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Holy Mowers prevent Devon village war dead fading from memory

October 26th, 2014

Donaldson was in all likelihood killed while riding one of the horses towing a gun carriage, and without the intervention of Mr McNab and his friends his name, and that of the other fallen, risked fading into obscurity.

Another of the village’s dead was Major AA Cordner, of the Royal Marines Light Infantry, killed on St Georges Day, 1818, at the age of 28, when his ship HMS Vindictive took part in the Allied raid on Zeebrugge.

Mr McNab, 82, said: “It became obvious two years ago that the lettering of the names on the War Memorial had faded to such a degree that the young Army cadets who read out the names of the fallen in both wars on Remembrance Day could barely decipher them. I just decided we needed to do something about it to make sure the names could be read and that the individual sacrifice of those men would continue to be remembered.”

But the group’s efforts did not stop at simply renovating the memorial’s lettering.

Mr McNab and his friends, Rob Rawlings, Peter Heaton, Robert Clifford and Tim Clifford – collectively known as the Holy Mowers – decided to apply for a grant from the War Graves Commission. With the £750 they received they undertook a complete restoriation of the granite memorial cross and its surroundings in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Whitchurch.

For several years the Holy Mowers had been cutting the grass and weeding the area around the cross and the nine war graves which surrounded it – some dating back from the 1860s, with another four from the 1914-18 conflict and two from the Second World War.

Now, with the War Graves Commission Grant, they set about repairing the paths around the memorial and cleaning up the cross itself.

“It was apparent that the area surrounding the granite memorial was in an horrendous condition,” said Mr McNab, who served with the Black Watch during the Korean War and in Kenya, followed by 17 years in the Royal Marines. “Working on Saturday mornings we dug the site over and cleared it of weeds, rocks and old tree roots.

“Then we boarded the sides of the site, laid a membarne down and began laying down the gravel – carting it onto the site in 72 barrel loads in one day.”

Finally the memorial’s facing was cleaned and the names re-painted, with the work completed in time for the site to be re-dedicated and ready for next month’s Remembrance Day service.

To keep costs down the Holy Mowers carried out the work themselves, allowing them to spend the grant – and an additional £150 they raised locally – on the necessary materials.

Mr McNab said: “We’d work for two hours and then retire to the local inn for an hour to refresh our ancient bodies. Most of us don’t attend church, but we firmly believe that the churchyard needs to be maintained and the men of the village remembered.”

One recent episode served to illustrate the importance of the group’s labours.

While he was crouched over the memorial, repainting the names of those lost, Mr McNab was approached by a Canadian family.

They had travelled to the village in the hope of finding the resting place of a distant family member, killed in action overseas.

“The family couldn’t find the grave – it’s whereabouts aren’t known – but they did see their relative’s name on the memorial. I fact I’d just been painting that section and they were delighted to see how much care was being taken of the war graves and the memorial itself”, said Mr McNab. “It was a very moving moment.”


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Seven things we learn from the latest MI5 declassified files

October 24th, 2014

2. The US feared Robert Oppenheimer would ciprofloxacin 500 mg defect to the Soviet Union on a trip to Britain


Robert Oppenheimer (AP)

Oppenheimer, the US physicist and a “father of the atomic bomb” was closely monitored by MI5 on a trip the UK in 1953 over fears he would defect to the Soviet Union.

A cable sent the MI5 by the US Embassy said: “Information has been received that Oppenheimer may defect from France in September 1954. According to the source, Oppenheimer will first come to England and then go to France, where he will vanish into Soviet hands.”

3. MI5 put Julius Nyerere under surveillance despite having “no credible evidence” linking him to subversion


Julius Nyerere (AP)

The security service began monitoring Nyerere, leader of the independence movement in Tanganyika and later first president of Tanzania, during independence negotiations in London as a result of a request by the Colonial Office.

“The alarmist case for a Home Office Warrant on Nyerere made by successive Colonial Secretaries and accepted by successive Home Secretaries now appears flimsy,” Prof Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian, noted in an analysis of the files.

“There was no credible evidence linking Nyerere to subversion. On the contrary, the evidence in his file shows him to have been a devout Catholic as well as a popular leader, profoundly opposed to violence, striving to create a non-racial society.”

4. Eric Hobsbawm was monitored by MI5 for more than 20 years


Eric Hobsbawm (Rex)

The security services opened the Marxist historian’s letters and bugged his telephone calls and meetings, learning that he was in contact with leading members of the now defunct British Communist Party.

Among his associates were James MacGibbon, a wartime British intelligence officer who passed secrets to the Russians, and Alan Nunn May, the British atomic scientist who had been convicted as a Soviet spy

A member of the now defunct British Communist Party since 1936, Hobsbawm had unsuccessfully fought to see the files before his death in 2012.

One report noted that Hobsbawm “dresses in a slovenly way”, while another reported that he was “in difficulties” with his wife, “who does not consider him to be a fervent enough Communist.”

5. MI5 came close to capturing the commander of the Greek-backed Eoka guerrilla movement


Georgios Grivas (Getty Images)

Files on Georgios Grivas, the Cyprus-born general of the Greek Army who led the Eoka guerrillas fighting for union with Greece, show that he was almost captured by MI5’s leading officer in Cyprus, Brigadier Bill Magan.

Magan, who died in 2010 aged 101, did not go ahead with the move for fear it could jeopardise the negotiations which led to the creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus in 1959.

Grivas’s files contain a lengthy profile of him by Magan, who noted that his report could be considered “a trifle colourful for an official paper”.

6. The “genius” MI5 agent who smoked out British Nazi sympathisers was a bank clerk


Eric Roberts (AP)

The identity of the MI5 spy who posed as a German agent to infiltrate the ranks of British Nazi sympathisers is revealed as Eric Roberts, a bank clerk and father-of-three who lived with his family in Surrey.

Files released in February had disclosed the existence of the so-called “fifth column” case. At the time King was thought to be John Bingham, the MI5 officer who partly inspired John le Carré’s character George Smiley.

The latest disclosure shows that King’s true identity was Roberts, who worked at the Euston Road branch of the Westminster Bank in central London.

The file shows that Roberts’s employers were confused after receiving a letter requesting his urgent service for a special task of national importance.

In a letter dated June 11 1940, RW Jones, the bank’s assistant controller, said: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance which would take him away from his normal military call-up in October?”

7. A future Israeli deputy prime minister worked for British intelligence during the Second World War


Abba Eban (Srdja Djukanovic/The Telegraph)

Abba Eban, who was born in Britain, appeared to have a career as a brilliant academic ahead of him before the start of the war.

However the files show that he went on from a research post at Cambridge University to work for British intelligence, including in the Intelligence Corps and SOE, the Special Operations Executive.

He went on to become deputy prime minister of Israel and the country’s ambassador to the USA.

His files include copies of letters sent to Eban and his wife Suzy while they lived in Highgate, north London, sent by his father-in-law in Cairo, and a report on his appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the US.


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The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 16th, 2014

The question before the meeting was very simple. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only 22 years old. There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the Cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. He told Halifax to forget it. Britain had been at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be raised over Britain.

So he said no to Halifax. In another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation, we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been prime minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But it was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

Neville Chamberlain, second left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the Empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the Thirties, your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communisms’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British prime minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, GB Shaw – was lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had hardened. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that, in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the prime minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7pm. He then convened the Cabinet of 25, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as prime minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full Cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7pm, the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the Cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

. Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London


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Boris Johnson: The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 13th, 2014

What I mean is that Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. We rightly moan today about the deficiencies of the European Union – and yet we have forgotten about the sheer horror of that all too possible of possible worlds.

We need to remember it today, and we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe – from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East – we see traces of his shaping mind.

At several moments he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940.

Churchill was in the chair at that meeting. On one side was Neville Chamberlain, the high-collared, stiff-necked and toothbrush-moustached ex-Prime Minister, and the man Churchill had unceremoniously replaced. Rightly or wrongly, Chamberlain was blamed for fatally under-estimating the Hitler menace, and for the failure of appeasement. When the Nazis had bundled Britain out of Norway earlier that month, it was Chamberlain who took the rap.

Then there was Lord Halifax, the tall, cadaverous Foreign Secretary who had been born with a withered left hand that he concealed in a black glove; he had been Chamberlain’s choice of successor. There was Archibald Sinclair, the leader of the Liberal Party that Churchill had dumped. There were Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood – representatives of the Labour Party against which he had directed some of his most hysterical invective. There was the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, taking notes.

The question before the meeting was very simple, and one they had been chewing over for the last few days, as the news got blacker and blacker. No one exactly spelled it out, but everyone could see what it was. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation – let alone my children’s generation – are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal; how Britain could have discreetly, and rationally, called it quits in 1940. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only twenty-two years old – less distant in time from them than the first Gulf War is from us today.

There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point: the argument he had been making for the last few days.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. Contemporary accounts say he was by now showing signs of fatigue. He was sixty-five, and he was driving his staff and his generals to distraction by his habit of working on into the small hours – fuelled by brandy and liqueurs – ringing round Whitehall for papers and information, and actually convening meetings when most sane men were tucked up with their wives.

He was dressed in his strange Victorian/Edwardian garb, with his black waistcoat and gold watch chain and his spongebag trousers – like some burly and hungover butler from the set of Downton Abbey. They say he was pale, and pasty, and that seems believable. Let us add a cigar, and some ash on his lap, and a clenched jaw with a spot of drool.

He told Halifax to forget it. Britain was at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be invisibly raised over Britain, and the will to fight on would be gone.

So he said no to Halifax, and some may feel that ought to have been enough: the Prime Minister had spoken in a matter of national life or death; in another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the Prime Minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been Prime Minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But their voices could not be decisive. The Tories were by some way the largest party in Parliament. It was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and though he at one stage (rather splendidly) mistook the Führer for a footman, we must concede that he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. Both men loved fox-hunting, and Goering nicknamed him “Halalifax” – with emetic chumminess – because halali is a German hunting cry. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled – or at least conspicuously weevilled – with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Britain’s home-grown would-be duce, fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the 1930s your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communists’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been to Germany, and been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British Prime Minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had actually sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column, on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, G. B. Shaw – were lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had unsurprisingly hardened and grown much more widespread. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the Prime Minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7 p.m. He then convened the full cabinet of twenty-five, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as Prime Minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: ” I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7 p.m., the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

(Hodder & Stoughton, rrp £25) is available at £20 + £1.95 p&p from on 0844 871 1514 or at . Text © Boris Johnson 2014.

Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of The Churchill Factor) and are available from telegraph.co.uk/borisjohnson


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Can you tell your Churchill from your Hitler?

October 9th, 2014

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Nazi memorabilia from Nuremberg trials to be auctioned, in pictures

September 26th, 2014

Several private collections of mementos from the World War II era are being auctioned through the Alaska Auction Company in Anchorage, Alaska

Above: a small Hitler propaganda booklet

Picture: AP Photo/Rachel D’Oro


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Paris to celebrate 70 years since liberation from Nazi occupation, with little contribution from US or UK

August 24th, 2014

The exception was a parade on Saturday by French and American forces to mark the entry into the capital of the French 2nd Armoured Division and the 4th US Infantry Division.

There was little mention of the deportation to the Buchenwald concentration camp of more than 2,500 “political prisoners” from a suburb of the capital on the day the uprising began, and even less of the arrests of nine Jews by Paris police only four days earlier.

“The French government has made the Liberation of Paris a purely French celebration,” two young French commentators, Fabrice d’Almeida and Sophie Roche, wrote in the Huffington Post.

Gen. Charles De Gaulle (AP Photo/Constance Stuart Larrabee)

De Gaulle used the liberation of the capital as a way for France to begin recovering from the dishonour of its surrender in 1940 and the years of collaboration.

In his victory speech, he said: “Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the support of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the true France, of the eternal France!”

The historian Jean-Pierre Azéma noted de Gaulle accorded “only perfunctory thanks to the soldiers of the 4th US Infantry Division who accompanied the (French) 2nd Armoured Division.”

A tank from the French Armored Division passes the Arc de Triomphe during the final hours of the struggle to liberate Paris from German occupation (AP)

The novelist Ernest Hemingway, who entered Paris in uniform as a war correspondent with American forces, gave a rather different version, reporting that thousands of Parisians lined the streets to welcome them, shouting “Vive l’Amérique, Vive la France” and waving American flags.

Hemingway created his own legend of liberation by taking command of the bar at the Ritz hotel, requisitioned by the Nazis in 1940.

“Where are the Germans?” he reportedly demanded when he arrived at the hotel with a group of Resistance fighters. “I have come to liberate the Ritz.”

The manager, Claude Auzello, replied: “Monsieur, they left a long time ago and I cannot let you enter with a weapon.” Hemingway duly put down his gun and is said to run up a tab for 51 dry Martinis in the company of his “irregulars”.

French poet, journalist, and a member of the French Resistance Madeleine Riffaud (AP)

Three weeks earlier, Madeleine Riffaud, a Resistance fighter who was not yet 20, encouraged Parisians to rise up by shooting dead a German officer on a Paris bridge on a a Sunday afternoon.

“Everyone saw that a young girl on a bicycle can do this,” she told the Associated Press.

Fred Moore, the son of a former Royal Navy officer who was born and brought up in Amiens, northern France, said he was welcomed with warm embraces by the women of Paris when he entered the city as a French soldier on August 25.

“One of them later became my wife,” said Mr Moore, 94.


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And they all came home from the world wars…

July 22nd, 2014

But in a few weeks, a plaque presented to each Doubly Thankful village will be officially unveiled to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Only now are they coming together to celebrate.

Tony Collett, 83, the son of Sgt Major Collett, who has lived in Upper Slaughter his entire life, remembers painting the names of those who had returned on a roll of honour with his father in 1945. It is still hanging in the village hall, alongside one from the First World War. “I didn’t really appreciate the magnitude of what it all meant,” he says. “That’s only really come about in recent years. My father served in Mesopotamia [Iraq] and never really spoke about the First World War. On Remembrance Day we would always go to the memorial in Lower Slaughter (it lost 15 men in the Great War). Even though our village never lost anybody, it has always been important to remember those who did.”

There are some 16,000 villages across England and Wales and each gave their sons to the Great War. The formation of Pals’ Battalions, to supplement Lord Kitchener’s volunteer army, meant whole villages signed up to serve together. As a result, a generation from a single place could be laid to waste in a burst of machine gun fire.

But at the end of the war, when news came in censored bulletins and communication was limited, the extent of sacrifice among individual, often deeply rural, communities was not clear. It was only in the Thirties, when the author and staunch patriot Arthur Mee travelled the country to compile his King’s England Volumes, that he identified what he called the “thankful villages”, 32 places where everybody came home from the Great War, a figure that has now been upgraded to 51. Of these, according to the Royal British Legion and historians Norman Thorpe, Rod Morris and Tom Morgan who have conducted extensive research, just 13 were also spared any losses in the Second World War.

Some, such as Herodsfoot in Cornwall, have a memorial honouring the dozen or so names of those who served and returned, including Private Herbert Medland, whose daughter Vera Sandercock still lives in the village. But the evidence is not always set in stone. In Catwick in East Yorkshire, 30 men left to fight in the First World War but, before departing, each nailed a coin on to the wall inside the blacksmith’s forge, near a lucky horseshoe. During the Second World War another 30 coins were nailed on. None ever needed to be taken down and the mementos have stayed in the village ever since.

With interest piqued by centenary celebrations, more communities without war memorials are coming forward and the number of Doubly Thankful villages could end up being higher.

One recent claim comes from Holywell Lake in Somerset, a county that boasts two doubly thankful villages, despite the Somerset Light Infantry losing 4,756 soldiers in the Great War. “In Somerset we’ve always been very proud of king and country and when the war broke out we wanted to go and fight,” says Roger Duddridge, county chairman of the Royal British Legion. “On some memorials I’ve seen the names of whole families that were killed: three or four brothers at a time. It’s only recently that these villages where everybody survived have started to come to attention and it’s so gratifying when you find one. This is something that has taken 100 years to piece together.”

The hamlet of Woolley, near Bath, reached by narrow hedgerow-flanked roads and sheltered by Solsbury Hill, contributed 13 young men to the First World War and 13 to the Second. Here too, the magnitude of everybody surviving both never truly sunk in. “When I was growing up we just didn’t appreciate the significance of it,” says Margaret Foster, 71, who still lives in the house where she was born.

Five of her cousins – all brothers – fought in the Second World War. One, Dennis Kurle, is still alive, aged 92. “This village is so small that you didn’t really appreciate the rarity that everybody returned alive. Families knew their own had come back from the war and so were a bit removed from the true scale of it all.”

Some of the survivors of the trenches bore hidden scars; many more suffered all too visible wounds. Of those who returned, 1.75 million had suffered some disability and half were permanently disabled.

Mrs Foster says the residents of Woolley tried to help its sons to forget their experience of the horror – apart from a plaque put up in All Saints’ Church, there was no mention of war. “All the soldiers who returned were marked by what they had seen,” she says, “especially the First World War veterans. When war broke out and they signed up, they just thought they were tough boys, but they had no idea what they were going to face.”

The village, which has never hosted a Remembrance Day, will join the centenary commemorations in the first week of August with a small ceremony alongside the other Doubly Thankful villages to honour their good fortune. But for the grace of God, they too would have had a stone cross to bear of their own.

THE FORTUNATE FEW VILLAGES

Cornwall: Herodsfoot

Gloucestershire: Upper Slaughter

Herefordshire: Middleton-on-the-Hill

Lancashire: Nether Kellet

Lincolnshire: Flixborough

Lincolnshire: High Toynton

Nottinghamshire: Cromwell

Pembrokeshire: Herbrandston

Somerset: Stocklinch

Somerset: Woolley

Suffolk South: Elmham St Michael

East Yorkshire: Catwick

Cardiganshire: Llanfihangel y Creuddyn


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Squatters take over British Legion building, barring D-day veterans from event

June 12th, 2014

The squatters refused to let in members of the legion and brought in mattresses, computers, games consoles and a dog to the building in Lewisham High Street in south London.

The squatters, who were mainly Polish and in their twenties, left a mess behind in the building and were eventually evicted by the Metropolitan Police following claims they had stolen gas and electricity.

Christine Rosenbaum, 67, told the Evening Standard: “They [the squatters] said they had nowhere to go and we were unable to get them out because of a change in the law.

“The windows were broken from where they had got in. They had gone through all the cupboards and the drawers to see what they could find.

“It was very messy and the kitchen was a state.

It was very upsetting because we didn’t know if we would get the building back.”

Doreen Hughes, 77, secretary of the East and Central Lewisham branch, said they hoped to raise enough money to redevelop the building and help others, including younger veterans.”

A spokeswoman for the Met Police said they spoke to the squatters and “asked them to leave.”

She added: “The rightful occupier is now back in the premises.”


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We had men from Mars, now we have men from Venus

June 10th, 2014

The moving coverage of what may be the last full commemoration of the invasion of Europe in June 1944 has naturally prompted reflection on how astonishingly the world has changed in the past 70 years. But to that diminishing band of us whose memories go back to that far-off time, one respect in which the world has changed is as striking as any. A somewhat oblique way to symbolise it might be to compare those pictures of aged heroes reminiscing over extraordinary deeds on D-Day beaches, and of Churchill smoking his cigar, with yesterday’s news that all the three most likely candidates for the new European Commission presidency are now female, so that, alongside Angela Merkel, the two most powerful politicians in Europe will be women.

For a small boy growing up in rural Devon, those war years were incredibly exciting. We were daily made aware that we were involved in a huge drama. The enemy, as in an “Overcoming the Monster” story, was clearly in view. Everywhere around us were men in uniform. Our Devon skies were full of warplanes, Spitfires and American Liberators trailing smoke as they limped back from bombing some German city. For months in 1944 we knew that the drama was approaching its climax, as our Devon lanes filled with strange machines and American troops – until the sight of the sky blackened by Dakotas tugging gliders and the distant sound of gunfire from the south east told us that D-Day had come.

All this shaped our view of a heroically masculine world, in which men were men – such as my uncles, who lost a leg to a Heinkel in the African desert or served on Arctic convoys – and where women, doing their stuff for the war effort, were still very much women; and where our political leaders, such as Churchill and Roosevelt, could be revered as inspiring and truly commanding father figures.

For a decade or so after the war, as we can see reflected in the war films and romantic musicals of the time, those wartime values still lived on, when men like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart or Jack Hawkins still seemed to be very much men in the wartime mould; and where women, in the graceful age of the “New Look”, could still, like Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly or Sophia Loren, be both strong and intensely feminine. We even had Churchill back in No 10.

But then, as the war receded, a hitherto unimaginable material prosperity arrived, along with television and rock’n’roll, to bring the transition to a very different age. Compared with those wartime years, our politicians began to become a different kind of animal – less decisive, less characterful, less manly. By the end of the “low, mean, dismal decade” of the Seventies, when Mrs Thatcher emerged as a dramatic throwback to those lost wartime values, it was widely observed that she was “the only real man in the Cabinet”. When she was overthrown, by those weak men around her who had resented her commanding presence as “bossiness”, we moved into an era where our politicians – younger, softer, more image-obsessed – became less clearly defined or commanding than ever.

And now, in the age of the politics of the Coalition and the European Union, where the masculine patriotism of President Putin seems such an alien aberration, where men wish to be more like women and women not only want to be like men but often, like Mrs Merkel, have to compensate for our lost masculinity, we look back to the drama of the Second World War as a wholly different world.

People of my age often observe that, while much good has been gained in our lifetime, more has been lost than younger people can ever know. We agree that we are fortunate to have lived just when we did, seeing both the best of the old and the best of the new. But then, when I talk to my sons, I realise that that is what every generation needs to think.


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