A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain

In six rooms the curators of this exhibition have gathered a jumble sale, a hodge-podge, a gallimaufry of maps and flags, oil paintings and watercolours, photographs and sculptures, swords and spears from all over the vast territorial range of the British Empire, dating from the 1500s to the post-colonial art of the present day. These objects, quite obviously, can only represent a tiny fraction, a miniscule sampling of the vast, overwhelming multitude of artefacts and stories which remain or could be told about the largest empire in history.

Thematic arrangement or jumble sale

On the one hand, it probably makes sense to try and arrange such a vast subject into themes or topics; and so the exhibition is organised into six rooms each with a distinctive theme, with a room each of maps, of portraits, of history paintings and so on, giving each piece at least a conceptual context.

The drawback of this approach is its randomness – so you get a portrait of Laurence of Arabia (1918) next to a Van Dyck of a Stuart explorer (1635) next to some Indian miniatures from a prince’s court during the Raj (1860). The leaps in time and space and context and meaning between different objects are breath-taking.

Another drawback is that the wall labels explaining each object have only two or three paragraphs to do so and in which to cover sometimes large topics; they risk being rather superficial. Thus we learn that the Empire involved some violence. There were acts of suppression. It involved ‘unequal power relationships’. Hmm.

(Given that the creation and running of the Empire was such a massive event in world history and that, as the commentary points out, the repercussions of the Empire are still with us in many places, maybe there should be a Museum of the British Empire, a really big museum, dedicated to telling the story of the central administration, along with galleries for each subject country or colony, galleries which could explore in detail the histories of trade and barter and war and invasion and resistance and administration and rebellion and independence for each of the 50 or so countries the Empire once ruled.)

There is a chronological underpinning of sorts to the exhibition, with the first room – the map room – containing some of the earliest objects and the last room clearly set apart for post-colonial and contemporary art by artists from former colonies. But otherwise, you have to be quite alert to bits of Empire popping up in scattered places.

For example, did you think the British colonisation of Ireland was a complex and important story? In the first room there’s a primitive map of Enniskellen from Elizabethan times, in the last room a contemporary art work showing a map of Ulster overshadowed by the Troubles. And that’s your lot on Ireland. Not much to get your teeth into. Next it’s native statues from Sierra Leone, an 18th century portrait of Joseph Banks, 19th century wood carvings of Queen Victoria, a 1937 photo of John Buchan in Red Indian head-dress, a chess set from India. And so on.

The Empire in art

The curators claim the exhibition ‘looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day.’ In an obvious way, everything here – maps, flags, portrait painting, sculpture, history paintings – references Imperial subject matter – battles, rulers, land. But to say the Empire shaped practices and themes in British art is a more ambitious claim. The portrait, the landscape, animal paintings, history paintings, watercolours of plants or ancient ruins – surely all these existed in other European countries too, including those which never had an Empire.

What the British emphatically did do, and uniquely well, was trade -trade and expand, sometimes by war, sometimes by negotiation, buying land, acquiring land, conquering land, replacing corrupt local rulers with British law or just defeating them in countless ‘small wars’, introducing accurate maps and renaming places, carrying out censuses, introducing new crops, new landholding patterns and then – after the Industrial Revolution – bringing in steam trains, telegraph cables, metal warships to bind it all together.

Of this – the administrative, trading and commercial, the deal-making and buying and selling, the technological and engineering underpinnings of Empire, what amounted in fact to the main engines and sinews of Empire – there was little or nothing. I missed depictions of the economic, technological and military might which made the British Empire so unstoppable for centuries. After the map room, the exhibition features a few pictures of plants and animals, a few spears and native carvings – but overwhelmingly it consists of pictures of people and their stories.

British indifference to Empire

One of the most interesting things about the British Empire was the way it was largely ignored in the country which supposedly ran it. The English syllabus I studied at university included Dryden and Pope, Dr Johnson and Fielding, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Which of them was the cheerleader for Imperialism? Which of them even mentioned the British Empire? There are occasional references to the snobbish, nouveau riches nabobs who come back from India and offensively flaunt their wealth (in Thackeray). Mr Micawber goes off to Australia at the end of David Copperfield (1850); Magwitch returns from Australia in Great Expectations (1861). But for the most part the Empire is a distant place where people go to and sometimes return from or just not mentioned at all.

It’s only at the very end of the nineteenth century, in the age of Kipling and the boys’ own adventures of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, from the 1880s onwards, that a really triumphalist Imperial Jingoism asserts itself in British culture and that its remote and exotic locations start to feature in fiction and the broader culture. And this had barely got going before it was called into question by the national humiliation of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was another decade of pomp and circumstance, and then the Great War shipwrecked the whole thing. Then you have the troubled inter-war years, with increasingly shrill hard-core Unionists and Imperialists on one side, pitched against outraged liberals and socialists who support the growing independence movements. The cataclysmic second war when the Dominions rally round Britain while she stands alone against Hitler and bankrupts herself in the process. Then, between 1945 and 1965, a flood of independences and ‘liberations’.

The truly Imperial Moment was a very short period in British history. A few weeks ago I systematically visited every room in Tate Britain, looking at every painting and sculpture. I can’t remember a single work ‘about’ the British Empire. There must have been a few history paintings touching on imperial battles, but what’s really remarkable about the British Empire is its absence from British culture.

For most of our history it was an offshore enterprise, a bit like North Sea oil, employing a small number of people very intensively, bringing massive profits to a small number of companies. You might have read about it when something went wrong (some military setback or other), but most people here just got in with their lives. That’s what the literature records (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, James) – a sublime indifference.

Anti-imperialism

The curators refer a few times to the notion that the Empire is still viewed by the British people as a wonderful achievement. Their stated aim is to probe and question this supposed attitude of patriotic pride. But I would have thought it’s the opposite. My children were taught from infant school all about the horrors of slavery, they know more about Nelson Mandela than Admiral Nelson, they are quick to jump on any suggestion of sexism or racism, which they have been fully trained to recognise and denounce. I’d have thought the commonest view was embarrassment shading into shame about the Empire.

In any case, Britain had a long history of internal criticism of Empire throughout its history. The 18th century economist Adam Smith thought it was a bad thing. Victorian free traders like Cobden thought it would ruin the home country. Gladstone dedicated his life to opposing Imperial adventurism (and its wily advocate, his opponent, the slippery Disraeli). Some of the most stinging critiques of Empire were published immediately after the Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps created during that stupid struggle were widely publicised at the time (surely a rampaging feminist movie could be made from the heroic campaigns of Emily Hobhouse to publicise their evils?). The nakedness of the greed, the futility of the fighting undertaken to enrich a handful of Rand millionaires, was well publicised at the time. By the 1930s George Orwell was writing of his disgust at the Empire, Evelyn Waugh was taking the mickey.

I’d have thought most educated people are very well aware of the shameful aspects of Empire, the brutality of British rule in India, our wicked involvement in the slave trade. Who hasn’t seen Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi with its depiction of the Amritsar Massacre? That was released in 1982. 34 years ago. To claim that any Briton anywhere has an uncritically patriotic pride in the British Empire is to set up a straw man.

Individual stories

Once you realise the exhibition isn’t attempting a coherent narrative, or a sustained analysis, of the British Empire it becomes easier to enjoy it for what it is – a potpourri, a salmagundi, a miscellany and medley of objects large and small, old and new, each with its own ‘Oooh gosh’ story behind it. These are the very spears Joseph Banks collected in 1763! Those bronze heads were looted from Benin City in 1898!

Watching the elderly, grey-haired (and 100% white) visitors shuffling from one interesting artefact to another reminded me of The Antiques Roadshow. I couldn’t help smiling at the incongruity between the curators’ use of post-modern critical language – where art works are always ‘questioning’ and ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’ colonial ‘practice’ – and the chatty, antiquarian enthusiasm of the elderly visitors with their walking sticks and glasses, their taste for intriguing objects and historical gossip. And I was happy to be part of that oohing and aahing audience, too.

The rooms

Room one: Mapping and marking

A room full of maps, with some flags hanging from the ceiling, five flags created by Fante artists from the former Gold Coast. How many flags do you think were used during the entire British Empire? A million? Five seems a small selection. The big map of the world hanging on the wall with the Empire marked in pink wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. If anything it emphasised how America, South America, a lot of Africa, all Russia and China weren’t in the Empire.

There were two splendid paintings:

  • Triple portrait of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins Note the globe: Drake was only the second man to sail round the planet (presumably with some other sailors involved). What lads they look! Drake was a pirate, remembered in South America as a crook and privateer, and was second-in-command of the fleet which held off the Spanish Armada. Hawkins is fingered as one of the Elizabethans who began to dabble in the slave trade. The slave trade was a bad thing, children. And so Hawkins was a Bad Man.
  • Sir John Everett Millais The North-West Passage (1874) In my old age I’ve given up fighting a taste for cheesy Victorian narrative paintings. If it’s OK to enjoy realistic Victorian novels, why not enjoy their realistic paintings? If you’ve cared for old family members this has added poignancy.

Room two: Trophies of Empire

My recent tour of the British Museum, especially room one, devoted to housing and explaining a selection of 18th century collections, showed me the huge importance of collecting, of the urge to collect and compare and contrast artefacts, which became fashionable in the 18th century and formed the basis of our Western knowledge in a huge range of subjects, from archaeology to botany. The existence of the Empire, of course, enabled the collecting of all kinds of artefacts from all around the globe, especially flowers and plants.

  • Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians The two paintings in this room by George Stubbs seemed dire to me. Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo) They’re here to demonstrate the impulse to record, log and record the fauna of new exotic destinations (India, Australia).
  • Best painting was the imposing portrait of the great naturalist Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks was a founder and one of the earliest directors of Kew Gardens. He accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. To his left are a Maori paddle and quarterstaff and almost identicial examples are hung either side of the painting, creating an impressive and haunting effect.
  • Talking of Kew, there’s an oil painting of an Indian temple by the prolific Victorian artist Marianne North. At Kew an entire gallery is dedicated to her hundreds of detailed pictures of exotic flora.
  • There were some wonderful botanic prints by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, one of the many ‘native’ inhabitants taught and trained by the schools the British set up.
  • My favourite works in the British Museum are the ‘bronzes of Benin’, extraordinary works of art which were looted after our troops seized Benin City at the end of the 19th century. Obviously they should be returned to their country of origin (like the Elgin marbles and lots else). On show here are Head of an Oba and Head of a Queen Mother. In one way these were quite the most perfect, complete, finished and powerful exhibits in the show.
  • These and some of the other ‘primitive’ sculptures by native artists struck me as vastly more exciting, compelling, vibrant and alive than something like the dull and dreary Tomb and distant view of the Rajmahal hills by William Hodges.
  • The poster for the whole show is one of the three oil portraits by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda painted for Queen Victorian, namely Bakshiram (1886).

Room three: Imperial heroics

A room of big oil paintings depicting heroic moments from Imperial history. The commentary makes the interesting point that Imperial history paintings tended to select moments of solo heroism or martyrdom or depict our chaps facing overwhelming odds – glossing over the many times we and our machine guns massacred the natives. This explains:

On the other hand, there were a lot of military disasters in the history of the Empire. We did get massacred at Isandlwana (1,300 killed), in the retreat from Kabul (nearly 17,000 killed or captured). In fact the history of the Empire is coloured by the cult of Heroic Failure which makes England such an odd country. The conquest of Canada from the French always focuses on the death of Colonel Wolfe at the climax of the Battle for Quebec (1775). We beat the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and as a result dominated the world’s oceans for a century but, once again, depictions all tend to focus on the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, killed by a French sniper. This assemblage of martyr paintings was thought provoking.

Not particularly related to any of this was the chess set carved from ivory and depicting one side as the army of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, the other side dressed as the army of the East India Company, created in 1795.

Room four: Power dressing

Imperial portraits focusing on the ‘cross-dressing’ ie the keenness with which some of the chaps liked to dress up in native outfits. Illustrating, or bringing to mind, the tension between the sympathetic colonisers and those who felt we must keep our distance, maintain our difference, at all costs. Big theme, little room.

  • William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck c.1635–6
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1919) by Augustus John
  • Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Yousuf Karsh. Pleasing to learn that Buchan had been given the native American head-dress by Indians for his support of First Nation cultural traditions. In fact the head-dress which features in the photo is also on display nearby, crafted by a Kainaiwa artist and presented to Buchan by a Kainaiwa chief apparently named Shot-on-both-sides. From the earliest to the final periods, there were plenty of colonists sympathetic to ‘native’ cultures.

Room five: Face to face

The rationale of this room seems to be an exploration of more informal works: it features journals and diaries with impressive amateur illustrations, wooden carvings by ‘natives’ and so on – but still includes walls of oil paintings. God, but Johann Zoffany painted a lot of stiff, awkward paintings in the 18th century! I liked:

Room six: Out of Empire

After the Second World War artists from the ‘colonies’ came to London to study and pursue careers. In these final two rooms there was the same kind of mish-mash of styles and approaches as can be seen in the main galleries upstairs, in the rooms representing the 1940s and 50s, except done by artists from the decolonising Empire.

I was struck by a bronze bust, Head of a Girl by Benedict Enwonwu, a so-so pastiche of a traditional western-style bust, because it was so much less interesting than the fabulous Benin busts from a hundred years previously. Something had been lost in the transition from ‘traditional’ style to the attempt to copy Western models.

Just because an artist comes from a former colonial country and may have many stories of repression to tell, doesn’t automatically – alas – give them some kind of ‘authenticity’, doesn’t mean their art is any good. It may shed light on aspect of the colonial experience, on the humiliation and suffering of the colonised, on their personal feelings – but doesn’t guarantee these feelings are effectively converted into an art work. For example:

  • Midonz by Ronald Moody (1937)
  • Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra (1964)
  • Three figures I by Isabel Rawsthorne (1961)

I usually like mocking and satirical works but I found the big photos by Hew Locke somehow cheap and unfunny. They failed, for me, to engage with the ideas or history they mock.

I liked Eve by Eric Gill (1928) as I like all Gill’s work, but I don’t know why it was in this room. It was all a bit so-so; maybe the only piece I could say I liked was:

The irrelevance of anti-imperialism

Central to room six is Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, (1972-74) a landmark work in its day, apparently – a see-through bookshelf in the middle of the room containing a variety of candles, some of which look very phallic, some of which are chained together. Probably it refers to slavery and is meant to make me feel guilty about something which ended 150 years before I was born, but the chains reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the earnest 1970s righteous Marxism was a viable worldview, and angst about slavery or imperial humiliations, about exploitation of the workers and native peoples, seemed pressing and important, because various forms of armed struggle against lingering colonialism and wars to overthrow capitalism were actually raging around the globe. There was apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, to take just a part of just one continent.

Now all that has gone. The doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism have completely conquered the world. The main political parties in most Western countries have become indistinguishable front men for big business and international banks, and their populations are restive and frustrated but ultimately accept it. Only in the Academy, in university humanities courses and in the Arts, do Marxism and various other ‘radical’ -isms continue to have a ghostly, unreal afterlife, detached from the actual world most people inhabit.

The curators of this exhibition believe it is time we started a debate about the real legacy of the British Empire and faced the facts about its darker side, apparently ignorant that its darker side has been well-publicised by politicians, writers and polemicists for over a hundred years (even in the very obvious level of pop culture, I remember the TV series Roots from 1977 or the movie Gandhi from 1982. A generation ago.)

But watching my teenage kids makes me realise that in our post-colonial, post-modern era, dominated by likes, shares and selfies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everything is just a gag. Cats who look like Hitler has more followers than the Prime Minister. My kids know more about Miley Cyrus than the Indian Mutiny. Their lives will be about trying to get jobs in a world with 8 billion inhabitants, trying to find somewhere to live in a city of 10 million, and coping with the slowly spreading impacts of global warming.

So when their old Dad tries to interest them in the iniquity of British rule in India 150 years ago or shock them with facts about the slave trade 250 years ago, they just yawn and say, ‘Yeah Dad, we learned all about that at school,’ and turn back to their X-boxes. And who’s to say they’re wrong to be getting on with their lives in the here and now, unhindered by the pomps and atrocities of the past.

This is a very thought-provoking exhibition, in more ways, I think, than the curators intended.

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