Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Reader Review: Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk

Clare O’Brien reviews Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk by Joshua Levine.

by Clare O’Brien,

If you are in search of a detailed historical account of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk early in the Second World War, this book is not for you. Aside from a brief foreword by Peter Snow and a short factual introduction to each of the book’s ten chapters, Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk provides no factual overview or analysis of the events that sparked Operation Dynamo.

Nevertheless, the primary source material provided here presents a particularly vivid picture of what it was like to be caught up in history in May-June 1940. The latest in a series of historical anthologies drawing on the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive, the book transcribes accounts by those who personally experienced the events of the time – from the military rank-and-file to officers, nurses, medics, sailors and civilians. Accompanied by contemporary photographs, the reminiscences range from short terse paragraphs, which are more fearsome for what they do not say, to long vibrant accounts by men whose memories have been permanently scarred by their experiences.

Presented in rough chronological order, the accounts reveal how attitudes among ordinary people gradually developed from the preamble of the phoney war to the shock of this first major military defeat. At first, old-fashioned jingoism and xenophobia mingles with a very real excitement at the prospect that ‘something might happen’ to put an end to the drabness of poverty and unemployment at home. Once it does, the tone abruptly changes. Horrors are steadily heaped on horrors and naïve British boys are confronted with a daily nightmare of mutilation, misery and death.

An entire chapter is devoted to the massacre of British prisoners by the Waffen-SS at Le Paradis and Wormhout. However, the smaller horrors are almost harder to take in than such widescreen atrocities. As always, the devil is in the details: a young medic assisting at a hurried amputation (‘what has stayed with me is the weight of that arm. I carried it out into the night, and threw it into a ditch, and it was the weight of it’), a French refugee giving birth in the back of an army truck to the sound of gunfire, a wounded man trying to commit suicide by holding a bullet against his head and detonating it with another.

The accounts of the rescue itself touch upon cowardice and selfishness, as well as bravery and heroism. Men were shot for trying to jump the queue, and some smaller boats sank as they were swamped by panic-stricken soldiers. Surreal episodes abound – men trying to shave before embarking for home, dogs rescued from the beach at Dunkirk, a phalanx of kilted Scots refusing to be taken to Dover and turning around to continue the battle.

Author/compiler Joshua Levine is a playwright and TV scriptwriter. Although his assemblage of ‘forgotten voices’ may not provide much in the way of original thought or new analysis, it nevertheless offers the reader an account of human experiences of Operation Dynamo, which is more personal than history and more powerful than fiction.

Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, Joshua Levine (Ebury)

Clare O'Brien is a retired teacher of History and English. She now works as a freelance writer.

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