Great War guest post: A Granny’s Legacy – From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords

book coverI wrote, before Christmas, of my concerns that post-Armistice Day centenary commemorations, the wonderful stories that are part of the heritage given to us by the Great War, would cease to interest the media. Despite there being much to learn from 1919 onwards, and the ongoing trauma experienced by soldiers and civilians alike, it does seem I might be right. Media stories of projects ongoing are thinning out and the Brexit horrors have overtaken almost every other subject in the news. So I have been determined to continue to run stories and examine themes from the Great War. 

One of the consequences of writing Shell Shocked Britain (published Pen & Sword in 2014) was that I got to know some really interesting people, with fantastic stories to tell. One such is Amiel Price, who published her own book last year, entitled From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords. 1917 Diary and Letters. She had inherited a store of letters and diaries from her grandmother, also called Amiel and she shared them with me before the book came out. I was fascinated by the stories revealed, the love of the two young people heightened by the war and the wonderful cartoons and photos that illustrated it. I was also keen to hear more of life in the army away from the Western Front, in Egypt, a part of the world many don’t realise was affected. I was thrilled when Amiel asked me to write the Foreword, and I am equally thrilled to welcome her to the blog today. 

A few years ago I inherited various letters and photographs belonging to my maternal Grandmother, Amiel Robins.  Many were dated from 1917.  I had seen some of the photographs before, and I knew about the letters but had never read them.

amiel as burlington bertie
Amiel Snr as Burlington Bertie

Years ago my Mother had shown me a brown and black album containing photographs of Granny and her friends in fancy dress.  They were a stunning collection of professional black and white photo postcards showing the girls in their various costumed sketches.  She explained that Granny had been in a concert party called ‘The Allies’ that had put on many performances to entertain wounded soldiers in Birmingham.  There were photos of Granny dressed as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and as ‘England’ in a union flag costume.  Indeed we still have this flag costume which I have worn myself for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and for the 2012 Olympics.

I also knew that Granny had had a fiancé called Norman Wells who had been killed during the First World War.  We still have his photograph which was mounted in a silvered frame embossed with the emblem of his Herefordshire Regiment.  As I understood it this large framed photograph had always stood on Grandfather’s dressing table in his memory.

In a small attaché case I found more photographs, some of them quite small and depicting a WW1 soldier in the desert.  Elsewhere there were photo albums of pictures of Norman and Amiel together in her garden or the countryside.  There were also two small notebooks, which turned out to be Granny’s diary for 1917 and her copied out version of Norman’s diary for October to December of the same year.

 

haircut

As the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War were about to begin I realised that now was the time to sit down and read through the letters.  These were all written by Norman to Amiel from December 1916 when they met, right throughout the year to Christmas 1917.  He wrote almost every other day in a beautiful hand that was easy to read.  He described what he was doing in camp, how he felt about Amiel and about his hopes for their future together.  It was the most poignant and fascinating read.  It was so evocative of that era and gave such an insight into Norman’s war.

As Amiel and Norman lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, I had assumed that there was no connection to Wales and where I lived, but no – I was surprised to find that Norman came to camp in Singleton Park in Swansea.  He described the camp and the seaside and walking to Mumbles and Langland Bay, which is where, as it happens, our family came to live fifty years ago.

musclesSo – what to do with this amazing collection of letters, photographs, and even drawings, as well as the diaries and a costume?  Even now I’m not sure, as I would be sorry to see it all disbanded and ending up in different places.  I started by typing up the letters and diaries in order to share them with my cousins so that they would also know the story from their Grandmother’s early years.

But as I typed and looked up things I didn’t understand, I was telling my friends and colleagues little snippets about Amiel and Norman.  They became intrigued and found it all so interesting that they persuaded me that other people would be interested too, and so I began my work in earnest to produce a book, the publication of which would coincide with the period of the WW1 anniversary.

The other reason I wanted to share this story is that it helps to tell some of the story away from the Western Front.  So much coverage, understandably, has been given to the First Word War in France and of the major battles that we have missed or forgotten about the war in Egypt.  Not only that but even less has been told of the ordinary soldier’s life in training camp or in a desert camp.  The hardships, the boredom, the shortages, the dreadful weather.  All topped by the longing, the desperate longing, for letters from home.

Although the story is a very personal one about a young couple’s love for each other, it is set in a time of great upset and upheaval that affected so many people at the time and so many others in the generations to follow.  The story has resonance with us all.

If you would like to buy a copy of From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords the price is £9.99. For further information and to order the book contact Amiel Price on 01792 369121 or email: fronheulogbooks@gmail.com

Thank you so much for sharing your story Amiel.

A Great War guest post: The Half-Shilling Curate – a story of love, valour & faith

To coincide with the commemorations held on Sunday, for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, I wrote a piece (HERE) about how we must, as we move on from the centenary events, continue to learn from the experiences of a century ago in order to prevent the trauma of any further conflict and recognise the sacrifices that are still made today. It struck a chord with many, so I thought it appropriate to make sure this blog continued to post, regularly, on the legacy of war and the many great men and women who have given so much over the years. 

Today I am thrilled to have a guest post on the blog. Sarah Reay is the granddaughter of a remarkable man, Herbert Cowl, the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. Here she tells us how her grandfather served his country in two wars, finding ways to support the men in his care whilst retaining his faith in the face of dreadful events.

HBC - Bristol - WW1
Rev. Herbert Cowl

When war broke out in 1914, the newly ordained Rev. Cowl volunteered to become an Army Chaplain. Most Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war.

It was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Herbert Cowl was a good candidate because he was young (in his late 20’s), physically fit (a great sportsman), he had the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), he could ride a horse and he spoke fluent French.

Herbert was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’. His descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrate the value of faith during war – the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.

When the 68th Brigade arrived in France, it was not long before the young Army Chaplain realised the pending reality of active service on the battlefront. In one of his early letters to his parents, a little innocent anxiety can be felt:

Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch-elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far-off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world, and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!

The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers.

Herbert’s service at the frontline was cut short when he was severely wounded. He later recalled in a letter:

A hundred yards away a shell threw a huge column of stone and soil into the air. I tried to answer the Doctor’s exclamation that they were getting nearer, when I was aware of an intolerable pressure on my right jaw. I would step into that open door-way, to be out of the way of falling stones. But why, having done so, was I plunged head foremost onto a stone floor thick with mud and dabbled with red? For a moment I lay there gazing through the glass-less window. The sky was a hazy blue; and white, watery clouds were heralding more rain – that meant more mud: and the cellar in which we slept would be green with mist when we turned in tonight!

Then the Doctor came and knelt at my side: and I remember the disgust with which I realised, as he asked me to lie still, that I was kicking furiously. Outside a voice called – “Bring a stretcher! The Chaplain’s hit” and another, – “Well, I reckon he’s done!”

He was operated on, almost straight away. It was a miracle he survived given the severity of his injuries. However, he survived and about ten days later he was on the hospital ship HMHS Anglia when she hit a German mine in the Channel. She was the first hospital ship to be lost in the war due to enemy action. Herbert recalled the events on the sinking ship:

Crushed thus, choking with salt water, and stunned by the new wound in the head, I was carried some 20 feet down the passage. It was then that as I like to think, the Angel of God became my deliverer. For I found myself suddenly and unaccountably standing on my feet in the midst of the water and the wreckage. A few hours before I could not walk: but now I walked along the passage: only to find myself in a bathroom from which there was no escape.

HBC - sketch painting of Anglia sinking - hbc
The sinking of the Anglia by Rev. Cowl

He saved many lives that fateful day. His struggle to survive and the fact that he found the strength to save others was nothing short of a second miracle.

Due to his injuries, Herbert was never allowed to return to overseas duty. However, he did return to work as an Army Chaplain in the home camps and garrisons. He once described a scene in Portsmouth, in 1917 of the men returning from the battlefront:

One evening I entered that room for some week night meeting and there covering the floor and propped up against the walls, packed from end to end, side to side were wounded men just unloaded from the Western Front. They were the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

Twenty years later, Herbert a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton, North London found himself in the centre of another battle – the Second World War. His family were evacuated but he decided that he had to stay in London to offer help through the Blitz. One night in a shelter he wrote to his son (the author’s father):

Jerry is concentrating on railways and factories at present; and as we have a network of both, we come in for a lot of attention. Most nights you can tell what he is after, when he has dropped his first stick of bombs. (As it is, I’m writing badly partly because he is now circling round overhead looking for something: the shells are bursting continuously round him: and it isn’t a nice business sitting alone in this cockle-shell building while he tries to make up his mind where to lay his eggs. When they do drop, they sound as if they are coming right on top of you, though they may be half a mile away, or more. And as he is mostly using 500 lb ones, you are sure your last moment has come, until you find you are still alive! We shall get much more used to it in time; but it isn’t easy at first.)

THE HALF SHILLING CURATE - front book cover -hbcHerbert’s unique story has now been told in a book ‘The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918’. More information is available at www.halfshillingcurate.com and discounted signed copies of the book can also be purchased through the website.

Retired General Sir Peter de la Billière, who endorsed the book, quoted Field Marshal Haig adding; ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general – and this book proves it.’ The Foreword is written by BBC’s Hugh Pym, whose father was also an Army Chaplain during the Great War.

The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that had never been told before.

My sincere thanks to Sarah for allowing me to share her grandfather’s story on my blog. Do take a look at the website and find out more about this unique man.

‘Scene After the Battle’ – why we cannot let the 11/11/2018 be the end of the story…

British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at The Battle of Arras. Courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.comMy book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.

The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.

Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.

For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.

Scene after the Battle 

The cavalry never came.
For days that felt like months

I lay in the sodden mud of the field,
scanning through bloodied eyes

the blue-grey horizon, longing to see,
rising up from the ridge of the hills,

the creeping silhouettes of men and horses
against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,

carrying hopes of a game-changing charge
that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.

But over the field now, only the wind blows
softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.

Christopher Grogan

On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.

100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.

Shell Shocked Britain is available from all good bookshops and online retailers and is currently on special offer from publishers Pen and Sword Books at £13.00. See https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Shell-Shocked-Britain-Hardback/p/6103. 

 

 

 

Marking the ending of John Keats’s life, and the beginning of a new project…

John Keats on his death bed

 

side-of-house
Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Today – the 23rd February – marks the 197th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in an apartment (now the Keats-Shelley House & Museum) looking over the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Anyone who has read my blog will know of my passion for his poetry and letters, his philosophy and the way he lived his life. Not simply a brilliant poet, he was brave in the face of tragedy, loyal to his friends – who treasured his memory – and a man of great intellect. He remains popular today, globally,  because he is relevant today and has much to say about the world and its workings that still make us say ‘Yes! That’s just what I think!’

 

death-largerI have written two posts on this blog marking Keats’s death. The first was ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats’ back in 2012, in which I quoted the letter from Severn – who had nursed Keats to his last breath – announcing his death to Charles Brown, the great friend with whom Keats had lived in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. The description of Keats’s last moments is heartrending, and the deathbed picture sketched by Severn, a talented young artist at the beginning of a long career, is one of the most iconic images of Keats we have.

The second post, entitled ‘The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness’ I wrote just last year. I wanted to highlight the long-standing, mistaken, representation of Keats as the frail young romantic hounded to his death by cruel critics of his work. He was actually physically strong, quick-tempered, energetic, courageous and philosophical in the face of criticism – he was his own greatest critic after all. In this post, I wanted to illustrate how, more recently, the recognition that his friends sought to promote his life and work by promoting the image of doomed youth was, although done with the greatest love, a source of much mythologising and misrepresentation.

Today though, I want to celebrate his life and celebrate the opportunity I now have to add to the work devoted to the great man. I am thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned (yes, a publisher is actually paying me!!) to write a book about John Keats, an ‘In the footsteps of…’ following him to places that influenced his life and work. It will place Keats in cities, towns and villages, in parts of the country he visited, stayed in and, ultimately died in. It will be, in some senses, a social history (I will include the historical context; Keats was influenced by the realities of the world around him as well as the classical texts he read so avidly) and will add to the research I did for Death Disease and Dissection on his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. I want it to be accessible, well researched and eminently readable. I have always hoped my posts on here, and on The Romanticism Blog for The Wordsworth Trust, have shown that poetry is for everyone and a strictly academic knowledge and approach unnecessary to the enjoyment of Keats poetry and letters.

It will be published, along with many other studies I am sure, in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of his death. My challenge is to make it stand out in some way – something I know will be very difficult. But after 40 years of influence, I am sure Keats can still help me bring him to the page and once again be part of the celebration of his life and the marking of his death.

Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head
Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats
John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks
BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

Passchendaele and the management of shell shock

It is 100 years since the notorious battle of Passchendaele. We now know much more about the trauma experienced by thousands of troops during the Great War and we recognise that, even into the 21st-century, service personnel can be affected by combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield, and for many years after their involvement. Sadly, there is still insufficient support for those affected, and it is still difficult for men and women to come forward and talk about their symptoms, admitting fragility in such a tough environment.

Just before the battle we now refer to as Passchendaele (or the Third battle of Ypres) – fought between July and November 2017 and perhaps the most bloody and futile of the First World War – the War Office was becoming concerned at the sheer number of men breaking down with what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. So General Haig’s adjutant, Lt Gen. Fowke, issued  ‘General Routine Order 2384’, stating that diagnoses of mental disorder were not to be made on the battlefield, instead requiring several days of observation by doctors close to the Front.

So during the Battle of Passchendaele, a tougher approach was taken. It was thought then that ‘suggestion’ could reinforce symptoms and that evacuation to a specialist hospital, or back to Britain should be a very last resort. The aim was to get a man back to the trenches – using what was referred to as ‘discipline and forceful encouragement’, and there was more prolific use of alcohol, which, they believed, made mental collapse less likely and prevent the retention of traumatic memories.

Clearing station

Men who showed symptoms of shell shock were offered time away from the battlefield. Evacuation to a specialist hospital was not to be considered until a man had spent a number of weeks under observation, in (slightly greater) comfort with the opportunity for sleep and better food rations, at a Clearing Station within ear-shot of the trenches. Their duty to their fellows in the trenches and their love of their country was reinforced and the majority did return to the front line, encouraging doctors to consider this tougher approach a success. The 1922 Committee on Shell Shock heard evidence that only 16% of cases had to be referred to specialist hospitals, and 10% were returned to England.  Just 10% of men returned to active duty, it was claimed, relapsed once and 3% more than once.

Post war there was little written on this subject by the doctors involved, and younger, more progressive doctors and psychiatrists (who were not involved in the strategy and who would undoubtedly have questioned the methods) were horrified at any suggestion that leaving a fragile man amongst his peers could lead to some form of ‘infection’ with shell shock.

But during that terrible battle, and until the end of the war, the most important factor in the treatment of shell shock was to deal with the numbers – there was an acute shortage of trained men and every available chap was needed to fight for his country. Their post-war suffering was not the first concern. In fact, it was a real worry, as politicians struggled with the amount they feared would need to be paid out in pensions for those most seriously affected.

One thing that always strikes us about those who survived the war is their silence, their reluctance to talk about their experiences. For many years, this was seen as bravery, the stiff upper lip of the British Tommy and many of the men returning to their families coped well. But we now know that not to speak of trauma, to repress it, can be deeply harmful. Levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, domestic violence and family breakdown are still higher amongst veterans even 100 years later. Giving men a break from the horror, a stiff drink and the opportunity to sleep may have helped a few, but it left many scarred for life, whether or not they ever ‘relapsed’ in the sense expressed to the committee in 1922.

The treatment of shell shock during the Great War, and the consequences for men and their families, for society as a whole and those affected in subsequent conflicts are something I researched at length for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, and as we move into the last eighteen months of the commemorative period I believe it is desperately important that this legacy is not lost as 100 years since the Armistice approaches.

Dunkirk – a war film on a different scale

Dunkirk_Film_posterI don’t often write film reviews on here – not least because I don’t actually go to the cinema very often, and when I do I am not sure that anyone would be interested in what I think of it. However, having written Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health and written articles and given talks on the aftermath of war, I was actually asked for my thoughts (always a boost to the old ego).

I have written at length about how troops were (or rather were not) supported to deal with the trauma they had experienced, and emphasised that even into the 21st century we are regularly failing those experiencing combat stress. I have read many personal accounts, been told stories of distant fathers and grandfathers who were simply unable to express their feelings and who perhaps turned to drink, or on their families.

The beach at DunkirkBut it wasn’t really until I sat in the cinema last night and watched Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk that I realised how impossible it is for anyone who hasn’t lived through war to appreciate what those young men (and women) went through, again, in WW2. Don’t misunderstand me – it is the very best war film I have ever seen and succeeds on almost every cinematic level – but even this immersive experience is always tempered by the knowledge (which the actors, when interviewed have been quick to highlight) that the men we see on the screen would always hear ‘cut’ and know they were safe. Those on the beaches of Dunkirk  – within 25 miles of home – were not so lucky.

Nolan’s use of time is wonderful, but you must pay attention, as you are watching the story unfold from different perspectives over interlocking periods and I know I got tripped up a couple of times. All the most obvious rules of cinema are broken here – we get no back story, we find out nothing about the characters, many of whom are anonymous, and the politics of the situation are totally ignored. We don’t see a German until right at the very end, and then for just a few seconds.

The whole cast brings an honesty (not all actions are ‘heroic’ in the usual sense) and intimacy to the film that at once makes it true on a wholly personal level, whilst at the same time portraying the universality of the horror. It is a terrific ensemble piece.

DUNKIRK-7-1200x800‘Star’ actors have little dialogue (in fact dialogue is at a minimum throughout) and it is genuinely the young men in the front line who are at the heart of the story, although Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are wonderfully understated in pivotal roles. Much of a to-do has been made of Harry Styles‘s acting debut and he does well, and his presence is not at the expense of the other young lead, Ffion Whitehead, who is remarkable. Jack Lowden, as one of the two pilots struggling to support the vulnerable shipping below them, was also good, although it is Tom Hardy as the other pilot, who seems to set the hearts fluttering. When you have had a crush on Ken Branagh for as long as I have (about 30 years now) Hardy will have to do better than be a total hero (no spoilers!)

The soundtrack is an integral part of the action, raising the tension and heartbeat. It brings in a touching and stirring hint of Elgar, particularly at the end and is never intrusive.

DUNKIRK-9-1200x800What I loved most about this film was the authentic nature of the action – no CGI (or little) was used to recreate the horror. Surviving Spitfires were used, as were some of the original small vessels sailing over the channel to evacuate the desperate troops (as Branagh sights the flotilla heading towards the beach a real lump comes to the throat). There is little blood (I am sure there was plenty in reality, but this is no gore fest like Saving Private Ryan, for example) but neither was there a sanitisation of the experience. I literally held my breath in some of the watery sequences…

Cillian Murphy is the actor portraying the ‘shell shocked’ soldier, his odd reactions after being rescued diagnosed by the Mark Rylance character, who had obviously had his own, earlier experiences of war, and who had already been affected by the tragedy of the second conflict. Murphy’s was not a sympathetic character, which I was a little sad about, but it was good to see the issue highlighted as one that hadn’t ended in the trenches of the Great War.

It is a wonderful film, that can only add to our knowledge and appreciation of the role played by so many in the defence of Britain. There was no sense in the film that victory was on the way – in fact, there is some despair and a real sense of failure. But Churchill’s words, used at the end, leave you with a sense that it was an event that brought the country together  – in failure then, there was new hope.

Go and see it as soon as you can, and at the cinema if at all possible. A small screen won’t diminish the brilliance of the film, but on the big screen, you can literally immerse yourself in it.

Guest post: The evacuated teachers of the Second World War by Gillian Mawson

 

Evacuation of Gateshead School Children 1939 courtesy Gateshead Libraries
School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries

As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.

During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.

Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London

‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
unknown.’

Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;

‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’

Guernsey children and teachers arrive July 1940 in Disley Cheshire
Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940

When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.

In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;

‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’

Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.

Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;

‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’

The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.

My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:

evacueeshttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Wartime-Evacuees-Evacuations-Accounts/dp/1848324413/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

Memories of Murder – A Victorian Supersleuth at work once again…

Today I welcome author Angela Buckley to No Wriggling once again. Previous posts have described her work researching Victorian detective Jerome Caminada, The Real Sherlock Holmes and on Amelia Dyer, the 19th century baby farm murderer. Her new book is inspired by her childhood in the suburbs of Manchester, and the intriguing case of the murder of police constable Nicholas Cock. Read on to find out how her memories have resulted in a fascinating new book, out this week…

Whether it’s truth or fiction, crime continues to pique our interest and grab our fascination, from the initial shocking scenes, through the unfolding investigation, all the way through to the final revelation of the killer. As a writer, certain real-life crimes stand out for me; they seem to ‘call’ me, tempting me to open a specific case that has long been forgotten. That call is even more powerful when a crime has taken place in a place I know.

West Point 1926
The junction of West Point pictured in 1926 – the post office is in the row of shops

The second crime in my Victorian Supersleuth Investigates series, is particularly relevant for me, as it happened close to where I grew up in Old Trafford, in the suburbs of Manchester. In the early 1980s, I had a Saturday job in a post office, just around the corner from my family home. Every week I sat behind the stationery counter, gazing out of the large glass windows, watching the traffic pass by as I waited for customers to buy envelopes and greetings cards. At the time, I had no idea that I was staring at a murder scene from almost a century earlier.

CoverIt wasn’t until I began researching and writing about Victorian crime that this terrible incident came to light. In fact, I can’t quite recall exactly when I first heard about it. It has been loitering at the back of my mind for a long time, waiting for its turn to be brought back to life. I finally opened the case files and discovered exactly what happened on a dark night in 1876, when a young police officer was murdered in cold blood. Through contemporary newspaper accounts, trial records and many overlooked documents, this extraordinary story has gradually taken shape through intriguing clues, compelling witness testimonies and the twists and turns of a sensational police investigation.

PC Cock (1)
P.C. Cock

On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight. When he reached the junction of West Point (the location of the post office where I worked) he stopped to chat with a colleague and a passing law student. A few minutes after the three men had gone their separate ways two shots rang out in the dark. Constable Cock took a bullet to the chest and, shortly after, died of his injuries. His superior officer, Superintendent James Bent of the Lancashire Constabulary knew exactly who the culprits were and instantly set out to frame them for his officer’s murder. This complex case led to a murder conviction, a race to spare a young man from the gallows and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar.

Since writing about this fascinating case, I often think of young PC Cock when I visit my parents who still live in my childhood home. The garden wall against which he fell has long gone, as well as most of the original buildings at the junction, but I can still stand outside the post office and imagine that dark night a century before. Many of the pubs where the suspects used to drink are still there, as is the memorial stone over Nicholas Cock’s grave on Chorlton Green. I’m glad that, after 140 years, I’ve had the opportunity to share his tragic story, which is intrinsically linked with my own past.

 

Childhood (1)My sincere thanks to Angela for writing for my blog. Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, www.angelabuckleywriter.com and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.

 

In trying times: Heberto Padilla on continuing to speak out…

Heberto Padilla
Heberto Padilla

I read this poem today, for the first time. As you may guess from the title, I was looking for poetry to support me through a period when world events seem to be spiralling out of control, when real news is more shocking than any ‘fake news’ the government is trying to counter.

It is a poem about revolution, specifically the revolution in Cuba. I think it is about the suppression of poetry, literature and the curtailment of freedoms. It resonated with me today when a terribly dangerous, but apparently charismatic world leader is ‘revolutionising’ US politics, when our own government are once again appeasing a fascist, even at a time when we commemorate the Holocaust, and when those that would challenge or speak out against the President are derided and persecuted, silenced and expelled. They are called liars – and eventually who will be left knowing the truth?

Sign petitions, march in protest, write and read poetry, show random acts of kindness in a world that has, hopefully temporarily, become much less kind.

In Trying Times

by Heberto Padilla

They asked that man for his time
so that he could link it to History.
They asked him for his hands,
because for trying times
nothing is better than a good pair of hands.
They asked him for his eyes
that once had tears
so that he should see the bright side
(the bright side of life, especially)
because to see horror one startled eye is enough.
They asked him for his lips,
parched and split, to affirm,
to belch up, with each affirmation, a dream
(the great dream)
they asked him for his legs
hard and knotted
(his wandering legs)
because in trying times
is there anything better than a pair of legs
for building or digging ditches?
They asked him for the grove that fed him as a child,
with it’s obedient tree.
They asked him for his breast, heart, his shoulders.
They told him
that that was absolutely necessary.
they explained to him later
that all this gift would be useless
unless he turned his tongue over to them,
because in trying times
nothing is so useful in checking hatred or lies.
and finally they begged him,
please, to go take a walk.
Because in trying times
that is, without a doubt, the decisive test.

What do you think? Does it feel relevant to you too? I would love to know what you think, and in the meantime I am going to read this a few more times and explore the world of Heberto Padillo in more detail.