The Corner

When The British Were Patriotic

BBC TV is currently running a multi-part docu-drama about the 1940

evacuation from Dunkirk. Military historian John Keegan writes luminously

about it in this morning’s Telegraph. Sample:

“I once asked [British historian] AJP Taylor what the summer of 1940 had

been like. A smile slowly replaced his normally dour expression.

’Wonderful,’ he said. ‘Wonderful.’

“‘But,’ I asked, ‘weren’t people worried that Britain was entirely on its

own?’ ‘Not at all,’ he answered, ‘ordinary people said we were better off

without all those foreigners. We could manage by ourselves.’ I had no doubt

that AJP Taylor, supreme realist though he was, had been infected by the

same feeling.

“It is at that level that the [BBC TV] programmes were perhaps deficient.

They fail to communicate how fervently patriotic Britain of 1940 was. The

British really did believe that they were the greatest people in the world,

and that foreigners were lesser beings, a feeling that extended even to the

Americans, who were eventually to rescue them.”

—On the British attitude to foreigners: I recall my father, an Englishman

born in 1899, after watching some TV news clip, muttering under his breath:

“Foreigners! Bloody fools for all I can see.”

—On Dunkirk: My father’s sister spent her early married life living over

her husband’s shop near the railway station in the sleepy English country

town where I grew up. There was an army barracks on the other side of town.

In the wee hours one morning in 1940 my aunt was woken by a peculiar

shush-shushing sound from the street outside. Shush-shush-shush-shush –

“like a steam train going very slow.” Looking out, she saw endless lines of

soldiers shuffling along the street from the station, in the direction of

the barracks. They were men who had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Because

they’d had to wade far out to the boats, they had all left their boots

behind. Their feet were just wrapped with cloth and paper. That was the

shushing sound.

—”What a falling off was there!”


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