Interview with military historian, Paul Reed

In History In An Hour’s first interview, we interview Paul Reed, military historian and Historical Consultant for the BBC.

First of all, a bit about Paul from one of his many sites or blogs, http://sommecourt.wordpress.com/: Born in 1967, Paul Reed is a leading military historian specialising in the First and Second World Wars. He is the author of six books, including the best-sellingWalking The Somme (Pen & Sword 1997) and the forthcoming Great War Lives (Pen & Sword 2010).

Paul also works as an Historical Consultant and Contributor for Television; most recently he was consultant on Michael Palin’s Last Day of WW1, series consultant for BBC1′s My Family At War and historical consultant for BBC2′s Dan Snow’s Little Ships and BBC1′s Dig1940. He is currently working on book and TV projects about both WW1 and WW2.

Interview with Paul Reed

In History In An Hour’s first interview, we interview Paul Reed, military historian and Historical Consultant for the BBC.

First of all, a bit about Paul from one of his many sites or blogs, http://sommecourt.wordpress.com/: Born in 1967, Paul Reed is a leading military historian specialising in the First and Second World Wars. He is the author of six books, including the best-selling Walking The Somme (Pen & Sword 1997) and the forthcoming Great War Lives (Pen & Sword 2010). Paul also works as an Historical Consultant and Contributor for Television; most recently he was consultant on Michael Palin’sLast Day of WW1, series consultant for BBC1′s My Family At War and historical consultant for BBC2′s Dan Snow’s Little Ships and BBC1′s Dig1940. He is currently working on book and TV projects about both WW1 and WW2.

So, Paul, what sparked off your interest in history and especially the two world wars?

My father is a veteran of WW2, and my grandfather of WW1. I really grew up on their stories of both conflicts, of the sea at Gallipoli running red with blood, of my Dad’s six months dug in at Anzio, and all my uncles served in WW2, so I heard about Normandy and Burma from them at a very young age. Anyone of my generation grew up with Warlord comics and Airfix, which I must say helped to feed my enthusiasm for military history! I was lucky that when I went to secondary school I had two very good teachers who were military history ‘nuts’, who inspired me to go and visit Flanders and Normandy – and in many respects that was the start of a very long, still on-going journey which has taken me to battlefields all over the world.

You have a new book out in November, Great War Lives. Tell us a bit about it.

Having worked on some of the high profile genealogy programmes, there is no doubt that interest in family history is at an all time high. This new book hopes to retell the story of the Great War through twelve men – as much as that is possible – and explain how similar stories of one’s own relatives could be constructed. The people I’ve chosen for the book, with one exception, are not well known characters; I always try to bring in fresh material for every book I write, so the men here are as diverse as the only Black pilot in the RFC to an officer court martialled, dismissed, who then re-joined as a Private and was killed trying to regain his glory. The one person in the book who is well known is war poet Ivor Gurney; and although there are many biographies of him, I was able to find some new material on his war service. It was a joy to work on this book, and I hope to do something similar on WW2 sometime soon.

Tell us a bit about this project called Dig 1940 and your involvement in it?

I’ve been working on TV programmes for the past ten years. During that time I’ve had the pleasure of working with many directors, and numerous presenters. However, one director I work with regularly is a good friend; John Hayes-Fisher. John spent more than 20 years at the BBC working on Timewatch, and now works as a free-lance. This is a series he developed and I consulted on, looking at the archaeology of 1940: in France on the beaches of Dunkirk, across Britain where the dogfights took place and also following the story of the Blitz. But we don’t just focus on the London Blitz; we show how other cities, like Hull, were badly affected by bombing. The archaeologists we worked with turned up some amazing things; from complete aircraft to bucket loads of personal equipment abandoned on the Dunkirk beaches. I think it will really open people’s eyes to what remains on many of these WW2 battlefields. My own part in the series was act as an historical consultant, and as I have done many times over the years assist with location setups; with thirty years of visiting battlefields production teams know they can call me with even the most bizarre of demands for a film and I can normally get them what they need! It’s using historical knowledge in a very different way to writing, but in some respects finding an impressive location – and in episode one of Dig 1940 we have such a place on the Maginot Line – helps explain a story in way that the written word can sometimes have trouble with. And there is no doubt history television reaches many people who don’t normally come to the subject.

Do you still work as a Battlefield Guide?

Yes, I do. To make a living as a military historian you have been quite diverse in what you do, so in a typical week I can be out guiding on the Somme, writing articles for family history magazines and working on some aspect of the next TV project. Battlefield guiding is a rewarding job in many ways; we take people to see the graves of their relatives, often for the first time, and on many WW2 tours I do we have the privilege in having veteran members of the group, who were actually there. That can be quite a challenge, as you have to be pretty comfortable in what you tell people to be able to stand up in front of men who actually fought in these places, when talking to a group. Most of the veterans are amazed that anyone of my age knows anything about the war, let alone does what I do for a living – and in some respects that’s probably one of the greatest compliments I’ll ever get. In the twenty-three years I’ve been guiding groups, there has certainly been an explosion of interest in visiting battlefields; the company I currently do tours for takes nearly 15,000 people a year, which would have been unheard of even a decade ago.

And what are you working on now?

I’m currently doing a revised and updated version of my first book, Walking the Somme. I wrote it back in 1993, and it was published in ’97. Parts of the book need bringing up to date, and I’m adding an extra walk and some new photographs. I’m also working on some research for a project I intend to start writing next year, which is looking at the last men to be killed in Europe at the end of WW2. Incredibly, unlike WW1, no-one knows who the last man to die was, and I’m pretty close to finding that out; in fact some new material I found in the archives only last week pretty much indicates who it might be. As you can imagine there is already some interest in making this into a television programme, but that’s a long way of yet I suspect. The stories I’ve gathered for it so far are very sad; men who had been on active service since the start of the war, survived all the big battles, only to die in the last hours of the conflict. And in a strange echo with the current conflict in Afghanistan, what we now called IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) were one of the greatest killers in Germany in May 1945.

Last week, in the news, we saw a woman post a video onto YouTube that had her grandfather, a survivor from Auschwitz, dancing with other members of her family to “I Will Survive” in that death camp. She called it “affirming our existence”. But some accuse her of poor taste. Would you have a view?

This was flagged up on the WW2 Forum I help run (WW2 Talk). I must say I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw the video. Having Jewish ancestors who died at Auschwitz I personally see this as pretty poor taste, and I can’t really understand why they did it. There have been and there are many fine ways to pay tribute to those who survived the camps; I don’t think this is one of them.

What general (either world war) do you admire the most and why?

General John Monash, who commanded the Australian Corps in 1918, was arguably one of the finest commanders of either world war. His men in 1918 were using tactics that would not have been out of place a generation later, and he was a man who made the sacrifice of troops mean something; not all commanders are up to doing that. The commander I most admire, however, is from a slightly earlier period – Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. He demanded much of his men, and no doubt appeared cold to many of them, but he wasn’t afraid to stand on the sites of their victory and cry for their loss, as he did at Badajoz for example. Such public emotion is not something we would always associate with high command, anyone in senior command should have it in the back of their mind.

The Battle of Britain started seventy years ago this month, tell us a bit about your tweeting the names of fallen pilots.

Well, I was keen to do something to mark the anniversary period and I’ve become convinced that new media like Twitter can be used by historians to run small projects like this. So I selected details of a pilot shot down on every day of the period of the Battle of Britain, and I will be Tweeting their details on that day, 70 years later, with a link to their page on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission page. It’s not only a nice way to remember some of these men, but I think it brings into sharp focus the sort of young men who were in the skies above the country defending it while Britain stood alone.

In the UK we commemorate the frequent anniversaries of the two world wars, but how are these events commemorated in Germany or Italy?

In Germany those who fought and died in either World War are not commemorated in a national event, which is a shame. There are of course overtones connected with both conflicts for Germany, but it is a tragedy that those who died are largelyforgotten. I actually think it had bread generations of people in Germany who really have no idea how many men died fighting for Germany – but it is a legacy that goes on and on; the German War Graves Commission are currently exhuming 40,000 bodies a year from the sites of conflict in East Germany and former Russian states. In Italy it is a little more complex; they were an Allied Power in WW1 and their dead for that conflict are commemorated, and even though they fought for Germany until 1943, there are town war memorials and over the years of visiting Italy I have seen commemorations at them.

Is there a risk that we devote too much time to the remembrance of the courageous men and women of the world wars to the detriment of those fighting today in Afghanistan and Iraq?

I don’t think so – in fact some WW2 veterans I have met feel that they are forgotten at the expense of all the media coverage of modern conflicts. They contrast the reaction of one death in Afghanistan to the loss they saw in Normandy or Italy for example, that largely went unremarked upon at the time. Personally I hope that the growth in interest in military history has had a knock effect to ensure that veterans of all conflicts are respected and remembered. It is important that our serving troops on the front line today know they are valued by the population at home, whatever that population may feel about the war itself. And I feel very strongly that veteran related charities should be supported, which is why I regularly flag them up on Twitter.

We met through Twitter. As a historian how does Twitter benefit your work? And how does it spread the word of history?

Twitter at first site appears ephemeral, but the spread and popularity of it means that actually, like many other aspects of new media, it is a very powerful medium for anyone, historians included. Today as a working historian I can update people several times a day with the progress on a particular project, or I can be out working on a shoot or visiting a battlefield, take some photographs with my Blackberry and share them on Twitter instantly. I did this on a recent WW2 veterans tour to Monte Cassino and Anzio. The immediacy of it is what makes it attractive, and it’s pleasing to see more and more historians using Twitter, including some well known ones like my friend Dan Snow. Tweets now show up in Google very quickly, so using the right terms it can easily generate traffic and publicity in a way that wasn’t possible; so for marketing things like a book or TV project it is a great tool, and I am sure it will feature more and more.

And finally, Paul, what is your favourite WWII film – in English, and your favourite foreign-language film about the war?

As a film, I do like Cross of Iron. It has many flaws from a history point of view, but it is a great film, with some haunting music and excellent combat scenes that hint at the brutality of the Eastern Front in WW2, and the madness that is war.  More recently Der Untergang (Downfall) is a marvellous film; I have long admired Bruno Ganz – he was stunning in Wings of Desire – and he captures Hitler in those final days in a way that no-one ever has done. It’s a film that had to be made, and it had to be made by a German, starting Germans and made in the German language.

And your favourite wartime-based novel?

The best novel ever written about war is Frederick Manning’s Her Private’s We. Set in 1916 during WW1, it tells the story of a middle class misfit in the ranks of an infantry battalion. Manning himself was such a misfit who became an officer in the last year of the conflict, and much of it is autobiographical. His ability to observe men in a war is second to none – his portraits of ordinary soldiers are incredibly moving, and the strength of the book is that very little of it takes place in the front line. It exposes the myth that the Great War was all about bullets, bombs and bayonets, and that it was more about ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. And there are some very funny lines in it. One character stares over the parapet of a trench observing a bombardment and says “There’s too much f**king artillery in this war.” – and yes, there is plenty of bad language that populates the text in the same way it populates the day to day lives of servicemen in any war. I’ve never understood why it has never been made into a film.

Thank you very much, Paul, for your time.

Rupert Colley.
See: http://sommecourt.wordpress.comhttp://www.ww2cemeteries.co.uk/,http://www.ww2talk.com/

And follow Paul on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sommecourt