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The Miracle of Dunkirk: Edward Ardizzone and George Orwell – the Artist and the Diarist

June 3, 2012

Late May, 1940, Edward Ardizzone and his companions, members of the now bedraggled British Expeditionary Force to France (B.E.F.), settled down for the night in an old château on the outskirts of Boulogne. Seeking comfort in this abandoned residence, Ardizzone perused its forsaken library of Anglo-Saxon tomes left lonely in the gloom: Shakespeare and Dickens upon the shelves, but also Goethe and Heine. More poignantly perhaps a fellow cohort played Handel and Bach upon the dusty black and white keys of the residence’s piano, in melodic accompaniment to the rumbling crescendos of German bombs hitting Boulogne near-by.

All this Ardizzone later recounted in Baggage to the Enemy, an illustrated account of his own personal experience during the calamity that was the fall of France. Commissioned as a war artist in February 1940, having been a notable illustrator of children’s books before the war, Ardizzone joined the B.E.F. in March 1940, and for the time running up to the German invasion was billeted in the French town of Arras with other war artists and journalists. Here Ardizzone’s narrative commenced; it was to end with his inglorious evacuation from the port of Boulogne. The predominating aspect at first, before the German invasion, indeed Ardizzone’s problem, was that nothing happened, not ever; which, as it turned out, was a problem for the war artist, as Ardizzone noted:

“The trouble with us artists was that we did not know in advance just what we were going to find interesting and drawable… The Staff thought that naturally we were itching for material in the grand manner – Highlanders charging with fixed bayonets, or tanks blazing into action in the Caton Woodville manner.”

Unfortunately, as the Army explained, “there was at that time no fighting, so what were they to do about it?” Instead, Ardizzone was confined to traipsing over the preserved battlefields left over from the previous war – his conducting officer believing it would provide the “right background knowledge and that this would be useful to us when the real show started”. And as Ardizzone later quipped, and tellingly with the hindsight afforded by the later military disaster, the officer, “as nearly everyone else was”, was thinking “in terms of twenty years ago”. Of course, the fall of France, and the subsequent retreat to Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Army to safety, has taken its place within the British imagination as a victory snatched from the claws of disaster, but even as the military manoeuvres commenced, in May 1940, such an outcome, at least of a looming catastrophe, was very soon apparent; Ardizzone writing that military brass “had a pretty shrewd idea of what was going to happen”. Indeed, General Mason Macfarlane, Director of Military Intelligence, informed Ardizzone and the Public Relations Unit, somewhat surprisingly, that: “He did not want to make us unduly despondent, but he had to emphasise that the Allied Armies were now facing a greater peril than at any time during the last war”. Above all, Baggage to the Enemy, as the title suggests, is a testament to the instant peril the B.E.F. faced, the German Army clipping at its heels back through Belgium into France. Indeed, it is indicative of military events, and the Allied lack of military success, that the majority of Ardizzone’s small volume comprises of “the Retreat”.

Included in Ardizzone’s account are 106 sketches, almost a picture a page, which, taken from his original studies made in France, compliment the prose as a visual chronicle of events. Their inclusion, a must – considering Ardizzone’s wartime role – provide a unique insight into what the artist thought appropriate as a portrayal of war; and indeed, very few of the images turn out to be depictions of battle. Instead, they portray a deeper human level of existence during conflict. Ardizzone was certainly no Caton Woodville. Of course, at first he had no choice; there were no battles, not before the invasion as the British and French elected to await the German onslaught (very much set in the”Verdun” mindset of defence rather than attack). Instead, Ardizzone focused upon army routine, of everyday life billeted in Arras, fraternising with the French locals, and almost every night having a “party evening”; on one occasion – in a hotel bar, having as a guest a member of the troupe Singing Baker’s Boy – bursting into a loud “performance” with some “very elated” Air Force Officers providing a rousing but somewhat drunken chorus. Ardizzone, at this stage at least, before the Panzers roled, could afford a sense of humour in his reflections – both written and sketched.

When war finally manifested itself, very rarely did Ardizzone reach the frontline. Ardizzone had to make do with the consequent wreckage of war, after the event – such as the bomb crater, the bombed railway line, though occasionally spying the odd enemy bomber far up in the sky. There is a great sense of movement – of mobilisation – in Baggage to the Enemy. In this manner, one of the most moving images contained  within Ardizzone’s account is Guards on the March (also Ardizzone’s first encounter with the refugees, on the road to Louvain; which also reveals his inner compassion): “The most dreadful sight of the war as I had seen so far.” “Nearly all of them push bicycles”, he wrote in conjunction with the image, “laden with bundles wrapped in red blankets… except for the very poor, they were all wearing their Sunday Best as if they were loath to leave their best clothes behind”. Yet above all it was the accompanying soundtrack that most moved him, something which the image could not relate; the silence of the refugees, the tread of their feet, the contrasting heavy marching boots of a splendid battalion of Guards marching on, “against the stream”, marching on to war, towards “the sound of gunfire and of bombs”.

The narrative often weaving in and out of the military context – the violent manifestations of war being sporadic and contrastingly conflicting – Ardizzone’s account has a semi-impassive, otherworldly quality, as he, the chronicler, drifts through events – the calm before the storm, the action, the confusion and the retreat – detached, yet involved necessarily, not as the soldier, but as the teller artist. Indeed, though still a civilian, the tolerated Ardizzone was clad in the military British uniform, but without insignia; unranked, he was somewhere and something in-between.

Ardizzone’s account is not a critical analysis of strategy, nor is it absurdly sentimental or myth making, it is simply matter-of-fact, the encounter, but not asking why. Ardizzone had a penchant for the unearthly or awkward moment within the sphere of war, if only brief, of curious occurrences, and not just the obvious and to be expected clichés of staged conflict. Indeed, in Boulogne at night, he having retreated back from the frontline, on the occasion of an air raid, and taking shelter just inside the doorway of a private house, Ardizzone and some companions glimpsed the sight of two spectre-like, elderly women, cowering under the bombardment, “carrying candlesticks and dressed in nightcaps and voluminous white night-dresses”, first staring “owlishly” at the men, then descending silently into the basement below.The accompanying sketch, Two Old Women, exceedingly simple in composition, is, nevertheless, a haunting image of this peculiar occurrence. Ardizzone’s wartime images are, indeed, a strange contrast to his previous pre-war art for children, but a successful transition. Writing in 1940, the esteemed but hard-hitting critic Douglas Cooper thought Ardizzone one of the few war artists of any worth:

“He really succeeds in conveying the present war from humour to tragedy: bombing, soldiers off duty, air raids, refugees, the English, the French… He is the only person who has caught the atmosphere of this war.”

Aside from Ardizzone’s subtle elusions to beauty contrasted against the vulgarities of war, in terms of message and propaganda there is no overwhelming manipulation of the viewer’s thoughts. Nor is he politically or militarily damning of the events and mistakes – it simply happened. Perhaps he thought it the wrong time in the war (it was first published in 1941), or did not think himself qualified, or indeed allowed to pass such a comment in a post-mortem-like, war artist’s exposé. Though quite likely that was never his intention – he simply being a war artist. There is no fundamental truism that Ardizzone seeks to pompously imbue, but nor is his piece prosaic in tone. It is left modestly to the reader to decipher his or her own axiom about war, and of that brief, but vital campaign.

At the time of Dunkirk, and the fall of France, George Orwell’s view from London, very much evident in his Wartime Diary of the campaign, was distinctly indistinct. A civilian, like most, he was largely ignorant as to what was actually happening in Belgium and France in May and June of 1940: “For days past there has been no real news and little possibility of inferring what is really happening.” But Orwell could guess, and there were a number of potential scenarios: that the B.E.F. and French Forces in the north were cunningly waiting for the German Army to be “spent” before counterattacking; or, what Orwell believed to be the more probable likelihood, “that the position in the north was in reality hopeless and the forces there could only fight their way south, capitulate, be destroyed entirely or escape by sea, probably losing very heavily in the process”. Orwell was not entirely fallacious in this latter summation. On 29 May, Orwell noted in his diary that he could only “gather any major news nowadays by means of hints and allusions”. This was in part a government policy. However, the night before, Orwell had listened to a rallying “cheer-up talk” on the radio by Winston Churchill’s Minster of Information, Duff Cooper: designed, so Orwell deducted, “to sugar the pill” before the broadcast of Churchill’s speech to Parliament, a speech hinting at “dark and heavy tidings” in the days ahead. Orwell wasn’t fooled, and had a shrewd grasp of what was about to be announced to the nation. Something had clearly gone awry. Orwell’s first mention of Dunkirk appears on 30 May, though the evacuation (Operation Dynamo) had commenced on 26 May, the government at first keeping the operation quiet. Apart from the news being largely ensored, this adding to the confusion, Orwell’s diary entries from around the time of Dunkirk hint at a surprising impassiveness amongst the population:

 “People talk a little more of the war, but very little. As always hitherto, it is impossible to overhear any comments on it in pubs, etc. Last night, E[ileen] and I went to the pub to hear the 9 o’c news. The barmaid was not going to have turned it on if we had not asked her, and to all appearances nobody listened.”

Again, writing on 30 May: “Still no evidences of any interest in the war… It is seemingly quite impossible for them to grasp that they are in danger, although there is good reason to think that the invasion of England may be attempted within a few days, and all the papers are saying this.” Orwell’s diary entry for 6 June – Operation Dynamo having ended on 3 June – draws a line under Dunkirk, though not before counting the cost. Of the figure of “6 destroyers and about 25 boats” destroyed, for the evacuation of “330,000 men”, Orwell thought that “even if one doubled the number of ships lost it would not be a great loss for such a large undertaking”. Of course, as he noted, this was assuming the final count was “presumably truthful”. Though the source is not stated – likely the radio or a newspaper – the tally was in fact an accurate statement of truth; both the loss of six destroyers, but also the number of men rescued: the Dunkirk historian Major-General Julian Thompson’s stated tally being 338,226 men, British and French, rescued from Dunkirk. However, Orwell makes no mention of the 68,111 British Army casualties, or indeed the huge loss of equipment and military hardware. Of course, the British government had no reason to cover-up the remarkable number of men rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, but perhaps would have shied away from stating the inglorious statistics relating to the fall of France generally. As well as this, and taking into account the “Battle of Britain”, which, as Churchill announced, was about to commence, there was no mention about the heavy losses the RAF had also sustained in France.

Yet, as it appears in Orwell’s diary, there was a form of reckoning, of taking account in the weeks following Dunkirk. For example, Rayner Heppenstall, a radio producer at the BBC, related to Orwell “that private soldiers back from Dunkirk whom he has spoken to all complain of the conduct of their officers, saying that the latter cleared off in cars and left them in the soup, etc., etc”. Orwell, reflecting upon this, thought that “this sort of thing is always said after a defeat and may or may not be true.” However, Orwell’s political leaning towards the Left managed to force a brief comment upon the current officer class, and, as he wrote hopefully, the middle class were eventually “bound to predominate as officers”, and would change the class basis of the army and, indeed, the country. Orwell musingly quipped: “How is it that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?” “Under the stress of emergency we shall unblimp”, Orwell hoped. In a study upon the reality of the “Colonel Blimp” type, the historian David French states that “it is difficult to reconcile this ‘reality’ of General Clive Wynne-Candy” being a prevalent predicament within the British Army at the time of Dunkirk. However, “in response to the charge of blimpishness, between the period of Dunkirk and Alamein, the average age [of officers commanding divisions] fell to 48’. The average at the time of Dunkirk was 53. How far this would have addressed Orwell’s expectation of an emergent middle class breed of officer is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, it is proof of a particular reaction, politically and socially motivated in the case of Orwell, to the British performance in France (Orwell was likely hopeful that the middle-class would once again infiltrate the officer class as they had done during the First World War, a result of the high mortality rate of officers in the field and the need to replace them). Ardizzone, in contrast, made no such reference to this – but this should not surprise us.

Also apparent in Orwell’s diary is a reflection upon the performance of the French. Orwell, in his dairy, relates a talk on the radio of a colonel just returned from Belgium, letting “the public know the army had been let down (a) by the French (not counterattacking), and (b) by the military authorities at home, by equipping them badly”. On blaming the French for the defeat, Orwell makes sure to add that he has experienced no other “recriminations against the French and Duff-Cooper’s broadcast of two nights ago especially warned against this”. However, several weeks later after Dunkirk, on 8 August, and in reference to the French Army’s performance in the field, Orwell records that, at a lecture given by an officer who had taken part in the campaign, the officer “spoke badly of the French… He had one photograph of a regiment of Zouaves in full flight after looting houses, one man being dead drunk on the pavement”. Though these are the only allegations that Orwell records, they do indicate a criticism directed at the French by their British officer counterparts. Of course, the French too were, quite unfairly, critical of the British for retreating to Dunkirk – a decision, however, and despite French consternation, which saved the British Army and allowed the Britain to continue fighting the war when the French capitulated. There is a strong case to be put forward that had the British Army been captured en-masse, in 1940, the fate of France, and indeed all Europe, would have been one of a lasting Nazi or Soviet tyranny. Yet has this ever been acknowledged?

Orwell’s Wartime Diary, then, offers the reader a limited but revealing personal account of Dunkirk and, in small part, its consequence. Although Orwell intended to publish the diary at some point, it was only after the war that his notes saw the light of day. In this sense, and in terms of diary alterations, Orwell’s account had nothing to censure, though indeed he may have censored himself at the time of writing and only reflected upon matters relating to his own agenda. This is certainly the case in his reflections upon the need to “unblimp” within the British Army. Some of the diary entries are also surprising – relative to popularly assumed knowledge of Dunkirk; the impassiveness of the population not necessarily running parallel to common assumptions made about the “myth of Dunkirk”, of a nation on the edge of its seat, rigorously awaiting the great salvation. Most of all, Orwell’s account relates the civilian experience, at home, of Dunkirk and the fall of France, but also the recriminations, later in thought, against the apparent failures of the campaign.

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