The story of the state is far from an easy tale of good versus evil
How my military family history has inspired my career and writing
Jonathan Fennell’s paternal grandfather accompanies President Sean T O’Kelly as he inspects an Irish Army guard of honour
Whatever happened to complexity, to nuance, to an understanding of the honour implicit in compromise? In this digital age, we’ve become accustomed to seeing the world in 1s and 0s, in black and white. Persons of integrity, so it seems, can no longer be seen to find middle ground lest they be accused of “U-turns”, “surrender” or “perfidy”. To paraphrase a wonderful line in the movie Braveheart, it is the ability to compromise that makes a person noble; but all around us politics is once again polarising rather than uniting the peoples of these islands.
I have spent the last five years of my life grappling with another period that had profound and long-lasting effects – the second World War. It has often struck me that for those trying to explain the past, or the present for that matter, a look in the mirror can be a good place to start; family dynamics often prefigure or mirror wider social dynamics. In that context, it is hardly surprising that I developed an interest in things military.
In my parents’ house in Rathfarnham, there are photographs of my grandfathers, one in an Irish Army uniform, leading a guard of honour for the President of Ireland, and the other in the uniform of the British merchant navy. Beside the fireplace, there is a German bayonet resting on the brass outer casing of an artillery shell. A German helmet and belt, with GOTT MIT UNS (God with us) emblazoned somewhat incongruously alongside the swastika on the buckle, and a tattered Nazi flag lie in a box in the cupboard in the study. All these “memorabilia” were given to my maternal grandfather when, as captain of a British oil tanker, he accepted the surrender of a German vessel at the end of the war. He had landed in Normandy on D-Day +2 with a shipment of aviation fuel; he was later interviewed by the BBC as the commander of the first ship back from D-Day. He had served on the Atlantic run and his ship had been sunk with considerable loss of life. But, in his moment of triumph, he could empathise with his defeated foe and they corresponded with one another after the war.
My paternal grandfather had volunteered for service in the Irish Army at the start of the “emergency”. He was surprised that he was sent for officer training on foot of the combat experience he had gained with the Irish Brigade under O’Duffy during the Spanish Civil War, for which he had volunteered from Christian motivation. I found it strange that he too had been in correspondence with a former foe after the conflict.
When the platoon he commanded had captured a group of Englishmen who were deserting from the Republican forces because they claimed they had been forcibly coerced into fighting, he decided, based on his experience of the savagery on both sides of the conflict, that his Spanish allies would probably have executed these prisoners. So his comrades sheltered them with the Irish Brigade and brought them back to Dublin before putting them on a boat home; my grandfather and the English “deserters” corresponded for many years; this was slightly odd as he was no great lover of the English and had been awarded a “Black and Tan” medal for his services as a member of Fianna Eireann in the War of Independence against Britain.
My family history, therefore, speaks to the complexity of military service and to life on these islands. I have one grandfather who was a member of an organisation that was in armed conflict with the British empire and another who repeatedly put his life at risk to protect it. They met late in life and were able to relate to one another’s very different experiences and perspectives. Both of them could respect their foes and behave outside the norms of many standard military narratives.
These vignettes are just a part of a wider Irish, or Anglo-Irish, story – deeply personal, complicated, nuanced and certainly not one that can be told in a binary manner. If our personal stories are this complicated, how can the story of the state be any less so? That brings us back to the second World War.
In the process of researching and writing Fighting the People’s War – the first in-depth history of the British and Commonwealth armies in the second World War – I was struck by the extent to which global war tore families and communities apart. It was my good fortune to discover a series of censorship and intelligence reports compiled from the assessment of about 17 million letters sent by soldiers and their families during the war. Their story, much to my amazement, was radically different to the “good war” and “finest hour” narrative fed to us by war leaders and popular culture. As with my own family, the facts and patterns of correspondence have a deep story to tell that often call martial and political myths into question.
The censorship reports revealed that even in those parts of the Commonwealth where the trials and tribulations of the interwar years were better managed, there was a distinct disconnect between the rhetoric of nations united in a “people’s war” and the reality as it unfolded on the ground. In the United Kingdom, given the cultural memory of the first World War and the highly fractured nature of Britain’s class-based society this, perhaps, should not be all that much of a surprise. The same applies, in many ways, to the ethnically fragmented dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa and the quasi-dominion of India, where large proportions of the population, in some cases the majority, were extremely anti-British in sentiment. Thus, when Britain’s pledge to support Poland against German aggression was made a reality on September 3rd, 1939, Britain and the Commonwealth, on the outbreak of a second World War, were forced to face some harsh truths about the cohesion of the empire and its constituent peoples. Fractures on the home front, in turn, had implications for the performance of citizen soldiers on the battle front. We cannot understand the performance of great armies without reference to political, social and economic factors. In understanding the state, ideas matter; power is intimately related to legitimacy and consent.
So, the story of the imperial armies in the second World War is complex. The great defeats of 1940-1942 were to a large extent caused by morale problems related to a disconnect between the citizen and the state. These defeats destabilised and then put the nail in the coffin of empire. Meanwhile, the soldier, as a consequence of his experience of shared danger on the battle front, became deeply aware of how dependent he was on the actions and attitudes of those around him. In time, the experience of combat cohesion influenced political persuasions – with profound implications for voting behaviours in critical elections during and after the war. The soldier became not only a military tool, but an agent of social change. The story of the state, just like the story of the family, is full of shades of grey, of compromise – far from an easy tale of good versus evil.
Jonathan Fennell is the author of Fighting the People’s War, the first single-volume history of the British and Commonwealth armies in the second World War, which is published on February 7th