DUNKIRK – The Men They Left Behind by Mark Barnes

D-Day has been done to death and the continuous re-interpretation of countless other events

DUNKIRK – The Men They Left Behind By Sean Longden

D-Day has been done to death and the continuous re-interpretation of countless other events means that an endless number of books hit our shelves, often with very little in them to add to useful knowledge. Several authors have turned to Italy and North Africa, of late; undoubtedly fertile grounds for historians delving in to World War II. It isn’t much better with the Great War. There can only be so many histories of the Battle of the Somme, because there are a finite number of official documents and diaries available. This doesn’t necessarily detract from many of these books individually. An entertaining read always has some merit and there have been some gems.

One area brimming with accounts is the experiences of Allied prisoners of war in German hands. John Nichol has almost cornered the market in readable and very interesting books. They can be very emotional affairs and rightly bring us in to the light a long way from the colourful world of the Great Escape. Much as I love the film, the grim realities of POW life are skated over in favour of clean cut entertainment.

Along comes Sean Longden with a solid history of the British Expeditionary Force remaining in France after Dunkirk. The men who escaped, or were captured or died are documented in an accessible and increasingly sympathetic style. There is a wealth of detail about the tragedies inflicted, notably on the 51st Highland Division at St Valery, and the rear guard men who suffered at Mont de Cats.

The sheer waste of equipment as a wholly unprepared British army was swept aside by the Blitzkreig is sometimes bewildering. When the evacuation from Dunkirk was complete the British left behind 2,472 guns; more than sixty thousand vehicles; and twenty thousand motorycles. 416,000 tons of stores, 75,000 tons of ammunition and 162,000 tons of petrol were destroyed or abandoned to the enemy.

But the real treasure were the people; killed in combat; died of wounds and disease; murdered by their captors or lost during escape attempts. When the Lancastria sank off Cherbourg she had six thousand men aboard of whom four thousand were lost. It was Britain’s greatest maritime disaster taking a cross-section of men from the army and air force. The 2nd Field Bakery of the RASC lost fifty-five men in the tragedy.

This book is bound in the emotions of the men who survived. It is not a pretty read for much of the time and any negative views you have of wartime Germany will be fully enforced, if not magnified.

The British Army of 1940 deserves a much better press than it has received under the shadow of the men who followed. There was no campaign medal for the men of 1940 unlike their father’s generation. They were a different sort of ‘contemptibles’ in the eyes of history. Bureaucratic injustice, unfaithful wives, an indifferent public and an ill-equipped establishment often piled on the agony. But they kept up hope. A Belgian civilian told one prisoner of war. “Don’t worry, you always lose the first battle…but you always win in the end.”

Published by Constable.
ISBN-13: 978-1845295202

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.