In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Viewed From Afar
There is a place where the land and the sky meet, a secret place where heaven and earth dissolve into each other. In this hidden place your imagination allows free rein to your thoughts, and, if you try very hard, you can see back in time with a wonderful insight. With less certainty can the future be glimpsed shining brightly or dulled by fear. My flights of fantasy take me unbidden to this eyrie in the sky and my view of man is unimpaired.
I am not objective, sadly perhaps. Indeed I am myopic. From here I see my country and its peoples, warts and all. It is a little like playing God but without His awesome responsibility. In the midst of the chaos, the mayhem and the occasional downright evil of mankind, I see also the courage and dignity of the human condition; the heroism of men and women who raise their children and live their lives only to die, to become shadows to those who knew them and then to fade away for ever.
Are these people possessed of lesser courage than those whose names and deeds we recognise? No, but they were not in the right place at the right time. As an American soldier replied modestly when asked if he had been a hero during the invasion of Normandy, “No, I wasn’t, but I was in the company of heroes.” And so my journey backwards in time commences.
There below me is Luneberg Heath in Germany on 4th May 1945 where a smallish, bespectacled British Field Marshal is accepting the surrender of all German forces in Northern Germany. Monty was argumentative, petty, vindictive, intolerant and a total enigma, but he had a habit of winning. He didn’t need to be loved although he was by his soldiers if not by his peers.
And here is an airfield in Kent on a sunny late summer’s morning in September 1940 with the young men of the Royal Air Force, weary to their bones, sprawled beside their Spitfires and Hurricanes, awaiting the call. The Battle of Britain may perhaps be more accurately termed the Battle of Europe. And rolling across the scene is a voice, a growling lisping voice, speaking of the Few and ‘Our Finest Hour.’ Even after more than sixty years I am still reduced to tears by the sound of Churchill’s wartime speeches. Of Winston, John Kennedy, no mean orator himself, said, “He conscripted the English language and sent it into battle.”
Back further to a rain swept cornfield in Belgium. The wet, cold and hungry Anglo Dutch Army waits for the great Emperor to attack. It is 11.30 on the morning of 18th June 1815. The Allied commander, the simply dressed Arthur, Duke of Wellington sits astride the splendid Copenhagen, surrounded by his staff, calmly observing the posturing of the French. Before this day is done, 50,000 men will lie dead, or dying among the Belgian cornstalks. Wellington will say, as the tears flow, “I hope I have fought my last battle, because next to a battle lost there is nothing so terrible as a battle won.”
I move on over two hundred years and here is Tilbury in 1588 and Elizabeth, the Queen, is addressing her forces, awaiting invasion by the Spanish. “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England at that.” Well may Elizabeth have been played on stage and screen by many famous actresses because she was a sublime actress herself, whose sense of theatre and self promotion was largely responsible for her long reign.
And so, the journey continues and now slows. Below me is a muddy field in northern France about two miles long by a mile wide, bounded on two sides by thick woods. I descend and there is King Henry of England, the fifth of that name. He is twenty-eight and fulfilling the most important part of his job description, leading his Army in battle. It is the 25th October 1415, the feast day of Saints Crispin and Chrrispian.
The English Army is in deadly danger. They had been withdrawing to the safety of Calais when overtaken and cornered by the French. There are 5,700 English and Welsh soldiers facing 25,000 Frenchmen. The English are cold and hungry. Many are suffering from dysentery. On this grey morning, as they wait for almost certain death, most have been to confession. The French are so confident, one might say arrogant, that they are placing bets on who will capture Henry. As they have continued to do until this day, the French underestimate the English and later the British.
Henry, despite his age has soldiered in these parts for many years. He has noticed that the field narrows from a mile wide at each end to about 1000 yards in the middle. He moves his forces forward to the narrowest part and places his archers on either flank. In his bowmen Henry has the WMD of the day. The French should know about these men, having been routed by them at Crecy in 1346 and Poitiers ten years later. But Gallic memories are short. Henry raises the Royal standard, proudly displays his coat of arms on his breastplate and, to ram home his message, fixes the crown on his head. If he is to die this day, he will die as the King of England. He is attended by his kinfolk, the Royal Dukes, York, Gloster, Bedford, Salisbury, Exeter and Westmoreland. They await the French response as the two armies hurl insults at each other and the English bowmen raise the two fingers of their right hand to show how they will soon kill Frenchmen.
This is not a just war. No, it is all about land and borders and ransom and plunder. I would submit, however, we should not judge the past by the standards of today, lest we too, of the 21st Century are found wanting by future generations.
The French charge. As they reach the narrow waist of the field they are compressed into the middle. The English and Welsh archers, some 5000 of them, bend their backs to their massive six-foot bows, firing up to ten shafts a minute. The archers are attacked by the French cavalry, but they are protected by a fence of long pointed stakes, which horses will not charge. The cavalry veer away to bunch in the middle, colliding with the French foot soldiers, jammed in the narrow waist. The chaos is massive, the noise overpowering. The hiss of the arrows, the clash of steel against steel, the cries of the wounded horses and the shrieks of the dying fill the grey French autumn day. The middle and rear of the French press on, becoming so intermingled with the vanguard that they cannot move, cannot flee the arrows. Knights in armour lie in the mud, unable to move until they suffocate or are killed.
The English men of war move forward. The lightly clothed archers follow. They hack and cut with their short swords, sharp daggers or deadly war axes. It is over in half an hour. The remaining French flee, sent on their way by the two fingered salute.
The flower of France lies crushed in the mud; the blood of French nobility irrigates the dark brown earth of Picardy. French losses are around 8000, English 400, including York.
Shakespeare has Henry saying: “And gentlemen of England now abed, shall think themselves accurs’d that they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap when any speaks who fought with us upon St Crispin’s Day.”
He might well just have done so.