November 25, 2005

(Image from

Something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Nearly two weeks ago, the Guardian newspaper ran a piece on Britain’s secret wartime torture camp. To summarise – newly released papers from the National Archives revealed that about 3,000 PoWs were processed through a London ‘cage’ – based in posh mansions in Kensington – at which they were exposed to systematic ill-treatment, including beatings, stress postures, sleep deprivation, threats of abuse with red hot pokers and threats of ‘unnecessary operations’. The Red Cross were never allowed to inspect the ‘Cage’, and rather than shutting down after the war, it was moved to occupied Germany, where its activities continued.

Some points:

1) Get an expert
The camp was run by

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland, a forceful, outspoken man deemed to have the perfect background. Although English, the colonel had served briefly in the German army in what is now Namibia shortly after the turn of the century, and was later awarded the OBE for his work interrogating German prisoners during the first world war.

Well, indeed. If you want a brutal bastard, get a veteran of the German army in Namibia.

2) Evidence
No denying that this place existed, but it’s worth noting that much of the evidence for its nature comes from the manuscript of Scotland’s post-war memoirs (which obviously sent MI5 and the FO into a fit, with the result that the published version was heavily censored) and from a letter from a German PoW, SS Capt Fritz Knoechlein. Knoechlein’s letter of complaint details fairly appalling treatment at the hands of his guards. The article points out that Knoechlein may have been trying to save his own neck (he was under sentence of death for war crimes), but it doesn’t address whether we should take Scotland’s memoirs at face value.

3) Face? Botherered?
The very fact that I noticed this story tells you that, in part at least, I’m a pant-wetting pinko liberal Guardian reader. At the moment, I’m clean shaven for the first time in years, but I’ve been known to sport a beard, eat muesli and wear sandals. Certain human rights are inalienable, and freedom from torture (which this was, albeit not that outlandish or extreme) is one of them. Almost certainly, given the traditional competence of Military Intelligence, some innocent Germans got caught up in the Cage. And yet, I have to say that I found it pretty hard to be sympathetic to Knoechlein. It was troops under his command who massacred 124 unarmed British prisoners, well after the heat of battle, on the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940. They included 98 men of the Norfok Regiment, whose flag appears at the top of this post. Maybe he should have thought about the consequences of his actions when he was on the winning side, rather than later. Can I condone some hulking brute stepping on this man’s testicles?… Give me a minute to change out of my sandals into my hobnailed boots and let me join the queue.

4) Did it actually work?
Depends what you mean by ‘work’, doesn’t it. It terms of gathering evidence, there’s mixed evidence for the effectiveness of coercion in assembling useful evidence: see this account (hat-tip to Cliopatria). Nearly all of this comes from counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, in which the potential ‘hearts and minds’ side effects are a key argument against (let alone all this liberal, namby-pamby human rights stuff). It’s unclear from the Guardian’s report whether the purpose of the ‘Cage’ stayed the same throughout its existence (1940-48). Was its aim to extract useful military intelligence, or to get information about war criminal escape networks after the war? Or was it essentially retributive – so being sent there was itself a punishment?

5) Contemporary History
This was a good piece of journalism and a responsible piece of writing. It is also a great example of the study of the past being influenced by contemporary concerns. For who now can read of the UK running a ‘torture camp’ in the Second World War without thinking of Camp X-Ray or Abu Ghraib?

There is, I think, a great deal to be done on the British tradition of brutality. For all our proud gloating about our successful COIN record (trumpeted each time our chaps take off their helmets and sunglasses in Iraq), a different history of Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland would reveal just how much time British soldiers spent brutalising their opponents and the population in which the insurgent fish swam. The real learning experience of Northern Ireland was that once the press and the lawyers were interested (a fact not unconnected with the conflict taking place amongst white Europeans, rather than Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners), you couldn’t get away with repression. The problem, of course, is that most of those who’ve approached this topic have done so from the point of view of scandal, rather than history.


New addition

November 23, 2005

Added the blog of my very own new PhD student, Mr Jack McGowan, to the bar on the left – ‘Smashing the Window’. Jack is working on the intersection between culture and politics in Britain in the late 1960s. His site will, I have assured him, rapidly take its place in the constellation of eminent history blogs.

Blitz as brand – Writing War seminar report

November 22, 2005

The first individual speaker for our Writing War seminar was Dr Stefan Goebel, of the University of Kent. Stefan is one of the very few historians who do genuinely comparative work – by which I mean history based in a detailed understanding of both nations and cultures which are being compared. I first met him when he was completing his PhD on medievalism after the Great War. He’s now working on a study of the memorialisation of bombed cities in Britain and Germany after the Second World War. This formed the basis for his paper.

Stefan spoke to us about the post-war development of what we might call the brand of ‘Coventry as iconic bombed city’. Although the experience of bombing was terrifying and devastating for Coventry’s inhabitants, by the standards of other European cities in the course of the war as a whole they got off pretty lightly. Yet a combination of wartime events and post-war local, national and international politics meant that Coventry was able to construct itself as one of the ‘martyr towns of Europe’ – a grouping which included Leningrad and Hamburg.

The Germans coined a word ‘Coventration’ to describe what they had done to Coventry. First used in German propaganda, it was quickly appropriated by the British as an example of German barbarity, particularly useful in appealing to the US for aid. Notably, the Germans stopped using it when the tide of war turned and their own cities began to reap the whirlwind they had sown in the Midlands. But this new word – and its rapid international spread – was also adopted by the inhabitants of the city as an element in their own identity as they sought to rebuild the town during and after the war.

(As a sidelight, this backfiring of the rhetorical seems particularly relevant in light of the current controversy over the use of ‘chemical weapons’ by US forces in the assault on Fallujah. Whatever we think of the media debate, it does seem to me a clear example of how a word or phrase, once used, can be hard to put back in its box).

Coventry’s identity as a ‘bombed city’ – indeed, it could be portrayed as the bombed city – was used by local political and religious leaders in order to gain prestige, to attract attention and funding (particularly important for the rebuilding of the cathedral) and to establish the city as part of an international community. The aftermath of the Second World War saw a remarkable degree of international – or perhaps supernational – commemorative effort.

Amongst many interesting points in this part of Stefan’s paper, one element that stood out for me was the connections forged between members of Coventry city council and their counterparts in Dresden. Since Dresden was by then in East Germany, this link had its own political significance (perhaps more for the East Germans than for the Coventrarians). Indeed, this seemed a great example of the power of assumptions overtaking political realities. Coventry was happy to work with Dresden because its rulers comprehensively repudiated the Nazi past. What they omitted to understand was that the East German regime was very happy to receive legitimation for its version of Dresden – as an example of evil Western capitalist conspiracy.

Two constructive criticisms were levelled at Stefan’s paper. My own reaction was that there wasn’t quite enough on the link between personal experience and local memory. Were the councillors who used the myth of the city’s bombing in the 1950s the same people who had left Coventry in the lurch in 1940. I think it would be fair to say that this is not Stefan’s direct area of interest, however. Another – probably more useful – idea for improvement was that he might try being more cynical about the motives of local apparatchiks. To what extent did connections with ‘mourning cities’ overseas offer the opportunity for travel and personal enjoyment?

In this short post I have done no justice at all to what was a nuanced, detailed and superbly well researched paper. I was very glad that Stefan could get us off to such a positive start. If any readers are directly interested in his topic (you know who you are) I suggest you try contacting him direct.

Update to Writing War Programme

November 22, 2005

A mix of reminder and update. Biggest change is that Tom Asbridge has dropped out, so I am going to bite the bullet and put myself in the firing line by workshopping some ideas about bravery and cowardice. I’m going to talk about these more online in the next couple of weeks, but I’d really appreciate ideas from those who can’t attend but are interested.

23 November Writing about Modern War
Ben Shephard

30 November The Red Army and the Experience of War 1941-45
Catherine Merridale (QMUL)

14 December Bravery and Cowardice
Dan Todman (QMUL)

New participants please contact the Postgraduate Administrator,, to express your interest. Those who are already attending, please email me to let me know if you can stay for dinner.

Somme thoughts

November 18, 2005

Follow up to the post below. The C4 programme on the Somme, when it arrived on Modnay night, was not as bad as I had feared. Not great on the C2 aspects, but these are very complicated and difficult to represent televisually. Few cliches repeated (so all the British troops on screen started their attack by going over the top from their own front line and walking slowly towards the enemy, whereas Prior and Wilson suggest that a huge variety of different tactics were actually used). And of course we only got 1 July, which is a bit like studying the first five minutes of Hastings and saying that the Saxons won.
On the other hand, the stated purpose of the programme was to show us what it was like to be at the Somme. And on this, I thought they didn’t do a bad job – particularly through the narrative device of using a variety of ‘real-life’ eyewitnesses, including R.H. Tawney. And – strangely – the programme concentrated on the experiences of a unit which reached all its objectives on 1 July, the 22 Manchesters.
Does showing people ‘what it was really like’ on 1 July help them to understand the First World War, however? Probably not. My experience with friends and colleagues has been that responses were pretty much preconditioned. So the military historians long despaired of TV, and the lay viewers got angry at the stupidity of British generals.

First World blogs

November 14, 2005

What more could a young author ask for? No sooner has his book come out than the massed forces of the meedja start pumping out material on the First World War. Last week, the last veterans of the war recalling (in exactly the same words they’ve been using for the last twenty years) the trenches, and Ben Elton’s new book The First Casualty (okay, so it bumped a review of my book out of the Indy on Friday, but it’s going to be in tomorrow, so I’ll forgive it). This week, a Channel Four season on ‘The Lost Generation’…

Now, there is much evidence around the construction of this season of the great steps that have been taken by some of those working on the First World War. The director of the programme on the Somme gives a very lucid interview in which he discusses the tensions he had to overcome to create a fresh and involving piece of programming. It looks like it might be good.

But the Channel 4 publicity department has obviously gone to town over the season’s website. There’s a great game of WWI bingo to be played here, as we cross off the times we read the words ‘mud’, ‘horror’, ‘slaughter’, ‘futility’… full house!

What is remarkable is the effort that the site puts into making the First World War ‘relevant’. You can enter a competition for the best ‘last message home’ – by text – and read some fictional blogs composed by soldiers on every side.

I recognise the difficulties that this is trying to overcome – how do you interest people in a war which can seem long ago and far away?

This effort, however, is surely utterly misguided. I am not sure to whom it is more patronising. To those who went and fought to prevent the takeover of the European mainland by a militaristic hegemon, who certainly didn’t think their efforts were ‘futile’? To those who wrote back from the frontline in the belief that they were going to die and who now have their efforts reduced to a txt cmptn? Or to today’s youf, who it is presumed cannot empathise with the past unless it is presented in terms of contemporary technology?

What ‘The Lost Generation’ season is doing online is not an imaginative use of technology – far from it. It is turning the past into the eternal present, teaching people to apply an ahistoric set of standards to understanding what happened before they were born. And it is, if anything, a rejection of the real possibilities that electronic resources offer to viewers of television documentaries. Why not digitise a genuine set of soldiers’ letters from the Somme? I refuse to believe that modern audiences would not be moved by reading the original documents – indeed, I regularly experience the wonder of schoolchildren and university students when they see ‘the real thing’ in archives.

Anyway, I’m off to compose a set of entries for the competition: ‘Feelin gr8 plsre @ killin Hns! Offcrs jlly decent. Bn undrgoing lrning crve. Hpe this fnds u in pnk as lves me’

Intellectual legacy of the First World War (3)

November 4, 2005

Just re-reading Niall Barr’s excellent Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, and noted that he makes a point related to the discussion of British First World War experience as ‘preparation’ for the Second World War. Niall discusses the different British units’ ability to react to the more static warfare which took place at the eastern end of the Western Desert in 1942 – a big shift from a more mobile style which had been practised – successfully or otherwise, from 1940. He notes that the British effectively reverted to a 1918 style offensive battle: close coordination of all arms beneath heavily concentrated artillery fire to achieve limited aims. Those who did this most effectively were those who had been staff officers on the Western Front twenty five years before.
Saying that Montgomery fought First World War style battles is not exactly new. But Niall has traced through the careers of a number of less senior officers to make the point more conclusively. He also has the great benefit of having been a First World War historian first – so he knows what he’s talking about. The methodological problem, however, seems to be actually finding evidence of Second World War generals looking back and drawing their own lines of intellectual inheritance. Two aspects to that problem – the first is that this isn’t the sort of evidence that goes into staff appreciations (although it would be interesting to conduct a literary comparison of Dorman Smith’s plans for the defence of Alamein with plans for defence in depth in 1918). The other is that the reputation of their predecessors may have been so tarnished by 1942 that no Second World War general was going to compare himself. Quite the opposite, in fact.