Britain’s Small Wars – interview with James Paul

“Most people have heard of Britain’s involvement in military conflicts in the later half of this century, such as the Falklands War and the Gulf War. What the younger generation does not realize is that soldiers, sailors, and airmen from Britain and the Commonwealth have been fighting small wars to defend Britain’s shrinking empire since the end of World War Two.

“From the insect ridden jungles of Malaya to the frozen hills of Korea, in the back streets of Aden and Cyprus, from the African bush of Kenya to the rain soaked hills of the Falkland Islands, young National Servicemen and regular British soldiers have been defending the British empire and her allies for the last 58 years.”

(Taken from the front page of the website, Britain’s Small Wars.)

Britain’s Small Wars is an independent, non-profit site founded by James Paul and run by volunteers that aims to cover “the history of British military conflicts since 1945″.

What hits the first time visitor is the number of conflicts Britain’s forces have been involved with since the end of the Second World War. Borneo 1962-1966, for example, or Kenya 1952-1960. The big conflicts are of course covered in depth – the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Gulf and right up to date with Iraq and the current conflict in Afghanistan, plus a page devoted to the SAS.

Britain’s Small Wars is a treasure trove of a site – there’s so much to view and read. The page of anecdotes is great fun – one can’t resist tales with titles such as Sir I called him a Big Fat Bastardor Are they real bullets? Of greater depth is the Your Story section where old soldiers relate their experiences, and there are many fascinating entries to be found.

The Guest Book shows how well used the site is. The first entry is dated March 2000 and in the intervening decade there have over 3,600 additions. Not bad for a site that survives without funding or a dedicated marketing team behind it.

The Memorial page is naturally sobering; an “attempt to remember some of the fallen of Britain’s Forgotten Wars” Again, the number of entries is testament to how seriously the site is taken. One recent entry relates to a corporal killed in a vehicle accident whilst posted out in Aden in 1967 and, from the photograph, a good looking and personable looking chap. The person who added the entry concludes with the words “Still thinking of you, mate.”

There are book reviews, a news section and an interesting medals page.

For anyone with an interest in military history, this site is a must.

History In An Hour interviewed Britain’s Small War’s founder, James Paul.

So, James, when did you start the site?

Britain’s Small Wars was launched in January 1999

And when you set out what were the original objectives? Did those objectives change as you went on?

The original plan was to cover those conflicts that the cold war overshadowed and weren’t covered by larger sites, primarily ranging from 1945 until 1992. By necessity these changed as we were approached by veterans of conflicts we had minimal information on and more chapters became necessary.

You maintain the site with a partner – how do you split the work?

The main design and photo sourcing and main contact were done by Martin for the first few years of the website while I undertook some of the early research, processed the day to day updates and dealt with some of the larger projects. Due to circumstances, I am now doing the website solo apart from the help of our museum curator, Peter Jordan, and of course our readership who continue to provide fascinating articles and photos across the period covered by our website.

Looking at the site it’s amazing how many small wars Britain’s been involved in since 1945. What are the conflicts that most interest your readers?

Cyprus is a big one, and one of the most deeply covered, although the Aden, Falklands, Korean conflicts are among the main points of interest as well.
Some of the smaller conflicts do have surges of interest as anniversaries come and go.

Tell us a bit about the site’s Museum page.

One of the best ways to keep history alive is to have material that provides depth to the articles, items of interest to the casual reader and the more experienced researcher, it also serves as an online museum to stop some of these articles from disappearing into attics and hopefully keeps the memories alive.

What are some of your own favourites within the Museum?

The material covering the little known conflicts such as the Radfan and Oman are among my favourites, although the scans and photographs of documentation are of great interest.

Who do you find are your main visitors to the site?

Veterans and their relatives comprise the majority of our visitors,

And what about the future – what plans do you have for Britain’s Small Wars?

I have a few things in mind, but time is sadly against me, hopefully we will be able to launch a Media section in the future, expanding on the books section and covering documentaries, films and dramatizations in much the way we currently do our book reviews.

If you had to name your top three military films, what would they be?

Battle of Britain, Battle of the River Plate and Sink the Bismarck.

And your favourite military novels?

That’s a tough one, I think Darkest Hour by James Holland stands out from my recent reads.

There have been a lot of first-hand soldier accounts recently, covering experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there any that have particularly caught your eye?

There are far too many for me to be able to pick a single account out, every one is interesting and every one is fascinating yet sobering.Above all, my respects and admiration to the veterans and those still serving who keep us safe.
My ongoing thanks to the veterans who keep our site going.

Many thanks, James.

Interview with Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin At War

History In An Hour interviews Roger Moorhouse, author of recently published and critically acclaimed Berlin At War: Life And Death In Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45.

First of all, a bit about Roger from his website,http://rogermoorhouse.com: “A fluent German speaker, Moorhouse is a specialist in modern German History, particularly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In this capacity, he is a regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine and History Today, a book reviewer for the Independent on Sunday, and is an occasional commentator on television and radio.”

History In An Hour interviews Roger Moorhouse, author of recently published and critically acclaimed Berlin At War: Life And Death In Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45.

First of all, a bit about Roger from his website, http://rogermoorhouse.com: “A fluent German speaker, Moorhouse is a specialist in modern German History, particularly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In this capacity, he is a regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine and History Today, a book reviewer for the Independent on Sunday, and is an occasional commentator on television and radio.”

Roger, your latest book, Berlin at War, gives us an idea of what it was like to be an ordinary Berliner during the war.   

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Interview with Katrina Gulliver

Katrina Gulliver calls herself a Cultural Historian, and is a research fellow in Germany, at the Historisches Seminar of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Katrina has a strong presence on Twitter and has produced the ultimate directory of historians on Twitter, “Twitterstorians”.

 

So, Katrina, you’ve lived in both Singapore and Munich. Historically, these must be two places with very different identities. Tell us a little about the attractions of Singapore and whether it’s a place that takes pride in its history?

Singapore is a fascinating place. It’s actually where my parents met and were married so it has personal significance for me. For a long time, its history wasn’t a big focus as it developed economically. But now, heritage is a major focus. The government is maintaining heritage buildings and the museums there do an excellent job of showing both the island’s history and the cultural diversity of Singapore. It’s definitely a country that is very proud of how it has developed, in such a relatively short time.

And how does it compare to Munich?

Singapore is definitely more go!go!go! It’s much more of a 24 hour lifestyle, with things open late. In Munich, I’m still getting used to not being able to go shopping on a Sunday! Architecturally, Munich is stunning, and for a historian the wealth of museums is pretty impressive. The library collections here continue to amaze me, so for my research I am very fortunate.

You say on your site that you are working your way through all the National Book Award and Man Booker prize winners. Is this still an ongoing project, how are you getting on with it, and what have been the highlight books so far?

That was only semi-serious, but I always try to read. I set myself a goal of 100 non-work books per year – I never achieve it, but it’s good to have a challenge! Recently I joined Audible, so I’m listening to some classic novels that way. Currently The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever.

You’ve written much about Gabrielle Vassal. Tell us who she was and why her story and her adventures appeal so much to you.

She is a very interesting character. An Englishwoman, who married a French doctor, and spent much of her life living in different parts of the French empire. She was in IndoChina in the early years of the twentieth century, and in West Africa in the 1920s. Her books are very entertaining – she published accounts of her life in these places – and it’s a shame she’s not better-known. In her time she was something of a celebrity travel writer. She was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur for her work in the French Resistance: her life would make a great film!

My work looks at her ethnographic writings, and her collecting as a naturalist. She had no formal training, but collected birds and small mammals for the Natural History museum in London. Some of them are still in the museum’s archives, and some species were even named after her.

Tell us about your current project.

I am writing a book about colonial port cities. The cities I focus on are Malacca, Havana, New Orleans and Pondicherry. They represent in a way two phases of European expansion (the early 16th century: Malacca and Havana) and the late 18th century for New Orleans and Pondicherry. In this time, ideas about colonial governance, and urban arrangement, had changed a great deal: and this is reflected in the cities themselves. I’m particularly interested in the development of local identity in each of these places. It’s striking how quickly you find people relating themselves to the city, and having other elements of distinctive culture (foodways, costume, architecture) appear.

You set up a list of “Twitterstorians” on your site, an excellent service. As a historian how does Twitter benefit your work? And how does Twitter help spread the word of history?

I love the fact that I’ve heard about other people’s research through twitter, and been able to chat with historians I would not otherwise have met. For those working with digital research tools, twitter is fabulous, with ideas such as THATcamp. It’s also great to just ask for research information – people come back with great suggestions so quickly, it’s like google but better informed.

You mentioned the need for “celebrity historians” on Twitter and on your blog recently you’ve come up with a Top Historian concept, not dissimilar to Top Chef. Is it entirely tongue-in-cheek or is there something more?

I was kind of joking. But I think in the English speaking world we don’t have as much of a culture of public intellectuals as perhaps in France, for instance. There is such a great readership for books on historical topics, I think it is important for those of us in the profession to try to share what we do with the public. At the moment “academic history” is kind of fenced off from general discourse as arcane, and obscure, and we need to overcome that.

On your Twitter bio you list photography as one of your interests. Tell us a bit about your photography. Colour or black and white? And do you use sharing sites, such as Flickr?

Before I started my PhD, I had a couple of solo shows as a photographer. My work is film, not digital (and I’m rather stranded now Kodak have stopped making Kodachrome). Mostly I took landscapes and buildings. I talk a bit about it here http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/photography-1353

I still use photography a lot in my work, in my next book I will be using a lot of pictures to show architectural features and styles.

You say you are “fascinated by histories of cultural exchange”. In a few words, can you give us an idea of what you mean and how it relates to your work?

I am interested in points of encounter, where different groups or individuals have influenced each other. In my work on cities, this emerges in the development of local cultures that could only have been created in that particular place, with that particular mix of influences.

What is this project you contribute to called Frog In A Well?

It’s a group blog on Asian history, set up a few years ago by Konrad Lawson. You can visit it at www.froginawell.net

In your role as a film critic what is your favourite film either from or based in East Asia?

Without a doubt, my favourite Asian film is 2046.

And finally, Katrina, if you had to choose one film director who would you choose, and why?

Aki Kaurismäki – I love his sense of humour, and his films are so subtle, and unique. He manages to create this strange and so plausible world.

Many thanks, Katrina.  

Katrina’s website: http://www.katrinagulliver.com

Katrina’s blog: http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com

Katrina on Twitter: http://twitter.com/katrinagulliver

List of Twitterstorians: http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/tag/twitterstorians

Frog In A Well: http://www.froginawell.net

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