War – my own Granddad was one of them, after all. But when we think of POW’s, we tend to think of the Second World War, the Great Escape, Colditz, the Wooden Horse… along those lines.

But prisoners are taken in any war – what happened to British Soldiers captured in the First World War – and specifically, those from Portsmouth?

Its quite easy to find prisoners from 1914 to 1918 who died in German captivity. Unlike in the Second World War, when fighting took place in Germany, and the Bomber Offensive meant that airmen died and were buried i Germany, if a British servicemen died in Gerany between 1914 and is buried there, he would have been a Prisoner of War.

Private A.M. Cooper, 28 and from Stanley Road, Stamshaw, died on 22 January 1915. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment – a Regular Army unit – and was probably captured in the battles of 1914.

Corporal F.T.C. Ennis died on 15 December 1916. He is buried in Niederzwehren War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the first of the Portsmouth ‘Kitchener’ Battalions.

Lance Corporal G. Avis was also a member of the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 5 May 1917, and is also buried in Niederzwehren.

Private William Lonnon, 19, died on 24 June 1918. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery, and was a member of the 6th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment. He came from Worlds End, a small village near Hambledon, outside Portsmouth.

Private E.G. Barham, 20, came from Balfour Road in North End. He died on 13 September 1918, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He was serving with the 50th (Northumbrian) Signal Company of the Royal Engineers, providing signals support to the 50th Division. At this point in the war the Signals were still part of the Royal Engineers.

Private George Atkins, 28, died on 6 October 1918. He was serving with the 1/8th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He came from Tennyson Road in Copnor.

Notice how all but one of them were infantrymen. Almost always – but not exclusively – supporting troops were behind the lines, and might only have been captured in the event of a big attack or breakthrough, both rare things in the static warfare of the Eastern Front. This contrasts firmly with the Second World War, when all manner of troops were captured at Dunkirk, Singapore and Tobruk.

Niederzwehren was a major Prisoner of War camp in the First World War, near Kassel. After the war it was chosen as one of four sites where prisoners who had died in captivity were to be buried. As a result men who had been buried in Baden, Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse and Saxony were brought to Niederzwheren. There are 1,796 men buried or commemorated there.

We know a lot less about WW1 POW’s than their 1939-45 counterparts. But the Red Cross do have records of Prisoners, and perhaps there are some sources in the National Archives that might shed more light?

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to the Somme

The beginning of May found the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in billets away from the front line. Battalion Headquarters was at Bienvillers, A and D Companies at Fonquevillers, and B and C Companies in Hannescamps.

It’s one of the peculiarities of war diaries that how detailed they are depends very much on who was filling them out – usually the Adjutant. In previous months the Battalion’s war diary had covered up to a page a day. Yet in May 1916 the whole month fits onto one page! This is partly because the Battalion was behind the lines, but still, it is hard to believe that nothing of any interest happened.

On 3 May the Battalion marched to Auteuil. On 6 May they marched from there to Longvillers. After a days Company training on 7 May, the Battalion then marched to Yrencheux. 15 May saw the beginning of Battalion and Brigade training. Preparations were well underway for what was already being called ‘The Great Offensive’. Ground had been chosen similar to that that the Hampshires were going to attack over.

On 18 May Lieutenant-Colonel Palk rejoined the Battalion and assumed command on the 19th when Lieutenant-Colonel Middleton left to take command of the 2nd Hampshires.

On 21 May the Battalion marched to Bernaville, and on the 22nd to Amplier. On the 23rd they reached Berthancourt, where they were billeted in huts.

From the 24th of May and the end of the month the Hampshires were occupied digging assembly trenches that they were to occupy prior to the forthcoming attack. Given the frequent references in the war diary to ‘The Great Offensive’ and the ‘forthcoming attack’ the men must have been under no illusions as to what was awaiting them. Time and time again in the First World War we find that each battle was awaited as the ‘big push’ that would lead to the breakthrough that the Generals craved.

The first ten days of June found the 1st Hampshires continuing to dig assembly trenches. On 11 June, however, the Battalion marched to Beauval, arriving at 3am on 12 June. After resting for two days on 16 June they marched to Braussart, where they remained until the 22nd, when they moved to Mailly. There time at both of these places was spent widening assembly trenches.

On 26 June A and D Companies relieved the 1st Warwicks in the front line North West of Beaumont-Hamel, with B and C Companies remaining in reserve at Mailly. A and D Companies were relieved on 29 June, and the next day the whole Battalion was formed up in the assembly trenches.

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HMS Albion




HMS Albion

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

HMS Albion, seen today leaving Portsmouth Harbour. She’s on her way back to her home port of Plymouth.

She called into Portsmouth last week to bring home members of 3 Rifles and British tourists stranded in northern Spain during the volcanic ash-enforced shutdown of the airways over Britain.

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Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.

Crenellations

Crenellations

There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.

Watergate

Watergate

Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.

Latrines

Latrines

On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.

Arch

Arch

After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.

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The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne

The Battle of Verdun has long been regarded as perhaps the sharpest Schwerpunkt of the Great War. In an attempt to bleed the French Army dry, the Germans launched an offensive on the strategic fortress of Verdun. There was no other aim than to lure the French into losing so many men that they could not carry on the war. In fact, the Somme Offensive – another byword for attrition – was launched early in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Yet Verdun is almost completely overshadowed by the Somme and Ypres in the British understanding of the First World War.

The title is perhaps slightly misleading, in that the book focuses much more on the general conduct of the Great War than it might suggest. This is not surprising, as it is in fact part of a trilogy of books by Horne focussing on the long rivalry between France and Germany – the Franco-Prussian War, and the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 Wars. The latter two books cover the wars in general, but choose Verdun in 1916 and Dunkirk in 1940 as the apex of the French experience.

Horne is a master of the close study of the military leader – here, in paticular, he paints lucid and telling pictures of men like Joffre, Falkenhayn and Petain. Horne’s grasp of the big picture, and the personality of command, is clear indeed. Horne also delves into describing contemporary France in detail, a wise move that puts the conduct of the French Army into suitable context. It is very important to immerse yourself in the military culture of a nation if you want to understand the actions of its armies. Here Horne considers the impact of French society on her army, the hstorical legacy of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, the French Army’s belief in the offensive reform, and the effect of the Grand Quartier General.

Criticisms? It does show its age. Having been written in the 1960’s, it is stil couched very much in Great War mythology. Historians of that era were prone to compare the World Wars, and conclude that the First World War was much bloodier. Modern Historians might be more critical, and challenge such assumptions. And given that this is such a masterful study, it is a great shame that it is not referenced properly. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and it is a pity indeed that the reader cannot see the sources that went into Horne’s conclusions. This is not to dispute Horne’s integrity – far from it – but a modern book would suffer from a lack of referencing. One other annoying habit is that of including a wealth of French quotes, without a translation – back in the 60’s every Historian might have been fluent in French, but in the twenty-first century it does seem a rather snobby trait.

Between 21 February and 15 July 1916 the French Army suffered over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers as casualties. On the German side, almost a quarter of a million men were lost. But, crucially, the French had sent 70 Divisions into battle at Verdun; the Germans ‘only’ 46. Thus Falkenhayn’s strategy of bleeding the French dry backfired horribly – the French had certainly not ‘won’, but the German’s for their part could not afford anything over than success. Horne calls Verdun the ‘worst’ battle in History, and also the First World War in microcosm – arguments that are hard to dispute.

This is a very enlightening book indeed. It is of its time, but in its time it was a classic, and still stands up remarkably well.Perhaps a reworking – or better still a new book on Verdun – would be interesting to see?

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Historian admits to negative Amazon reviews

I’ve just read a quite remarkable article on the BBC website, describing how a leading Historian has admitted to writing negative Amazon reviews on his rivals work. Professor Orlando Figes, of London’s Birbeck College, has finally owned up to writing a string of damming comments on his rivals books on Amazon. The admission comes after weeks of intrigue. Figes – who is currently on sick leave – has issued a statement of apology.

The row began after Rachel Polonsky, a Russian expert, discovered a less than complimentary review on Amazon of her recently published book. The comment said that her book was ‘hard to follow’, while another book by Robert Service was apparently ‘awful’. Yet the same username described a book by Figes as ‘fascinating’. Polonsky discovered that the username, ‘orlando-birbeck’ (not exactly imaginative) had the same home address as Figes. When confronted with the allegations Figes initially threatened legal action. Then he claimed that his wife had written the comments.

“It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm… This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse… I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.”

Service, a leading authority on Russian History and one of the authors targeted by Figes, stated in the Guardian that the “secretive rubbishing of my work… [was] disgraceful.”

It really is a unique story, and not the kind of thing that you would expect from Historians. I would be very surprised if it does not go on more than we think, but for someone so prominent to not only do it but get caught out, is quite unheard of. It does sound as if Figes has some mental health issues that need addressing. But even then, it is hard to see him being able to come back from this. How can he go back to being a Professor of History, teaching History students? If I knew that one of my tutors had been exposed for trying to smear their peers, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously.

Historians are meant to let their books do the talking – ugly spats and hostile reviewing should be left to the TV pundits. Objectivity is crucial, and if a historian stoops to trying to smear his rivals, how can we take his work seriously? One big lie casts doubt on all of his work – if someone can lie like that, what does that say about their integrity? Like David Irving after Richard Evans demolished his arguments, his credibility is shot to pieces.

Its a warning to us all, thats for sure. It shows how tempting it is to lower ones self to petty squabbles, rather than channeling our energies into our work. And even the great and the good are open to the temptation of dirty tricks. And finally, it shows how the internet has affected the history profession, in that wider bookselling has upped the intensity of publishing, and also made it possible for such smearing to take place. How many historians will be casting a suspicious eye on their reviews now?

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