That kind of spirit

John Ward
John Ward
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WARD’S WORLD: By John Ward

In recent times there has been quite a lot of publicity or hype if you prefer concerning the latest film about the British Expeditionary Force and their rescue from the French beaches in May 1940 and the film is called simply ‘Dunkirk’ concerning the various elements that worked together to get over a quarter of a million British service people back to Britain following a military onslaught by the German army in France.

I won’t go into the merits of the film itself as I have not seen it although by the time you are reading this I would have been to see it (I write slow) but I did see the last one made in 1958 and occasionally shown on assorted television channels with John Mills and Richard Attenborough among the cast line-up and told the same story or thereabouts with the same, obvious, outcome but it was a minor budget production when put ‘nose to nose’ in comparison to this current one with a quoted budget of millions.

However, in the promotion leading up to this new production, it’s been slightly bewildering to hear some of the comments that have come about regarding it.

On a recent BBC Radio 2 Jimmy Young lunchtime programme that is now hosted by Jeremy Vine (I still miss Jimmy as he was very good in my humble opinion and only spoke in just the one voice, his own, as opposed to the trend nowadays for a voice to suit each topic) as one phone-in caller was talking about this current film and was ‘unaware (!) of the real story behind the film’ and to be honest as judging by the voice of the caller, they should be old enough to know something of this country’s more recent history or so I would have thought.

As a mere childlet – yes, it did happen – at school in the distant past but not too many years ago now, we were having a history lesson and the subject matter was not that brilliant and I think the best part of the class were thinking the same but we still looked on as if interested, something like today in some respects as having a vacuum cleaner demonstration as in you ‘know what it does but don’t really want to buy one or be bogged down with it’ type of outlook.

Our teacher was rambling on as was his norm about a particular subject matter and he suddenly woke up one of our own weaker minded brethren in the far corner of the classroom and asked him a question on what he had been discussing, until this contender for Student of the Year award sudden snoring eclipsed his talk in mid flow.

Being woken up was one thing but to be asked what our illustrious teacher had been chirping on about was quite irregular to say the least and from nowhere we were amazed when he replied: “I think it must be the Dunkirk spirit, sir” and to say you could have heard a bonus drop would have been an understatement as the silence was deafening as we sat in silence, not sure what to expect.

Once our teacher’s eyes stopped revolving and as he slightly recovered we collectively thought this is it, the big one, hell unleashed with headlines reading ‘Schoolboy has head removed by irritated and deranged teacher without anaesthetic’ would be on all the newsstands but how wrong could we have been?

He looked, he shook his head and then asked our very own Rip Van Winkle just what did he know about Dunkirk as bearing in mind we were struggling with the Tudors, and this was way before they did the TV mini series as well, but with the history of what was then the present century.

After a bit of this and that between teacher and Rip, it seems our Rip did not know anything other than when his father said it was ‘Just that Dunkirk spirit that kept him going’ while playing cricket on the local village green where they lived and scored the winning runs, so this was where he had heard the expression used.

Then our teacher was quite silent and we mostly expected a first hand display of head severing as he paced backwards and forwards in front of the class.

Just as were expecting just about anything to happen he amazed us by explaining about the situation that had brought about one of the biggest rescues in modern history, our history least we forget, that has possibly not been surpassed and hopefully will never have to be in the foreseeable future.

We sat in total silence as he explained in quite a lot of detail about what had led up to this event as in the German onslaught, the beaches crammed with thousands of service people all waiting in water to be hopefully rescued by the assorted ships and boats with navy and private owners at the helm that had set out from England all with one aim in mind – to rescue these service people – and that was basically what the expression ‘The Dunkirk spirit’ was about.

When he finished he was visibly upset but showed restraint and it was the only time we saw that happen and as we were dismissed he thanked us for being patient and hearing him out as it must have ‘upset the normal subject’ and I think he may have got that terribly wrong there.

A few years later having left school I was discussing this with Ken, one of his fellow brother teachers and our family friend as Ken knew my dad, and he explained that perhaps our teacher was upset because he lost his uncle on the beaches at Dunkirk and to say I was gobsmacked would have been an understatement.

I did work with Ted, a friend of many years, and he was on the beaches at Dunkirk and some of the horror he saw had certainly left an impact on him over 40 or so years later.

While the present film production is doing the rounds, it’s interesting to read about people’s anecdotes in assorted newspapers and magazines etc and one that caught my eye is the following from a leading national daily newspaper.

It was in the reader’s letters section and I repeat it word for word as printed and was from a Mrs L Phillips from Manchester.

“My husband’s uncle was recently married when he took his boat down the Thames to rescue soldiers in France. With British understatement, he left a note on the mantelpiece for his new wife that read: “Gone to Dunkirk, have taken some sandwiches.”

I read that once, twice and it’s now framed as to me that is what this country was about in those days but I am afraid to say it’s sadly lacking in general today.

If this kind of venture was to be needed today, heaven forbid, more time would be taken up filling out Risk Assessment Forms, an induction course on how to know the sharp end from the blunt end of a boat, assorted Health and Safety inspections – the list goes on due to the form filling fanatical mania and box-ticking of today’s world.

To think people in the middle of the last century were prepared to make sandwiches and get on their own boats or craft to risk their lives for total strangers in basic terms, possibly adds to the real Dunkirk spirit and we should never forget that.


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