John Ruskin: a Victorian visionary for today

John Ruskin, depicted with the founders of Ruskin, Florida, on a 2008 mural by Mike Parker, painted on the centenary of the community’s foundation on Ruskinian ideals (photo: Mike Parker)

By the end of the 19th century, John Ruskin – sage, social critic, artist, scientist, environmental  campaigner – was perhaps the most famous living Victorian apart from Queen Victoria herself (who was also born 200 years ago this year).

Yet after his death in 1900, aged 80, this remarkable polymath’s fame quickly faded. For much of the 20th century, his reputation seemed as dead and buried as the man himself.

For those who have heard of him, the Victorian age’s best-known, most controversial and most prolific intellectual is still a bearded old has-been: prudish, aloof, self-righteous, conservative to a fault, and resistant to progress.

The motto and emblem chosen by Ruskin and featured on his books. (photo courtesy: The Ruskin, Lancaster University)

Ruskin’s personal motto, stamped on later editions of his books, was, however, powerful, simple, and remains highly relevant: ‘To-day’. He rallied followers to take on practical challenges and to do now what they might otherwise put off until tomorrow.

Ruskin shaped – and still shapes – the world we live in, the way we think and work, the environment, built and natural, that surrounds us, and many of the services we enjoy. Two hundred years since his birth, we live in ‘Ruskinland’.

It becomes obvious that Ruskinland exists as soon as you pick up the trail of Ruskin, say in an art gallery or a museum. Those are the places where his legacy is most obvious, but he is also present in the work of craftspeople and artisans, the thinking of ecologists and scientists, and even in the dry regulatory crevices of modern finance, or the ambitious mission and purpose statements of big companies.

Many people know at least a little about John Ruskin or his work. Very few people, though, have sight of the whole of Ruskin – which is hardly surprising given the protean, polymathic nature of the man and his thinking.

As a teenager, studying the history of art, I acquired the best-known piece of the patchwork: his role as artist and art critic, a fixture in London artistic circles before he had turned forty. When I revisited Venice for the first time in decades, I found that the places and works that astonished and energised Ruskin in the 19th century – the Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Carpaccios in the Accademia – were on my itinerary in the second half of the 20th, when I first visited his ‘paradise of cities’, aged 16, with a school art trip. As a regular traveller in the Lake District, with a holiday home not far from Brantwood, I knew about Ruskin’s love of the region. I was well aware that Oxford boasted a Ruskin College and a Ruskin School of Art.
But even to those who know a part of Ruskin’s legacy, other parts remain obscure.

My quest to learn more about Ruskin’s influence really started, though, when I came across his social and economic criticism, and observations on the environment, which seem ever more relevant in an unequal and polluted world. It turned out that people who knew about those corners of Ruskinland were as eager to show me round as I was to explain my journey through other regions of his influence.

The whistlestop tour – which, incidentally, Ruskin, one of the greatest and most leisurely travellers in history, would never deign to join – goes like this.

Ruskin’s ideas sowed the seeds of the modern welfare state, universal state education and healthcare free at the point of delivery.

His acute appreciation of natural beauty underpinned the National Trust, while his sensitivity to pollution and environmental change, decades before it was considered other than a local phenomenon, prefigured the modern green movement.

He staked his reputation on Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites when they were under fire, ensuring their reputations have continued to burn brightly even as his has suffered.

Ruskin’s 1894 portrait, on the wall at the Unto This Last furniture workshop in Brick Lane, London (photo: Unto This Last)

His violent critique of free market economics, Unto This Last, was the title that most influenced the first intake of Labour MPs in 1906 – more than 40 years after its publication.Those articles, and a series of other writings and lectures in which Ruskin laid into the smug captains of Victorian capitalism, are striking precursors of the current debate about inequality, executive pay, ethical and purposeful business, and the perils and opportunities of greater automation.

Ruskin may have claimed not to enjoy a fight, but as a young man, he was not afraid to provoke and pursue debate, through all contemporary media, including books, magazines, pamphlets and letters to newspapers. His insights are often strikingly modern. For instance, his withering assessment of the contemporary condition, from the fifth volume of his book Modern Painters, is no less relevant than it was when it was published in 1860. People appear, he wrote, to have ‘no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast’.

In his prime, Ruskin was also a hugely popular public speaker, attracting sell-out audiences and lively press criticism with his controversial views and idiosyncratic approach. He would not have been an obvious proponent of the popular TeD talk, with its time limit of 20 minutes. His lectures often lasted over an hour. But as a speaker, he had a gift, as one modern biographer has written, for being ‘both combative and inspiring’.

As a man who wrote some nine million published words in his lifetime, Ruskin would have struggled with Twitter’s 280-character limit, that is for sure.
But I’m certain he would have been a regular and avidly followed tweeter.

What is more, his intense visual sense and interest in early photographic technology would make him a natural enthusiast for today’s image-based social media. Who would not want to follow the world’s most discerning eye for natural and manmade beauty on Instagram?

Ruskin is hard to categorise.‘I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times,’ he said. At different times described himself as a ‘violent Tory of the old school’ and ‘a Communist of the old school – reddest also of the red’, which always makes me think: that must have been some school.

Despite the contradictions – and his own often tortured personal life, which ended in reclusive, mentally troubled near-silence – John Ruskin reminds us of many positive ways to live better today.

He wasn’t the only 19th-century thinker preoccupied with how his world was changing and how to guide it down the best path. But he was among the most prescient and inspirational. Without him and his more pragmatic and campaigning followers – from William Morris to Mahatma Gandhi – many of the enlightened ideas of the modern world would have taken longer to evolve, probably developed differently, and in some cases might not have developed at all.

Andrew is an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times and author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World (Pallas Athene). He writes a weekly column for the FT on business, strategy and leadership, as well as contributing longer features, videos and podcasts and appearing regularly at conferences and on panels.

He was named Business Commentator of the Year 2016 in the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He is also the author of Leadership in the Headlines (2016). Andrew is a trustee of The Ruskin Foundation, which has been responsible for the UK’s largest archive of material relating John Ruskin, and chair of the Blueprint Trust, the charity behind Blueprint for Better Business, which challenges business to be a force for good.

Andrew will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about John Ruskin on Thursday, 27th June and tickets can be purchased here: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.


This article was previously published by Yale University Press.

For nearly four years, and against all the odds, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin led the most effective alliance in history. Yet they met face-to-face only twice. Instead, the ‘Big Three’ had to communicate through secret telegrams and coded letters. They exchanged more than six hundred messages between 22 June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Roosevelt’s sudden death on 12 April 1945. And, as this extraordinary correspondence demonstrates, each member of this implausible trio became fascinated by the other two, genuinely trying, in his distinctive way, to build personal relationships.

From birthday wishes to arranging meetings and discussing the war, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin’s correspondence reveal hidden nuances in how they interacted during that crucial time in the world’s history. In this article, David Reynolds reflects on the process of piecing together the story of The Kremlin Letters, co-authored with Vladimir Pechatnov.

Churchill and Roosevelt waged war as allies for nearly four years. Yet they met face to face for less than two weeks. Our book shows how the triumvirate conducted their relationship most of the time: through the now unfashionable medium of letter-writing. The result – we believe – is a novel perspective on the Big Three, as human beings and as political leaders.

Constructing a narrative from the letters of the ‘Big Three’

The actual letters have been available for sixty years – the Soviet Foreign Ministry published them in Russian and English in 1957, partly in retaliation for piecemeal quotation by Churchill and other memoirists. But, although largely accurate, this was simply an edition of the raw messages, lacking much context and with the British and American strands printed in separate volumes. Our book brings the messages together in a single chronological sequence, thereby unfolding the story of the wartime alliance from Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 to Roosevelt’s sudden death on 12 April 1945. And we go beyond the standard format of such edited texts in what John Gaddis – doyen of Cold War historians – has generously called “a pioneering effort to embed documents within a single sustained narrative.”

That narrative has been constructed from a much larger database pieced together from the archives of all three countries in a research project generously supported by grants from the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy and the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The database includes drafts of the messages, discussions about their proposed content – particularly in the British War Cabinet – and invaluable accounts from the ambassadorial delivery boys about how the messages were actually received. Among these men, Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s man in London till mid-1943, takes the prize for his vivid renditions of Churchill’s varied and highly emotional reactions. Here are a few extracts: “His face was white as chalk and he was breathing heavily. He was obviously enraged … He shut his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them I could see tears … Churchill must have had a drop too much whisky.”

Both photos: The “Big Three” at Tehran, November 1943

New material from the Russian Archives

It is the Russian material that gives the book much of its novelty and freshness – not just from theMaisky diary (now available in English thanks to Gabriel Gorodetsky and Yale University Press), but from the Stalin fonds in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation and the Foreign Ministry Archive in Moscow. These were mined exhaustively by Vladimir and his junior colleague Iskander Magadeyev. Here we can see at work the remarkable team of Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov, from whose office most of the draft messages originated, and Josef Stalin, unquestionably editor-in-chief.

All this documentation reveals in rich detail the Big Three’s “epistolary relationship.” Not quite on a par with the letters exchanged by Voltaire and Catherine the Great, let alone Abelard and Héloïse, but in its own way memorable and significant. Some messages dealt with weighty issues such as the Second Front, the Arctic convoys and the fate of Poland – on all of which Churchill and Stalin often had explosive arguments. At other times the exchanges were lighter, even chatty: news from the battlefronts, congratulations on notable successes, and occasional digs at foreign leaders such as Charles de Gaulle. Churchill and Stalin even exchanged birthday greetings each year.

Churchill and the “two Stalins”

Yet Churchill never quite fathomed the Soviet leader: to explain the apparently inexplicable mix of letters – sometimes on the same day – he developed the concept of “two Stalins.” Friendly messages were deemed to be from the man himself, while nasty ones were attributed to pressures from dark forces in the shadows of the Kremlin.

Others in London and Washington shared this binary image, yet it was a bizarre illusion. As Sheila Fitzpatrick has recently underlined [in her book On Stalin’s Team, 2015], Stalin worked with a team, but none of them – certainly not Molotov – had any doubt who was Boss. The Soviet leader managed to build relationships with his allies, while retaining the ability to keep them guessing. His growing skill as a diplomatist is clearly documented in the book. This was one of the most surprising features of the correspondence for assistant editor Olga Kucherenko – a specialist in the social history of the Great Patriotic War. We think that our readers will be equally intrigued.

Left to right: 1. Stalin’s cri de coeur, September 1941 2. Letter from Churchill, September 1941 3. Harry Hopkins in Stalin’s Kremlin office, July 1941 4. Ivan Maisky and Churchill, August 1941

Roosevelt and Stalin

Churchill and Stalin were the more prolific correspondents. Roosevelt, by contrast, sent fewer messages and generally relied on drafts from aides and government departments – adding just a few personal touches. FDR often used VIP envoys, such as right-hand man Harry Hopkins or former Ambassador to Moscow Joseph Davies, to ensure access to Stalin. On their return to Washington, the Wheelchair President would pump them for every possible insight into the Kremlin recluse. Roosevelt’s real goal was to use the correspondence to pave the way for personal meetings and thereby bring the Soviet Union in from the cold. Ideally, he wanted one-on-one discussions with Stalin, without Churchill – whom FDR considered a benighted Victorian imperialist, unable to imagine a post-colonial world.

The President’s efforts to arrange these meetings bulk large in correspondence. We can watch his gambits and also the adroit way Stalin played his cards, aware of the President’s ardour. He declined to meet until the USSR was in a strong military position after the Red Army’s victory at Kursk in July 1943, and he also forced FDR to come to him – at Teheran and then at Yalta. The first trip undermined Roosevelt’s health, the second finished him off.

Left to right: 1. Vyacheslav Molotov lands in Scotland, May 1942 2. Molotov is met by Admiral Ernest J. King (left), Ambassador Litvinov, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and General George C. Marshall, June 1942 3. Molotov, Maisky and Churchill on the veranda at 10 Downing Street, May 1942 4. Soviet and US airmen pose in front of a P-63 fighter, Alaska 1943

Yet, as our final chapter shows, in the last months of his life the dying president finally became the senior partner at the Western end of the correspondence. On paper, as in the war effort as a whole, Washington was now calling the shots. It is striking that hardly any of some 3,400 words that the White House sent to the Kremlin in the last six weeks of Roosevelt’s life were composed by Franklin Roosevelt. But they were authentically his voice. It was a remarkable and moving story – as you will understand when you read The Kremlin Letters.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University and the author of eleven books. Vladimir Pechatnov, a prolific scholar of the Cold War, is chair of European and American studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

David will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Wednesday 26th June to speak about THE KREMLIN LETTERS. Tickets are available to book here.

How to be a Historical Landscape Detective

Have you ever stared out of a car or train window at a lumpy field and wondered what made it lumpy? Or walked along a footpath scored so deeply into the landscape that you felt you were almost in a tunnel? Or sat in a historical pub wondering at its age? Wherever you go in Britain there’s history woven into the landscape around you – in the shape of a field, the wall of a cottage, a standing stone or churchyard, even in the grass under your feet. With just a few pointers you can become a landscape detective, equipped to puzzle out the historical mysteries around you. You’ll know what to look for, and what it might be telling you. In some parts of the country it means you can add some six thousand or more years of history to the landscape you’re looking at.

You can even do your detective work simply looking at a map in the comfort of your own armchair! But whether in the field or online, be warned, Landscape Spotting is an addictive pastime – once you start, you’ll find yourself noticing features everywhere!

Here are a few features to look out for:

Ever walked, cycled or driven down a lane that feels like it’s sunk down into the ground? Often coming into or out of villages, with steep, banked sides and towering hedgerows, these tracks are known as Holloways.

Holloways are at least 300 years old, but many in the South West, southern Wales and Welsh borders, East Anglia and the Weald probably have their origins in prehistory. You really are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.

The deepest Holloways in Britain are as much as 6m below the ground surface, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn down the land surface and rainwater has eroded it over centuries to create a sunken lane, or ‘hollow way’.

Ancient route along a lowland valley, Herefordshire. pic © Mary Ann Ochota

A deep Holloway may suggest that the place you’re heading into or out of is equally old. And if it seems like the Holloway leads to nowhere special, look again. Tracks are ‘articulating features’ – they only come into existence in order to link one place with another, which means that there must have been a place at both ends at some point (maybe now just the remains of a deserted village or hamlet, or perhaps something smaller, like a field barn, sheepfold, or junction with another route).

A few Holloways were intentionally created as land boundaries. Landowners dug a wide ditch, and threw the soil up into banks on either side. The base of the ditch was then used as a sunken track and the parallel banks formed the Holloway sides. Check your map – the Holloway may still mark a modern parish boundary.

In open country, you may still be able to trace the line of an old Holloway – look for a wide grassy furrow with shorter or paler vegetation, where the grass struggles to grow in the harder, compacted soil that was once the track.

Ridge and Furrow

If you see a grass field or hillside area in central England that has long parallel rows of wide humps in the surface, you may be looking at the remnants of a 1,000 year old pattern called Ridge and Furrow, created by medieval ploughing.

From around 800AD to the mid 1500s, most land used for farming crops wasn’t enclosed by hedges or walls. Instead, farmers were allocated strips of the communal Great Fields that surrounded their village. Each strip was ploughed individually in a clockwise pattern, and the plough threw the soil inwards, creating a well-drained flat area ready for planting – the Ridge. The soil level between each strip got lower and lower – the Furrow.

Ridge and Furrow only survives in fields that are now used for pasture, or rough land that is no longer farmed at all. This itself is a clue to the history of the time – in the 12th and 13th centuries there was enormous population pressure on agricultural land. The best, most fertile land was already under the plough, so ‘land-hungry’ farmers were forced on to steeper, rougher hillside areas and places with poor soil. Then the Black Death of 1348-50 killed half the British population. With the population decimated, there was more fertile land to go around the survivors and poorer land was abandoned, leaving the plough marks frozen in time.

If you spot flights of terraces that run horizontally across steeper hillsides, rather than up and down, these are Strip Lynchets. They were hand dug around 600 years ago to make it easier to plough, plant and harvest steep land – also the result of hungry medieval people looking for space to farm.

Narrow horizontal lines across a grassy hillside are more likely to be terracettes – natural features where soil particles slowly slip downhill underneath the grass and over time form ripples in the hillside. Some of these mini-terraces end up exploited by wild animals, livestock and walkers looking for an easy line across the landscape – and so the terracettes become more pronounced.

Tomb of the Eagles passage grave, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. pic © Mary Ann Ochota


Stone Age tombs
The oldest visible monuments in the British landscape are Long Barrows, burial sites from the Neolithic – the Late Stone Age – around 4200BC. If you spot one of these long, lozenge-shaped earth mounds, you’ve just added more than six thousand years of human history to the landscape you’re looking at! Ones that are still visible to the naked eye are marked on OS maps.

Chambered Tombs also date from the Late Stone Age – these have internal stone chambers where bodies – or parts of dismembered bodies – were placed by their community. Chambered tombs that have been excavated are sometimes open and you can go inside to explore. Great examples include West Kennet in Wiltshire, Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, and the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney (pictured)


Ancient Burial mounds
Round Barrows, sometimes called Tumuli, are the most common prehistoric monuments in the country. These circular earthen mounds are often seen in groups, and you can sometimes spot them on the crests of hills, lurking under clumps of trees, or as uncultivated lumps in farmers’ fields – because of the precious archaeology below, the land is legally protected and so can’t be ploughed. These mounds date to the Bronze Age – mostly between 2400BC and 1200BC.

Although there are no written records from Britain at this time, the archaeology suggests there was a change in religious and social practices – instead of communal tombs, people start to be buried as individuals, either cremated first or placed in a crouched position in a grave with food, jewellery and other offerings like cups of mead. Early findings from ancient DNA studies are also pointing to a change in the genetic profile too – there were certainly new people on these shores, although how much of the native population may have been displaced isn’t yet clear. Some, but not all, round barrows have been excavated by archaeologists: Others remain undisturbed. Archaeological excavation is inherently destructive (once you’ve dug it up you can’t put it back) so barrows are now only excavated if there’s a genuine research question to answer, or if they’re at risk in some way. So next time you see a Round Barrow, take a moment to imagine what, and who, may be inside it.

Moraines at Small Water, near Mardale Head in the Lake District. Don’t be fooled – these aren’t burial mounds, these are geological features known as moraines, found in glacial valleys. pic © Mary Ann Ochota


Graveyards, gates and trees
Graveyards are usually older than the church buildings they contain. Even though the bodies rot away, centuries of burials progressively raise the earth surface, so as a rule of thumb, the higher a graveyard is compared to the surrounding land, the older it is. It’s estimated that the average English parish churchyard contains at least 10,000 bodies. Urban cemeteries may contain more than 100,000.

Churchyards are usually rectangular, with the church positioned roughly centrally. If a churchyard is circular or oval, it suggests that you’re looking at a very early church site (from 600AD or even earlier), or a place where the church was built on an earlier pagan site. Also look for lych gates: open-sided gatehouses at the entrance of a churchyard, named after the old English for ‘corpse’ (lich). This was where the priest would meet the body at the churchyard entrance, say initial prayers, then lead the way into the church.

Many churchyards in Britain contain Yew trees (Taxus baccata), the longest-living organisms in the whole of Europe. Native Britons probably considered the yew to be a sacred tree, so when early Christians co-opted pagan sites, yew trees came with the land. Yew trees are only officially designated as ‘ancient’ when they’re around 800 years old with a girth greater than 7m (23ft), and it’s thought the oldest churchyard yews are an incredible four to five thousand years old – visit them at St Coeddi’s Church, Fortingall in Perthshire (NN 742 471), St Dygain’s Church in Llangernyw, Conwy (SH 874 674) and St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, Powys (SN 925 279).

Yew trees ‘bleed’ red sap when cut, and are evergreen, possibly part of the reason they have long had spiritual status. Pic © Mary Ann Ochota

Dry stone wall built on and around a large earthfast boulder, Glenridding, Cumbria. Pic © Mary Ann Ochota


Dry Stone Walls
Some of the most intriguing dry stone walls you’ll see are abandoned Intake walls (or newtake walls). They can climb vertiginous slopes of rough moorland, then end abruptly, or loop back down. Many of these were a result of Enclosure Acts that were passed by Parliament between 1750 and 1850, when commons, moorlands, and open fields were allocated to private landowners.

These new landowners were keen to build walls and then lease the land to tenant farmers – even if the land wasn’t up to it. You’ll see abandoned plots of land in many upland areas including the Grampians and the Lake District. The hungry, hardworking tenant farmers are memorialised in evocative place-names: Mount Famine in the Peak District (SK 055 848), and Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre and Mount Misery (SX 636 705) on Dartmoor.

Mary-Ann Ochota is a broadcaster and anthropologist who gained her MA in Archaeology and Anthropology from Cambridge University in 2002. She’s a familiar face on archaeology programmes including the cult show Time Team, the History Channel’s Ancient Impossible, ITV’s Britain’s Secret Treasures – for which she also wrote the tie-in book in association with the British Museum, as well as BBC specials on Silbury Hill, Stonehenge and most recently the series Britain Afloat. She has also presented documentaries for Animal Planet, Nat Geo, Channel 4 and BBC4 and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines on the outdoors and adventure, including the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Countryfile Magazine, Geographical and Summit. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Hillwalking Ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council and an Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion. 

Mary-Ann will be talking about Hidden Histories at Chalke Valley History Festival at 3.30pm on Tuesday 25th June 2019. Get your tickets here.

Follow @MaryAnnOchota on Twitter and Instagram

Why do we still care about Henry VIII?

‘How many more books can there be about Henry VIII?’ lamented a well-known seventeenth century historian.  ‘I mean, whatever next…Henry VIII’s toenail?’

Admittedly, this remark was made as part of a speech to promote his new book about a Stuart monarch, so his flippant remark may have been aimed at trying to persuade people to look beyond the Tudors for once.  But he did have a point.  Henry VIII has been the subject of more books, dramas, films and documentaries than any other monarch in British history.  Yet still we have an insatiable desire to find out more.

As joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, I see thousands of visitors flock to Hampton Court every year.  Much as we try to show them the other (larger) side of the palace – Wren’s magnificent Baroque masterpiece commissioned by William III and Mary II in the late seventeenth century – they aren’t interested.  They are here for Henry, and Henry alone.

In part, our fascination with this most famous of kings is understandable.  He married six times, told the Pope where to go, oversaw one of the most seismic religious and political revolutions in our history, and created the foundation of our national identity.  No wonder that we can’t get enough of him.

I have been a Tudor historian for over twenty years, but until recently I have skirted around Henry – mentioning him in the context of his daughter Elizabeth, exploring the life he led behind closed doors, that sort of thing.  But I had never dared to tackle a full biography.  Surely there are too many of those?

But then a thought occurred to me.  Yes, Henry has been written about endlessly, but almost always in the context of his wives.  Surely there is another side to the story?  Exploring the men in Henry VIII’s life reveals a dazzling and eclectic cast of characters: relations, servants, ministers, rivals, confidants and companions.  Some were ‘mad’ (Sir Francis Bryan, the so-called ‘Vicar of Hell’), some ‘bad’ (the arch-schemer, Stephen Gardiner), but none as ‘dangerous to know’ as Henry VIII himself. There are also the men whose stories have, until now, remained in the shadows: Sir William Butts, Henry’s favourite physician, Will Somer, his fool, and Sir Thomas Cawarden, who superintended some of the most spectacular entertainments of the later reign, reminding Henry of his glorious younger days. It is these men who helped to shape the character, opinions and image of their king, and whose influence – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden – lay behind the Tudor throne.

By the end of my research, I felt like I had met Henry for the first time.  I can’t wait to introduce Chalke Valley History Festival goers to him on 26 June!

Tracy Borman’s book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, was published by Hodder & Stoughton last year.

Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997. Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.


Tracy will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him on Wednesday, 26th June 2019. Tickets are available here.


How does Russia Remember The 1917 Revolution?

This article was previously published on 8/8/17 in HuffPost.

Revolution necessitates talk of insurgency and transformation – this is not the most evident narrative with which state power should wish to engage. Yet elsewhere we can see lively discussion of the potentialities of history and possibilities for change that any discussion of 1917 should evoke. Impacts of the dual revolutions can give people much pause for thought – both in Russia and elsewhere.

Armed soldiers carry a banner reading ‘Communism’, Nikolskaya street, Moscow, October 1917

The centenary of the October Revolution is nearly upon us, and with it comes a gamut of press comment, a score of scholarly assessments of varying degrees of originality, and much discussion on the blogosphere of what the events of that year mean for Russian and for world history. Some of these assessments, both from academic and lay audiences, hinge upon re-interpreting the significance of these events from ‘Western’ perspectives. These can include how the Russian Revolutions of 1917 interrupted the contemporary balance of power, what the revolutions meant for other great nations at the time, and what the revolutions can tell us, if anything, about Russia today.

What also needs to be considered are the distinctiveness of Russian responses to the revolutions of 1917. Certainly, this was a year of great significance for the entire world, with strong – indeed, transformative – influence on a variety of nations during the twentieth century. The transnational connections that shaped 1917 at the time as well as the discussions between between scholars and the public in different countries today are important for all sorts of reasons. Looking at the situation solely from a Russian perspective can throw a little light on such conversations. Briefly, I will consider what can be loosely seen as three groups: popular opinion, civil society, and an official interpretation.

Measuring popular attitudes to the revolution is no easy matter, and there is nothing close to unanimity of opinion on the subject. As Tony Barber has described in a recent article for the Financial Times, what data we do have shows that popular attitudes, so far as we can judge, are mixed. This is in contrast to other major events of the twentieth century, such as the Great Patriotic War, which have tended to generate more of a consensus down the years. Citing the Levada-Center, a Russian pollster, Barber pointed to a survey carried out in March this year among 1600 people from 137 localities within Russia. The Russians polled were split on the meta-historical questions posed by 1917, including whether the revolution was a good thing, the legality of the seizure of power, the inevitability of the revolution, and what its root causes were. Indeed, looking through the results in depth, the only trend was the lack of consensus amongst respondents. For example, 48 per cent considered that the October Revolution was inevitable, but 32 per cent saw that it could have been avoided. One could extrapolate on the basis of comparing the March 2017 results with those of past polls that attitudes are becoming more mixed: on the question of whether the October Revolution was historically inevitable, the number of respondents claiming it was ‘difficult to say’ crept up from 15 to 21 per cent from between March 2017 and when the question was posed in April 2006.

Turning to civil society, it is easy to find those for whom the revolution does generate significant interest. One of the most interesting contributions is Project 1917, a daily evolving social network based on primary documents that is designed to acquaint visitors with what happened on a certain day one hundred years ago. Unlike many resources available, Project 1917 does not project forward. The website is designed to provide a real time focus, exploring events as they unfolded at the time from a huge variety of perspectives: everyone from the main revolutionary actors such as Lenin and Trotsky, to liberals such as Petr Struve and Sergei Bulgakov, and foreign observers such as the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and German writer Thomas Mann. What Project 1917 manages to do successfully is to demonstrate the enormity of the number of people involved in the revolution, and the diversity of views on the panoply of events covered. Project 1917 is scrupulously maintained by a diverse team which includes journalists, historians, animators and illustrators, the great majority of whom are working within Russia. The website is generating a huge number of hits, millions of which are coming from within the Russian Federation. If there is a measure that 1917 continues to attract domestic attention, the care with which specialist resources are being constructed and their ability to engage the public are perhaps the best evidence of it.

Finally, what is the official stance towards 1917? Major media outlets are saying relatively little about 1917. Russia’s rulers have not traditionally been slow to grasp that major commemorations may have political uses, which makes the lack of activity marking the centenary of an event that changed the course of world history all the more conspicuous. In a break from his typical approach to pronouncement on historical matters, President Vladimir Putin has left such discussion to others. Looking to history the reasons for this are obvious. Revolutions aren’t just singular events: they pose a thorny and intractable problem about the stability of social and political orders. A mass revolution where power to the people was truly in evidence – if only for a short time – is a difficult topic. History is certainly a subject of serious interest to the current regime, but there is not one approach to interpreting the past that is currently predominating. Instead, what we have is something new that picks and chooses bits of both the imperial and Soviet pasts as desired, in the service of an ideology furthering the ends of resurgent Russian empire. It is in this context that both the official ideology of Russian conservatism and approaches to 1917 from on high need to be seen.

Revolution necessitates talk of insurgency and transformation – this is not the most evident narrative with which state power should wish to engage. Yet elsewhere we can see lively discussion of the potentialities of history and possibilities for change that any discussion of 1917 should evoke. Not only in this year, but in those to come the impacts of the dual revolutions can give people much pause for thought – both in Russia and elsewhere.

Dr George Gilbert is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Southampton and will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools about the 1917 Russian Revolution.

History’s Epic Warning

When Hitler’s death was announced on German radio in May 1945, it was accompanied by the fanfare of ‘Siegfried’s Death’ from Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen. No wonder – Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer, and the legends he poured into the Ring Cycle, that magnum opus of raven-winged warriors, fiery gods and Valkyries with long golden plaits, were the ‘national myth’ of Germany. Their most complete form is contained in the medieval epic known as the Nibelungenlied (composed around 1200AD), a tale of fierce warriors, prophetic river-maidens, a vengeful queen, a female warrior who cannot be defeated except by trickery and knights who slake their thirst with human blood. It’s a book of blood and thunder that makes Game of Thrones read like the adventures of Noddy. When I first read it, swiping the last page in a Rhineland eckkneipe with a glass of beer on the counter, I struggled to hold my drink because my hands were shaking. 

 These days, the Nibelungenlied has a growing resonance. Sidelined for decades, ‘relegated to the ivory towers of Germanic studies’ as the scholar Jan-Dirk Müller puts it, this powerful tale has been resurging in popular consciousness. Not only has it been re-claimed by right-wingers in Germany, cited in speeches by the Alternativ für Deutschland, it has also been re-imagined by poets and playwrights, examining the crises of today through its episodes. The epic’s climactic battle in the hall of Attila the Hun has a particular resonance for readers in 2019 Britain, with its breakdown of diplomatic protocol, its depiction of a disaster driven by a failure to negotiate: ‘The conflict could not reach a happy resolution,/ And so out of this breach there flowed blood-drenched pollution.’ Neither the obstinate German councillor, Hagen, nor his enemy, the grieving widow, Kriemhild, will allow themselves to bend. And so they surrender themselves and all their followers to catastrophe.

There is a lesson here. Hitler and company failed to heed it: they misread the Nibelungenlied as a stirring celebration of macho men-at-arms, the ‘heroic song’ cited by Goering to inspire the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. But this mercurial, often disturbing tale is far more complicated than its political abusers appreciate. As the German playwright Albert Ostermaier told me, ‘it’s reflecting the madness of war… But a lot of people misunderstood it and they used it for their own purposes.’ This is a dark tale chipped out of the bitter rock-face of history, by an anonymous poet who lived through a deadly period of gory battles, court assassinations and diplomatic breakdowns. 

Characteristic of this epoch was Wolfgar von Erla, Bishop of Passau at the end of the twelfth century, who is speculatively cited by many scholars as the epic’s patron. He was a diplomat who campaigned for the release of Richard the Lionheart and petitioned the Pope to approve the Teutonic Knights, as well as a lover of poetry who favoured skilled minnesingers like Walther von der Vogelweide (author of the iconic song ‘Under the Linden Tree’). But he was also a ruthless wager of battles. One grisly siege he orchestrated, at Graben am Main in 1199, resulted in mass burnings, drownings, maimings and, according to a contemporary chronicle, choppings of noses and lips. This is the world depicted in the Nibelungenlied: juggling courtly graces with the savagery of battle.

It was a period of violent instability, and this is reflected in the epic. After the death of Frederick Barbarossa, en route to the Holy Land in 1190, a dispute emerged over the imperial crown, pitting the leading candidates Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick against each other and culminating in the assassination of the former. Issues about hereditary rule, vassalage and feudal structures came to the fore, and these are reflected in the narrative of the Nibelungenlied, where the dominating crisis is initiated by a breach of protocol. As the scholar Edward P. Haymes has written, ‘Where does the way lead when the functions of order are turned around? The Nibelungen epic answers: to destruction.’

The Nibelungenlied was lost for centuries, rediscovered in the late eighteenth century in an Austrian library. It rapidly became a ‘national epic’, satisfying a need for stories to yoke together the disparate German-speaking principalities, duchies and states. A field edition was issued to soldiers in the Napoleonic wars, it was used as a recruiting tool for the First World War, and exploited in many different ways by the National Socialists. Yet still, for all the exploitation, there’s a thrilling story to be read, full of stark and powerful truths about human nature: a warning from history that shows what happens when political leaders fail to find the middle ground. Lessons, surely, that are worth us all heeding.

Nicholas Jubber moved to Jerusalem after graduating from Oxford University. He’d been working two weeks when the intifada broke out and he started travelling the Middle East and East Africa. He has written three previous books, The Timbuktu School for Nomads, The Prester Quest(winner of the Dolman Prize) and Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah’s Beard (shortlisted for the Dolman Prize). He has written for the Guardian, Observer, and the Globe and Daily Mail.

Nicholas will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Tuesday, 25th June to take us on a fascinating adventure through our continent’s most enduring epic poems to learn how they were shaped by their times, and how they have since shaped us, in ‘Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe). Tickets are available here.


The Patient Assassin

In February 2013, David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The dusty walled garden was the site of a brutal massacre on 13 April 1919 and, for Indians at least, it has come to represent the worst excesses of the Raj. On that day, a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, hearing that an illegal political meeting was due to take place, ordered his men to open fire on around 20,000 innocent and unarmed men, women and children. The youngest victim was a six- month- old baby; the oldest was in his eighties.

The lieutenant governor of Punjab, a man named Sir Michael O’Dwyer, not only approved of the shootings, but spent much of the rest of his life praising the action and fortitude of his brigadier general. Sir Michael’s attitude, coupled with the behaviour of British soldiers in the weeks that followed, created a suppurating wound in the Indian psyche. The scar is still livid in the north of India to this day.

The number of people killed at Jallianwala Bagh has always been in dispute, with British estimates putting the dead at 379 with 1,100 wounded and Indian sources insisting that around 1,000 people were killed and more than 1,500 wounded. By his own admission, no order to disperse was given and Dyer’s soldiers fired 1,650 rounds in Jallianwala Bagh that day. He instructed them to aim into the thickest parts of the crowd, which happened to be by the perimeter, where desperate people were trying to scale walls to escape the bullets.

The configuration of the garden and the position of the troops meant civilians were trapped, much like fish in a barrel. The bloodbath, though appalling, could have been so much worse. Dyer later admitted that he would have used machine guns too if he had been able to drive his armoured cars through the
narrow entrance to the Bagh. He was seeking to teach the restive province a lesson. Punctuated by bullets, his message was clear. The Raj reigned supreme. Dissent would not be tolerated. The empire crushed those who defied it.

Ninety- four years later, laying a wreath of white gerberas at the foot of the towering red stone Martyrs’ Memorial in Amritsar, David Cameron bowed solemnly as India watched. In the visitors’ condolence book he wrote the following message: ‘This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as “monstrous”. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.’
Though sympathetic, Cameron’s words fell short of the apology many Indians had been hoping for. The massacre was indeed monstrous, and I have grown up with its legacy. My grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden that day in 1919. By a quirk of fate, he left Jallianwala Bagh on an errand minutes before the firing started. He remembered Brigadier General Dyer’s convoy passing him in the street. When he returned, my grandfather found his friends, young men like him in their late teens, had been killed.

According to his children, Ishwar Das Anand suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his relatively short life. In his late forties, he would lose his sight, but tell his sons never to pity him: ‘God spared my life that day. It is only right that he take the light from my eyes.’ He never managed to reconcile why he had lived while so many others had not. He found it excruciatingly painful to talk about that day. He died too young. I never got the chance to know him.

The story of Jallianwala Bagh is tightly wound round my family’s DNA . Ironically, it is also woven into my husband’s family history, a fact we only realised years into our marriage. His forebears were pedlars from Punjab who came to settle in Britain in the 1930s. Bizarrely, one of them found himself living with a man
named Udham Singh. The happy- go- lucky Punjabi would turn out to be the ‘Patient Assassin’ of my new book, deified in India, the land of my ancestors, but largely unknown in Great Britain, the land of my birth.

Speaking to descendants of the pedlar community, which came to Britain in the early 1920s, helped me to understand their experience. They also helped to bring Udham Singh to life. Thanks to my parents, I grew up knowing the names of Reginald Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, but of course Udham Singh loomed
larger still. According to legend, he, like Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden on the day of the massacre. Unlike my grandfather, he was not crushed by survivor’s guilt, but rather consumed by violent rage. We, like many Punjabis, were told how Udham, grabbing a clod of blood- soaked earth, squeezed it in his fist, vowing to avenge the dead. No matter how long it took him, no matter how far he would have to go, Udham would kill the men responsible for the carnage.
Twenty years later, Udham Singh would fulfil at least part of that bloody promise. He would shoot Sir Michael O’Dwyer through the heart at point- blank range in London, just a stone’s throw away from the Houses of Parliament. The moment he pulled the trigger, he became the most hated man in Britain, a hero to his countrymen in India, and a pawn in international politics. Joseph Goebbels himself would leap upon Udham’s story and use it for Nazi propaganda at the height of the Second World War.

In India today, Udham Singh is for many simply a hero, destined to right a terrible wrong. At the other extreme, there are those who traduce him as a Walter Mitty- type fantasist, blundering his way into the history books. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between; Udham was neither a saint, nor an accidental avenger. His story is far more interesting than that. Like a real- life Tom Ripley, Udham, a low- caste, barely literate orphan, spent the majority of his life becoming the ‘Patient Assassin’. Obsessed with avenging his countrymen and throwing out the British from his homeland, he inveigled his way into the
shadowy worlds of Indian militant nationalism, Russian Bolshevism and even found himself flirting with the Germans in the run- up to the Second World War. Anybody dedicated to the downfall of the British Empire had something to teach him, and he was hungry to learn.

Ambitious, tenacious and brave, Udham was also vain, careless and callous to those who loved him most. His footsteps have led me on a much longer, more convoluted journey than I ever anticipated. The diversity of sources and need to cross- reference hearsay has been challenging, but not the hardest thing about writing the book. I have also had to consciously distance myself from my own family history. For a while, the very names O’Dwyer and Dyer paralysed
me. We had been brought up fearing them. Only when I thought of O’Dwyer as ‘Michael’, the ardent Irish child growing up in Tipperary, or Dyer as ‘Rex’, the sensitive boy who cried over a dead monkey he once shot by accident, could I free myself to think about them as men, and even start to understand why they
did the things they did. It was the only way I could empathise with the situation they faced in 1919 and the years that followed.

Photograph of Udham Singh (executed 1940)

The same goes for Udham Singh. He had always been one of the pantheon of freedom fighters who had fought against tyranny. I blocked out the statues and stamps dedicated to his memory in India and refused to watch any representations of his legend in popular culture till my own work was complete. I needed to find the man beneath the myth and marble, and I knew I would not be able to do that if I became dazzled. Thousands of original documents guided
my way, and my search for the real Udham Singh led me to people who either had first- hand knowledge of him, or were repositories of stories from their parents and grandparents.

I found myself left with a surprisingly contemporary story, which resonates with the news I cover today. Udham’s is a story of dispossession and radicalisation, of ‘Russian interference’ and a realigning of world powers. It speaks of failures in the seemingly infallible security services. It is also the story of buried facts and ‘fake news’. I was left with a picture of one man’s very personal obsession wrongfooting some of the world’s most powerful players.

As to whether Udham really was in the garden the day of the massacre, a source of fierce contention in some quarters, only he knew for sure. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the British authorities were desperate to separate Udham’s assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The attendant propaganda surrounding a ‘revenge killing’ was the last thing they needed with so many Indian troops engaged on the side of the Allies in the war.
Whether he was there when the bullets started to fly or not, the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh was transformative for Udham Singh. He was both forged and destroyed by the events of 13 April 1919. The massacre became the catalyst turning him from a hopeless, faceless member of India’s oppressed masses into a man who would strike one of the most dramatic blows against the empire. Udham Singh dedicated his life to becoming a hero to his people, to freeing his country from the British. He would go to the gallows thinking he would lie forever forgotten in an unmarked grave in a foreign land. Though he would never know it, seven years after he was hanged, India would be free and his countrymen would declare him one of their greatest sons. They would fight to have his remains returned to them.

In 2018, a statue of Udham Singh was unveiled outside Jallianwala Bagh. It shows a man with a clod of presumably blood- heavy earth in his outstretched palm. Udham will forever stand watch over the garden. All who come to pay their respects in the garden will be forced to look up to him and remember what he did in their name.

Anita Anand is a political journalist who has presented television and radio programmes on the BBC for twenty years. She currently presents Any Answers on Radio 4. She is the critically acclaimed author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and, with William Dalrymple, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, Anita’s new book The Patient Assassin was published by Simon & Schuster on 4th April.

Anita will be speaking about The Patient Assassin at Chalke Valley History Festival on Tuesday, 25th June 2019. Tickets are available here.

The Brigadier And His Brigands: The Complexity Of Commanding The SAS In 1944

Britain got its first glimpse of the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. Nearly three years earlier the special forces unit had been raised in Egypt, the brainchild of Lt David Stirling, and in the interim the SAS had grown from a force comprising six officers and sixty other ranks to a brigade encompassing two British regiments, 1SAS and 2SAS, two French regiments, 3SAS and 4SAS, and a company of Belgians.

F Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment Phantom, was attached to the brigade to make up for the shortfall in skilled signallers, increasing the brigade’s strength to 2,500 men. Most were seasoned troops who hadn’t seen Britain for years when they returned from the Mediterranean in early 1944, and nor had they seen much in the way of ‘regimental soldiering’ since volunteering for the SAS.

So it was a shock to the system when they discovered they now belonged to the SAS Brigade, a component of 1 Airborne Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, with Brigadier Roderick McLeod in charge of the SAS.

From pigsticking to guerrillas

Roderick William McLeod was not by nature a guerrilla soldier. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1925, he saw service on the North-West Frontier of India in the early 1930s and, as he himself admitted, up until he joined the Airborne Forces in 1943 his army career had consisted mainly of “hunting, polo, pigsticking…followed by staff college”.

Temperamentally and strategically, McLeod was unsuited to command the SAS. But then who was in the spring of 1944? (Mike Calvert, who made his name fighting with the Chindits, would succeed McLeod as brigadier in early 1945, but in the spring of 1944 he was in Burma). As it transpired, McLeod was a deft choice as brigadier, an officer who, as Calvert later acknowledged, skilfully and diplomatically welded the disparate regiments into a well-administered brigade.
All the same, the appointment came as a surprise to McLeod. In an article written for Mars and Minerva, the Regimental Journal of the SAS, some years after the war, he admitted his “shock” on learning he was no longer Deputy Commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade but brigadier of the SAS. He had fleetingly encountered the SAS in Italy at the tail end of 1943, describing them as “colourful and curiously dressed ruffians”, and like everyone in the British army he had heard of their legendary commander, Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne.

When Stirling had been captured in January 1943, the SAS teetered on the brink of extinction, but Mayne, assisted by Captain Lord George Jellicoe, the son of the famous admiral, had persuaded Middle East HQ of the need for the retention of the special forces unit once the Desert War was over.

An unnecessary evil

Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne

By the time Mayne returned to Britain in January 1944 he was a half-colonel with a DSO and bar, and a reputation as a guerrilla fighter par excellence. But there was another side to Mayne that he chose to reveal only to his small inner circle. “Paddy had controlled recklessness,” remembers Mike Sadler, who served with Mayne from 1941 to 1945. “He wasn’t the hard-drinking, fearless, mad Irishman of popular myth. He was intelligent, sensitive and warm underneath.”

Mayne was not only sensitive, but he was shy, and he lacked the social skill of David Stirling. These traits, combined with his rugby forward’s physique, meant he could be intimidating to subordinates and enigmatic to superiors – as McLeod soon discovered. “Mayne and the 1st SAS were straightforward,” he reflected. “They said ‘yes’ to everything they were asked to do (or not to do), they never bellyached, they were always cheerful and welcoming, and they regarded my H.Q as an unnecessary evil who should be humoured providing it did not interfere with what the Regiment thought should be done.”

The SAS didn’t appreciate Browning’s instruction in spring 1944 to replace their sand-coloured beret with the red one worn by airborne troops. Several desert veterans followed the example of Mayne and ignored the order. “I began to find that my previous experience had not prepared me for the problems of command over such unorthodox units,” remarked McLeod
McLeod also discovered that what the SAS wanted, the SAS usually got, particularly when it came to equipment. “With two years of the Desert and Italy behind then, and being accustomed to looking after themselves…the ‘G.S’ [Get Stuffed] attitude of Q [uartermaster], Staffs and Ordnance depots in England came as a shock,” said McLeod. “I hasten to say that the shock did not in any way deter the Regiment from obtaining equipment by the most unorthodox methods and then expecting my A/Q [Assistant Quartermaster] to pacify the authorities concerned.”

Little French fraternity

The arrival of the SAS in Britain brought other challenges for McLeod. There was little warmth between 1SAS, who had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa, and 2SAS, who hailed predominantly from the First Army. That ill-feeling, however, was benign compared to the antipathy that existed between the two French regiments. 4SAS was composed of men who had been fighting the Germans since May 1940, while 3SAS was formed after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and some of its soldiers had served with the Vichy French forces. “Not only did [they] not speak to each other, but they actively fought,” remembered McLeod.
When they weren’t at each other’s throats, the French were upsetting the locals near their base, east of Ayr in Scotland. “It was difficult to persuade these splendid characters that the local salmon river should not be used as a grenade range,” said McLeod, who also had to smooth ruffled feathers after the French demolished a section of the railway line in the course of practising their sabotage skills with plastic explosives.
The only SAS soldiers who didn’t cause McLeod sleepless nights were the Belgians. “They did what they were told, their discipline was admirable and my staff loved them,” he said.

Hell of a rumpus

Frenchmen reducing salmon stocks and Irishmen wearing the wrong berets were soon the least of McLeod’s worries. On March 29, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force [SHAEF] issued the SAS Brigade with its operational instructions for the impending invasion of France. The SAS was to parachute into France the night before D-Day (D-1), outside the eastern extremity of the landing beaches, and “delay reinforcements into Normandy”.

SAS officers were aghast at the order. They were not trained to fight as a large infantry force; their expertise was operating in small parties behind the main battle area, disrupting the enemy’s communication and attacking appropriate targets. “There has been a hell of a rumpus between SAS and Airborne,” wrote Captain Sandy Scratchley, an experienced SAS officer, at the time. “No one on the Airborne planning staff has had any experience in our type of work.”

Bill Stirling, brother of David and commanding officer of 2SAS, already disenchanted with the way his regiment had been misused in Italy over the winter, was so enraged that he sent a letter to SHAEF in which he made clear his opposition to the order. When he was asked to withdraw his criticism, Stirling refused and he was relieved of his command [some sources say Stirling resigned, but in his letter Scratchley wrote of his “dismissal”].

Stirling’s sacrifice was appreciated by his men. “We were in absolutely agreement with his decision because of that thick-headed idiot ‘Boy’ Browning,” said Captain Tony Greville-Bell, a 2SAS officer. “In fact the senior officers, of whom I was one then, were inclined to resign as well but Bill told us not to.”

Lt-Colonel Brian Franks

Lt-Colonel Brian Franks replaced Stirling as commanding officer of 2SAS, but the latter’s stance hadn’t been in vain. On May 17 SHAEF cancelled its operational instructions of March 29 and it was agreed that small parties of SAS men would parachute deep inside France and work with local Resistance groups to disrupt enemy communications and attack transport heading north towards the Normandy beachhead.

For Roderick McLeod, the days of hunting and pigsticking on the north-west frontier must have felt like an idyll in contrast to the complexities of commanding the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. “I and my H.Q were regarded initially as an entirely unnecessary evil,” he wrote in Mars and Minerva. “I like to think that eventually and rather reluctantly we became accepted, as a necessary evil, but an evil we remained.”





Gavin Mortimer has written wartime histories of the SAS, SBS and LRDG and will be at Chalke Valley History Festival 2019 to speak about THE SAS IN FRANCE 1944.

Tickets are available here.

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories. 

Hanna Reitsch with Kwame Nkrumah, from Hanna Reitsch, I Fly for Kwame Nkrumah (JF Lehmanns Verlag, 1968)

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  

Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’.  


Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.

Clare Mulley with John Batchelor. Photo c. Alan Bentley

John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewelry she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   


Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 


A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.

The decline of wild salmon in Alaska’s Yukon is putting lives and native culture at risk

Alaskan salmon (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)

Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon. The rivers here used to be so crowded with the fish that it was said the backs of those at the top were burnt by the sun, while the bellies of those below were scoured by gravel. Salmon steaks and salmon burgers are on the menu of every diner in the state, while dried and smoked varieties are available in airport gift shops.

When people think of the state, they often picture grizzlies haunch-deep in a river’s turbulence, catching leaping salmon like furry goalkeepers. And on Independence Day weekend, whole families jump in the car to go fishing, filling their freezers when they return home.

Few of nature’s great migrations still take place in North America. Flocks of passenger pigeons once darkened the sky for days; the last died in 1900, hunted to extinction. European settlers also shot 60 million buffalo as they moved west across the plains, decimating along with them the Natives’ way of life.

Salmon, too, have all but vanished across most of their range: through Europe, through Russia, up the East and West coasts of North America. In many ways, Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon because it is all that’s left. And yet Alaska’s salmon are now threatened too.

Over the course of two summers, I have canoed the length of the Yukon river, 2,000 miles, the longest salmon run in the world. I hoped to better understand why salmon numbers have collapsed in recent years, and how the lives are changing for those who still depend upon them, which I explore in my book Kings of the Yukon.

Canoeing on the Yukon (Photo: Ulli Mattsson)

I paddled at the same time as the salmon run, from McNeil Lake high in Canada’s Pelly Mountains across to the Bering Sea, where the Yukon reaches seven miles wide from bank to bank. The king salmon leave the Pacific Ocean in which they have spent their adult lives, and, shouldering their way against this mighty river’s current for several months, navigating by their sense of smell, they return to the pools where they were born, to spawn and then to die.

This annual surge from the ocean to the mountains has for millennia provided a reliable source of protein for the indigenous people who live along the rivers’ banks. Every summer, they would make fish camp, coming down to the Yukon from the hills and lakes where they would have spent the spring. Cultures and economies formed around the abundance of salmon.

The Tlingit, the Athabascan and the Yupik are no longer nomadic. But the ritual of the fish camp – passing a month or two with family on the Yukon’s banks, sharing stories, teaching the children, catching and cleaning salmon and drying them for the winter – remains as important as it ever did. It is a time for the enriching of traditions and the spirit, as much as the stocking of larders.

Yupik people eating fresh salmon on the banks of the Ninglick River in Alaska (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Now, however, the salmon are vanishing. And it is not only the number of fish in decline, but also their size. I was shown old photographs of kings the same length as the people who caught them, 36kg monsters that were common. Now a good-sized fish is 9kg, and smaller fish lay fewer eggs. Whilst roughly five salmon used to return for every spawning adult, these days it is not far off one to one. Before 1997, the historic average for the king salmon run on the Yukon river was 300,000 fish; in 2013, just 37,000 came back.

Camping on the banks of the Yukon (Photo: Ulli Mattsson)

All this is playing out against the background of a rapidly changing climate, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global average. The river’s winter ice is unreliable. As traditional sources of food disappear, people here are forced into buying from the stores – where the food has often been flown thousands of miles and has a price tag to match. Their villages are often many hundreds of miles from the nearest road.

Salmon caught in the Yukon being dried (Photo: Adam Weymouth)

As local diets change, instances of once unknown illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are also escalating. Forced into a cash economy, but with few jobs available, there is a widening gap between rich and poor, a growing dependence on food stamps and government handouts. Aimless and rootless, many people are turning to drink. Alcoholism and its associated symptoms – crime, domestic violence, suicide – are taking a heavy toll. As the culture erodes, so does the language, and a sense of pride in the unique way of life of some of the planet’s last remaining hunter-gatherers.

No one I met wished to preserve their culture unchanged, a museum to their past. They are as much 21st-century Americans as they are the inheritors of knowledge that is thousands of years old. But people do want the right to choose, to determine how they move forward as communities, rather than having decisions forced upon them.

The salmon, the people and the place are intimately connected. More than 50 mammals take sustenance from the king; the very trees contain minerals brought from the oceans by the salmon, minerals that have leached into the soil as their carcasses decay.

As I travelled the river, I fished with people and cooked with them. I helped three generations of one family tend the fire in their smokehouse. And I listened as people told me how they felt caught in a trap: whether to stop fishing in an attempt to preserve the king, or to keep fishing to keep hold of the culture. The decisions made about the fish in the coming years will determine the fate of one of the last great salmon runs in the world. And in a place where the salmon is the lifeblood of the land, it will determine much more than that.


This article was originally published in the i newspaper and on

Adam Weymouth’s work has been published by a wide variety of outlets including the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Internationalist. His interest in the relationship between humans and the world around them has led him to write on issues of climate change and environmentalism, and most recently, to the Yukon river and the stories of the communities living on its banks.

He will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday 28th June about Kings of the Yukon: The History of the Salmon Run. Tickets can be purchased here.