It’s been a year now since Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirkwas released to critical acclaim, public approval and criticism. Much of the criticism arose because the film omitted any mention of the Commonwealth troops who were in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and at Dunkirk. It felt like a missed opportunity to correct an anomaly in the collective memory of Britain and the world: to remember the mule drivers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) who were also on those beaches.
So here’s the missing piece of the story, derived from my research into Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers.
On May 29, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with thousands of British soldiers lined up on the beaches east of the French town, with a giant pall of smoke from the burning oil refinery, with regular sorties by Luftwaffe planes scattering the queues, and with ships large and small taking men off the beaches, Major Mohammed Akbar Khan of the RIASC marched four miles along the beach at the head of 312 Muslim Indians, en route from Punjab to Pirbright.
Read any newspaper in the United States or United Kingdom at the moment and it is likely to be full of news items related to refugees and immigration. Were you to open a newspaper in the 1930s, you would find very similar news stories. Despite the fact Second World War internment took place over 70 years ago, it could not be more relevant in today’s society.
Internment is a recognised function of war, and so the detention of enemy aliens during the Second World War was not unexpected. In times of peril, it can be hard to discern who is friend and who is foe, and there are inevitably casualties of war.
However, national security as a reason for action can sometimes be abused.
Such was the case with the mass internment of those of Japanese ancestry in the United States, a large proportion of whom were American citizens, supposedly protected by the constitution. There were multiple deaths in camp due to the poor medical facilities, notwithstanding the trigger happy guards – the most famous of these deaths perhaps being that of James Hatsuki Wakasa in 1943.
In the case of internment in Britain, the most readily identifiable victims were those who drowned when the Arandora Star, a ship transporting internees from the Isle of Man to Canada, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, in 1940.
British tabloids like The Sun, Daily Star, Daily Express and Daily Mail are currently agog at the news that Himmler’s diaries have been discovered in Russia, having learned that their German equivalent Bild is serialising excerpts (behind a paywall) of a remarkable discovery by German and Russian historians in the Russian archives.
Billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves recently claimed that leaving the EU could be likened to the British evacuation from Dunkirk in late May 1940. This withdrawal signalled the British retreat from the continent and immediately preceded the French capitulation to German forces two weeks later. Hargreaves declared, “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again.”
As a scholar of rhetoric and the Second World War, I have become particularly attuned to how conflict is used and abused by politicians as a means to convince the British public of the value of a particular issue. Most recently, Tory politicians and campaigners like Hargreaves have mobilised Britain’s role in the Second World War as a justification to vote either for or against staying in the European Union (EU). This type of rhetoric is, at its core, emotive and nostalgic. It’s also deeply troubling because such oversimplified ideas of national identity and wartime patriotism are circumventing any chance of having a meaningful discussion about how Brexit would or would not change life on this island nation. It also ignores the fact that the Second World War was a global conflict, however much that might challenge ingrained nationalistic nostalgia. Continue reading “Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia”→