Category Archives: military history

The truth about Dunkirk

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Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho
 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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The love of three women who changed the world

Taking a small blue hard back book down from my parent’s shelves I began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s book: “Travels with a Donkey”. I persevered, but the relentless beating and prodding of what he described as the ‘delicate little donkey’ upset me too much to find out how their journey progressed.

I tried it again as an adult, but the same heartless beatings had the same effect on me. Quite different to the way I felt about Black Beauty – that eminently sensible Anglican horse – as H.G. Wells referred to him. Black Beauty is one of the best sellers of all time I’m glad to say, and must have affected the attitudes of people to horses and animals in general for all time too.

Since I read it at ten years old, I’ve always been grateful for the motor car, tractors and other machines, no matter how much they clog up streets, create pollution, or are responsible for dreadful accidents. At least no horses suffer now the way they did, as Quaker Anna Sewell so graphically describes in the one book she wrote, and which was published just before she died, always having suffered from ill health.

It was written in Black Beauty’s voice, itself a sensation at the time, and his story showed how horses were not just the victims of the vagaries or cruelties of their owners, but that if they became scarred they were no longer valued, and then began the downward slide to become worn- out under-fed beaten cab horses, flogged and half-starved until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

Anna, who lived from 1820 to 1871, didn’t live through a major war, so she didn’t mention the use of horses in war. But anyone who has seen the 1970 film of Waterloo, which was filmed in Russia, will have seen the horror of a war horse’s life, as they charged and were shot dead in battle, or left to die untended from their wounds. (No-one is quite sure whether the horses were as endangered as they looked in this violent film, only that fifty circus stunt riders performed with the horses in bloody battle scenes on churned- up muddy slopes. But we do know that a hundred horses died in the making of Ben-Hur)

It wasn’t much better for horses in World War One and even in World War Two, when the Germans were still using horses and mules to pull guns and supply vehicles, and the British took their beautiful hunters and cavalry horses out to the Middle East, and then had to leave them there when their regiments became mechanized -ie supplied with tanks and armoured cars.

In her delicious diary: ‘To War With Whittaker’, Lady Hermione Ranfurly writes a heart-breaking description of going to say goodbye to her husband’s two precious hunters and then going to each other horse in the regimental stables to farewell them.

A decade before Hermione’s description of the Sherwood Foresters’ horses, Dorothy Brooke, another Englishwoman   who loved horses, and whose husband commanded the cavalry in Cairo, discovered the old war horses sold off to local Arab tradesmen and workers after the previous war. She decided to seek out and rescue the starving, broken- down old horses, who had formerly known kindness and consideration instead of blows, but had spent the years since being worked to death by owners who often didn’t know how to care for them or didn’t have the means or the will to feed them well.

In 1934 Dorothy Brooke formed the Old War Horses Memorial Association, and with the help of many people, including senior officers and other wives and locals – and even George V after she wrote to the Telegraph – she tracked down and raised the money to buy back five thousand emaciated old horses from their owners, who she never blamed or judged. They were all that remained of the 22,000 sold off after the Allenby campaigns and other cavalry operations in the First World War. They’d already had a hard war, carrying as much as 22 stone in weight, suffering rationing, piercing cold, extreme heat, dust clouds and exhaustion as well as some wounds.

Now she wrote : “As their ill-shod misshapen hooves felt the deep tibbin [broken barley straw] bed beneath them, there would be another doubting disbelieving halt. Then gradually they would lower their heads and sniff as though they could not believe their own eyes or noses. Memories, long forgotten, would then return when some stepped eagerly forwards towards the mangers piled high, while others, with creaking joints, lowered themselves slowly on to the bed and lay, necks and legs outstretched. There they remained, flat out, until hand fed by the syces ( grooms).”

Dorothy Brooke never gave up, and her small animal hospital continued to grow. She died at her Heliopolis home in 1955, but her work continued and was eventually re-named the Brooke in 1961. It now operates out of London, all over Africa and employs nine hundred people who do their best to rescue and treat horses and donkeys and re-educate their owners.

When it comes to donkeys, they too owe a debt of gratitude to another woman, Doctor Elisabeth Svendson, who died in 2011. Since setting up her Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, starting with one rescued donkey, it’s now visited by over 300,000 people a year, and her donkey rescue missions have also spread all over the world, from Belgium to Egypt, Ethiopia to India, and of course in the British Isles.

The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 15,500 donkeys and mules in need, lifelong care in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Donkeys are rescued and cared for and sometimes re-homed or given to guardians, for donkeys live till fifty, which is a long time to guarantee a pet’s welfare or well-being.

Donkeys have always been overworked and under-valued, unlike their noble cousins the horse, who does get loved and admired. I remember the creaking of a treadmill above a well just below the bedroom window of the hotel where I was staying in Majorca, many years ago. In the blazing afternoon sun while we all took siestas, a little black donkey trudged around the treadmill with no respite. I lay there listening in agony, unable to slip into a happy afternoon nap while he laboured alone and unrelentingly.

The gentle donkey with his big ears and delicate legs, staggering along under huge loads has been the object of derision for centuries, but as Chesterton wrote:

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;  One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

. ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,’ and these three women, Anna, Dorothy and Elisabeth, could never have known how their small actions for the creatures they loved would have such great and noble outcomes. In her Christmas speech, Queen Elizabeth quoted Mother Teresa’s words about doing small things with great love. No-one knows how their small actions will change their own world, or the larger world around them, but these women who had so much love, are an inspiration for us all.

Food for Threadbare gourmets

One more day before the turkey would have been past its use-by date, so instead of freezing it, we ate it – a sort of turkey hash, eaten with noodles – I think they’re called Remen noodles in the U.S.

It was very quick and easy. While I fried an onion in olive oil, I chopped some bacon, mushrooms, and the remains of the turkey – in this case just over a cup full. I put one packet of noodles in a basin with boiling water, and put a plate over the basin to keep the steam in.

Cook the bacon, mushrooms with the onion and finally add the turkey when the onion is soft. When the mixture is hot pour over it two beaten eggs. Drain the noodles, and after stirring the eggs through the mix for about a minute, stir in the noodles and add soya sauce and sesame oil to taste. Serve straight away… this makes enough for two, but you could stretch it out to four with another packet of noodles and a bit more turkey…but now: P.S. I forgot to include nutmeg to taste in the recipe for turkey in the last blog. I’ve amended it now in case anyone decides they want to try it…

Food for thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, lovingkindness, and caring.

(Samyutta Nikaya 47.19) a Buddhist scripture

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War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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When is right wrong?

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It’s always been quite easy to be a pacifist in New Zealand for the last fifty years. Vietnam seemed indefensible to many, and our nuclear free policy made it feasible to take the moral high ground and declare that war is wrong.

I was forced to think about this on reading of the First World War project at Paddington Station in London, where a magnificent and moving statue of an unknown warrior stands. In full battle kit and helmet, he is reading a letter. As part of the commemorations marking the start of World War One, writers have been invited to write a letter to him, and Stephen Fry, wit, comedian and actor was amongst the first to write his, and it caused a sensation.

He wrote it as from a pacifist brother. Though he got historic details wrong – a pacifist would not be sitting at home then, he’d either be in prison or working on a farm, his letter moved many people. I’ve always been firmly behind conscientious objectors – (I like the moral high ground!) but this letter made me think hard about what was the right thing to do then, and how the right thing could very easily seem to be the wrong thing.

I thought about the horrific killings at schools and other places in the last few years, where deranged gun-owners shot numbers of their fellows, and if they didn’t end up shooting themselves, were shot, in order to stop them killing any more innocent victims. These incidents made me think when is it wrong to kill another human being, if there is no other way to stop them killing others. As pacifists do we stand and watch while others are killed, or do we intervene in whatever way we can, to protect the innocent?

This was actually the dilemma in the World Wars. Revisionist historians have said that there was no need for Britain to go to war in 1914. But Britain had informally agreed to support France if she was attacked in order to keep the balance of peace and power in Europe. More importantly, she had signed a pact in 1839 with four other countries of Europe, including Germany, to protect Belgium and allow this war-torn corner of Europe to enjoy being a neutral country, safe for the first time in history from being fought over. It was known as the cock-pit of Europe. It took the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, nine years of diplomacy and negotiations to get the five signatories to agree to preserve Belgium, and they included France, Russia and England, and also Germany and Austria.

But Belgium was doomed as soon as the Prussian General Schlieffen began planning a war for German supremacy, because his plans for invading France, took in Belgium first. By then, under Bismarck’s influence, the German nation had become a military one. Invading Belgium didn’t bother them, though it did the honest German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, whose anguished telegrams begging the Kaiser not to invade, I have read.

In Belgium the Germans did what they did at Lidice in Hungary and Oradour in France in the Second World War, when they blamed the Nazis for these unspeakable atrocities. No Nazis around in the first war, but they still burned villages, hanged one man in ten and sometimes one man in two, and shot women, children and babies, the youngest three weeks old – at Dinant – as reprisals against any Belgians who had attempted to resist. Before the war was four weeks old, towns and villages had been sacked and burned, their people shot, and Louvain, and its ancient library reduced to cinders. So the choice for many Englishmen was clear – stand by and watch as a pacifist, or try to stop what seemed like a barbarian host?

The British soldiers who went to war then, were part of the history of England which had always tried to stop one power dominating and enslaving all of Europe, from Louis the Fourteenth of France to Napoleon. To go to war seemed to many who joined up then, to be a heroic attempt to save civilisation, and even more so in the Second World War, when Hitler was enslaving the civilised world.

The tragedy of resisting a violent and merciless enemy is that too often all the combatants find themselves using the same methods as the aggressor… war. But can we stand by and hang onto our principles of not killing, when all those we love will be destroyed, and not just those we love – our society, our country, and our whole civilisation. This was the choice which thinking people faced in both world wars.

When World War One was declared, England’s army was smaller than Serbia’s – the tiny country where the match had been lit at Sarajevo. So England’s armies were citizen armies, in both wars, made up of peace-loving men called up to defend their country. There’s a lot of research to show that many soldiers when they fired their rifles at the advancing enemy, didn’t actually shoot at the enemy, but aimed to miss, and that even more didn’t shoot at all. They too faced choices on the battle field which are impossible for us to imagine, when like me, we are living in a safe, peace-loving democracy.

So though I believe in peace, and have always supposed I was a pacifist, and attended Quaker meeting, where everyone was a declared pacifist, do I still believe it is possible to be one when the chips are down? I don’t know any more … Aggression turns easy choices upside down, when right – not killing – seems wrong, and wrong – fighting – seems right.

The wonderful story of the American colonel in Iraq, surrounded by an angry mob intent on violence, calling his armed troop to a halt, ordering them to kneel and point their guns to the sky, immediately defused the threat of violence on that occasion. So how do we defuse the violence of would- be psychopathic conquerors who believe that might is right? Maybe only people power can do that – and that can happen – as it did at the Berlin Wall.

Maybe it just needs enough of us to say: “They shall not pass…”
Food for threadbare gourmets

Something to eat with a glass of wine is one of our specialities in this village – among my friends anyway. It’s so easy to share a glass of wine and a nibble on a Friday night, without all the hassle of a dinner party. The latest craze is kumara skins – kumara are the Maori sweet potato that Kiwis pine for when they leave this country, but even ordinary potatoes are good this way.

Boil scrubbed orange and golden kumara until soft, and then cut them into thin wedges, leaving about a cm of flesh. Heat hot oil until it’s just smoking. Dust the kumara with seasoned flour and fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt. Eat the skins with sour cream sauce – half a cup of sour cream mixed with a tbsp on mustard, fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Food for thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

Martin Buber 1878- 1965  Jewish philosopher

 

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Filed under army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, history, life and death, military history, peace, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one, world war two

The birds in our hands

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Every morning the pink breasted doves are waiting for me and their breakfast at the top of the steps, cooing like pigeons, and many mornings their cooing makes me think of Cher Ami.

Cher Ami, a black checker cock, was one of six hundred homing pigeons British bird fanciers had given to the American Army when they arrived to fight in the last six months of World War One. Trained pigeons were an indispensable part of warfare then. Cher Ami won fame when he became the last of the pigeons left with a doomed battalion fighting in the Argonne forest. Their commander, a hero named Whittlesey, had warned that the plan was a disaster before they began, but no-one was game to take on General Pershing and argue it with him. So as Whittlesey had feared, the battalion was surrounded by the Germans. When he sent a pigeon bringing their position to HQ,  US artillery came to their rescue and began pounding the Germans surrounding the trapped men. Disaster – they were actually shelling the trapped men.

Whittlesey had one pigeon, Cher Ami, left out of the eight he’d started with, so he sent a message: “Our own artillery is dropping barrages directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it”. After a few false starts, Cher Ami took off, and the Germans tried to shoot him down. He circled overhead before setting off through a storm of German shrapnel. Once he staggered and fluttered helplessly before gathering himself together and continuing his flight. One leg was shot off, but he continued on. Somehow he got back to HQ, dropping like a stone onto his left breast. He staggered on one bloody leg to the trainer who caught him. The capsule bearing the precious message hung by the ligaments of the wounded leg, and he had been shot through the breast bone as well.

Thanks to him, the artillery barrage was lifted and lives saved, though the heroes in the pocket still had several more dreadful days trapped, until un-aided by their own side, a handful of survivors made it safely out. Heroic Cher Ami lived for another year, was stuffed and now resides at the Smithsonian museum.

Human beings (not homo sapiens) have used pigeons for their purposes for some thousands of years. By crossing breeds, they’ve evolved fast pigeons who can do roughly 60 miles per hour, fast ones up to 110 miles per hour. Paul Reuter of the famous news agency used them, a pigeon took the news of Waterloo from Brussels to Britain, and even in the eighties, pigeons were being used to carry blood samples to and fro from two Southern English hospitals. Here in New Zealand an enterprising Kiwi founded a pigeon- post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland back in 1897.

Though people assume it’s just instinct that gets them back home, during World War One, while the French were pushing back the Germans from the Marne, they took the pigeon lofts forward with them, yet when the birds returned from Paris they always managed to find their lofts, even though they had been moved… intelligent too…

Pigeons are not the only birds men have used for their purposes. Here in NZ  the Maoris used to catch the male birds and trim the brush-like growth at the end of their tongues so they could train them to speak. They taught tuis chants as long as fifty words, keeping them imprisoned in the dark in a tiny cage till they were trained. Each poor prisoner, when able to do all the Maori cries and chants, was then imprisoned for the rest of his life in a cage, shaped rather like a Maori eel-pot, fifteen inches wide at the bottom, and thirteen inches high. The bird-cage was often hung at the entrance to a marae. This reminds me of the old Chinese men in long grey or brown robes, in Hongkong, who would solemnly take their caged birds for a walk in the parks, still in their cages.

Parrots too have always had a raw deal locked up in cages with their wings clipped. In Japan recently one escaped and a few days later ended up at the local police station. With a captive audience the intelligent bird told them his name and address and telephone number. His relieved owner then came to fetch him.

When Time magazine ran an article discussing the intelligence of animals and other creatures, they ended by quoting the example of a pet parrot being taken to the vet and having to stay behind for treatment. The bird understood he was being left, and began begging his owners not to leave him, promising to be a good boy. This is the exact pattern of small children left in hospital, and attributing the horror of it to what seems like punishment for their own misdeeds. The parrot had responded with the same emotional pattern as a human toddler, but the researchers described him as ‘mimicking human behaviour’.  This did not prove that birds and animals had feelings, the article ended.

I gave away a book on birds in disgust a few weeks ago. It was a detailed account of how they hear see, fly, etc etc. The book opened with a vignette of a white goose waiting by the side of an icy road beside its dead mate, somewhere in the frozen north. Three weeks later it was still there, still waiting, still grieving for its lost mate. The book closed by returning to this grief-stricken creature, and said, just like that  Time article, that neither this behaviour, nor that of the birds they had observed mating for life, returning year after year to each other, flying around each other, greeting and calling ecstatically when they’d been parted, proved that birds had emotions like us. So how do these heartless researchers explain what birds are doing when fluttering around the body of their mate killed on the road, hiding from cats in the garden, protecting their young, showing fear?

Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us. They call it anthropomorphism and think those of us who practise it are mistaken and merely sentimental. And though St Francis was allowed to acknowledge the feelings of all creatures, the rest of us are still supposed to accept Descartes’s malign thinking that since animals and other creatures don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain, they can be used for any purposes (there are still scientists who argue for this).

Descartes’s theories have influenced our society since the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  But if only we really had been enlightened! If we were, would we all be anthropomorphists? I suppose it depends on whether we come from our head or our heart.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Reverting to an ancient English tradition, we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch! I never do it with mint sauce, since originally the idea of the vinegar and mint was to disguise the taint of meat that wasn’t fresh, but I do like the mint, so I chop it up and stir it into the gravy. (When my seven year old son first encountered mint sauce at a friend’s house, he told me the meat was covered in: “yucky black tea-leaves!”). When putting the lamb in the oven, I rub the skin with salt to make it crisp.

I also make an onion sauce, which I suppose is some sort of throwback to the capers in white sauce that used to be served with mutton- a meat no-one seems to encounter in the west these days. I boil a large chopped onion, and drain the onion water, using it to make a white sauce which is then enriched with milk or cream and a good tasting of nutmeg. Then stir in the chopped onion – delicious with the lamb.

 

Food for thought

Accuracy is not a virtue; it is a duty.

AE Housman, 20th century English poet and brilliant classicist, best known for his poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

 

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War and Peace

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One night in early June, sixty nine years ago, I lay awake in bed and heard the thunder of hundreds of aeroplanes flying over my home, hour after hour, all through the night. I was six years old, and I lay there frozen with terror, thinking that Hitler was coming to get us.

My mother was not home as usual, so it was my job to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air-raid shelter when I heard the warning siren. On this occasion, there was no air raid siren, which totally baffled me, and I lay there petrified.

Reading Anthony Beevor’s study of D-day recently, I learned from it that that night was June 5, when a great armada flew across the channel ahead of the landings at dawn. Beevor described people all over the southern England in their night clothes, standing out on the warm June night gazing up at the sky, and watching with astonishment this stupendous aerial army, wave after wave, hour after hour, flying overhead. They knew that the long-awaited invasion was beginning.

Only as an adult did I realise what an anxious, nerve-wracking day that was for the whole country. Europe had never been invaded across the Channel and the men who were attempting it were facing a fortress bristling with weapons, skilled warriors and impregnable fortifications. Western civilisation was hanging in the balance, and with it the lives of unknown millions in Europe. As the army mustered in the ships and then stood in the landing craft, some smoked, some prayed, and if they were American, some chewed gum, then an unknown invention in England. Some read the Bible and some officers recited Shakespeare’s words on St Crispian’s day:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian. …
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours…

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin‘s day.

Many of these young men had never been in combat before, while the battle- weary British troops who’d been fighting for the previous five years, were now somewhat reluctant heroes. My father told me much later, that he felt his courage had ran out in Italy.

They had breakfast while they sailed into the dawn, the Americans enjoying steak, pork, chicken and ice-cream, the hard-up British, corned beef sandwiches and a tot of rum. On one ship the sailors made sure the Canadian Scottish regiment had two hard boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich to take with them… and thus fortified they all went into battle.

Back in England, every-one was on tenterhooks, knowing what a huge gamble it was. Churchill was in agony, knowing what failure meant, in terms of the dead and their families, with his experience of the carnage of World War One. He was also worried about the French civilians. 15,000 had been killed, 19,000 wounded in the bombings before the Invasion. Roosevelt had rejected his pleas to concentrate on the Luftwaffe. (One wonders if Roosevelt would have been so gung-ho about that number of American women and children dying in their homes. I also wonder if there are memorials to these dead, as well as to the soldiers who died.)

If everyone else was on tenterhooks, I wasn’t. No-one told a small girl what was going on back then. One just snatched at clues, and tried to piece things together. One of my earliest memories was of the Battle of Britain. I remember standing with my mother and a couple of other women, as they gazed up into the cloudless blue sky in the Dorset country-side , saying: “There’s another dog-fight”.  I craned to see these dogs fighting in the sky, but all I could see were silver crosses diving across the blue space with white lines trailing behind them.

I was two then, I couldn’t talk, but I could understand what adults were saying. Later, I remember people promising that in Peace-time we would have sweets, and toys, and clothes. I thought Peace-time must be like Christmas, only better. At Christmas we had an orange at the bottom of our sock, a once a year treat.

I used to peer out of the window looking over the quiet street where we lived, watching the big girls I admired, roller-skating past. I was six and they were twelve. They didn’t know I existed as I peered through the small diamond shapes on the window which was criss-crossed with wide, sticky brown tape to stop the glass shattering if a bomb fell.  This was at Weymouth, and the American soldiers who fought at Omaha left from Weymouth Bay.

As long as I could remember, the beach had been covered in thousands of khaki camouflaged vehicles, surrounded by barbed wire. There was just a tiny corner of the beach where we could use the golden sands. And in the sea were lines of cruel metal spikes sticking out of the waves to stop the Germans coming. I thought all beaches were covered in barbed wire and protected by rows of big black spikes.

And then one day they were all gone – troops, vehicles, barbed wire and spikes. No-one told me why. I was an adult before I managed to piece the story together. Today, every child knows about war. It comes into their homes every night on the TV screens. They must feel that war is normal. But my war was different. It was a monstrous aberration which we all longed to end, everyone hanging out for peace. When it came, nothing much changed for us, rationing went on into the fifties, hardship was part of our daily lives. But at least we thought we had won the peace.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

A friend gave me this recipe, which she had gleaned from another friend. It’s supposed to be for four lamb shanks, but I used it for four chicken breasts. Brown them, and gently cook a large onion until soft. Put the chicken and onion in a casserole with four chopped spring onions, six tablesp of peanut butter, four slices of  fresh ginger, three cinnamon sticks, three star anise, 80 grams of dark brown sugar or palm sugar, three tablesp of dark soya sauce, three tablesp of Hoisien sauce, and three tablesp of rice wine. ( I didn’t have any rice wine, so used a medium/sweet sherry instead).

I poured three cups of boiling chicken stock over it all, and put it in the oven at 80 degrees for twelve hours. It is melting when it’s ready. I served it with the kumara puree and parsnip and carrot puree.

Food for Thought

There really seems to be only one hope for man: not to change the world and others, but in some degree to change and improve himself. The salvation of the world rests secretly upon those who manage to do so.

Herman Hesse  1877- 1962  German poet and novelist, winner of Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, great days, history, life and death, military history, peace, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war two