Category Archives: Military Memory

Mount Harriet Photos

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Falklands with elements of the army as the attached academic on their battlefield study. The islands are utterly incredible, but one of the most particularly striking sites was Mount Harriet, where the Royal Marines of 42 Commando wrested control of the hill from the Argentine defenders on the night of 11-12 June, 1982. Thanks to excellent planning, and brilliant co-operation between different branches of the Task Force, the hill was taken with the loss of just two men.

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As a defensive feature, Harriet is impressive. It is bounded by an almost vertical incline to the north, an open slope to the south, and the summit is marked by rock outcrops that form natural sangars. You can explore all of the old Argentine positions and I’ve included a few photos of them below. It’s staggering to think how you’d attack it, and incredible to think it was done with just 32 British casualties.

However, this alone isn’t what is so amazing about Harriet. Instead, what’s incredible is that the summit of the slope is like a time capsule. The hill is littered with the detritus of war, from small personal items evoking such pathos, Like shoes or razor blades.

But you can also see the defensive positions and remnants of heavy weapons that should have made this natural fortress utterly impervious. The views from the summit, down to where the Royal Marines attacked from, and the surrounding hills, are commanding to say the least.

 

It really is an incredible place.

 

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South Africans on the Somme

 

100 years ago, the Battle of Delville Wood was being fought. It was one of the many engagements that made up the Battle of the Somme, and part of the wider Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

The battle saw the debut of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. They took Delville Wood on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks, until they were relieved.

The South Africans held the wood until 19 July, at a cost in casualties similar to those of many British brigades on 1 July. They lost 2,536 men in the attacks, counter-attacks, and defence in this small stretch of the front.

Delville Wood is now the site of the South African National Memorial, which was opened in 1926. There’s some great original footage here of the unveiling of the memorial – and you can really see the destruction of the wood as there are virtually no trees standing.

The memorial building itself is near the centre of the wood, with this rather moving inscription in English and Afrikaans:

Their ideal is our legacy.
Their Sacrifice our Inspiration.

The memorial commemorates not only the actions of the South Africans at Delville Wood, but also all those who fought and died in the battles of the First World War, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But it was only recently that the names of 1100 black and coloured troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who served as stretcher bearers and trench diggers were added to a remembrance wall.

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There is also a small museum designed to look like the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Disappointingly, on my last two visits (even on 2 July 2016) the museum has been closed. I hope it is now open to tell the story of the South Africans at war.

Of the wood itself, while it looks full only one tree is an “original” hornbeam that survived the fighting. It is marked by a small plaque and shows battle damage. The rest of the hornbeam and beech trees were destroyed, and those there now are oak and birch trees planted by the South African government.

The wood is enormously peaceful, but it’s easy to see the scars of the war here. The trenches are still visible in the trees, and little memorials are still dotted around, such as pointing out where the South African HQ was.

Across the road is the Delville Wood Cemetery. It is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves, and was created after the Armistice by concentrating a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, as well as those recovered from the battlefields. As a testament to the level of fighting here and in the immediate surrounds, two thirds of these are unidentified.

Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Africans as Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, or Villers-Bretonneux or Gallipoli do for Australians. I think that is due to the contested and divided nature of South African 20th century history. Commemoration of these times remains difficult as it remains a painful issue about what is remembered – though it was good to see President Jacob Zuma lay a wreath at the memorial.

Delville Wood is an important site that helps people remember those who went before and fought for their country, and to my mind one of the most remarkable sites on the Western Front. I certainly recommend you visit it.

 

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Forgetting the War

I’ve just seen the trailer below for a new documentary called Almost Sunrise about two US veterans and their attempts to move on from their experiences in Iraq as they attempt to readjust to being civilians

 

The film’s website tells us that Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson served in Iraq, and since their return home have both struggled with depression, to the extent that they contemplated suicide. In order to try and master their fates, the two embark on a massive 2,700 mile walk across the country from Wisconsin to California, “in order to reflect on their haunting experiences of war and to ultimately, save themselves.”

Military personnel struggling on their return from conflict is not new, and their battles with reconciling what they did when in action with the moral code of a society removed from war have been studied before. But it can never be highlighted enough. This, like anything else, takes time to heal. And sometimes time alone is not enough.

The subject of transition into civilian life from the military is something I’ve worked on and highlighted before here, but it does seem to attract far more attention in the US than in the UK. Why is this? Certainly one major part of it is the cultural difference between the US and the UK, and the place the veteran has in our societies – and the questions about what we as civilians owe them, if anything, in return for their service.

Also,  I can’t help but notice that this seems to add to the latest trend in film-making when it comes to war films; that the focus is now more on the legacy of the war at home after the conflict for those who endured it, rather than the war itself.

It looks like an amazingly powerful film, and I’ll certainly try and track this film down from the UK.

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Africa and the First World War

In November I was lucky enough to be invited on to the Islam Channel to discuss the First World War in Africa.

As you can imagine, the African continent was shaped and influenced by the war in different ways, with campaigns being fought in the north, the south west, and in particular in the east in German East Africa.

It was great to be able to talk about the campaigns, the vital role that African soldiers played in the armies of the belligerents, as well as expand on some of the stories of other volunteers from the Commonwealth, such as those from the Caribbean.

Here’s the interview, hope you enjoy it!

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Filed under Media, Military Memory, Research

New Military Museum!

I’ve just seen that a new military museum has opened in Mons in Belgium, which looks like a fantastic site!

A redevelopment of an older site, the Mons Memorial Museum has been (re)open since April 2015, and looks to cover the military history of the region from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War. I imagine their displays on the First World War, in particular, will be popular given the significance of the Mons region. It was the site of the BEFs first pitched battle in the First World War where on 23 August the first two VCs of the war were won by Sidney Godley and Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers. It is also where the first and last British Commonwealth casualties of the First World War are buried (as I’ve previously blogged about) However, it is interesting to note that they also deal with the social history of Mons under occupation – an increasing trend amongst military museums that are looking to branch out from “traditional” military narratives and engage a wider audience.

Their philosophy is:

The history museum has therefore been transformed into a place where questions are asked and where new technologies (e.g. 3D projectors, “serious games”, interactive tables) are utilised to give form and depth to the historical content. The use of testimonies such as interviews and letters is also at the heart of the concept, which emphasises the notion of passing on the baton, of conveying history.

You can visit it’s website here. It certainly looks as if it will be an important place to visit on the heritage trail, and will no doubt become a mainstay in World War I battlefield tours. They have even put a special exhibition on about Napoleon, so clearly going for a broad remit. Certainly I’ll try and get a visit in soon!

A screen shot of the museum's website

A screen shot of the museum’s website

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The Perils of Publishing Military Memoirs

As the genre of military memoir becomes ever-increasingly popular, is it any wonder that stories like this emerge?

Effectively, this story is the questioning of one US veteran’s account of the kill stats he claims to have posted whilst deployed in Iraq, and the controversy this has created across the Atlantic in the US.

One reviewer even wrote the following on amazon.com:

“All I can say is please do not buy this book. It is a disgrace to all 3-7 CAV soldiers. As someone that was their in that unit during both times I can say that the vast majority of the this book is lies. Please do not by this book as it does not truly represent the true values that CAV soldiers live which is honor and integrity. Please give you more money to a local veterans group and find one soldier that did die overseas and learn about them because they are the real Heroes, not this guy.”

It’s a bizarre story, but, proving that the internet is an ungovernable wilderness of information that can mostly be generated free from recrimination, this review too can be challenged. Dillard Johnson, who the reviewer claimed is no hero, was awarded four purple hearts and a silver star, according to official US Army records. Those aren’t just given out, so clearly the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

As the BI article linked above clearly states, it seems this enormous number of kills has been an invention, or at least a deliberate distortion, by the book’s publisher, HarperCollins. Mr Johnson makes no claim himself within the book’s pages. In the commercial world of publishing, in which the military memoir has serious competition, such statistics will often set a book apart, and this is most likely the reason for it’s inclusion.

In the last 30 years there has been an explosion in the number of first-hand accounts of military operations. In a British context, what began with retrospective accounts of the First and Second World Wars, published long after the conclusion of hostilities, has evolved into an industry where accounts of the contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are produced and distributed within a very short time of their authors’ return to Britain. In such a climate, anything that marks an account out as “special” is to be seized upon and promoted to secure the best possible sales, which is what, after all, drives publishing. This is particularly true in the modern era where paper publishing is in widespread decline anyway.

Without wanting to get too bogged down in the debates of the value of memoir and autobiography, there is one salient lesson to be learned here: You can’t believe everything you read!

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