Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pawns in the War Game, 1940

Book Review [Edited and slightly expanded from draft of a review published in Medicine & War (later Medicine, Conflict & Survival)]
Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division: France 1940, by Saul David. Brassey's, London, 1994, xii + 276 pp.

Early in 1940 the 51st (Highland) Division was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF); within six months more than 11,000 of its men were taken prisoner, 1000 killed, and 4000 wounded; only 5300 were successfully rescued and evacuated. The bare facts are soon told, but Saul David gives us a fuller story, often in the words of those who took part - almost everything, at times literally blow-by-blow, that happened to the Division from its arrival, under-equipped, ill-prepared, and largely unwelcome, through resistance to the German advance in the Saar and on the Somme, to the final debacle of encirclement and surrender. While some of the military detail may appear repetitive to those not primarily interested in that aspect, there are narratives of participants on the ground, interspersed with brief statements of what the politicians and military leaders on both sides of the Channel, whose decisions affected their survival, were doing and saying.

The viewpoint is British, but there is a sub-text of interactions with and attitudes to the French. Such  attitudes and interactions could be complex and ambivalent: if the Scottish soldiers expected to be greeted as heroes and saviours, they were disappointed. ‘In strong contrast to the ecstatic welcome given to the arriving troops of the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] in 1914, the war-weary French were no more than lukewarm in their greetings. (p.6, in Chapter 1, 'No Heroes Welcome’). As the author reminds us, there was of course a legacy of pervasive war-weariness and anti-war sentiment among the French from the experiences of 1914-18. Conversely, one would guess at a certain culture shock experienced by recruits from close-knit Scottish Highland communities. There was apparently little fraternisation, either organised or spontaneous, although at least one wild night is recorded in the early days. At another level complaints occurred, as is customary between allies, about the ‘others’ not pulling their weight.

As a way of telling war like it was, the book certainly has interest, but will probably hold few surprises for readers familiar with the recurrent features (near clichés by now) of warfare narratives: confusion, irrationality, discomfort, incompetence, as well as comradeship, often pointless heroism and occasional 'decency' between enemies (e.g. in treatment of the wounded). If this sounds old-fashioned it conveys an impression made by the book; the author does not deny the horrors of war, but they come over as curiously sanitised. Perhaps the various narrators in retrospect rationalised their own experiences to some extent.

Analysis and comment are on the whole rather minimal, although David clearly endorses the assertion in the title, that there was a political decision, a result of `unsavoury horsetrading' between the French and British governments, to leave the 51st in France with the aim of keeping that country in the war, long after the situation had become obviously hopeless, and that aim unrealistic. Eventually, in the brief Chapter 14 (3 pages, `Sacrificed for Nothing'), he spells out the point that has already emerged - that Churchill himself must bear a large measure of the responsibility - and considers it `not out of the question' that the waste of life was deliberate, a calculated loss of expendable pawns incurred on grounds of dubious expediency. An Epilogue reinforces this conclusion, but ends on an upbeat note with the description of several successful escapes, and of the reconstituted 51st 'liberating' in 1944 the town which had been the scene of its destruction. 

Many questions are left untackled, including those in the area of war prevention. Although some conventional attitudes are implicitly challenged, long-term consequences of war for individuals and society are not spelt out. Effects on the close-knit Highland communities which produced the recruits are mentioned only in passing, and any psychiatric sequelae for the soldiers whose tales are told remain undisclosed and unexplored. Instead, the reader may discern a kind of nostalgia suggesting that wars aren't what they were, and a measure of reluctance to offend those who contributed their memories. Nevertheless, this is at the very least a useful source book for a significant episode in the history of the Second World War, and comes complete with illustrations, maps, bibliography, notes, glossary and index. Saul David is described as a writer of `vernacular military history' and it will be interesting to see what he makes of his next topic, the mutiny at Salerno, when presumably the rejection of war ideology will loom larger.

Photograph from SY Gone By no.48, summer 2017, p.7:
includes several of those captured at St.Valéry

"St..Valéry" in floral display at Inverness Castle, autumn 2017
(see Comment below).

Inverness, the Highland capital, also has a Park and Avenue named for the French town.


  1. See also:

  2. See also
    "Initial links between Inverness and St. Valery were created when the 51st Highland Division were captured there in 1940 by the Germans. The local people were very kind to the troops and the favour was returned when the Division returned in 1944, led by General Lang, and liberated the town."

    More than 80% of St. Valery was destroyed in the war and a special fund was set up in Inverness in order to send aid to the stricken town, in a gesture of continuing fellowship. There have been many visits over the years between the two towns, mainly to the war graves and memorials, but twinning was not officially undertaken until 1987."

  3. Inages relating to St. Valery and the Highland Divison can be seen at