By Max Hastings and recently published in the Daily Mail:
How ironic. Modern Europe totters on the brink of a historic political bust-up, and Britain seems more remote from our partners than ever since the Common Market was created. Yet on Wednesday, Francois Hollande made a gesture of reconciliation with ‘Perfidious Albion’. He became the first ever French president to visit a British cemetery in Normandy. In torrential rain, he shook hands with Parachute Regiment veterans at Ranville, where the 6th Airborne Division landed on June 6, 1944. If that does not sound significant, remember that throughout the intervening 68 years, French governments have tried not to notice that the British were there on D-Day.
Paying their respects: French President Francois Hollande, right, joined Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, left, in the British war cemetery of Ranville, western France. Most French museums, not to mention school history books, make it sound like the Americans and the Resistance did it all. Millions of French people have seen Hollywood’s D-Day epics; only about six recognise our part. But I fear the same is becoming true among our own people. A few weeks ago, I visited the Normandy battlefields in the company of Paul Woodadge, a splendid tour guide who is himself British, but lives near Caen with his French wife. He told me sadly: ‘Most British visitors nowadays know what Steven Spielberg has told them in Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers, so they all want to go to the American sector. Some hardly get to our beaches at all.’.
Not just 1944, but our entire past, is seen by a new generation through a prism of celluloid myth and legend. Our governments set a rotten example by their lack of interest in heritage, real history. Consider this: the centenary is fast approaching of the 1914 outbreak of World War I — one of the two largest and most terrible events in modern European history, which changed or destroyed the lives of millions.
The French government has allocated cash and effort to a major commemoration, but our own has done nothing. In a letter written almost a year ago the Labour peer Lord Faulkner, chairman of the parliamentary war heritage group, urged David Cameron to get moving, first by deciding what we are commemorating: ‘A matter of mourning and regret? Or should we be celebrating victory? . . . The need for action is now urgent.’
In response, the Prime Minister was polite, but offered nothing. The MoD has no money, and nobody else cares. Battlefield guide and photographer Mike Sheil, who attended a meeting at Oxford about the centenary a few months ago, along with World War I historians, says that the Culture Minister present ‘could scarcely bother to be polite’. His Department is interested only in the Olympics and Jeremy Hunt’s future. I would like our ministers, and indeed David Cameron, to make the trip I did recently, across the battlefields of France alongside experts who could teach them the meaning of 1914 — a blank screen, it seems, to members of the Bullingdon Club.
I know quite a lot about our wars. But travelling lately with guides, both in Normandy and eastern France, I have learned more than I would have thought possible about the highways and byways of history — and the debt we owe to those who gave their lives for Britain.
Because I am writing a book about 1914, I spent five days crossing Belgium and France with Clive Harris — who served in the Royal Signals — and Mike Sheil, who are rated among the best guides in the business. I have seldom found a journey more rewarding. We drove from Mons, where the first British battle of the war was fought on August 23, 1914, through the Ypres Salient where 250,000 British soldiers died, on to the Marne and Aisne, then south to the Vosges mountains where the French army suffered catastrophe. From Harris and Sheil on the spot, I learned all sorts of things that are impossible to garner from books. I will bet that not many of you have heard of the August 26, 1914, battle of Le Cateau, where three divisions of the British Army under General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien fought a fierce delaying action against a vastly superior German army.
Misleading: Hollywood depictions such as Saving Private Ryan (pictured) have given many of us a skewed vision of the two world wars. There were no trenches, no barbed wire. This was an action amazingly like Waterloo a century earlier. The old British county regiments — Yorkshires and Middlesex, Suffolks and Surreys — simply took up positions in golden stubble-fields, supported by horse artillery deployed in plain view, and fought it out with the advancing Germans through a long, hot, bloody day. In 2012, I stood on the ridge outside Le Cateau, looking across ground that is almost completely unchanged.
My guides talked me through where each regiment stood, and where some died. I thought: this was perhaps the last battle in history where a man could see everything that happened within his own line of sight.
As the enemy masses came forward, they were mauled and harrowed by devastating rifle fire. ‘It is impossible to miss German infantry,’ wrote 43-year-old Major Bertie Trevor, a company commander in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. ‘They come on in heaps.’ Trevor later recalled the battle as: ‘Too terrible for words . . . we fired 350 rounds a man in my company, and did a good deal of execution. But we were in an absolute trap — it is a marvel that anyone there is alive and untouched. ‘Until one has been for hours pelted at with shrapnel, machine-guns and rifle fire, one cannot understand war. Where the fun comes in, I don’t know’.
The Somme: Though this was a battle of trenches and barbed wire, other actions in the First World War were little different from the era of Waterloo. I stood above Le Cateau thinking of Major Trevor, imagining the spectacle as British horse teams galloped forward in plain view of the Germans, making suicidal brave attempts to save their guns. Some succeeded, others fell thrashing to the ground in a terrible jumble of shattered men and animals. August 26, 1914, was a heroic day for the old British army, but cost 7,000 dead and wounded — though the Germans took many more casualties. Because today we think of World War I in terms of mud, steel helmets and trenches, it is a revelation to understand how terrible were the first 1914 encounters, which represented a bloody clash between modern and Victorian warfare. One day I stood on a ridge outside the eastern French town of Morhange, where less than a month after war began the Germans deployed to meet a French attack armed with 20th-century weapons — artillery and machine-guns. Forty-three thousand French troops advanced across the open fields below, in the manner of the 19th century: ‘They came on in their blue coats and red trousers, led by officers on horses with drawn swords, with colours flying and bands playing the Marseillaise’.
Pictured in 1914: General de Castelnau Curriere, whose own son died while under his orders I gazed down towards the cemetery where many of those same Frenchmen have lain ever since, slaughtered by remorselessly superior firepower. Their commander was a general named Castelnau, 74 years old, who had a custom of reading aloud each morning to his staff the names of officers who had fallen the previous day.
After the catastrophe at Morhange, his voice faltered for a moment as he spoke the name ‘Castelnau’: his own son, one of the host who had died under his orders. There were other such bizarre confrontations between the old and the new.
We stopped to look at a memorial in open country some 40 miles north of Paris, commemorating an officer named Gaston de Gironde, a 41-year-old Dragoon. The French cavalry of those days fought in the same breastplates and helmets with horsehair plumes their forefathers wore under Napoleon. On September 9, Gironde learned of some German planes parked in a nearby field. He and his squadron charged the aircraft on their horses and destroyed them, only for their leader and 11 others to be killed by a machine-gun mounted on a motor car. The Germans carried the mortally wounded officer to a nearby chateau where he died two hours later. His memorial says: ‘He had the qualities of a Christian soldier’.
The French army suffered 350,000 casualties in August 1914. On some days of that month, its losses were heavier than those of the British on the notorious first day of the Somme in 1916. Now, at least, the French government is preparing to honour those heroes when the centenary of the war comes around. Not far from where those French Dragoons perished stands the village of Nery. Never heard of Nery? You should.
Last-minute: Gordon Brown (pictured with General Lord Dannatt) was shamed into attending the 65th anniversary of D Day in Normandy. There, on the morning of September 1, 1914, a British cavalry brigade was surprised by German horse artillery, taking advantage of morning fog. As this lifted, L Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery was all but destroyed — horses, men and guns alike — by a hail of shells. But one gun kept firing to the end, and its crew won three VCs. Nery’s landscape is today almost unchanged, even unto the huge farmyard where hundreds of British cavalry horses were stabled on September 1. Walking the ground, I at once understood how the German guns so quickly devastated L Battery, which was harnessed to march off, like King’s Troop at a modern parade.
I could see where the British later staged a dashing counter-attack, causing the morning to end in a German defeat. Being there offered a sense of drama, understanding and empathy that could never be found in a book.
Men like Clive Harris and Mike Sheil match their vivid words and anecdotes to maps and photos, bringing the past to life in a profoundly moving fashion. No wonder they are almost disbelieving that the British government is so eager to wash its hands of the coming 1914 centenary — the French, by contrast, are staging a prominent Paris exhibition of Sheil’s battlefield photographs.
You may remember that a few years ago, David Cameron’s predecessor showed no interest in the 65th anniversary of D-Day, until huge American and French commitments to the occasion shamed us into turning up at the last minute.
As 2014 approaches, a responsible British government would recognise its duty to find the money — not very much — and the political commitment to mark the occasion in a fashion worthy of the millions who fought and died, whose lives were shaped or ended by it.
We should learn to value our heritage, as French governments cherish theirs. The Continent today is threatened not by war, but by greater turmoil and dissension than it has known for half a century.
Only by knowing and understanding its past history, and our part in it, can we hope to come to terms with its present and future.