The love of the pelican

Courtesy of Simon Wills

The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a wonderful treasure trove of online books from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Browsing these works is a fascinating experience, not least because you can explore many images of our ancestors’ world and their beliefs. And you can find some unexpected things here.

For me, some of the most interesting illustrations are those related to wildlife. In the 12th and 13th centuries particularly, books known as bestiaries were popular which depicted both real and mythical animals. Since these works were created by monks, bestiaries could be utilised by the Medieval church to impart moral instruction in the form of allegories. So the noisy squawking of the jay was used as a warning against the dangers of gossip, for example.

Some of the birds found in British bestiaries are surprising. An English manuscript from the British Library collection known as ‘Harley 4751’ contains an illustration that claims to depict a group of pelicans, and yet anyone who has seen a real pelican would struggle to recognise them.

Pelicans from the 13th century bestiary ‘Harley 4751’
(courtesy of British Library)

It is immediately obvious that the artist has never seen a real pelican. What’s more, the birds are displaying some very un-pelicanlike behaviour: one bird is killing another. What is all this about?

In the early centuries of the Christian church, some odd traditions arose in connection with the pelican. It was said that the bird loved its offspring very much, but when the chicks squabbled in the nest and beat the parents’ beaks with their own, the mother would get angry and kill them. Filled with remorse she would, after three days, restore them to life by feeding them on her own blood by stabbing her breast with her beak. The illustration from Harley 4751 shows the full chain of events: the parent-bird with chicks under her wing kills one of them, mourns it, and then pours her blood down its throat to revive it. This tale became a metaphor for Christ’s behaviour: saving humankind by spilling his blood. So, it’s no surprise that the earliest records of it are found in Christian writings of the 2nd to 4th centuries because even if the Church didn’t invent the story they were keen to popularise it. Yet, the narrative soon changed a little: the idea of a Christ-like bird murdering its own brood was probably rather unpalatable, so it began to be said that the chicks were killed by a snake or some other cause instead.

Of course, when the story of the pelican came to Britain with the early Christians, no-one on these shores knew what a pelican looked like and so its representation was very inaccurate.

Once aware of this curious belief, it is possible to find countless depictions of the pelican in churches throughout the UK. There is a beautiful stained glass window in St Nicholas’ Church at Pevensey of the pelican giving her blood to restore her children, an interesting wooden statuette in Tewkesbury Abbey, a carving in a misericord at Lavenham Church, Suffolk, and a handsome stone relief behind the pulpit in St Mary’s Church, Abberley.

Examples of the pelican at Pevensey, Tewkesbury and Abberley (courtesy of Simon Wills)

These representations all show what became the classic pose of pelican on the nest with chicks, often with wings outstretched, and stabbing her own breast to produce life-giving blood. This depiction acquired a specific name of the ‘pelican in her piety’ to emphasise the sacrifice and devotion involved. In Renaissance art the pelican is sometimes even shown sat atop the cross while Christ is crucified.

This Pelican from a Tudor manuscript is more accurate (courtesy of Simon Wills)

This symbolic use of the pelican continued into Tudor times, even though it was still the case that few if any Brits would ever have seen one. Queen Elizabeth I adopted the pelican as one of her personal symbols probably because she liked to be seen as the mother of the nation, making sacrifices on behalf of her subjects. This perhaps helped to broaden the symbolism away from Christ alone. The National Portrait Gallery has an interesting analysis of a contemporary portrait in which the queen is wearing a pelican jewel.

Shakespeare makes several references to the prevailing beliefs about the pelican. In Hamlet, for example, Laertes says ‘…I’ll ope my arms  And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,  Repast them with my blood’.

We do know that pelicans officially arrived in England in 1664, and probably for the first time. Charles II was given some by the Russian ambassador as a present and they were kept in St James’s Park, London, which the King opened to the public. Pelicans still reside in the park to this day.

Blood donation poster 1944
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gradually, the pelican symbolism was extended ever more generally and became a sign for sacrifice, benevolence, or devotion to others. Thus the bird was associated with charities, and it began to be depicted outside the church setting. There is a well-known one on the façade of Magdalen College, Oxford, for example. The porch of the Scottish National War Memorial built at Edinburgh Castle in 1927 displays a gold pelican, representing sacrifice, and this was quite a popular symbol to use on First World War memorials across the UK. The familiar image of the ‘pious’ pelican was even used on a Second World War poster to help recruit blood donors, again in Scotland.

From Christ to Queen Elizabeth I to war memorials and blood donation. What was the origin of this rather strange story about the pelican that bled itself to save its young? It was probably simply that the adult birds open their beaks widely to disgorge semi-liquid food straight into the mouths of their chicks; they also tend to press their beaks towards their breasts when doing so. At some point, somebody misinterpreted this or deliberately chose to use it as a life-giving allegory.

Still, it is odd to think that a bird which few people in the UK had ever seen until fairly recently has been so widely depicted in our communities and culture; and for a behaviour that it does not even display.

(courtesy of Simon Wills)

Simon Wills is a history journalist, genealogist, and wildlife photographer. He has also been an adviser to the television programme Who Do You Think You Are? The author of ten books, Simon has taken a particular interest in areas of history that are difficult to research or which have been neglected.

His well-received ‘Wreck of the SS London’ explores the tragic sinking of a luxury liner that sent shockwaves through Victorian society but which has been largely forgotten. Similarly, his bestselling book ‘How Our Ancestors Died’, tells the story of historical causes of death with which a modern audience may no longer be familiar.

He has recently been researching the history of the human relationship with the natural world and published ‘A History of Birds’, which will shortly be followed by ‘A History of Trees’.

Simon will be speaking about ‘A History of Birds’ at the Festival at 2pm on Tuesday 26th June 2018. Tickets go on sale 25th April.


Everyone has image of the SAS: feats of physical endurance involving over-muscled men yomping across the landscape, soldiers in balaclavas abseiling down the side of the Iranian embassy, news stories of secret soldiers carrying out operations in farflung warzones, long on drama, but usually short on detail.

The true story of the wartime SAS, I discovered, is very different from the myth.

It is an astonishing adventure story, filled with tales of physical endurance, courage and survival.  But it is much more than that.

Many books about the SAS have focused on a single individual, consequently downplaying the impact of others; some veer towards the hagiographic; many are somewhat over-muscled, tending to emphasize machismo at the expense of objectivity, physical strength over the psychological stamina that was the hallmark of the organization in its earliest incarnation. While many members of the wartime SAS exhibited extraordinary qualities, they were also human: flawed, occasionally cruel, and capable of making spectacular mistakes. The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is a tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality and touching human frailty.

Bravery sometimes comes in unexpected forms, and in places far from the battlefield. The wartime history of the SAS is a rattling adventure story, but in my book, SAS: ROGUE HEROES, I have also tried to explore the psychology of secret, unconventional warfare, a particular attitude of mind at a crucial moment in history, and the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary wartime circumstances.

Rather to my surprise, this turned out to a book about the meaning of courage.


Ben Macintyre is the bestselling author of several books including A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award for Biography of the Year 2008. He is a columnist and Associate Editor at The Times.

On Saturday 1 July at 6.45pm, he will be at Chalke Valley History Festival to tell the story of David Stirling, the eccentric young officer who was given permission by Churchill to recruit the most ruthless soldiers he could find, thereby founding the most mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS.

Tickets are available here.


The CIA’s Drone Policy Under Trump

Featured Image: “Gorgon Stare” by Kathryn Brimblecombe

President Trump’s agenda has borrowed heavily from Reagan. Tax cuts, a military buildup, and even the slogan “Make America Great Again” were all signatures of the 1980 presidential campaign, noisily repackaged for a new age. Within a day of assuming office, Trump revealed a further resonance with Reagan’s platform, echoing the former president’s intention to “unleash” a CIA constrained by bureaucracy. While visiting Langley, Trump accused the previous administration of not having always given the CIA the backing it required, and promised to grant the agency “1000 percent” support in “leading the charge” against “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The criticism that Obama did not do enough to support the CIA might seem strange for a president so associated with the agency’s expansive drone campaign. Over the former president’s two terms, the CIA oversaw an estimated 375 strikes in Pakistan’s frontier provinces. Yet despite the enormous increase in the scale and tempo of the agency’s campaign, the Obama administration had retained the collaborative partnership Langley had first established with the United States Air Force in the late 1990s when Predator drones were employed in the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Under this arrangement the CIA directed the strikes, but the Air Force retained responsibility for piloting the aircraft and pulling the trigger. Within weeks of his visit, Trump delivered on his promise of empowerment, overturning this combined approach and granting the CIA the authority to execute its own strikes.

What is the Trump administration’s motivation for overturning the well-established relationship between the CIA and the Air Force? For critics the decision may seem like little more than a cynical attempt to bypass the safeguards the previous administration had established. Under pressure from human rights and legal groups, and conscious of the legacy he was leaving, Obama had sought to address some of the biggest criticisms related to his two terms of drone warfare, namely the proliferation of targeted killing, erosion of international norms and standards, and the lack of transparency surrounding strikes and their casualties. His administration’s efforts to bring drone warfare out from the shadows were first codified in the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, which established strict targeting criteria, and expanded upon in the closing months of his presidency by Executive Order 13732, which committed future administrations to publicly producing annual casualty reports.

Authorizing the CIA to undertake its own strikes theoretically removes these actions from the public disclosure required by Title 10 of the U.S. Code, under which the Pentagon operates. Instead, actions can be concealed behind the CIA’s specialist Title 50, which authorizes covert action. In reality however, prior to Trump’s decision both the Bush and Obama administrations relied upon an exploitative hybrid, leaning upon the Air Force to provide legal authority for lethal action, while using the CIA’s Title 50 rights to render details about such strikes classified. It was not until his final months in office that Obama challenged this abuse. Rather than a dramatic change to established practices of secrecy, Trump’s move represents a rejection of the Obama administration’s belated attempt to set new standards that it hoped the next administration would meet, and possibly improve upon.

The more significant motive behind the Trump administration’s decision to authorize the CIA to undertake strikes is its determination to accelerate the pace of the United States’ campaign against what it collectively describes as “radical Islamic terrorism.” The consensus view held among Trump’s closest advisors is that the ponderous caution exercised by his predecessor enabled groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to expand. Thus Obama’s guidelines were regarded as little more than bureaucratic red tape, binding U.S. forces with collateral damage assessments and casualty reports, and limiting the nation’s ability to bring its full force to bear against the so called “global jihadist movement.” Consequently, the decision is better understood in the wider context of the administration’s reforms to the way the War on Terror is being fought. The White House has set out to transform America’s counterterrorism operations from a centralized effort led by the Executive to an approach where greater authority is delegated to the Pentagon and Langley to empower commanders on the ground to sanction their own operations, be they drone strikes or other kinds of counterterrorism activity.

That is not to say that Trump’s decision should not ring alarm bells. One of the strongest cases for the sort of transparency Obama belatedly sought to introduce is the added incentive to exercise caution and limit civilian casualties. As revealed by the Trump administration’s disastrous Yemen raid in which twenty-three civilians and a Navy SEAL were killed, and the unprecedented civilian casualties caused by recent coalition air strikes on Mosul, the combination of increased tempo, delegated authority, and limited transparency can have an extremely negative impact upon efforts to limit civilian casualties.

It would be inaccurate however to assume that because Trump has sought to return the CIA’s drone warfare to the shadows that the automatic consequence will be higher civilian casualties. The decision, while doubtless intended to be part of the administration’s tempo-increasing streamlining, overlooks the fact that Langley has long had different targeting criteria to those employed by the Pentagon, reflecting the different cultural attitudes and roles of the two bodies. The Pentagon—as a warfighting organization—uses “reasonable certainty” to validate targets when operating within warzones, enabling it to respond quickly to threats but with a higher proportion of risk. The CIA however—as an intelligence agency whose strikes often take place outside of warzones—relies upon “near certainty” for their targets, a standard which can take weeks or months longer than a typical Pentagon operation to achieve.

Evidence of the CIA’s more methodical approach to drone strikes was revealed when the Obama administration explored the possibility of transferring responsibility from the CIA to the Department of Defense in 2013. Lawmakers in the Senate Intelligence Committee, who were concerned that the military lacked the necessary intelligence-gathering capabilities to ensure the same degree of precision, opposed the move. The CIA, argued the committee’s chair Diane Feinstein, had proven itself capable of exercising “patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage.” Thus, while Trump’s decision reflects a retrospective step in terms of transparency and government accountability, the more meticulous approach of Langley’s terrorist hunters should be regarded as a positive policy development at a time when the Executive’s desire for quick results and greater appetite for risk has already seen a troubling rise in civilian casualties.

This article was first published by Yale University Press on 10 April 2017.

Dr Christopher Fuller is a lecturer in modern US History at the University of Southampton. His research & teaching is focused upon US foreign policy, in particular the origins & conduct of the War on Terror & the exploration of the United States as a post-territorial empire in the post-Cold War era. His book See It/Shoot It: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program is due for publication 6 June 2017.

He is speaking at our Schools Festival in June about ‘US Foreign Policy Since the Cold War.’

Hidden In The Countryside

The Wansdyke at Morgan’s Hill near Devizes

A series of four parallel earthworks cut the line of the Icknield Way south east and south west of Cambridge.  They are up to 5 miles long and up to 34 feet high.  Most people have never heard of them.

The Wansdyke is a linear earthwork which stretches from Marlborough to Bath, with some interruptions.  That is a distance of about 40 miles.  In places it is about 20 feet high.  Most people are completely unaware of its existence.

In the 1860s and 1870s the Victorian antiquarian General Augustus Pitt Rivers excavated a number of long linear earthworks in East Yorkshire.  They were generally known as the Wolds Entrenchments.  Pitt Rivers’ conclusion was that they were built by a people expanding westwards from the area near the coast, fortifying as they went.  The Wolds Entrenchments are generally forgotten today, yet there are dozens of them. They are easy to find, run for miles, and are typically several feet high.

Pitt Rivers also excavated a major earthwork astride the Roman road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum, about two miles from the Chalke Valley.  Called the Bokerly (or Bokerley) Ditch, it is about 12 feet high in places today.  There is a car park where the A354 crosses it.  Occasionally, curious tourists wander over it and wonder who built it.  But the great majority of people have never heard of it.

Pitt Rivers considered that the Bokerley Dyke and the Wansdyke (which he also excavated) were  late or post-Roman defence works.  There are hundreds of these earthworks.  They are spread across much of England (but very little of Scotland or Wales).  In total they are hundreds of miles long.

Grim’s Bank: one of a series of earthworks associated with the Roman town of Silchester, Hampshire.

They would have taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of man-hours to build.  Very few have been excavated.  The most famous is Offa’s Dyke, excavated over eight seasons in the 1920s and 30s by Sir Cyril Fox.  The few that have been dated with any rigor have been shown to be late- or post-Roman.  In the 1960s the chief archaeologist of the Ordnance Survey considered them to be ‘[t]he most impressive monuments of the Dark Ages in Britain’.  Yet today they are almost entirely forgotten.

These Dark Age dykes raise four key issues. The first is to find out how many there are, where they are, and how big they are.  The other three issues should be applied to each earthwork in turn:  ‘who built it?’,  ‘why did they build it?’  and finally ‘why did they build it there?’  (‘there’ in the sense of locally, regionally and nationally).  If you do that, you come to some interesting conclusions.  I shall be talking about my findings at this year’s Chalke Valley History Festival.

Rationed Fashion & Victory Rolls: Women’s Fashion in the 1940s

This year at CVHF, some hugely significant anniversaries are being marked by the 1940s themed weekend; namely, 75 years since the Battle of Britain and 70 years since the end of World War Two. You can find out more about the wonderful events taking place over the weekend here, but for anyone joining in with ‘dress up Saturday’ – and the 1945 Victory Party on Saturday night – read on for an introduction to 1940s fashion, and some tips to keep your costumes authentic!

Women’s Fashion in World War Two

During the war clothing took on new significance in women’s lives. Many donned uniforms for the first time and performed tasks it was never imagined they were capable of, such as flying Spitfires and felling trees. Yet despite adopting these masculine roles, they were also asked by the government to maintain their femininity. Magazines and films instructed women to keep their clothes fashionable and faces presentable to keep up morale, while propaganda stressed the importance of thrift, asking women to stitch, patch and darn not only their own clothes but those of their whole families. But for many the famous austerity measures were nothing new – they had been mending and making-do their whole lives.

Lucie Whitmore - 1. 'Make do and Mend' dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)jpg

‘Make do and Mend’ dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)

There are three major influences that helped to define World War Two fashion.
The first, clothes rationing, was introduced in June 1941, when every civilian was given 60 coupons per year, though this later reduced to 48. Nearly all garments were assigned a coupon value relative to the amount of material and labour involved in production. As an example, a dress would cost between 7 and 11 coupons. The second, Utility (also known as CC41), was a scheme introduced by the government in February 1942 when shortages were becoming more problematic, despite rationing. The scheme, which eventually covered shoes, furniture and household goods as well as clothing and cloth, aimed to make best possible use of scarce raw supplies by carefully controlling manufacture processes, from fabric production to cutting techniques. The scheme also guaranteed a constant supply of good quality civilian clothing in a range of price brackets, meaning that well made garments were affordable to all, not just the elite.

Lucie Whitmore - 2. Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

These measures were necessary not only because Britain was deprived of many of its imports and had to become more self-sufficient, but also because factories and workers were desperately needed for the war effort, and couldn’t be spared for the clothes trade. Unrelenting austerity and shortages resulted in a national obsession with repairing, recycling and re-inventing. The government ran numerous campaigns to prevent wastage and promote economy:  such as ‘Mrs Sew & Sew’ and the famous ‘Make-Do-and-Mend’ campaign – which gave advice on topics such as how to make clothes last. Though ubiquitous today, some women living through the war hadn’t even heard of the campaign; it simply didn’t apply to them. In the words of Julia Matthews, who worked in a factory in Staines during the war, ‘Times were very tough before the war… and so the need to be creative, make things out of old scraps and discarded items was not new just because of the war – it had been a necessity for many years…’ (Matthews, 2010)

Lucie Whitmore - 3. Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Trends in fashion during the war were largely shaped by these austerity driven schemes, and the necessary restrictions in tailoring. A notable trend was the military influence; evident in women’s tailoring, and embodied in a squared shoulder and defined waist. But clothing from the era is particularly recognisable for its ingenuity and resourcefulness; multi-coloured knitwear re-made by unravelling various worn out garments, Utility dresses with straight cut skirts and barely any seam allowance, and accessories re-modelled from something long unworn by a husband or brother. World War Two fashion does not, despite these impediments, appear frumpy or unappealing however; it has acquired a romance and nostalgia, and remains a joy to study or re-create in the present day. The three dresses pictured below, all original 1940s garments, show that colours were vivid and patterns cheerful.

Lucie Whitmore - 4. (Left) Utility dress, © Edinburgh Museums & Galleries (Centre) Blue forties dress and (Right)  printed Utility dress, © Lucie Whitmore

1940s Day Dress

Tweed or wool skirt and jacket with blouse
Skirt and blouse with knitted cardigan
Printed cotton, rayon or linen dress: narrow waists, exaggerated lapels, button down fronts, waist ties, below the knee hem, A-line skirt.
Occasionally slacks, or loose fitting trousers, for women – but only on casual occasions or for work.
Brogues flat or with low heel, clogs,

1940s Evening dress

(‘Evening dress’ almost ceased to exist during the war; the following would be appropriate for a party or evening event!)
Blouse and skirt (straight cut, peg top, A-line)
1930s dresses (possibly altered or re-made)
Day dresses – below knee/calf length, shoulder length sleeves, floral popular. Linen, cotton, rayon, synthetics
1930s accessories
Chunky heeled leather shoes – often made from wood or cork, with platform
Knitwear – cardigan, often with decorative wool embroidery

Hair and Make-up

(Also restricted due to shortages!)
Dye legs with builders sand, coffee or oxo, draw stocking ‘seam’ up back of the leg with eye pencil
Beetroot juice or cochineal for lipstick
Candle soot for a smoky eye-shadow
Victory Rolls or glamorous curls for the evening, headscarf turban for day.

Lucie Whitmore - 5. VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

If you are interested in the history of forties fashion, or looking for more style ideas, the following books may be of interest:

Griffith, Suzanne. Stitching for Victory. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2009.

Summers, Julie. Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War. London: Profile Books, 2015.

Tregenza, Liz. Style Me Vintage: 1940s. London: Pavilion Books, 2015.

Walford, Jonathon. Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

lucie bw picWomen’s Fashion During the Great War

On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.

Hidden Gems

James Holland, the Festival’s Programme Director and Co-Chair, lists the talks he’s most looking forward to seeing.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Anita Anand is a really well-respected BBC journalist but on the back of terrific reviews I read this book and found it utterly fascinating.  Sophia’s story is an extraordinary one that blends human drama and social history in a very compelling way.  I’m always looking to get brilliant speakers – people who perform rather than read out a written speech, and Anita is going to be excellent, I know.


The English & Their History by Robert Tombs
I was really fortunate to persuade Robert Tombs to come.  He’s a hugely eminent professor and academic and a very busy and much-in-demand man.  His book received amazing plaudits when it came out and this is bound to be both fascinating and thought-provoking at a time when we as a nation are asking many questions about our identity – and thus also our past.

Tombs, Robert


Home Fires by Julie Summers
I’m rather hooked by the ITV drama, Home Fires, which was based on Julie Summers’ book about the WI in the Second World War.  I’m also really interested in the totality of Britain’s commitment during the war, so I’m really looking forward to hearing Julie speak.

Summers, Julie

Hobbes, Ideas and the English Revolution by Hannah Dawson
If I had anything to do with it, studying the Civil War would be compulsory at schools before GCSE choices are made.  The country we are today really stems from that traumatic period in the middle of the 17th Century and so this is just the kind of meaty, thought-provoking subject we should be doing at the festival. Hannah is an amazing historian and academic – charismatic, passionate and a brilliant speaker.  This will be a treat.

Dawson, Hannah

Ancient Egypt: New Stories by Joann Fletcher
I think Jo Fletcher is brilliant.  Although an academic, she has made herself the BBC’s No.1 Egyptologist and her series are just brilliant.  Her enthusiasm is infectious, she’s loads of passion and energy, and ancient Egypt is just so interesting.  I’ve been out there, but even if one hasn’t, how can one not be seduced by the sheer scale and grandeur of Karnak, the Pyramids and the Temple of Queen Hapshepsut?

Joann Fletcher

The World’s War by David Olusoga
David is not only one of the nicest people on the planet, he is a brilliant historian and television presenter.  I thought this BBC series was the best history I’ve seen on telly for a while, and he’s another who has charisma, charm and a gift for storytelling in bucket loads.  This wider view of the First World War is just so interesting and I know David will be giving us an incredible talk.  I wouldn’t miss this one for anything.

David Olusoga

Sensation and Pleasure in 18th Century France by Andrew Spira
I was once on holiday with Andrew and he had us all eating out of his hand – his knowledge is immense and all of us, young and old, were rapt by both his stories and his intellect.  This might seem an unusual choice for a talk, but trust me, it will be utterly and completely fascinating and will get you thinking and talking about it for a long time after.  I can’t wait.

Spira, Andrew

Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen
In London, Mark’s talks sell out every time.  I’m also keen to inject a bit of more recent cultural history into the programme, and this will be a hilarious, gossipy, anecdotal romp through the seventies and eighties music scene, when Mark was at the very heart of music journalism.  Come along, sit back, and enjoy!

Ellen, Mark

The Gandhi-Smuts Agreement of January 1914

Denis Judd - Empire imageChapter 18 from ‘Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present’ by Denis Judd

On 21 January 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jan Christian Smuts reached an agreement aimed at settling the long struggle over the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa.  From 1860 tens of thousands of Indian indentured labourers had been brought to Natal to work on the sugar plantations.  They were followed by other Indians who crossed the Indian Ocean either to work as labourers in South Africa or to open businesses there. As the businessmen, many of whom were Muslims, prospered, the white community saw them as an increasingly powerful and dangerously influential element in South African society.

When the indentured labourers completed their contracts, they and their families overwhelmingly chose to stay in South Africa, particularly in Natal.  When Natal became a fully self-governing colony in 1893, the newly established responsible government began a campaign to strip Indians of any political privileges they enjoyed and to obstruct the full citizenship of the Indian immigrant population as a whole.  The 1896 Franchise Act passed in the Natal parliament effectively disenfranchised Indians, who were not mentioned specifically in the legislation, by ingeniously denying the vote in Natal to anyone whose home country did not have its own parliamentary representation.  In 1897 the Natal parliament forbade the immigration of any Indians who had not signed indentures, and allowed the trading licences of Indians to be cancelled without appeal to a court of law.  These were the predictable responses of a white minority community insecurely settled among a much larger black majority.  The Europeans were generally resentful of further non-white immigration, and feared the competition of Indian migrants in trade and in the job market.

As Indians moved to other parts of South Africa, particularly to the Transvaal, a series of legislative and judicial obstacles were raised to their entering into full citizenship.  Among the stratagems devised by the whites to harry and demoralise Indians and their families, were hefty taxes, challenges to their rights to enter the country and a legal ruling which appeared to declare Hindu marriages illegal.

In 1894, the young London-trained Gujerati lawyer, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was invited by the wealthy and often well educated Indians who had established the Natal Indian Congress to come to South Africa to join the struggle to protect their rights.  Until 1906, Gandhi, employing a mixture of conventional legal and political devices, attempted to defend and advance the civil rights of Indians in Natal and even further afield.  Although some modest successes were recorded, it was not until September 1906 that Gandhi was able to lead his Indian followers to more substantial success.  The turning point was his decision to abandon the conventional methods of resistance practised hitherto and to launch the first satyagraha campaign.

This step may be viewed as an important turning point in the history of the resistance to imperial rule, and in the development of peaceful techniques to assert the claims of indigenous nationalism.  Satyagraha, which literally means ‘the force of truth’, was shaped into a powerful personal political philosophy through Gandhi’s genius for organisation and leading through example.  Drawing on ancient Indian tradition, certain aspects of the philosophy of Count Lev Tolstoy – for instance the notion that evil could best be countered by non-resistance –  and even upon the recent activities of the Suffragettes in Britain, satyagraha, which became associated with non-cooperation and civil disobedience, became a potent weapon in Gandhi’s hands.  It was a non-violent means of confronting the big battalions of imperial and white settler supremacy.  No physical threat was offered to one’s opponent.  Instead, protesters used techniques like the non-payment of taxes, the burning of passes, the renunciation of honours and positions of authority, and, in extremis, the refusal to cooperate with authority.  Gandhi also encouraged his supporters to follow the Christian precept of turning the other cheek in the face of physical aggression.

The overriding aim of satyagraha was to occupy the moral high ground and to unsettle and win over one’s opponents, not through acts of physical aggression, but through restraint and passivity, and, above all, by setting them an example which would eventually convince them of the righteousness of those they attacked.  Between 1906 and 1914, Gandhi and his supporters in South Africa pushed the white regimes that dominated the self-governing colonies, and  later the Union government, to their limits.  In the end, General Smuts, the minister for defence and native affairs in the South African administration led by Louis Botha, decided to capitulate to Gandhi’s demands.

The Gandhi-Smuts agreement led to the passing, six months later, of the Indian Relief Bill which acceded to all the protesters’ demands: the £3 annual tax was abolished, marriages considered legal in India became legal in South Africa, and the domicile certificate became sufficient right to enter the Union.  There was, of course, more to it than Smuts simply recognising the moral strength of the Gandhian campaigners.  For one thing, it was possible to see the fairly small but increasingly influential Indian community in South Africa as potential allies in the real race conflict in the sub-continent – that between the whites and the blacks.  For another, an agreement would almost certainly rid the country of Gandhi, and when he sailed from Durban in July 1914 Smuts remarked ‘The Saint has left our shores; I sincerely hope for ever’.

The apparent triumph of Gandhi’s satyagraha tactics in South Africa was full of portent.  Within three years of his return to India, he was using the same tactics with increasing confidence and success against the British Raj.  It also provided an example which gave hope to all those who wished, in one way or another, to strike a blow against British rule or even simply to irritate, embarrass and exasperate their rulers.

But it also represented an important psychological turning-point in the mounting desire of colonial peoples to free themselves from British overlordship.  The success of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign began a process of liberating the leaders of colonial resistance groups from a subservience to British political methods and from the assumed superiority of European culture.  As writers like Edward Said have so persuasively demonstrated, the European imperial powers carried out a devastating and generally highly successful assault upon the integrity of indigenous culture and civilisation during the imperial age.  Western statesmen, writers, missionaries, historians, journalists and many other opinion-formers described and defined the native cultures with whom they came into contact in such derogatory and dismissive terms that imperial rule became, by definition, a necessary and  civilising act.

Having projected upon large numbers of indigenous societies all manner of delinquencies, inadequacies and barbarities, the European imperial powers could, to a very large extent, rid themselves of guilt as they overcame, manipulated and frequently abused colonial subjects.  There was even something in it for the conquered and the colonised.  Cecil Rhodes believed that the linchpins of British imperialism were philanthropy plus a 5% dividend on investment.  Kipling, as so often, put this philosophy into bumping, jangling verse:

We broke a king
And we built a road.
A court house stands
Where the regiment go’ed,
And the river’s clean
Where the red blood flowed,
At Kumasi.

If the definition and delineation of inferior cultures may be described as ‘orientalism’, there was also a reverse or opposite set of perceptions.  ‘Occidentalism’ existed side by side with ‘orientalism’.  The occidentalists were those colonial and subject peoples who respected, admired and idealised the West, and in particular Britain.  Good, noble and exalted values were projected upon British institutions, methods and personalities.  Queen Victoria became the great white queen over the water, as benign, caring and omnipotent as some deity.  British justice was imagined to be the best in the world, British culture the most refined, British political institutions the most liberal and humane, British people the most tolerant and kindly.  In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela, for  example, wrote that in his youth he believed that ‘the best ideas were English, the best government was English government and the best men were Englishmen.’   For much of his early manhood Gandhi, too, idealised what he perceived as British virtues, wishing his sons to be ‘proper English gentlemen’ and assuming that the British Empire was devoted to the equality and well-being of all its subjects.  Such commonplace reactions are an awesome testimony to the phenomenal success of the propaganda, both conscious and unconscious, purveyed by Britain and by the British during much of their imperial hegemony.

But Gandhi’s decision to employ satyagraha as a political and social tool from 1906 onwards marked the beginning of the end of his romantic and idealised perception of Britain and Britishness.  His conversion was signalled externally by his decision to wear simple, Indian garments and to set aside the three-pieced suits, collars and ties of the Westernised Oriental lawyer.  He ate only simple food, and eventually renounced all pleasures of the flesh, including those of sex.

His change of heart was also brought about by the manifest failure of the institutions and administrators of the British Empire to recognise the justice of the Indian case in South Africa, let alone do anything about it.  Despairing, at least in the short term, of British justice, Gandhi instead put his hopes into self-help and the celebration of indigenous culture rather than its rejection.  This in turn led to an increasing alienation from Western civilisation.  Within a short time, Gandhi had become the persausive and consistent critic of Western education, Western materialism and Western industrialisation.

All of this unleashed forces of such power that the struggles of colonial people to attain self-determination, or at the very least a greater degree of respect for themselves and their cultures, received a permanent boost.  Naturally, Britain’s imperial supremacy did not melt away overnight.  British military technology, the apparently ubiquitous strength of the Royal Navy, British understandings with collaborating local leaders and elites, and the skilful use of the techniques to sustain imperial power were formidable obstacles to overcome.

It is important to realise, however, that to some extent Gandhi and the other opponents of imperial rule were pushing at the door which was, if not open, at least ajar.  The strenuous attempt to promote the imperial ideal which had characterised the last decade of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, reflected uncertainty and pessimism as much as self-confidence and optimism.  The pronouncements of imperial proconsuls like Milner or Curzon, passionate and clear-cut as they were, were fundamentally attempts to rally a distracted, passive and sometimes actively hostile audience.  For every public figure who preached the gospel of Empire there were literally hundreds of thousands of men and women whose main preoccupation was balancing the household budget and finding adequately paid employment.  This was at least one reason why Chamberlain strove so hard to equate empire with full employment and prosperity.

How strong was anti-imperial sentiment within the United Kingdom and the Empire in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War?  Despite the attempt in many quarters to promote the ideals of King, Country and Empire, there were substantial numbers of British citizens who declined to buy the whole package.  It was the poet and author G.K. Chesterton who remarked in 1901, during the Boer War:

‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case.  It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

During the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, opposition to both British imperialism and militarism had been freely and sometimes powerfully expressed.  The mid-Victorians had expressed at the very least ambivalence over the need to expand the formal Empire.  Richard Cobden and the free traders of the Manchester School had argued that colonies were expensive to maintain, and thus a burden to the tax payer, especially since trade with them would flourish whether or not they were ruled by Britain, as had been clearly demonstrated by the booming Anglo-American trade after the loss of the Old Thirteen Colonies.  The Cobdenites also asserted that the formal possession of colonies was a threat to international peace, since they provoked jealousies among other imperial powers and conflict over their frontiers.  Cobden also maintained that one of the main reasons why colonies were retained was in order to find profitable employment for the younger sons of the English aristocracy in the imperial administration and in the army.

The Victorians, especially once the ideology of the free market was firmly established, became preoccupied with a policy that they called ‘Retrenchment’.  A large number of politicians and statesmen believed that it was their duty to cut down on wasteful expenditure, to keep the role of the state to the minimum and as a consequence to save as much of the tax payers’ money as possible.  It thus followed that existing colonies must be financially independent and pay for their own administration out of their resources.  Loans to colonial governments were discouraged, and the cost of combating, for example, famines in India placed firmly on the shoulders of the Indian government.  The acquisition of new colonies seemed to many to be an unnecessary headache and a potential drain on revenue.  In 1865 the Select Committee reporting on the British possessions in West Africa gave strong advice against ‘all further extension of territory or assumption of Government, or new treaties offering any protection to native tribes’, and even recommended, perhaps rather wistfully, that Britain should abandon three out of her four colonies on the West African Coast.

These misgivings did not, in the event, halt the process of imperial expansion.  The West African colonies remained in the Empire; indeed, their territory was augmented. The imperial frontier inexorably advanced, despite the distant complaints from Westminster and Whitehall.  The real problem was that, when it came to a crisis, no British government could abandon white settlers or business interests to the depredations of hostile local populations.  But when it was deemed safe to do so, as in the case of New Zealand in the 1870s, British troops were withdrawn and a triumph for Retrenchment recorded.  But in South Africa, the West Indies, in parts of Africa and elsewhere it did not prove possible to make white settler communities bear the costs and responsibility of their own defence.  In the process there emerged a curious equation between anti-imperialism and feelings of resentment towards those indigenous people whose rebellions, resistance and intransigence necessitated the intervention of British forces.  In other words, it was ‘their’ fault that there was trouble and expense, not ‘ours’.

Even during the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, anti-imperialist sentiment, although it may have declined in volume and quantity, never disappeared.  This was true right across the political spectrum.  Despite Disraeli’s attempt to hitch the Conservative party to the fiery chariot of Empire, he was by no means universally successful.  Most Conservatives saw themselves as the party of low taxation, and even if they were content to be identified as the party of Empire they overwhelmingly wanted imperial administration and expansion on the cheap.  It took a Liberal Unionist like Joseph Chamberlain, supported by pro-consuls of Liberal antecedence like Milner and Cromer, to articulate the gospel of the New Imperialism with consistency and fervour. Neither of the two Conservative and Unionist Prime Ministers between 1885 and 1905, Salisbury and Balfour, gave the impression of a passionate commitment to the imperial ideal.  Salisbury, as we have seen, spoke gloomily of the perils of ‘splendid isolation’, and Balfour expressed genuine misgivings over both the Jameson Raid and the Chamberlainite machinations that led to the outbreak of the Boer War.

Of the two major political parties, the Liberals contained most anti-imperialists within their ranks.  Once in office, of course, the Liberal party was caught in a dilemma.  What happened in practice was that Liberal governments tended to uphold Britain’s imperial interests, although often giving the impression that they felt some ambivalence, even guilt, in the process.  Liberal backbenchers were, however, allowed to exercise their consciences and denounce imperialistic and militaristic excesses, so long as they didn’t actually vote to bring down the government.  Even when the Liberal Imperialist section of the party became so influential towards the end of the 19th century, Liberal MPs often felt able to express their criticisms of the workings of the British Empire.  The South African Act of Union of 1909 provoked bitter opposition from a minority of Liberal MPs who denounced it, with undeniable accuracy, as nothing short of a sell-out of the political rights of non-European peoples in South Africa.

Liberal opponents of the South African Act of Union were joined by the relatively small number of Labour representatives in the House of Commons.  Keir Hardie, the first Labour M. P. to enter Parliament in 1892 and Chairman of the party from 1906-08, told the House of Commons that he believed it would be only a matter of time before the ‘colour-blind’ Cape franchise was destroyed as an anomaly and a threat to white supremacy:

for the first time we are being asked to write over the portals of the British Empire:  ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’….I, hope, therefore, that if only for the sake of the traditions of our dealings with natives in the past, this Bill…will be so amended as to make it a real unifying Bill in South Africa.  At present it is a Bill to unify the white races, to disenfranchise the coloured races, and not to promote union between the races in South Africa, but rather to still further embitter the relationship.

The Labour movement, however, was in a dilemma.  In ideological terms, socialists disapproved of the exploitation of any group: trade unionists, the poor, and colonial people.  But increasingly the Labour party was becoming the organisation which articulated the demands of mass trade unionism.  Many in the trade union movement made a connection between the consolidation and expansion of the British Empire and the provision of full employment at home.  When asked to choose between adequate wages and good job prospects and the oppression of colonial subjects, many trade unionists were tempted to put their own interests first.   H. G. Wells caught the dilemma neatly in his great Edwardian novel Kipps, published in 1905, when the underpaid, over-worked drapers’ apprentices, penned into their garret ‘over the shop’, discuss the news of the proposal to extend the Indian franchise, and generally do not welcome the proposals, trapped as they are amid their own impoverishment and disenfranchisement.

The controversy over ‘Chinese slavery’ in the Transvaal from 1904 onwards provides a nice illustration of the Liberal, socialist and trade unionist dilemma.  The importation of 50,000 indentured Chinese labourers to boost gold production on the Rand after the conclusion of the Boer War provoked one of the most dramatic political controversies of the Edwardian age.  The undoubted abuses – the illegal deduction of wages, the dishonouring of promises of higher pay and harsh punishments, including flogging –  which attended the introduction of Chinese ‘coolie’ labour led to widespread denunciations of the government’s policy in Britain.  At the general election of 1906 it was assumed that the ‘Chinese slavery’ issue lost the Conservatives and Unionists  thousands of working class votes.  There is no doubt that many trade unionists and workers switched their vote from the Unionist party to the Liberals.  But many also abandoned the Liberal party and went over to the embryonic Labour party.  If they were voting to any extent on the issue of ‘Chinese slavery’ they may well have been protesting against competition from dirt cheap ‘yellow labour’ as much as in support of humanitarian principles.

Apart from the left-wing and progressive political parties, many other groups and organisations expressed, in varying degrees, anti-imperialist sentiments.  There were peace groups, humanitarian organisations and Non-conformist churches that expressed a wide range ofopposition and misgivings.  There were the ‘busy bodies’, like Emily Hobhouse, Secretary of the Woman’s Branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, who campaigned persistently against the establishment of concentration camps during the Boer War, and who so exasperated Kitchener and the military high command.  There were journalists who pried into the darker corners of the imperial enterprise and who sometimes embarrassed supporters of Empire with their revelations.  There were the writers, novelists and playwrights, some of whom were to become the mainstays of the Bloomsbury Set during the interwar years, who ridiculed imperial pomposity and, sharp-eyed and persistent, attempted to deflate the more extravagant assertions of patriotism.  Among the Edwardian literati were many socialists, such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and the children’s writer Edith Nesbit.  At the very least, many of these influential writers expressed humanitarian sympathies, even if they did not deliberately, and as a matter of course, denounce the British Empire.  Wells was perhaps the most persistently critical of them all, apt to ridicule the Empire as being at best the provider of a cheap postal system and the services of a narrow minded and unsympathetic officialdom.

Whereas many radicals and reformers in the mid-Victorian period had seen colonisation as an opportunity for valuable experiments in social engineering, several of their Edwardian equivalents denounced Empire, and a seeking of quick profits overseas, as damaging to the prospects of reform at home.  The influential J. A. Hobson argued that ‘Finance manipulates the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists and traders generate; the enthusiasm for expansion which issues from these sources, though strong and genuine, is irregular and blind.’  As a result, Hobson claimed that the exporting of capital overseas left workers in Britain at the mercy of poverty caused by under-employment.   H.N. Brailsfoot, in a very widely read book, The War of Steel and Gold, asserted that ‘The capitalist must rush abroad because he will not fertilise the demand for more commodities at home by the simple expedient of raising wages.’

One of the main problems for those who wished to promote the imperial ideal was the inertia and ignorance of so many of the British public.  Although there were periodic indulgences in jingoistic displays, especially at times of crisis and war, this was not the same thing as a considered, deep-rooted imperial patriotism.  The celebrations which attended the relief of the siege of Mafeking owed a good deal of their fervour to the fact that the news arrived in the United Kingdom at the weekend when large numbers of people had finished work on Saturday afternoon and had their wages in their pockets to spend on a celebratory drink.  When asked to choose between tariff reform, with its prospect of closer imperial union at the price of a modest rise in food prices, the electorate overwhelmingly plumped for the status quo and a cheaper loaf of bread.  Attempts to persuade the British people that imperialism could fund social reform also went largely unheeded.  Milner bitterly regretted that he was never able to find ways of convincing the British public, ‘these d – d fools’, of the reasons why the Empire was central to their futures.

Anti-imperialism could be found  throughout the Empire.  Even within the United Kingdom, Celtic resentment at English domination of the union was liable regularly to erupt.  The Irish, the Ulster Unionists aside, were the most persistent and hostile critics of the imperial system.  The eighty or so Irish Nationalist MPs who sat in the House of Commons frequently made use of their parliamentary privileges to support certain colonial causes and to criticise and embarrass the government of the day over imperial issues.    But in Scotland and Wales, too, dislike of English snobbery, overlordship and Toryism was widespread, manifesting itself in the tendency to vote for Liberal, and later Labour, Parliamentary candidates, and in national  rejoicing whenever English soccer or rugby teams were beaten at Hamden Park, Murrayfield or at the Cardiff Arms Park.

Within the Dominions, anti-British, and thus by definition, anti-imperial feelings were sometimes so endemic that they threatened the generally cordial relations with the Mother Country.  For the Afrikaners of South Africa and the French Canadians, of course, Britain was not the Mother Country, rather the conqueror and oppressor.  Irish Australians often disliked England and the English more than they admired the British Empire; the ‘whingeing Pom’ is not a 20th century construct.  In New Zealand, despite the myth of Maori equality, the indigenous population could hardly avoid seeing themselves as a subjugated people; a people, moreover, overwhelmingly denied equality of opportunity in employment, education and housing, and only grudgingly admitted to the franchise.

In the Indian Empire, by the late nineteenth century,organised political movements were challenging the smooth running of the administration, and were soon to threaten the very existence of the Raj.  The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 with enthusiastic British support, had, after twenty years, outlived its original role as a harmless talking-shop.  The high-handed, abrasive, reforming viceroyalty of Lord Curzon from 1898 to 1905 had in the end transformed Congress into a far more radical and effective organisation.  Curzon had hoped, through demonstrating the impartiality and effectiveness of British rule, to bind India permanently to the Raj.  His partition  of Bengal in 1905, on the grounds of administrative efficiency, had been perceived by a wide range of Indian opinion as a brutal assault upon one of the one of the most heavily populated and politically sophisticated of the sub-continent’s provinces – the home, indeed, of the much resented ‘Bengali babu’.  The Bengal partition had aroused such bitter controversy that Congress was revitalised in the process.  The foundation of the Muslim League in 1906 was another warning that the post-Mutiny settlement, based upon administrative conservatism and minor concessions to Indian constitutional progress (as expressed in the 1892 Indian Councils Act) had broken down.  When Gandhi returned to his home country in 1915, the scattered and varied forces of Indian nationalism were to gain their most skilful, shrewd and populist leader to date.

The strength of the Indian reaction to the 1905 partition of Bengal, and the 1908 split between congress ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’, had encouraged the Liberal government in Britain to introduce the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 to 1910.  The 1909 Indian Councils Act modestly extended the franchise, but quite substantially increased the numbers of elected and nominated Indians on the provincial and central legislative councils of the Raj.  In a way, the reforms were a confidence trick.  The British, by holding out the prospect of progress, at some time to be decided by themselves, toward responsible government, were undoubtedly hoping to contain and defuse the forces of Indian nationalism.  Thus the extension of democratic institutions was used as a means of shoring up the fundamentally autocratic British Raj.  The ambiguous nature of the reforms of 1909 to 1910 was demonstrated by the correspondence between the Indian Secretary of State, Morley, and the Viceroy, Lord Minto over which Indian should be nominated to sit on the Viceroy’s Executive Council.  The key appointment eventually went to S.P. Sinha, whom Minto preferred to the other potential appointee on the grounds that ‘Sinha is comparatively white, whilst Mookerjee is as black as my hat!’

If so crucial an appointment could be made, at least in part, on the grounds of acceptable skin colour, what hope was there for the many well educated Indians of participating in the administration of their own country?  Although the Indian Civil Service was theoretically open to Indian competition, the fact that the entrance examinations were held in the United Kingdom, and the weight of official disapproval at their advancement, ensured that only a handful of Indians had been appointed to the ICS by 1914.

Indeed, British hostility to the ‘educated native’ increased rather than decreased as the 20th century began.  The jumped-up ‘Bengali babu’ had been an object of ridicule and contempt during the second half of the 19th century.  The spirit of Macaulay’s great Indian education reforms of the 1830s was subverted by the growing need to keep India, with its expanding economy and its supplementary army, within the Empire.  Elsewhere in the Empire, for example in the British colonies of the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, the numbers of Africans holding positions in the local civil services was actually sharply reduced between 1870 and 1914.  In 1873 Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State for the Colonies in the Liberal government, had issued a directive that ‘excepting quite subordinate posts we cannot safely employ natives’.  A decade later a colonial office official described educated Africans as ‘the curse of the West coast’.

For the vast majority of colonial citizens, imperial rule, whether welcome or not, was a fact of life to which they simply adjusted.  The struggle for subsistence was sufficient preoccupation for the vast majority of Britain’s subjects in Asia, tropical Africa and the Caribbean.  Nor could any save a handful aspire to serving in colonial civil services or local administrations.

As a consequence,  the final response to misfortune, ill treatment or exploitation throughout the dependent empire was to riot or rise in revolt.  This involved the British army and its colonial subsidiaries and mercenaries in a ceaseless round of confrontation, repression and the enforcement of law and order.  During the reign of Queen Victoria there was not a single year when the British armed forces were not involved in some sort of military campaign, from full-scale international conflicts like the Crimean War to skirmishes on the north-west frontier of India, or where imperial interests clashed with those of  local potentates and indigenous people in Africa and South East Asia.

Whether the British forces were engaged in a relatively routine act of retribution, like burning a village in India, or facing the Boers in a major battle on the high veld, their activities underpinned the gigantic, complex, and sometimes unsound, imperial structure.  In the last resort, the Pax Britannica, as enforced throughout the Empire, was only made possible by the ceaseless activities of British and colonial land forces, and by the capacity of the Royal Navy to intervene swiftly, efficiently and cheaply.

Although for much of the 19th century there was little to choose between the two main parties in terms of their determination to maintain the Empire by whatever means necessary, including the use of force, the policies of the Liberal government from 1905 to 1915 provided a sharper contrast than usual with the ‘forward’ expansionist policies of the Unionist administrations between 1885 and 1905.

There was certainly continuity, however, in one crucial area of imperial overlordship: the need to seek out, negotiate with and, in the last resort, control collaborationist groups within the Empire.  This meant different things in different contexts.  In India it meant leaving a third of the country in the hands of local princes; in Northern Nigeria it meant the establishment of a system of ‘indirect rule’, whereby the British collaborated with the Muslim emirs; sometimes it meant backing one tribe or faction against another, as in the support of anti-Mahdist elements in the Sudan, or occasionally profiting from any friction between the Masai, the Luo and the Kikuyu in Kenya.

The Liberal governments led by Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith also went out of their way to offer concessions to certain local interest groups and to pursue a policy of conciliation rather than confrontation whenever that was deemed expedient and unavoidable.  The granting of internal self-governing status to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and the introduction of the Morley-Minto reforms in India, were the most dramatic, and probably the most significant, examples of the Liberals’ policy of conciliation.  But there were other, more low-key, diplomatic gestures made in other parts of the Empire.  This policy certainly made life less exciting for the British public, who were thus denied their diet of triumphalist headlines and articles in the rapidly expanding mass circulation popular press, but it was undeniably effective.

Conservatives, Unionists and imperialists reacted with both dismay and fury to the concessions made by the Liberal administrations.  As leader of the opposition, Balfour denounced the concession of internal self-government to the Transvaal in 1906 as ‘the most reckless experiment ever tried in the development of a great policy.’   Curzon, who had resigned from the viceroyalty in 1905 after a bitter and protracted quarrel with Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, over the control of military policy, expressed alarm at the proposed Morley-Minto reform, which he described as ‘a futile and fantastic dream’, and had previously remarked, ‘It is often said why not make some prominent native a member of the Executive Council?  The answer is that in the whole continent there is not an Indian fit for the post.’     Another out-of-office proconsul, Milner, asserted in 1908 that ‘the idea of extending what is described as “Colonial Self-Government” to India…is a hopeless absurdity.’

Despite these predictable denunciations, the Liberal policy of mixing kindness with the minimum coercion  seemed to bear fruit, at least in the short term.  Critics of the government’s imperial policies attempted to raise the alarm over what they perceived as endemic weakness and vacillation, and for good measure accused the Liberals of simply not caring enough about the Empire to pursue a stronger line.

There were, nonetheless, a considerable number of violent incidents, rebellions and disturbances between 1905 and 1915.  There were riots in British Guyana, Egypt and India.  There was a rebellion in the north-west of Nigeria in 1906, and determined tribal resistance to the consolidation of British rule in what became the colony of Kenya.  The Zulu rebellion in Natal, which began in 1906, was put down with great brutality and substantial losses of African lives.  At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, some 10,000 Afrikaner rebels staged a short-lived uprising against South Africa’s involvement in the conflict.

In general, however, there were considerable achievements for Liberal imperial policy.  The bid for conciliation, and the moderating of the more radical, hectic and confrontational policies which had been particularly associated with Chamberlain’s tenure of the Colonial Office between 1895 and 1903, all helped to promote a welcome period of stability.  The Liberal government kept a close watch on abuses of proconsular power, tried to keep various colonial bureaucracies under control, insisted on higher administrative standards, and tried to contain imperial militarism and the monopolistic ambitions of big business.

There were attempts to rationalise parts of the imperial system.  One such bid centred on the promotion the Crown Colony form of government as the model to which various dependencies and protectorates should routinely aspire; this was an entirely logical approach which took note of the Crown Colony’s  long history and clear-cut constitutional structure, and which recognised the benefits that could accrue from the routine surveillance exercised by the Colonial Office and Parliament over such colonies.  The Dominions Department of the Colonial Office, which had been first proposed by Balfour’s outgoing Unionist government, provided for better communications with the self-governing colonies.  The colonial service rule-book was revised and rendered more humane and acceptable.  In 1909 a circular from the Colonial Secretary, Lord Crewe, forbade concubinage with local women, although co-habitation between colonial officials and indigenous females flourished for many decades.  More money was put into research into tropical disease and into more efficient and profitable forms of colonial agriculture.

In 1914 the Empire seemed to be set on a relatively even keel.  There were, naturally enough, a vast range of unresolved problems, tensions and conflicts. To begin with, the constitutional status and international identity of the Dominions needed further definition and clarification.  The burgeoning nationalist movement in the Indian Empire had won some modest constitutional concessions from Britain, but had so far not even begun to address the interests and concern of the sub-continent’s huge population.  The mobilisation of India’s masses against the Raj had not yet been achieved, although, ominously, Gandhi was in the process of returning to his homeland from South Africa.

In Africa, the Caribbean, South-East Asia and the Pacific a huge number of  colonial possessions presented a wide variety of challenging problems – centring on their future viability, profitability, constitutional and economic development and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled – as well as numerous opportunities and consolations.    The late-19th century drive to consolidate the Empire and to stiffen its backbone through the promotion of projects like imperial federation, reciprocal tariffs and a binding set of military obligations, had come to nothing.  The British economy was still clearly in decline, claiming only 14.7 per cent of the world’s manufacturing capacity in 1910 as opposed to 31.8 per cent in 1870.  Although the economy did rather better than expected in the few years  before 1914, there were manifold signs of the continuing success and diversification of the economies of Britain’s chief competitors: ‘Upon the outbreak of war…the British government found to its alarm that all the magnetos in use in Britain came from Stuttgart.  And so did all the khaki dye for uniforms.  London’s ‘Underground’ was built between 1900 and 1914 by American expertise, with plenty of American plant, and with more foreign that British investment.  In 1914 one third of all motor cars in Britain were imported….Americans owned or dominated 70 firms in Britain – the invasion had begun with Singer sewing machines in 1867.’

To some extent, the Liberal government seemed content to let imperial development take its own course.  Since one of the main paths marked out was the high road to local devolution and political freedom, which the Liberals claimed as their own territory, they were content to proceed accordingly.  The more benign Liberal approach to colonial claims for greater self-determination, to local discontents, and to sheer colonial cussedness seemed to be paying dividends.  Almost everywhere, the countries of the Empire were enjoying a relative tranquillity, and at least some of the benefits of peace and progress.  Where all this would have led, but for the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it is impossible to say.

Denis JuddDenis Judd has been Head of History, and is now Professor Emeritus of Imperial and Commonwealth History, at the London Metropolitan University. On Monday, 22nd June, he will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about ‘Gandhi’s Return to India 1915: The Beginning of the End for the British Empire.’


Flowerdew's ChargeWarrior was raring for it. It was March 1918 and he was looking up at the German positions at Moreuil Wood, 10 miles from Amiens in Picardy, at the heart of the western front.

The Germans had broken through and the Fifth Army was in ragged retreat. The enemy troops in the wood were reinforcing and digging in. Desperate times called for desperate measures. The cavalry would go in and Warrior would be at its head.

The small, sturdy bay thoroughbred was a legend among the troops, having served at the front since August 1914. He had somehow survived while hundreds of thousands of his human and equine comrades had fallen around him. One group of cavalrymen dubbed him: “The horse the Germans can’t kill.”

On being given the order to charge at Moreuil Wood, Warrior galloped forward, accompanied by a hail of bullets from the enemy as he and the rest of the party crossed no man’s land and rode up the hill towards the Germans. About half the group were hit. “But Warrior cared for nothing,” recalled his rider. “His one idea was to get at the enemy . . . We were greeted by 20 or 30 Germans who fired a few shots before running away, doubtless thinking there were thousands of us following.”

This is not a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-tipped film version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse story, which was a theatrical hit both in the West End and on Broadway. It is a true tale involving my grandfather General Jack Seely’s horse Warrior.

The battle of Moreuil Wood was one of the last great cavalry charges. It exacted a terrible cost. Although the allies triumphed they lost a quarter of their men and half of the horses involved. Warrior and Seely survived.

Long after the war Seely recounted the tale of the charger he had bred at home on the Isle of Wight in a book, My Horse Warrior, which was illustrated by Sir Alfred Munnings, the acclaimed artist. It is a tale of courage, run through with the sentiment of the citation that Seely is supposed to have written in recommending Warrior for the Victoria Cross, which read simply: “He went everywhere I did.”

But that was in long-forgotten 1934. Since then the story of Warrior’s war has been left in the memory of those who cherished it at the time — the book ran to five editions — and to the children of the Seely family who heard it, not infrequently, at our mothers’ knees.

Then the War Horse phenomenon began. The play, with its astonishingly lifelike horse puppets, was almost painfully moving but it was still principally a magnificent coup de theatre. It was only when Spielberg took up the challenge of turning it into a film that attention fastened on to how hundreds of thousands of horses were enlisted, like Morpurgo’s fictional Joey, to fight on the western front. The social background of Warrior, the thoroughbred, is the exact opposite to that of Joey, the three-guinea colt bought at auction by a drunken farmer to spite a rival and who was then saved from exploitation by the farmer’s young son Albert.

But inverted snobbery can be just as silly as the other kind and while Warrior may have had grooms and stables and extra riders as distinguished as Sir John French, the army’s early commander-in-chief, he still trotted out every year of the war to where the shells crunched and the bullets flew. His life was charmed but his heart never faltered and his very existence became an inspiration. He was even granted an obituary in The Times in April 1941, an honour not given to many horses. In such circumstances it seemed dumb not to front up and repackage my grandfather’s book. Four reprints and sales exceeding 20,000 with a consistent No 1 position in Amazon’s first world war bestseller list have justified the decision commercially. Just as gratifying is the thrill of revisiting a remarkable story worthy of any fiction.

WARRIOR was a warhorse by breeding. His mother, Cinderella, was bought by Seely after he saw her galloping in the distance on Hampshire Yeomanry manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain in 1902. She was so kind that my mother and her sisters could slide safely down her tail and she was so amenable that Jack used to ride her in Rotten Row, central London, before he went to work in Westminster as a member of the Liberal government alongside his great friend Winston Churchill. When Cinderella had a foal in 1908 by the visiting thoroughbred stallion Straybit, a name like Warrior was always on the cards, especially for an owner who by 1913 was to become secretary of state for war.

Yet while this is much more an Upstairs rather than a Downstairs story, don’t ever think that horse and rider didn’t forge a bond as close as man and animal have ever done. It also had its moments, starting with the first time Seely sat on Warrior as a two-year-old and got bucked off three times in a row, or when they first walked into the sea at Brook on the Isle of Wight’s western shore and capsized in the surf. They were too brave a pair to let that daunt them. Soon Seely wrote admiringly about Warrior, “he would follow the retreating water till the waves were breaking not 10 yards from his nose and then stand with feet well apart while the foamy water swept past his shoulders. It was then that I first realised what a courageous animal was mine, for I could see, though he trembled a little between my legs, that he was to overcome his fear”.

Anyone who has ever ridden will know how easily startled a horse, especially a thoroughbred, can be by something as trivial as a car exhaust backfiring. They will also know the feeling of gratitude and pride when the animal beneath you stands brave in front of danger. Seely would experience this very quickly after war was declared on August 4, 1914. Having lost his ministerial job over the Curragh crisis in March that year he become a special aide to French, the commander-in-chief. Within a week he and Warrior were on a boat to France and within a month there were more than waves crashing in front of them.

Of the retreat from Mons in September 1914, Seely wrote: “It was the first time that I had ridden Warrior under shell fire and we went out through the little gate past the blazing stables. As we approached them, another bouquet of shells fell and burst, the nearest only a few yards away. To my amazement Warrior made no attempt to run away. I could feel him tremble a little between my legs as we trotted through the gate, but he pretended to be quite unperturbed. He was pretending to be brave and succeeding in his task.

“On many, many days thereafter during the four years that were to follow I rode Warrior in shell fire — sometimes so heavy that he was almost the only survivor — but never once did he attempt to bolt or to do any of the things which might be expected of an animal reputed to be so naturally timid as the horse. No, my stout-hearted horse not only kept his own fear under control but by his example helped beyond measure his rider and his friend to do the same.”

The example was soon to spread to a wider group. In February 1915 Seely was put in command of the Canadian cavalry and went with Warrior to join them in Hampshire. By May they were en route back to France and it is clear from the account of the voyage that the horse had already become something of a mascot to the troops.

“I well remember our arrival at Boulogne at 6am on a spring morning,” Seely wrote. “I led Warrior first off the gangway and got on his back sitting there as the men filed off. As they formed up somebody shouted out ‘Three cheers for Warrior’.”

It was an experience that Seely would have to get used to. “This handsome gay bay thoroughbred was my passport wherever I went,” he recalled. “As time went on, especially in France, the men got to love him more and more. As I rode along whether it was in rest billets, in reserve, approaching the line or in the midst of battle, men would say not ‘Here comes the general’, but ‘Here’s old Warrior’.”

At Ypres, the Canadians, to their dismay, were dismounted and stuck in the trenches. Warrior was however, as so often, an exception and, like his mother Cinderella before him, took to walking round behind Seely like a dog. It must have been one of the few amusing sights in a scene dominated by carnage.
Warrior was often at the centre of the devastation. One morning he was tethered just behind the front line when a German shell, instead of bursting into small fragments when it hit the ground, broke in half nearby. One half struck Seely’s brigade major’s horse in the chest and cut it clean in half.

“The orderly [in charge of the horses] was knocked down by the force of the blow and must have been unconscious for a little while,” Seely said. “He was still sitting on the ground when we returned and there was Warrior who had just moved away a few yards and was waiting for me. He neighed loudly as I came in sight and cantered up to me saying quite clearly ‘I would not leave you’.”

At times his ability to dodge the bullets and shells seemed almost supernatural. One day Warrior went lame and Seely rode another horse. A shell hit him and he was killed. Seely recalled: “I had three ribs broken myself, although I did not know it, but my first thought was, ‘What luck it was not Warrior’.” Indeed, what luck. Warrior survived the first day of the battle of the Somme — he and his team were poised behind the line on July 1, 1916 when 20,000 British troops were killed and a further 40,000 injured. Seely lay on the ground holding Warrior’s bridle as the 18-pounder guns boomed overhead. And he came through the strafing of horse convoys by German planes. “On one occasion Warrior was stuck fast in the mud and a German flew down and emptied his machinegun at us; the bullets were very near but not one of them hit us,” Seely said.Evening Standard - Brough Scott

During the march to Passchendaele in 1917, Warrior again sank into the mud. “There were many dead horses lying about which had foundered in the mud and could not be extricated,” Seely wrote. “All of a sudden Warrior went deep in up to his belly. Antoine [Prince Antoine d’Orleans et Braganza, Seely’s impeccably bred aide-de-camp, the great-grandson of Louis Napoleon] was just behind me with Corporal King and another orderly. It was only with immense difficulty that the four of us managed to get him back on to sounder ground. It was a narrow escape.”

For Seely and Warrior the real climax came with that fabled cavalry charge at Moreuil Wood but to survive that far they had to endure other adventures that at times seem almost comical in the telling. These included the ill-fated joint infantry, tank and cavalry attack at Cambrai. As was to be expected, the dynamic duo were up the front behind the leading tank.

“I am sure Warrior enjoyed every minute of it,” Seely said. “Down the main street of Masnières we went together, Warrior’s nose nearly touching the tank. Then misfortune befell the adventure, for with a frightful bang the bridge collapsed and the tank fell through into the canal. Warrior and I nearly fell in too. There was a good deal of rifle fire around and many of the horses behind us were hit but Warrior’s luck held and although he was the leading horse, he escaped without a scratch.”

Further adventures saw Warrior survive when a sniper missed him and killed the horse whose nose he was touching, and when a shell landed on the ruined cottage in which he was stabled. Amazingly, he emerged from the rubble.

Most remarkable of all was when Seely and Warrior, against all convention of the time, led the signal troop to mark the route for the cavalry engagement at Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918. Such a group would normally contain a junior officer and his horse, not a general on his thoroughbred. But this was Warrior and for all its impetuosity and loss of life of men and horses, the attack did check the German advance.
Indeed, the battle of Moreuil Wood was crucial in checking the Germans’ Ludendorff offensive, their last throw of the dice in an attempt to win the war.

TWO days later Warrior was lame and both Seely’s replacement horses were killed. A year on he took part in the victory parade with the Canadian cavalry in Hyde Park, London. Four years to the day after Moreuil Wood, and now safely in retirement, Warrior won the lightweight race at the Isle of Wight point-to-point under his original groom, Jim Jolliffe, and to the utter delight of his owner:”It was a glorious day. Everyone was pleased. I could not bear to have him led away and we rode home together over the downs rejoicing in this splendid conclusion of an anniversary which neither of us could ever forget.”

By now Warrior had become very much the celebrity, lauded wherever he went whether it was to review troop parades, to war veterans’ rallies, to greet the visiting Queen Mary at tea, to give out sweets at the local Hulverstone school or just to go hunting with the Isle of Wight foxhounds. As so often happens with famous horses — and in my time Arkle and Red Rum have been the greatest examples of this — the animal thrives on the attention, pricking his ears for the cameras, dipping his head to be stroked by his idolaters.

You can swear that is what Warrior was doing when he and Jack Seely made the papers in 1938 trotting outside Jack’s home at Mottistone with their combined ages (30 and 70) making a century. With horses already quite elderly at 20, this is a rare achievement.

They must have been a very special team. Among my grandfather’s papers in Nuffield College, Oxford, is a diary entry from Good Friday 1941. “I do not believe,” he wrote about Warrior’s death the previous week, “to quote Byron about his dog Boatswain, ‘that he can be denied in heaven the soul that he held on earth’.”

Warrior: The Amazing Story of a real War Horse is published by Racing Post Books at £14.99

First published in the Sunday Times on 1st January 2012

Brough ScottBrough will be speaking at CVHF on Sunday, 28th June in ‘WARRIOR: THE REAL WAR HORSE
. He will follow Warrior’s extraordinary journey from birth to his survival through Ypres and the Somme with his grandfather, General Jack Seely. Surviving five years of war, this will be the story of men and horses who fought and died, for ‘God and Country’.

Charlie Hebdo and a Rubicon Moment for Free Speech

The writers who protested a PEN award chose their side, but most of the group rejected the assassin’s veto.

On balance it would have been awkward if the boycotters of the annual awards dinner of PEN American Center had changed their minds and attended on Tuesday night. At the very least their presence at the literary gathering might have been an unnecessary distraction. At worst it could have been taken as an insult to the memories of the 12 members of the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo who died on Jan. 7 while exercising their right to free speech.
The heartfelt standing ovation for Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret—who accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage award on behalf of the magazine—had its own eloquence. Unusually, the many writers in the room didn’t need to say anything to make themselves heard. Simply being at the dinner was a statement, a Rubicon moment for those who believe that universal human rights is a cause worth dying for. Just as boycotting the awards has become the rallying event for those who believe that it comes second to other considerations.

If rational argument were a numbers game, there would be no need to continue the discussion about whether PEN behaved correctly in honoring Charlie Hebdo. In the days since 204 writers including Peter Carey, Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose—roughly 5% of the membership—signed a letter outlining their objections to the award, criticism of their stance has been unending. From the liberal Nation to the conservative Weekly Standard, the outrage from the majority of the writing community has been unequivocal: Freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment, is a nonnegotiable right.

After the boycott began, it was met with a thorough demolishing of the claims by its supporters, especially the charge that Charlie Hebdo is racist. Whether through ignorance or malice, this self-appointed committee of public safety insinuated that the magazine’s writers had provoked their own murder by attacking Islam in general, and victimizing French Muslims in particular. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of humor, we were told, “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

That calumny has now been exposed as a lie in point-by-point repudiations by some of the most respected voices in France, including the author Bernard-Henri Lévy andDominique Sopo, the head of SOS-Racisme. The facts are there for all to see, such as: the Hebdo staffers were murdered while planning a conference on antiracism, and only seven of 523 covers for the magazine in the past decade touched on Islam. The protesters can no longer peddle the libel that Charlie Hebdo is a modern-day equivalent of a Nazi propaganda sheet, as several have, including Deborah Eisenberg, whose letter to PEN asked whether it would next be “giving the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer.”

Yet dragging Nazism into the discussion is useful in one respect. While denouncing the PEN boycott, Mr. Lévy referred to the “deplorable Congress of Dubrovnik of 1933, at which the predecessors of Peter Carey refused to take a position against the book-burnings in Germany.” The Dubrovnik conference, in what was then Yugoslavia, took place on May 10, 82 years ago.

The PEN president at the time, H.G. Wells, tried to maintain neutrality between those who wanted to speak out against Nazism and those who argued that politics had no place in a literary organization. His aim was defeated by the sole American delegate, Henry Seidel Canby, who forced through a resolution crafted by PEN America that restated PEN’s core mission as an advocacy organization.

Because of Canby’s courageous stand, the exiled German playwright Ernst Toller was able to make his own speech the following day—an impassioned plea on behalf of writers suffering Nazi persecution. The German delegation and others walked out. Toller’s speech persuaded the remaining delegates that the organization had to remold itself into the one we know today. Toller, who committed suicide in New York in 1939, declared: “Insanity dominates our age, and barbarity drives humans . . . the voice of humanity will only become powerful if it serves a larger political agenda.”

On Tuesday night, PEN President Andrew Solomon reaffirmed Toller’s position, saying: “PEN stands at the intersection between language and justice.” As the organization recovers from one of the ugliest episodes in its history, the Dubrovnik example offers clarity about what should happen next.

Like its 1933 counterpart, PEN today has decided it will not be neutral in the battle between free speech and the assassin’s veto. It may be that some members will never be fully comfortable with this decision. They should be let go without heartache or second-guessing. There are plenty of other organizations for which the dictates of personal taste, sensitivity and interpretation carry the day.

By awarding Charlie Hebdo the Freedom of Expression Courage prize, PEN has also shown its willingness to lead by example and from the front. That leadership is more important than ever.

If human-rights organizations, starting with PEN, fail to affirm the indivisibility of free speech, that failure will not lead to more peace and harmony in the world. It will lead to the reverse as vigilantes from all sides interpret such weakness as an invitation to impose their own order. The shootings in Copenhagen in February, and in Garland, Texas, last weekend—both involving Islamists targeting events they deemed insulting to their religion—are two examples of how some would like to see the “debate” unfold.

For those who believe in freedom of expression, the moment has come to make the choice between its defense or abandonment against a murderous movement that believes democratic values are subordinate to religious sensibilities. At the end of the evening on Tuesday, I spoke with Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic. “There are just two options facing us all,” he said, “and we have to take a side.”

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on May 6, 2015

Foreman, AmandaAmanda Foreman is the award-winning historian and internationally best-selling author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire. She won the 1998 Whitbread Award for Biography. In addition to her writing and lecturing, she has served as a judge on almost every major literary prize on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. She is currently a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her latest book is The World Made by Women with a BBC documentary this spring.

Amanda will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Sunday, 28 June with a talk entitled ‘The World Made by Women: A History of Womankind’

Spare a thought for the Bomber Boys: The unknown air campaign of 1940

RAFBristolBlenheimWWIIColourWhilst the troops at Dunkirk struggled to get away from the German onslaught and Fighter Command kept up dawn-to-dusk combat air patrols, spare a thought for the Bomber Boys.

Flying obsolescent aircraft, often without clear objectives, target restrictions and little good intelligence, the aircrew of Bomber Command raided Germany and the Low Countries to both support the tactical objectives and begin the fight back.

RAF Bomber Command had suffered since its inception in 1936 with the original notion that the ‘bomber will always get through’ and an early impression which made it seem that Battle, Blenheim and Wellington would be faster than contemporary fighters and therefore reach their targets even in daylight.

Photo credit: Jarrod Cotter

Designed in 1934, the Bristol Blenheim was the first ‘modern’ aeroplane in the Royal Air Force. A monoplane, constructed with a stressed-skin fuselage and powered by the latest radial engines, it was faster than all British fighters then in service. So fast, was the Blenheim that some models were indeed classed as fighters.

Group Captain (later Air Commodore) A D Panton, renowned Blenheim pilot, shot down three times in the Battle of France, captured PoW – his diaries are Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer which will feature at CVHF in our Pop Up History programme

Group Captain (later Air Commodore) A D Panton, renowned Blenheim pilot, shot down three times in the Battle of France, captured PoW – his diaries are Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer which will feature at CVHF in our Pop Up History programme

The first British aircraft to cross the German coast on 3 September 1939 was a Blenheim, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for Flying Officer McPherson of No 139 Squadron. A Coastal Command Blenheim sank the first U-Boat of the war on 11 March 1940 and by April, French-based Blenheims were mapping the Franco-German border; something which the French had neglected in the 20 years since the Treaty of Versailles.

There was great optimism that the Blenheim would be able to dent any German advance into France.

The reality was different. The losses were huge. The effect was limited.

By early 1940, the deployment of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109, tested in combat in Spain, had proved that daylight bombing without an overwhelming fighter escort would be prone to higher loss rates than would be sustainable. The Aalborg raid on 13 March 1940 resulted in No 82 Squadron ceasing to exist as 11 out of 12 Blenheims were shot down by fighters or flak – the 12th Blenheim had returned to base early with engine problems. It was the greatest proportionate loss of any military operation in the Second World War – yet still the Blenheim crews climbed into their bombers very day and flew eastwards.

In May 1940, when Germany invaded France, the Hurricane fighters in France fully occupied with air defence by the wasteful tactic of standing patrols – France had no radar and no ground-air coordination – there were very fewer opportunities for close escort to protect the bombers against the Luftwaffe. In consequence, the bomber crews were being asked undertake flights into the unknown.

Read any account of the period – and ‘Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer’ must be the standard against which others are judged – and the valour of every pilot, navigator and air gunner, as well as those groundcrew often left to fend for themselves, comes over.

Yet, day after day, and increasingly, night after night, bomber crews would fly off into enemy skies and make their contribution. The Blenheim was still in service in Malta and the Far East in late 1941 and still sustaining losses.

Blenheims destroyed invasion barges in the summer of 1940 and undertook perilous missions into German-occupied Europe. Bomber Command’s losses outstripped those of Fighter Command in the period and this contribution as recognised by Winston Churchill who described the Bomber Command aircrew as the Many when praising Fighter Command’s Few.

Lancaster CrewBomber Command will be remembered at Chalke Valley History festival this year with displays by the only flying Bristol Blenheim in the world and the UK’s only flying Avro Lancaster, the iconic British bomber. Paul Beaver will be commenting on the flying and the leading the discussion on Sunday, 28 June with a complete Lancaster bomber crew. It is also hoped that Victoria Panton Bacon, author of Six Weeks of the Blenheim Summer (about her grandfather’s tour of duty in France 1940) will be joining Paul in the commentary box.