Just a quick one – more details coming soon on last night’s Writing War seminar, once I’ve digested it a bit. Today: I’ve been doing some work on evacuation in the Second World War. Particularly in light of recent events in the States, and bearing in mind the short timescale available, British civilian evacuation just before war broke out seems a remarkable achievement. A million and a half people moved without a casualty (at least according to Titmuss). Not least, it was a magnificent conception to believe that this sort of move (and they’d planned for 4 million) was possible.
At the time of the Munich Crisis evacuation plans were pretty much non-existent, but fear of the bomber was high. As the official historian puts it:
‘the London County Council had become alarmed, and pressed the government to reach certain decisions in order to allow transport planning to begin. On 5th August, the Clerk to the Council (Sir George Gater) saw the Home Secretary and offered the services of members of the Education Officer’s staff. With political tension increased by 12th September, Mr Herbert Morrison (leader of the council) urged upon Sir Samuel Hoare the need for immediate decisions. The Council, then drew up plans, necessarily of a primitive and faulty nature, for the removal of some 637,000 children from London.’ (Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy, (London, HMSO, 1950), 29).
Even though it was never carried through, to draw up plans to shift this many people at short notice takes some doing. But what struck me as a First World War historian was George Gater’s appearance. Gater was a civilian in August 1914. By 1918 he was one of the youngest brigade commanders in the BEF, successfully leading improvised combined forces in the Hundred Days campaign which finished the war on the Western Front. He is an excellent example of the ‘learning curve’ and of the successful incorporation of civilians into the wartime army.
Evacuation in 1938 or 1939 was dependent on railway movements and billeting. Where had British administrators learned how to use these tools? How could they deploy them, at short notice, with confidence and relative competence (evacuation didn’t run perfectly, but it was, I repeat, a remarkable achievement)? Could we construct a case that some had learned these skills – or at least honed them – in the First World War? Obviously more research is needed – but let’s at least float the idea that we can.
Now, we are accustomed to participants in the SEcond World War complaining that all the best men of their generation had been killed in 1914-18. Alan Brooke, for example, often remarked on the poor command resources enjoyed by the British Army in the Second World War for just this reason. But we could reverse this argument. It might have seemed like the best and brightest were killed, but what about all those who took status, achievement and newfound abilities from their wartime experience? Perhaps, what the British had been doing was to create a skill set which, twenty years later, would serve them well in the second great conflict of the twentieth century.