The Great War, 100 years on

To war, Gare de l'Est, Paris

High hopes and hidden fears: to war, Paris, 2 August 1914

It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children. 

The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.

Continue reading

D-Day remembered

Omaha beach, Normandy, France

Into the jaws of death: the Americans land, Omaha beach, 6 June 1944. Photo courtesy of the Nationals Archives & Records Administration, USA

The D-Day Normandy landings were awe-inspiring for countless reasons: the bravery of young men who risked everything. The sacrifice made by those boys a world away from their homes in America and Canada as well as Britain. The courage of French people resisting a brutal enemy to support their liberation. And the unimaginable scale of the assault on Hitler’s European fortress – one of the greatest feats of organisation as well as arms.

This week’s 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was humbling and inspiring. Not for the inevitable array of heads of state and government, but for the sight of hundreds of ageing veterans of Operation Overlord visiting the landing beaches for the last time. My generation can hardly imagine what they went through. Next time you’re fretting over a PowerPoint presentation or a cancelled train, think of Normandy 1944.

My mind went back to my mother-in-law Aline’s account of growing up in Sussex during the second world war. Here’s her graphic description of how she and her family found out that D-Day had begun:

“There appeared on the horizon day after day more and more objects; we didn’t know what they were. They covered the horizon as far as you could see, right the way along. And then one night the tugs were going – all night long you could hear them ‘woop-woop; woop-woop’. And my father, who used to go out about seven in the morning came back and said, “You’ll never believe it, they’ve all gone. And we found out later they were the Mulberry harbours.” These were extraordinary prefabricated harbours the size of Dover docks, built in Britain and towed at 5mph to Normandy.

Britain was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier at this stage in the war because of the millions of troops of many nations stationed here ready for the great invasion. Aline talks about how she and her older sister were befriended by a Canadian solder who was part of the Commonwealth forces encamped near Bognor. Her sister nearly missed an 11 plus exam because a convoy of tanks was passing as she waited to cross to the exam hall. One tank stopped to let her across – stopping the whole convoy! Then one day they discovered the Canadian soldier and his comrades had gone, like the Mulberry harbours, across the channel to France.

Back in 1998, I got the ferry to Ouistreham (Sword beach) and cycled along the D-Day coast to Arromanches. As I freewheeled down the hill towards the town, I could see the remains of the Mulberry harbour in the bay. It was a bleak scene in the rain, but my discomfort was nothing to that experienced by the seasick liberators of 1944, wading ashore to deadly gunfire. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit the excellent D-Day museum at Arromanches, with the story of the harbour that handled 4 million tonnes of supplies and 500,000 vehicles in the 10 months it was used.

D-Day echoes down the years. Nearly 40 years after the liberation of Europe began, the British carried out another audacious landing at San Carlos in the Falkland islands to begin the end of Argentina’s occupation of the islands. On Friday 21 May 1982 I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme’s account of the invasion. Growing up on memories of the second world war, I never imagined that Britain would once again be sending men to war in assault ships. The echoes of the 1944 operation were evident – just weeks after Britain had sunk Argentina’s Pearl Harbor survivor, General Belgrano. The war may have been controversial, but the courage displayed was timeless.

Weymouth D-Day memorial

D-Day remembered: Weymouth, Dorset

Back to 1944. England’s south coast was the launchpad for the invasion. Weymouth in Dorset was a key location, and the American rangers who suffered such a toll scaling the cliffs of Normandy embarked here. In 2010 I was moved to see a British veteran paying tribute in Weymouth to those who died in the D-Day ‘Tiger’ training exercise in Lyme Bay.

Weymouth Lyme Bay D-Day memorial

Paying tribute to the fallen

You can see a US tank recovered from the Tiger disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon.

We all owe a huge debt to the men and women who risked everything for our freedom.

Think tank: Dorset’s wonderful tank museum

Display at the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset

The Great War dawn of the tank age

We never imagined a tank museum could be such a moving and fascinating day out. The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset bills itself as the home of the tank. We lost count of the number of tanks and other armoured vehicles at the museum.

But this is no dry display of long silenced fighting vehicles. We were really impressed by the videos telling the story of the tank, and the audio interviews with tank men from the Great War to the current Afghanistan campaign.

Great war tanks at the Tank Museum, Bovington

Tanks for the trenches

For me, the first world war displays were the highlight of the visit. I was amazed by the number of Great War tanks on display. We’ll be commemorating the centenary of the war to end all wars this August, and it’s poignant to think about the sacrifices of my grandparents’ generation in those desperate days. Britain invented the tank to try to break the deadly stalemate on the western front.

At first, serving in a tank would have seen like a blessing compared with life as an infantry soldier in the trenches. But tank men soon realised this was no safe option. According to a Tank Museum podcast, second world war tank veteran Jack Baker felt far more comfortable armed with a rifle & shovel than being confined within a turret. It must have been similar to serving in a submarine, living and fighting in a cramped tin, knowing that you faced a grim death if your machine was hit. No wonder veterans refer to tanks ‘brewing up’ when struck by enemy fire.

Long ago, I learned how Britain sent its men into battle in the second world war in desperately ill-equipped tanks. Tank crews in Normandy feared coming face to face with the deadly German panzers. They found their ammunition bounced harmlessly off the Nazi tanks. No wonder the breakout from the D Day beach head was so slow and costly.

The final section of the Tank Museum is devoted to the current campaign in Afghanistan. This is surely one of the most unlikely story in the British army’s history. How could we ever have become entangled in a 21st century occupation of Afghanistan that lasted twice as long as the second world war? (Clue: political folly.) As ever, the British army has had to cope with the foolish decisions of our political leaders.

Great War memorial, Richmind

We will remember them

I close this post with a detail from the war memorial at Richmond, Surrey. I don’t know if any tank men are immortalised here. But it captures perfectly the determination of a grieving nation to remember the young men who went to war and never came back. Tragically, Britain and countless other countries went through similar horrors barely 20 years later. I am very lucky that my generation was spared the terror of total war.

John Snow, Soho and the battle to defeat cholera

The replica of the Broad Street, Soho cholera pump

The (replica) Soho water pump that killed hundreds from cholera

Thousands of tourists pass through London’s Soho every day. Few glance at this Broadwick Street water pump. Yet it tells the amazing story of how Dr John Snow solved the mystery of why thousands of Londoners were dying of cholera in Victorian London.

Snow rejected the accepted view that cholera was spread by polluted air. That view was disastrously influencing government policy. In the 1848/49 cholera epidemic, poor law commissioner Edwin Chadwick ordered that sewers be flushed into the Thames to clean the air in poor areas. Yet large areas of London took drinking water from the river – so Chadwick’s policy condemned thousands to death by cholera.

Continue reading

Hodgemoor Wood’s Polish past


Memorial to the Polish village in Hodgemoor Wood, Chalfont St Giles

Hodgemoor Wood is one of my favourite local spots. I love cycling through the woods, near Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, as I’ve blogged before. Today I took five year old Owen up there for an Easter Monday walk – and to my surprise came across this memorial. I was amazed to learn that some 600 former Polish soldiers and their families lived in a camp here for many years after the second world war.

The families had stayed in Britain after 1945 to avoid returning to their Soviet-occupied homeland. The camp closed in 1962, but there’s still a thriving Polish community in the area, including one of Britain’s most successful Polish centres at Raans Road, Amersham.

As Owen and I walked on from the memorial, we found outlines on the ground of one of the many buildings, which included a church, a shop, post office and hall.

You can read more about the camp at the website about the UK’s Polish resettlement camps.

Today, Hodgemoor Wood has returned to nature.

Hodgemoor Wood today

Hodgemoor Wood today

Snowy Hodgemoor Wood, February 2012

Snowy Hodgemoor Wood, February 2012

Flintshire detached: remembering our old counties

Flintshire detached county

Flintshire detached: our old blurred county lines

Forty years ago today, many of Britain’s most cherished counties disappeared under local government reorganisation. The changes also ended a curious historic anomaly: ‘Flintshire detached’: the area of Flintshire, Maelor Saesneg, which was detached from the rest of the county of Flint and surrounded by the Welsh county of Denbigh and the English counties of Shropshire and Chester.

Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’) was one of the very last ‘exclaves‘: detached county territory. Most of these exclaves were tidied up in the 19th century. For example, much of Minety, Wiltshire, was part of neighbouring Gloucestershire until 1844, the year parliament started the tidying process.

I remember being curious about ‘Flintshire detached’ on childhood maps of Wales. I had a reminder of those long-gone days last Sunday on a bike ride in Buckinghamshire. Near Amersham, I passed a handsome property called Hertfordshire House. Its name reveals that it was once in an exclave of Hertfordshire in neighbouring Bucks, centred on the village of Coleshill. Centuries ago, the house was owned by Thomas Ellwood, who held illegal Quaker meetings there, safe in the knowledge that it was too remote for Herts justices of the peace to interfere. (It was Ellwood who rented a cottage for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles, where the great poet lived during London’s great plague of 1665 and completed Paradise Lost.)

Back to 1974. An even greater historical anomaly was Monmouthshire. Until 40 years ago, that border county was regarded by many as technically part of England rather than Wales, having been annexed as an English county following the forced acts of union in the 16th century. The 1974 local government reorganisation in Wales put an end to such nonsense. Never again would acts of parliament refer to South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Surviving the Mountbatten bombing: Timothy Knatchbull’s example to us all

A review of From a Clear Blue sky by Timothy Knatchbull

Monday 27 August 1979 was a glorious summer’s bank holiday in Britain and Ireland. I remember it very well. Mum, Dad and I enjoyed a day trip to Seaton in Devon. We’d spent a happy week there earlier that month, so a return trip was a bonus. We made the most of that lovely Monday.

The following morning, my father brought me a mug of tea and told me the awful news that the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers. It was only later that I realised that these were separate terrorist atrocities. Mountbatten had been killed by a bomb on his boat in Ireland, along with three others: his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, aged 14, 15 year old Irish boy Paul Maxwell and Nicholas’s 83 year old grandmother, who died the following day.

The killing of Mountbatten was shocking, but it was the cold blooded murder of two teenage boys and an 83 year old woman that seemed so wicked at the time and in retrospect. It prompted the same kind of revulsion as the later terrorist attacks on America in 2001.

That August Tuesday, I wrote LLM (for Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the date 27.8.79 on a book I bought the previous day in Seaton, to commemorate a summer day that saw four lives wiped out on a similar family outing. I was a similar age in 1979 to the two boys killed in the attack.

Reading Timothy Knatchbull’s moving account of the attack and the aftermath took me right back to that summer’s week in 1979. Timothy survived the bombing along with his parents. Yet his loss was unique. For he was Nicholas Knatchbull’s identical twin. Losing a twin is especially traumatic, and Timothy had the added pain of not being able to say goodbye to his brother. (He was rescued unconscious from the water, and was too badly injured to return to Britain for his brother’s funeral.) Much of the book describes Timothy’s 25 year journey to understand Nicholas’s last moments, to mourn his brother and to find his own peace in Ireland, especially in the places that meant so much in his childhood before Monday 27 August 1979.

It’s a painful book to read at times, especially the poignant description of the days leading up to the bombing of Shadow V and the harrowing accounts of eye witnesses of the desperate hours after the killers struck. But I read it knowing that Timothy’s pain was far, far greater – and inspired by his description of the amazing care that he and his parents received in Sligo hospital, and his love of Ireland despite his family’s terrible ordeal in 1979.

It was hard even in the summer of 1979 to understand how Lord Mountbatten had not been better protected by the Irish and British authorities. That August marked the 10th anniversary of the ‘Troubles’ as Northern Ireland’s murderous conflict was euphemistically known. Mountbatten’s boat was barely guarded, so it didn’t take a genius to place a bomb on it. Knatchbull describes how every summer Mountbatten would write to the British and Irish authorities to check if it was safe for him to visit his Irish castle. Every year the authorities said yes. In 1979, that complacency proved a death warrant for two old people and two teenage boys.

Knatchbull’s is no ordinary family. The royal connection (Mountbatten was Prince Philip’s uncle) made them a target. Later, Timothy lightly describes how the Queen invited him for Christmas and tenderly helped him in his grief. But he also demonstrates the timeless and classless qualities of love that his own family shared to get through the months and years after the tragedy.

The story of Monday 27 August 1979 is just one of many across the years of the troubles that blighted Ireland and Britain. Timothy and his family showed that the bonds between our two countries and people were too strong for murderous people to destroy. Timothy also had the intelligence and compassion to realise that peace could only come by including terrorists in the peace and reconciliation process. Ironically, as he says, Lord Mountbatten understood this decades earlier in his own role ending British rule in India and insisting that Burmese nationalists be included in the liberated 1945 government in Burma. Mountbatten instinctively sympathised with the Irish, and even had sympathy for the ‘old’ IRA. Mountbatten’s enlightened attitudes were reflected in the grief and sympathy shown in India in the days after the bombing, and by the respect shown by the touring India test cricket team in the fourth test that started at The Oval later that week.

I’ll leave the last words to Timothy Knatchbull, writing in his journal during a return to Ireland as part of his delayed mourning for his lost twin:

“Today in Sligo, 24 years after the murders, I sensed that [bomber] Thomas McMahon’s moral vacuum has been defeated. The bloodbath he engineered failed to turn me to hatred. Instead I left Ireland feeling a love which I projected primarily onto one man, Tony Heenan [whose devoted care in Sligo hospital saved his life and those of his parents]. He has wit, humour and above all compassion. He cares. And my heart sings because I recognise that on 27 August 1979 Heenan defeated McMahon and I am the proof.”

Margaret Thatcher – the woman who changed Britain

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher made history. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister – a landmark that will live in history books long after the controversies of her premiership have faded. She defeated an Argentinian dictator and British union barons. She sold off most nationalised industries. And she helped end the Cold War.

When she became prime minister in May 1979, Britain was in a sorry state. The winter of discontent in 1978/79 made her victory inevitable. While many felt sympathy for low paid workers fighting for higher pay, millions decided enough was enough – ‘we can’t go on like this’ was a common feeling. People were sickened by unions that intimidated members into going on strike and used mobs to enforce their will. Two governments had been destroyed by the unions, in 1974 and 1979. Thatcher was determined it wouldn’t happen again.

Yet Thatcher was often more cautious in her early days than her legend suggests. She gave in to the miners’ demands in 1981 rather than risk defeat. The early union reforms were modest. And privatisation wasn’t even mentioned in the 1979 election manifesto.

She was lucky in her enemies. Winning the Falklands War against the Argentinian junta – a brutal dictatorship that murdered thousands of its own people – ended her vulnerable early days when the SDP/Liberal Alliance was threatening the Tories and Labour alike. Arthur Scargill stupidly bullied the miners into the 1984/85 strike when winter was ending and coal stocks were high.

In time, she became more reckless, more strident, most famously in the disastrous poll tax. John Campbell showed graphically in volume two of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, how disfunctional her government became in its last years because of her behaviour. Her fall in November 1990 was no surprise.

She also began the long decline of local pride and enterprise, thanks to the emasculation of local government. For the daughter of an alderman, she was indifferent to local initiative  and hostile to the idea of an alternative power base, leading to the abolition of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and the English metropolitan counties. Under her rule, Britain saw the rise of private wealth and public squalor, and a sense that selfishness was acceptable.

Labour isn't Working - most bitterly ironic Thatcher poster

Labour isn’t Working – Thatcher’s most cynical campaign poster, 1978

She was also callous in her indifference to the fate of communities devastated by the mass unemployment her government unleashed. The 1981 budget was one of the most brutal of the post war era, leading many to accuse her of using mass unemployment as a weapon to achieve her aims. (And in the doomed attempt to test the economic theory called monetarism.) Similarly, she deliberately shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the less well off in the move to indirect taxation. Her choice of St Francis’s prayer – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – was cynical, as was the 1978 election poster condemning Labour for high unemployment, above. Under her rule, the jobless total reached three million for the first time since the 1930s.

Finally, Margaret Thatcher suffered the fate of someone who lived only for work. She had no hinterland, as Denis Healey put it. This made her a very bad member of the former prime ministers’ club, as her successor John Major found out to his cost.

On the day Margaret Thatcher died, it’s hard to imagine a time before her time in Downing Street. But my first Thatcher memory was her appearance as education secretary 40 years  on the BBC children’s programme Val Meets the VIPs. (Val was the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.) In October 1978, our family friends in Germany asked us what we thought of Mrs Thatcher. We explained we weren’t impressed by her stridency…

Tonight, Britain and the world is remembering Britain’s most remarkable postwar prime minister. Our country is the nation she created – for good and ill. None of her successors has matched her ability to explain their mission. And no man since 1979 has dared to suggest that a woman couldn’t be prime minister. That might be as great a legacy as any.

Richard III, Leicester and me


Richard III in Leicester. The king’s skeleton has been found under a Leicester car park 

I took this photo of Richard III’s statue shortly before graduating from the University of Leicester in 1985. It was extraordinary to learn that the university this week played a key role in establishing ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Richard III’s skeleton had been found in the city.

As I blogged nostalgically last September, Leicester was a good place to be a student, despite its reputation as an unexciting place. I was fascinated by its rich history, including its links with Richard III. The city is already planning to exploit this week’s dramatic news – and who can blame it.

Today’s Guardian included intriguing interviews with actors who have played Shakespeare’s Richard III over the years, including Antony Sher. Sher famously played the role for the RSC during my time at Leicester. He published a wonderful account of his Year of the King, which I read almost in a single sitting in 1992 when I spent a lot of time in Stratford. As Sher recounts in the Guardian:

I became very interested in the fact that Richard is a severely disabled man. Some actors underplay this – but if you read Richard’s opening speech about himself, he is clearly disabled, and has experienced a lot of prejudice, a lot of hatred. This, in turn, has filled him with self-hatred. It’s this that enables him to do such evil to other people. He was used to hatred as a disabled man in an un-PC society. There were no Paralympics then.

We’ll hear a lot about Richard III – the king and the legend – in the coming weeks. 


David Cameron, Harold Wilson and Euro referendums

David Cameron has opened a new chapter in Britain’s troubled membership of what we now call the European Union. He says his party will hold a referendum to decide whether we should stay in the EU, should it win the 2015 general election. He will campaign for Britain to stay, provided he is happy with whatever new settlement he negotiates with Britain’s EU partners.

Any referendum will be the first on Europe since Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s 1975 poll settled the issue for a generation. At the time, it was seen as a clever fix for Labour’s internal war about Europe. (Typical Wilson…) But within five years the party was at war again, leading to the SDP breakaway. Time will tell if Cameron’s move will be any more successful.

I was 11 when Britain voted in 1975. We had a day off school as Cardiff High was being used as a polling station. I remember telling friends we should pull out – I even stuck a copy of the No campaign’s leaflet inside the lid of my school desk. (My friends were sensibly more concerned about whether Bay City Rollers would make number 1.)

In time, I became convinced that Britain should be a positive, active member of what we now call the EU. But I have always been concerned by the madder aspects of the EU: the stupidity of the Common Agricultural Policy, the bureaucracy and lack of democracy. I hate the way the Irish have been told to rerun referendums until they get the ‘right’ result. This is not an institution that inspires love or affection in sensible folk.

I happened to listen to David Cameron’s speech live on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday. It struck me as a very cleverly constructed case for change. I particularly liked the way the prime minister accepted the role the EU played in ending Europe’s eternal wars. He was right to say Europe’s single market was its biggest strength. No sensible person can argue against the idea that the EU desperately needs to change if Europe is to flourish and compete against China, India and Brazil.

Yet Cameron’s move is so blatantly a bid to secure party unity that it’s hard to see it succeeding. Europe isn’t an issue that most people care about – except in the Westminster village. Cameron is unlikely to win an overall majority in 2015, which means he won’t be the one to hold a Euro poll. Unlike Harold Wilson, that wily politician who dominated British politics for over a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.