For an ex-British Army soldier like myself, there are two sites that I consider to be sacred: the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, and the Cenotaph, a few hundred feet away in Whitehall.
Seeing yesterday's protesters desecrating the Cenotaph, ground that has been "consecrated by the tears of many mothers" was disturbing. It upset me not only because of my background, or because I have been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, but because defiling Britain's national site of remembrance does nothing to advance the need for racial justice in the United States.
And it is not the first time that this has happened...
Since writing my book, The Flag, I have expressed my belief that it is the public's right to be able to have access to the grave of the Unknown Warrior to pay their respects as they always have been able to do at the Cenotaph.
I have been told by Westminster Abbey that the public can gain access to the grave for this sole purpose. But it has to be booked in advance, and the public is largely unaware beleiving they have to pay the £24 entrance fee. I had even considered writing to the Dean this summer before the centennial to ask that the public be allowed to pay their respects in the abbey as they did a hundred years ago this November. Now, I'm not so sure.
I'm glad that the protesters in Whitehall yesterday were not able to defile the grave of the Unknown Warrior as they had the Cenotaph. Perhaps it is time that a permanent fence is erected around it, or access to Whitehall is restricted so that there can never be a repeat of what happened yesterday. Although the Cenotaph is a secular and non-denominational monument, many who have stood in silence or marched past it believe it is sacred ground and should be protected.
Over the past four years, the events of the First World War have been reverently commemorated with important dates like the outbreak of war, the Somme, Passchendaele, and the Armistice all receiving special remembrance. During this time, not only did I research a book based on the war, The Flag, I also made a tragic discovery regarding a member of my family that took place in the aftermath of the war. The past four years have been a personal journey that has given me both moments of great satisfaction and sorrow.
There is no doubt in my mind that the First World War should be considered one of the most consequential wars ever fought; the ramifications of it are still felt today. For those that did return, not only did they bare the physical wounds and scars of the conflict, but many suffered with what we now know to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whilst researching my book I was made aware the effects the war had upon millions of men. And it’s during this research that I became aware of what the war had done to my own great-grandfather.
This is a photograph of Henry George Weller, and his wife, Ellen Weller. The young boy in the middle is my father. It’s the only photograph I have ever seen of my great-grandfather.
I was sent the photograph from a distant relative through ancestry.com. It had no date but as my father was born in December 1940, it can be dated as about 1943-44. During the Second World War, their daughter, Kathleen, was living with them in Redhill, Surrey, while her husband was in the army.
At first I thought it was just a normal photograph of the time – proud grandparents with their grandson. But the more I looked at it, they more I started to realize that something wasn’t quite right. There is a half-attempted smile but it was something in his eyes, a vacant look, the thousand-yard stare I'd heard about in veterans. Looking at him I felt an intense sadness that's difficult to hide.
I'd heard he'd had served in the First World War, but I knew very little else. My father (who died in 2000) never mentioned him to me, and my mother can only remember that his family hardly ever spoke of him. It was like he never really existed.
Henry George Weller was 31 years old when he was called up for service in December 1915. After just a few weeks at the training depot in Guildford he boarded a troop ship and was sent to 1/5th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment who were dug in around the city of Nasariyeh in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). For the next two years his battalion fought the Turks in terrible conditions. You need only read excerpts from the battalions’s war diary to understand what they faced. As well as losing men to enemy fire, they regularly died from dysentery, heat relative illnesses, and cholera.
I was not able to find the exact date he arrived back in England but it's likely to have been early 1919. The only surviving army record of his shows he was discharged on 4th June 1919. The reason given is King’s Regulations Para 392 (xvi). This meant he was medically discharged and described as “no longer physically fit for service.” That same day, he was admitted to Netherne Hospital – Surrey’s County Asylum. Medical records show he was then released in February 1920, describing his condition as “recovered.”
In August 1934 he was once again admitted to Netherne Hospital. On the medical register his mental disorder is listed as “Melancholia – recurrent” and that it had lasted for at least six months with factors listed as “Prolonged mental stress.” He remained in Netherne until his death in 1959. His death certificate lists the cause of death as “Bronchopneumonia due to senility.” He was 77 years old, his wife Ellen had died a year earlier.
When I discovered this information, I realized the importance of the photograph of my great-grandfather. If it was taken about 1943-44 then he would have only been home on a short visit. Patients permanently admitted to asylums with post war mental illnesses were sometimes allowed home on short visits – this must have been one of them.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain and anguish he was in that led to him being institutionalized for so many years. The cost of war on a country is open to debate; the cost of war on men that fight in them is immeasurable.
Last November I had the honor of meeting Prince Harry at the Field of Remembrance held at Westminster Abbey. I was in the UK for the launch of my book, The Flag, and as the Royal British Legion didn't clear me to march on Remembrance Sunday, my regimental association kindly allowed me to represent them at this annual event instead.
When Prince Harry arrived at Westminster Abbey, I was a little taken aback by the fact that he was in uniform with a beard. It was something I had not seen before; officers in the Army are not normally permitted to grow a beard. I will admit to being a little starstruck, and as I had only just arrived in the UK I was jet-lagged too, so I thought nothing more of it.
This morning on the Today Show, Carson Daly and Co were discussing whether Harry should shave off the beard for his wedding next Tuesday. I heard someone comment that "he cannot have a beard and wear his uniform." Now, I hate to be the one that corrects them, but as far as I am aware, Prince Harry is no longer a serving officer, therefore he is not bound by Queen's Regulations, who happens to be his granny! Also, there is the fact that he is a member of the Royal Family, and there has been a long history of members of royalty in uniform with a beard.
The one thing I do remember when Prince Harry arrived at Westminster Abbey, was how he reminded of his great, great grandfather, King George V. I had seen many photographs of him unveiling the new Cenotaph and attending the burial of the Unknown Warrior on Armistice Day 1920. Whatever he chooses to do on Tuesday, I hope it's his choice. But I'm also hoping he follows tradition from almost a century ago, and keeps the whiskers.
Last week during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington D.C. I was really pleased to see the centenary of World War One commemorated by the planting of an oak tree brought over from Belleau Wood. It was a wonderful gesture; a tree planted in the grounds of the Whitehouse from a French battlefield where thousands of young Americans spilled their blood almost 100 hundreds ago. But this morning I heard on NPR that the tree had been removed and placed into quarantine. Although I completely understand the reasons behind it, and know that it will eventually be re-planted, the symbolism of an empty piece of grass where there was an oak sapling from the site of America's first experience of the horrors of the Western front was not wasted on me.
This weekend I attended a World War One Symposium at the Centre for Leadership and Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute. It was a really wonderful event with some fantastic speakers that included the Director, Colonel David Gray, and Professor Micheal Nieberg from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My knowledge of America's involvement in the First World War is very limited so this was the perfect event for me. The one overriding theme I took from the lectures and from speaking to both event speakers and attendees is a wish that the American public had a better awareness of their countries involvement in one of the most cataclysmic events of the Twentieth Century.
One speaker mentioned that before the end of World War Two, the history of American involvement in the First World War was widely known and taught in schools. The names of men like Sergeant Alvin York were known by all young men and battles such as Belleau wood and the Meuse-Argonne offensive were known in every household. But after 1945 they were replaced in the American folklore by men like Generals Eisenhower, McArthur, and Patton, and battles like Midway, D-Day, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge.
In Washington D.C. there are plans to commemorate the ending of the First World War with a dedicated memorial; The Unites States World War One Centennial Commission appear to be working diligently to reignite the countries interest. After losing 116,516 men in just six months of combat in World War One, compared to the 58,220 lost in two decades of the Vietnam War, and the 405,399 men lost during the three and a half years of America's participation in World Two, it is staggering it has not happened sooner.
The hardest thing to understand regarding this collective amnesia is the fact it appears to be unique to the United States. Elsewhere in countries like Britain, Australia, Canada, and other allied countries, the centenary of the First World War has been commemorated much more publicly. One attendee I spoke to this weekend who had travelled many times to the Western Front, described battlefields like the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Arras as packed with visitors while those of the Meuse-Argonne were virtually deserted.
My hope is that the centenary of Armistice Day, the re-planting of the Belleau Wood oak tree at the Whitehouse, combined with a new national monument in our nation's capital, will allow World War One and those fought in it, to take their rightful place in this nation's history.
Next week marks the centenary of the start of one of the most important battles of World War One. It comes the same week as a new film depicting trench life in the build up to the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle) is released in the United States.
Almost a hundred years ago, British soldiers sat in cold and muddy trenches all along the Western Front knowing exactly what horrors they were about to face. After three and a half years of trench warfare, having been gassed, shelled, sniped at, and ordered over the top, war-weary and shell-shocked men were about to be consumed by a ‘Grey Avalanche.’ From Field-Marshall Haig to the youngest private soldier in an infantry company peering out into no-man’s land, everyone was fully aware of what was about to happen.
Since the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 Germany had been forced to fight a war on two fronts. After the Russian Revolution and subsequent treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk, Germany was finally able to move thousands of fresh troops to the west. By the middle of March 1918, Germany had 192 divisions in the field – the allies only 156. Even though the United States had entered the war a year earlier it was taking time to deploy its divisions to France. Germany knew it had to win the war before the might of the United States could be brought to bear. So as soon the weather permitted it would attack with overwhelming force, defeat the British and French and be able to dictate any subsequent peace talks.
British defensive positions were constructed with the major consideration being depth with which to absorb and fend off the German Army when it attacked. Three zones – Forward, Battle and Rear – were lines of defensive positions with intermediate lines in between each of those, all of which were connected by support trenches. A five division corps area of operations would typically have three divisions in the ‘Forward’ and ‘Battle’ line trenches, and two divisions in the ‘Rear’ and ‘Battle’ line trenches. This strength in depth would prevent any German breakthrough, but for the battalions in the ‘Forward’ trenches, there was no escape. The artillery bombardment, mustard gas and overwhelming numbers of German infantry meant they would be wiped out. Generals many miles to the rear offered these men up as a speed bump to the on-coming juggernaut.
This latest WW1 film to hit the big screen depicts one of these battalions who had to face the German onslaught a century ago. Set in trenches around St. Quentin, the story follows a young recruit, Lieutenant Raleigh who has pulled strings to be in the same company as his childhood hero, Captain Stanhope. The captain is horrified that Raleigh is now in harm’s way. Stanhope is shattered by war, a shell of the man he once was, altered by three years witnessing death and destruction. The only thing that had kept him going was returning to his sweetheart, Raleigh’s sister, Margaret.
Adapted from a 1928 play, from the trailers I have seen and according to critics who have written about it, the film has a level of gravitas missing from some depictions of the war. Written just a decade after the Armistice, RC Sheriff, an officer in the East Surrey Regiment, used his experience at Vimy Ridge, Loos and Passchendaele to bring true authenticity to language and dialogue that has in turn come through in this new adaption.
After being seriously injured at Passchendaele, Sheriff returned to England where he became a writer whilst convalescing. He found it difficult getting Journey’s End produced – no one was interested in a play about the war and especially one that had no leading lady. It was eventually picked up by the Incorporated Stage Society on the recommendation of George Bernard Shaw and opened at the Apollo Theatre for just one night. Cast in the role of Captain Stanhope was a young actor by the name of Laurence Olivier. It was a huge success, transferring to the Prince of Wales Theatre where it ran for two years. Now adapted in many languages and played all over the world, Journey’s End is set to be released a century after the real-life and death events that inspired it.
RC Sherriff would go on to become a successful playwright and novelist. He would be nominated for an Academy award as co-writer of Goodbye Mr. Chips, and his screenplays The Dam Busters, and The Night My Number Came Up, were nominated for BAFTA awards. RC Sherriff died in 1978, aged 79.
The announcement last week that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has developed a new range of “invincible” nuclear missiles has come as a bit of a shock to some. Most pundits and politicians had been focused on Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election and subsequent enquiries now underway. I wasn’t surprised. In Russia there exists a deep-seated mistrust of the Western Hemisphere. This mistrust has always been there but from time to time it appears to manifest itself into a state of paranoia. Originating from the past it is a history that policy-makers in the west must understand before responding to these new weapons.
Virtually landlocked with vast borders on all sides, Russia’s history is littered with invasions and incursions that have left scars deeply seared into its psyche. The two events we all know of that are engrained into Russian culture are Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941. To these you can add Sweden’s invasion of 1709 when Charles XII invaded Russia from bases in Poland, and the humiliation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 which saw the loss of 150,000 square kilometers including the Baltic States.
Just a decade after the loss of over 20 million Russians in World War Two, the Soviet Union was able to construct a military alliance of satellite countries. The Warsaw Pact, originally the 'Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,' was seen by the Soviet Union as more of a counter-balance to NATO. Behind this massive eastern buffer zone, armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, it felt relatively safe following a policy of mutually assured destruction. Despite this, throughout the Cold War and 'Arms Race' with the United States there was always an underlying fear of yet another attack from the west. And in November 1983, mistrust and miscalculation brought the world to the brink of destruction.
By the late 1970s, East-West relations had improved with both Détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). But after the invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and the election of both Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980) Cold War tensions began to build. Reagan openly escalated the Cold War with a massive build-up of American military forces including proposed deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known the world over as ‘Star Wars.’ The rhetoric also became increasingly confrontational. In 1982 whilst addressing the House of Commons, President Reagan said “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the Ash Heap of history.” His staunch ally Margaret Thatcher, buoyed by success in the Falklands War warned that the west must face up to a very real threat; she was convinced the Soviets “were bent on world dominance.” On 8th March 1983, Reagan gave his ‘Evil Empire’ speech in which he urged NATO to deploy nuclear missiles to Western Europe. On 1st September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 as it strayed over Soviet airspace resulting in the loss of 269 lives.
The leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, spent most of his 15 months tenure, in and out of hospital. Both he and his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, who had died in November 1982, seemed convinced that NATO was preparing a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Reagan’s plans for SDI, the imminent deployment of American nuclear missiles (Pershing II and Cruise) to Western Europe, the continued bellicose language from both Reagan and Thatcher, and years of misinterpretation of intelligence collated by the KGB fed the building paranoia in Moscow. The Soviets also had a problem with their own unreliable detection and early warning measures. On 26th September 1983, their satellite based system malfunctioned and incorrectly alerted the Soviets that the USA had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Only the cool head of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov prevented the Kremlin ordering a massive retaliatory strike against the phantom warnings.
Exercise Able Archer was a NATO Command Post Exercise (CPX) that practiced the release of Nuclear weapons. It had been planned well in advance and ran between 2nd – 12th November 1983. Against the backdrop of recent events and heightened tensions it could not have come at a worse time. In Moscow there were members of the politburo who genuinely thought NATO was preparing a full scale nuclear attack using the war games as cover.
Two further events before the start of Able Archer would increase Soviet suspicions further. Security surrounding all American installations across the world was stepped up after the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut on 23rd October. Just two days later the Soviets started to see an increase in communications between London and Washington D.C. They saw this as another sign when in fact it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling the US President to complain in the strongest possible terms regarding the US invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth member.
As Exercise Able Archer’s scripted scenario played out the Soviet Union took defensive measures moving troops towards the west. It’s ships and submarines sailed from Baltic ports and bombers were placed on the highest readiness. As the exercise moved towards its conclusion, a simulated nuclear response from NATO forces, the Kremlin prepared a real response targeting individual cities and military targets throughout the western hemisphere. Soviet listening posts in the east monitored all radio traffic but despite each transmission starting with the words “Exercise Exercise Exercise,” Soviet leadership was convinced it was about to be attacked. As the final act of Able Archer was taking place, a simulated NATO launch of 350 nuclear missiles, the Soviet Union was poised and ready to retaliate for real. Once the imaginary missiles struck their targets and ‘Endex’ was declared all radio traffic ceased. An accidental nuclear war was only prevented by spies who managed to convince their leadership that the other side had no intentions of starting a real nuclear war.
When word got out just how close the world had come to nuclear Armageddon, on both sides of the Atlantic came a new realisation that they needed to dial back the rhetoric. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed she was so concerned she immediately began a campaign lobbying Washington D.C. to ensure it could never happen again. President Reagan had intentionally engaged the Soviet Union in an arms race as a deliberate attempt to bankrupt the country. It was working but almost came at a terrible price, one even he was not willing to pay. As the full implications of his aggressive anti-Soviet stance and the Kremlin’s deep paranoia were revealed he was genuinely shocked and became very reflective.
“Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did…I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them…I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”
Just days later President Reagan watched a private screening of the ABC television film, The Day After. The film depicts a fictional conflict between NATO and Soviet forces that escalates into a full-scale nuclear war. Not only did the film have a profound effect on the American people, it deeply moved the American President. He thought it was extremely effective and left him “greatly depressed.” The combined effect of seeing the film knowing how close the world had recently come to disaster, changed his views on nuclear war. From early 1984 Ronald Reagan also adopted a new approach towards the Soviet Union.
“I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.”
Although it would take five years, it was this sea-change in policy that would help bring an end to the Cold War.
Since the end of the Cold War, several ex-Warsaw Pact countries have either joined NATO or have been courted by the west. As Russia has once again become ‘a player’ on the world stage, signs of mistrust and paranoia are there again. Since the end of the Cold War NATO has pushed its influence into eastern Europe, deploying American missile defence systems along with NATO troops in to these former Warsaw Pact countries. When you look at a map of where troops are now deployed and you understand Russia's history you can also start to understand Russian fears.
In the west, missile defence systems are not seen as an offensive weapon. As reported by the Washington Post today, "it is standing US policy not to deploy a defensive system that could neutralize a Russian retaliatory response to a US nuclear attack." But in Russia, Putin and previous leaders have always interpreted any deployment in Europe very differently. Anti-ballistic missile weapons, and the NATO troop build-up in eastern Europe (however small), are being viewed not only as a treaty violation but also as a direct threat. NATO might see their actions since the end of the Cold War as a defensive measure against any further Russian involvement in the Ukraine. But any counter of Russian missiles hindering their capability to strike back if attacked, plays on their historical fears of western aggression. All they see is the real threat of an American led NATO attack that could leave Russia unable to respond.
Early on Thursday November 8th, 2017, Melissa and I landed at Heathrow for the launch of my book, The Flag. It was seven amazing days that we'll never forget. Here's a pictorial journey of the week...
Shortly after landing at Heathrow (complete with overnight stubble), my brother whisked us through rush hour traffic to Westminster Abbey for the Fields of Remembrance service.
My regimental association accorded me the signal honor to represent them at the front of the regiment's plot, where Prince Harry and myself appeared to be having a staring contest.
It was wonderful to meet in the person, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr. John Hall, who wrote the Foreword for The Flag.
After all the excitement of meeting Prince Harry and the Dean of Westminster, my brother drove us west to Swindon for some family time, an afternoon of shopping in Cirencester, and some English pub food. Then came the anticipation, waiting for the Daily Mail article to be published.
The article was posted on line at midnight - the next morning we went to the local newsagent to pick up half a dozen copies. The full article can be read here
Later on Saturday we travelled up to London in preparation for Remembrance Sunday. Not only were U2 playing a free concert in Trafalgar Square, but we were also greeted by the news that The Flag had rocketed up the Amazon rankings on the back of the Daily Mail feature.
Being in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday was a first for me. It was such a moving and very personal experience. Despite it being a cold and blustery day, it was great to see family, friends, and old comrades marching past the Cenotaph.
Monday was quiet, apart from lunch at Borough Market, shopping on Regent's Street, and catching up with old friends. I also paid my respects to a very brave patriot of the First World War.
I was also able to find the exact spot Reverend David Railton, his wife, and mother, posed for a photograph on Armistice Day 1921 - Buckingham Palace.
Tuesday was the date of the official launch and release of the book. It started with a book signing at the Imperial War Museum.
I was deeply moved by so many old friends, colleagues, and members of my family who took the time to come to the Imperial War Museum and lend their support.
That evening the official launch event took place at the Household Cavalry Museum.
We were honored to have members of the Railton family in attendance - Mr. David Railton QC, and his son, Andrew.
With the launch over, there was just time catch a show and witness the look on my wife's face when she came across a copy of the book in Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road.
At Heathrow as we were about to board the flight home, we got word that the book was now an Amazon bestseller - just 48 hours after it's release.
What an amazing experience. My thanks to everyone at Casemate UK for all their hard work, and to all my family and friends for their love and support.
The issue of removing American Civil War statues was violently thrust into all our lives recently. The sight of Confederate and Nazi flags being carried side by side through the streets of Charlottesville, is something that shocked many in this country, and around the world. Riots, street fighting, and the tragic loss of life have led to more protests. In Durham, a mob pulled down a statue, while in Baltimore, and other cities and towns across America, under the cover of darkness, more statues have been removed. It is difficult for some to understand why statues and monuments commemorating a war that ended 152 years ago still provoke so much passion. But for those hoping that the issue has now gone away, if the English Civil War is anything to go by, then the subject is likely to rear it's head again soon.
Outside the Houses of Parliament in London stands the statue of Oliver Cromwell. Leaning on his sword eyes looking down at the ground, the effigy of Cromwell, victor in the English Civil War (1642-46) and Lord Protector of England (1653-58), was erected in 1899. Across the street, set into the walls of St. Margaret’s Church is the bust of King Charles I, Cromwell’s adversary. In 1649, Charles I was tried for treason and executed in Whitehall. I once heard a myth about the statue that Cromwell looks down, ashamed of executing his king, while Charles’s bodiless head defiantly glares back from across the road. The king’s bust was placed on St. Margaret’s in 1956, 60 years after Cromwell’s statue was built. Bogus myths aside, even after all this time emotions are still raw, and strong opinions are held regarding English Civil War monuments.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II was to seek a macabre revenge. On January 31st, 1661, 12 years after the execution of his father, the King ordered that the body of Cromwell, and other leading Parliamentarians be exhumed and subjected to a posthumous execution. Hanged in chains at Tyburn (now Marble Arch), Cromwell’s head was then stuck on a pole and displayed outside Westminster Hall until 1685.
In 1875, over two centuries after the Civil War, the first statue of Oliver Cromwell was erected in Manchester, outside the cathedral. As well as being highly controversial, the statue received the scorn of Queen Victoria who had agreed to open the new Town Hall building, as long as the statue was removed. It wasn’t, and the town hall was opened without the presence of the Queen. When the statue of Oliver Cromwell was commissioned and placed outside Parliament in 1899, it was so controversial (especially with the Irish Nationalist Party and members of the Royal Family) it had to be built with private funds only. And even as late as 2004, some Members of Parliament proposed a motion to have Cromwell’s statue taken down.
Even without the emotive subject of slavery and race that stir many Americans, the legacy of that civil war and how to commemorate it, 370 years later, can still be an issue for many people. I am sure the consequences and legacy of the American Civil War are going to be felt many centuries from now.
The wait is over. Dunkirk, the Christopher Nolan World War II epic about the 1940 evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was released this weekend.
This is a film that should have been made a long time ago. I grew up listening to stories of the myth and legend of Dunkirk. I’d heard tales of heroism, valour, and courage. Everything I had seen or heard regarding the Battle of Britain, and the dark days of the Blitz were encapsulated in what became known as the ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’
To be totally honest, before I sat down to watch the film, I was worried. It’s such an important film, it just had to be told right, and I wasn’t sure if Christopher Nolan, who had made a few Batman movies was the right person. But I need not have worried, my Holy Grail was in safe hands.
It was soon obvious that I was not watching any kind of war film I had ever seen before. If you go looking for back-stories, or want to hear from the Germans, maybe a general’s point of view, or even learn about Dunkirk for the first time, then you’ll leave disappointed. From the opening scenes of young Tommies being showered with propaganda leaflets, to the closing sequence of them on a train in southern England – this is a visceral, nerve-wracking story of survival. The screenplay is written solely about the dire situation the BEF found itself in.
A distinct lack of dialogue, all builds up this palpable fear that sometimes just pours off the screen. The metronomic ticking of a clock and Hans Zimmer’s haunting score enhance the effect. The clever use of three different time scales of a week (land), a day (sea), and an hour (air), was a little too clever for me as I found it confusing at times. But it all came together at the end. The combination of Fionn Whitehead reading Churchill’s “Fight them on the Beaches’ speech, and Zimmer’s version of Elgar’s Nimrod, left me speechless.
Go and see this brilliantly shot film on the biggest screen you can find, it’s that good.
At first glance you might think that the United Kingdom’s Field Marshal Lord Douglas Haig and the 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush, have very little in common. One is British and no longer living, and the other is American and very much alive. One was a life-long professional soldier who never became a politician, while the other served six years in the National Guard on native soil and most of the rest of his life in politics.
Until recently I have not held much respect for either man. Before I started writing about the First World War, I only thought of Lord Haig’s reputation as ‘Butcher Haig,’ chief amongst the ‘donkeys’ who had led the ‘Lions’ to slaughter. In 2003, when President Bush ordered troops to invade Iraq, I told anyone that cared to listen that I thought he was making a huge mistake.
For more than a decade, it has been my opinion that President Bush needlessly threw away soldiers’ lives in a poorly conceived attempt to chase down Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. I still will never really agree with President Bush’s decisions – the lives of thousands of US soldiers, including those of brother-soldiers in my own regiment, were lost in this folly. And deep down, despite the improving view by some historians, I will never really understand how on so many occasions Lord Haig seemed to arbitrarily sacrifice many thousands of lives in the name of victory at any cost. But recently, my views on both men have softened for one reason.
By November 1920, the plight of ex-servicemen who had returned from the trenches of France and Flanders was there for all to see. While the government and most politicians tried to help the country heal by memoralising the dead with the construction of a national shrine -- the Cenotaph -- and the return of an Unknown Warrior to be buried in Westminster Abbey, one man stood up for ex-servicemen. On Armistice Day, Lord Haig gave a lengthy interview to The Times. He said, “Today we honour the dead, let us not forget the living.” He spoke of the hardships faced by unemployed soldiers, some of whom were physically and mentally scarred by their service.
He went on to say, “So long as any single ex-servicemen, able to work and willing to work, remains unemployed, the nation’s debt of honour to its defenders will not be justly paid.” Until his death in 1928, Lord Haig would prove that he meant what he said. He dedicated the remainder of his life fighting for the rights of the men he had led in battle.
In 1921, after months of negotiations, Lord Haig helped bring four separate organisations together to form what became known as the British Legion. Established on May 14, 1921, His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, was its patron, and Lord Haig became its first president. Also in 1921, he set up a separate charity, the Haig Fund, which would be used to collect funds directly for ex-servicemen. In July 1921, Lord Haig persuaded the British Legion to adopt the red ‘Flanders Poppy’ as their symbol of remembrance. Eight million poppies were sold in the first year, raising £106,000 for the Haig Fund. The tradition is now woven into the fabric of British culture with the money raised from each year’s Poppy Appeal benfitting ex-servicemen to this day. Furthermore, in 1928, in memoriam after his death, the organisation Haig Homes was set up to help house ex-servicemen and their families.
Like most ex-presidents upon leaving office, President Bush remained very quiet. But, having presided over such a devisive term in office and receiving record-low approval ratings, his silence was deafening. Yet over the past few years it has become obvious that the 43rd president of the United States has been very busy. In September 2016, speaking of the men and women he sent to war, President Bush said, “I intend to support and salute them for the rest of my life.” He has since launched a book of paintings that will help raise money for post-9/11 service families. He has set up a Military Service Initiaive through the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and he is a strong supporter of the Invictus Games that involves wounded servicemen and women from the United States and Great Britain.
Both Lord Haig and President Bush courted controveresy whilst they led their countries’ soldiers into war. Whether you agree with their actions and fault them for the horrific loss of life is an individual’s viewpoint. But, it should be recognized that both men dedicated their later lives to the service of those same soldiers.
 “The Quick and the Dead,” The Times, 12 Nov 1920.
 “George W Bush to publish book of military paintings,” Independent, 15 Sep 2016.