From British Intelligence during the Napoleonic Wars to the untold history of the
Polish Resistance during World War II
The Thames Valley History Festival, the first national cultural celebration of 2,500 years of British history, will run from 1st to 17th November 2013 in the historic towns of Eton and Windsor. Each of the 24 events will take place in a venue of historic interest in Windsor and Eton, and will range from lectures, panel conversations, Q&A sessions, to historical tours, photographic walks and much more.
The event is an ideal get away for children and adults alike, with a wide range of presentations on The Wars of the Roses, the Polish Resistance, When Britain Burned the White House, British Intelligence during the Napoleonic Wars and One Hundred Years of Royal Babies. A full list of events can be found here.
Presenters at this year’s Thames Valley History Festival will include British television and radio presenter, Peter Snow; renowned etiquette expert, TV presenter and author Liz Brewer; and Conn Iggulden, author of the best-selling ‘Emperor’ and ‘Conqueror’ historical fiction series.
The Thames Valley History Festival is organised by Glow Enterprises CIC and runs in association with the Historical Writers Association, Waterstones and Windsor RBWM Library Services.
I was first alerted to the possibilities behind the story, Operation Kingfisher, by a friend called Tony who has a keen interest in Inland Waterways, both in the UK and in France, writes Hilary Green. He has his own narrow boat, which is currently moored on one of the French canals. It was Tony who asked me if I knew that during the Second World War the French canal network had been used as a way to smuggle POWs and downed airmen out of the country. When I expressed my interest he sent me some photocopied pages from a book, Keeping Afloat by John Liley. These contained a reference to an extraordinary event which occurred in April 1943.
After the Allied invasion of North Africa the Germans, fearing an attack on the south coast of France, decided to move some of their warships from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Rather than taking the long sea route they decided to use the French canal system. French canals are considerably wider than the ones in the UK and carry much heavier traffic. The vedettes (small boats) were brought down the River Yonne and the intention was to take them through the Canal de Bourgogne to connect with the River Saone and thence to the Mediterranean.
However, when they reached Laroche Migennes, where the Canal de Bourgogne meets the Yonne, they discovered that the locks on that canal were too short to accommodate the ships. A new route had to be devised and 1,500 young men were pressed into service to rebuild roads, so that the ships could be moved overland. Buildings were demolished, bends straightened out and gradients eased. The nearest slipway was in Auxerre and the residents of that town were astounded to see the spectacle of these huge craft being hauled out of the river. They were loaded onto two 48-wheeled chariots, pulled by three giant tractors, with four more at the rear to provide braking power.
It was forbidden to photograph these events but there are, nevertheless, several pictures taken clandestinely to bear witness to this amazing undertaking. Ironically, the RAF was alerted to what was happening and not one of the ships ever reached the Mediterranean!
These events form the background to Hilary’s new novel, Operation Kingfisher, due for publication on 29 November 2013.
Hilary’s novel, The Last Hero, is available now.
See also Hilary’s articles on the Women of the SOE, Entertainment during World War Two and the Riddle of the ClayTablets.
Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.
Pearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.
The Fall of France
Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.
And why Americans should read it…
Code Name Pauline is the autobiography of Pearl Witherington, a woman who gained fame while working for the French section of the Special Operations Executive, a British Second World War organization that organized and supported European Resistance networks. The English translation of Pearl’s originally French memoir is now officially available in English.
That’s quite a variety of geographics but it doesn’t stop there: the tale of how this memoir landed in the hands of a Chicagoan has been told elsewhere (in the memoir’s editor’s preface, to be precise) but as that Chicagoan I’d like to connect the dots for my fellow Americans, giving them a compelling reason as to why they should read Code Name Pauline.
The reason has everything to do with our Greatest Generation. We Americans are rightly proud of them, pausing in awed silence every June 6th to honor the memory of “our boys” who courageously stormed the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord, eventually defeating Nazi Germany. It’s an iconic and beloved American image but it’s not nearly the entire picture; there were many other factors that made the success of the landings possible. One of them began three years earlier and another the moment the timing of the landings became known.
Operation Barbarossa, the code name for German invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, when Hitler myopically opened an entirely new front. By the time the Americans and their allies landed at Normandy three years later, the Russian Front had seriously depleted the German ranks.
Until the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating the supposed site of the city of Troy, writes Hilary Green, people believed that the story of the Trojan War was just a legend. Schliemann proved that not only had Troy existed, but it had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. He then moved on to excavate Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, and found evidence of a rich and sophisticated society, where the palaces were decorated with beautiful frescoes and the dead were buried with their faces covered by masks of beaten gold. Yet for three thousand years, the only indication that Mycenae had ever existed was the Lion Gate which was still visible above the ruins.
The City of Pylos
What happened to destroy Mycenae and its associated cities so completely that they were consigned to the realm of myth? The first clues came when Carl Blegen from the university of Cincinnati began to excavate the city of Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. Pylos was the fabled city of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad. Sure enough, Blegen uncovered the remains of a palace and surrounding buildings situated on top of the hill of Epano Englianos. It was a sumptuous building, with a wide courtyard leading to a colonnaded portico that gave entrance to the megaron, the main hall and throne room of Nestor and his descendants. (Pictured is the Lion Gate, the entrance to the city of Mycenae and the only evidence of its existence that was visible before Heinrich Schliemann started excavating).
Writing the prize-winning Comptrollerate-General novels is a head-scratching pleasure. Robert Wilton describes the challenges in having to manoeuvre so tightly within the confines of the historical record, and throwing light on the remarkable stories of intrigue that lurk in the shadows.
Writing historical fiction is fun. But there are times when you get the suspicion, as P.G.Wodehouse put it, “that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain’s two hemispheres”, and wish you dealt in whatever buoyant genre is currently floating off the supermarket shelves. (Is there a middle ground? Fifty Shades of Sir Edward Grey, anyone?)
Partly of course this is the basic need for accuracy, policed by a readership who – contrary to the reputation of historical fiction – are serious about their subject and tend to be very well-read in it. Conjuring the age of fighting sail in Treason’s Tide, or the campaigns of the New Model Army in Traitor’s Field, I am entering the domains of readers who are genuinely expert. I’m more confident in some areas than others: the currents of politics and ideas, whether in Civil War Britain or 1914 Europe for next year’s The Spider of Sarajevo, I am comfortable navigating; but the wish to put a bit of colour into a half-sentence description of atmosphere at the start of a paragraph in Traitor’s Field meant the best part of a day trying to establish what flowers would have been natural or imported in England in the seventeenth century and blooming at a particular time of year. Flowers aren’t a strong point for me; but no doubt they are for some readers.
Famous authors have a great deal of good advice to give to aspiring writers. It often arises from their own experience of this challenging craft. Let’s consider some familiar suggestions from well-known literati. Under what circumstances did they come up with their good counsel for posterity? How does it reflect their own lives, and their work?
“Any man who keeps working is not a failure…”
The speculative fiction author Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer.” Bradbury must have offered this comforting reassurance out of his own experience.
Born in 1923, Bradbury could never afford college, but he read daily in the local library and wrote constantly, with or without pay. He felt that he got an education from life. He personified the above quote entirely, by working from the age of 23, through his 80s. Over the decades he created short stories, books, movie and TV scripts, and even amusement ride designs and a pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center. The Martian Chronicles introduces many youngsters to science fiction, and his short story A Sound of Thunder is in many school curricula. He accomplished all this while raising a family and maintaining a marriage. His advice seems so prosaic coming from someone whose imagination transported the reader through space, time, and memory. Another quote, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” expresses the sense of excitement that Bradbury’s works spark in readers. The lucky readers of the fruits of his “hard, constant labor” often find themselves changed forever.
Hard on the heels of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice comes another literary bicentenary, writes Lynn Shepherd. Only this time it could hardly be further removed from the civilized elegance of Austen’s iconic novel. The episode that would later come to be referred to as ‘Shelley’s Ghost’ took place on 26 February 1813, in the midst of a raging storm, when the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was staying at Tremadoc on the coast of North Wales. What really happened that night remains a mystery, even now…
Before moving to Tremadoc, Shelley had spent eighteen erratic and restless months moving from place to place with his young wife, Harriet Westbrook, after their elopement in August 1811. During a stay in Ireland his radical politics had drawn the attention of the Home Office, and when he subsequently moved to Devon, government agents were deputed to spy on him. But when one of the Shelleys’ servants was arrested for posting the poet’s inflammatory material on local trees, the Shelleys were forced to flee the area, eventually finding themselves in Tremadoc.
The town was then in the throes of a hugely ambitious – and ultimately doomed – land reclamation scheme, the brain-child of the local landowner, William Madocks. Shelley’s outspoken views quickly made him a number of influential enemies (not for the first time), most notably the Honourable Robert Leeson, a prominent local quarry-owner, whose site supplied the stone for the construction project. Shelley profoundly disagreed with Leeson’s treatment of his workforce, and relations went from bad to worse. By early February 1813, Shelley was taking loaded pistols to bed with him.
So what happened on the night of February 26th?
The statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands before the creamy columns of the Victoria Theatre in a quiet corner of central Singapore. Double life-size, he cuts a magnificent figure, with shoulders squared and best foot forward. At the base of the statue is an inscription to his “Foresight and Genius”.
There is much that is remarkable about this monument – not least that it is still standing. While his contemporaries have been toppled from their perches in post-colonial cities across the globe, Raffles, a 19th century British imperialist, is still there at the heart of a modern, independent Asian nation. But the most remarkable thing of all is that the statue was erected in 1919. Raffles himself died in 1826 with a moth-eaten reputation, a litany of blunders and insubordinations fresh in official memory, and no great epitaphs to his name. This, then, is not a monument to a man, but to a legend of a later century.
But for me the Raffles statue in Singapore symbolises something more: the great and often egregious power of biography, and the critical inadequacy at the core of the traditional biographer’s craft.
I never planned to write a biography of Raffles. I wanted to write a book about the British occupation of Java – the five-year interregnum between 1811 and 1816 during which Britain ousted Holland from Indonesia and took control of their nascent empire. I had been reading and writing about Indonesia’s past for several years; I had the cultural and historical contexts already on file, and now I wanted a story that would draw on them.
I knew that Raffles had headed the British administration in Java, and I thought that I already knew his story – a lowly clerk who rose rapidly through the East India Company ranks, ran Java, oversaw a Sumatran outpost, and ultimately founded Singapore. Somewhere along the line, I thought, I had read a book about him. But the vague vision that flickered in the back of my imagination – of scholarship, liberalism and decency – seemed to have been formed mainly by osmosis. So when I made my first forays to the wellspring – the mass of archive material from the British Interregnum now held in the British Library – I was baffled.
The history of the Great Game, writes Tim Hannigan, offers a fine stock of ripping yarns.
At the start of the 19th century some 2,000 miles of turbulent Central Asian territory – deserts, mountains and unstable Muslim khanates – separated Britain’s Indian territories from the edge of the Russian Empire; a hundred years later these same frontiers were just a few miles apart. The “Great Game” was the cold war of exploration and espionage, fought out in the ever-contracting space between.
Every foreigner who stepped into Central Asia during this period was playing the Great Game, whether he wanted to or not. There was no such thing as an apolitical expedition, and men who went to survey mountains and map passes found that the charts they drew were handled like dynamite by politicians in Calcutta, London and St Petersburg. There was derring-do, endurance, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. This is the stuff that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s tales, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King
The players of the Great Game were a motley crew of spies, soldiers and charlatans, running the gamut from bristling imperial archetypes to unhinged Anglican missionaries, and over the subsequent decades many of their tales have been told in books by authors such as Fitzroy MacLean, John Keay and Peter Hopkirk.
But there was one Great Gamer who always seemed to stand a little apart from the crowd, a gaunt and ill-omened young man by the name of George Hayward. Continue reading