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In my mother’s family scrapbook, there is a tiny box camera snapshot of a very young Robert staring at the Luftwaffe-smashed “mole” leading out to sea from the port of Boulogne – sixteen years after British troops evacuated under fire in May 1940 as their comrades stood on the beaches of neighbouring Dunkirk. In the photograph, the right-hand side of the Boulogne jetty remains, in dilapidated, post-war France, just as it was when British soldiers scrambled aboard the last ships to Britain, the concrete, right-hand side of the mole collapsed into the sea, just a few old hawsers showing where it stood.
I remember that when our car ferry docked from Dover, passengers still had to “walk the plank” across a bridge of duckboards suspended above the water with ropes on each side to cling onto above another bombed-out part of the jetty. A day later, my father drove our Austin up to Dunkirk to see the famous beaches. It was a grey, cold day and the sand was grey and there was some unrecognisable, rusting junk along the promenade and several of the old beach hotels were still under repair. That was it. History had passed this way and the Brits had returned to other beaches 250 miles further west four years later and Hitler killed himself and we dropped atoms bombs on Japan and, by the time I reached Dunkirk, we’d lost soldiers in Korea and the poor old French were just starting their doomed war to hold onto Algeria.
From time to time, during our drive towards the German border that dank summer holiday, there were road bridges still under repair – the war had only ended eleven years earlier – and squads of French soldiers guarding them would stand up and cheer when they saw the little Union flag my father had fixed to the front of our Austin. “Don’t wave to them, fellah,” he would admonish me. “They let us down and surrendered.” So the anti-French contempt briefly witnessed in Christopher Nolan’s new film – as a British officer refuses to allow French troops to join the evacuation – was nothing new in cinematic history. My Dad, who’d fought in France towards the end of the First World War, still felt the betrayal of the country he’d risked his life for when it capitulated to the Germans in 1940, less than three weeks after the last British – and French – soldiers had left Dunkirk.
The Brits had already been softened up to hate their French allies by General Mason-Macfarlane, who gave an off-the-record briefing to journalists in London on 28 May 1940 in which he told them to blame French troops for the demise of the British Expeditionary Force; reporters ran “exclusives” next day – no sources, of course (as usual) – precisely reflecting the words of the general.
Mason-Macfarlane was, I suppose, a Farage of his time. In the decades to come, British historians would denigrate French troops in 1940 as drunkards and cowards although they also wrote of the looting and binge drinking by the Brits in Dunkirk town – a theme clearly hinted at in the magnificent five-and-a-half minute Dunkirk beach “take” in Joe Wright’s Atonement. Intriguingly, there were more French soldiers – shooting their horses, marching with discipline to the beaches, one of them dying in a London hospital – in Wright’s film, in which Dunkirk was only an episode, than in Nolan’s epic.
Much has been made, inevitably in The Guardian, of Nolan’s failure to acknowledge the presence of Muslim troops at Dunkirk – Muslim Indian Commonwealth soldiers (from what is now Pakistan) and, of course, Algerian and Moroccan regiments in the French army. Atonement did contain a black British soldier in the retreat to Dunkirk although no photographs appear to exist of black UK troops in 1940 France – and Leslie Norman’s much older Dunkirk movie, which premiered two years after I first visited the beaches, contained no black soldiers – John Mills’s companions in the retreat to Dunkirk were all white – although in the film French civilians risk their lives to help save British troops. Of course, even in this early stage of the Second World War, ethnic minority British citizens did show enormous courage – one of the bravest ARP men during the Blitz was black, although we have yet to see a film about him.
Disgracefully, the post-war Moroccan and Algerian governments declined – until very recently – to honour their soldiers who fought in the French army against the Nazis. Arab nationalism counted for more than anti-fascism in post-independence Algeria. The French film Indigènes – released in the UK as Days of Glory – recalled the bravery of Algerian soldiers fighting the Nazis after the Allied landings in southern France, and the racism of their French white comrades. As one of the North Africans lies wounded, praying the words of the Quran, he is executed by a German soldier. Intriguingly, the post-independence Muslim nations who deleted their Second World War history – fighting the Japanese as well as the Germans – reflected the First World War amnesia which afflicted the post-independence republican Irish who, until recently, had no time for their men-folk who died on the Somme, at Gallipoli and Passchendaele in British uniform.
A justly cynical revue of Nolan’s Dunkirk by Francois Pédron in Paris Match points out, correctly, that 18,000 French troops paid with their lives to hold the Dunkirk perimeter and 35,000 were made prisoner – almost 140,000 French soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk – but that not only do the victors write history. Filmmakers write the “history” too, Pedron wrote. He is right. The true story of the Algerian and Moroccan units has still to be filmed. It would make a terrifying drama. The Germans threw raw meat into the prison cages of Algerian and African troops – to show cinemagoers how they fought for the food and tore it to pieces like animals. Algerians were massacred by the Nazis on racial grounds – an act which strongly supports the suspicion of some intellectual Arabs today: that Hitler, after destroying the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, would have next turned his exterminating fury against their Semitic Arab brothers.
But of course, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem sought exile in Hitler’s Germany and exhorted Muslims to support the Nazis and thus allowed Israel forever to equate the Arabs with Nazi Germany – even though Arab Palestinians dead lie in the Commonwealth graveyard at El-Alamein alongside Jewish Palestinians. How do you explain this on film? If the French can be humiliated in the latest Dunkirk, what chance for Muslims? Or black soldiers? No wonder Farage urged us to watch Nolan’s movie. The Brits in 1940 were, at last, alone. It took another generation to create a Europe in which there would be no more international slaughter. 72 years of peace. And now we are committing Dunkirk all over again.