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  • My favourite agents by Robyn Walker

    Even before my book The Women Who Spied for Britain was published, almost everyone with whom I shared the manuscript with would ask me which one of the secret agents was my favourite. The questions continued after the book was published... interviewers and fans alike all seemed to want to know which agent I enjoyed researching and writing about most. It almost seems disrespectful to pick one above the others (I suppose with the exception of Mathilde Carré, whose treachery should make her ultimately unlikeable), since they all put their lives on the line in defense of their country. How do you quantify which one was best, which one was most heroic?

    Then I realized that I was not being asked to provide a value judgement, people were simply interested in which secret agent I found most interesting. And after talking to several people who had read my book, I was amazed to discover that when I asked them about THEIR favorite agent in the book, their answers and reasons were both varied and fascinating. People connect with stories and individuals in so many different ways, and I was intrigued by the reasons readers connected with different agents and their missions. This forced me to do a little self-reflection about the subjects of my book, and I was amazed at what I ultimately discovered regarding my own feelings about the women who spied for Britain!

    Agents - Noor Inayat Khan Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine)

    Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine) has a special place in my heart since it was her story that first got me interested in the female secret agents of WW2. I first ‘discovered’ her when I was 10, after watching the miniseries A Man Called Intrepid. I thought her story was incredible and immediately begged my dad to buy me the book. Book in hand I went immediately to the index and proceeded to selectively read all parts of the book that dealt with the intriguing Madeleine. For years (well before the age of the internet) she represented all I really knew about female agents of the Second World War, and her story made thirst for more. Khan truly was my starting point, and because of that I found this chapter quite enjoyable to write.

    Agents - Odette Sansom Odette Sansom

    Odette Sansom was another agent I discovered through A Man Called Intrepid. Sadly, for me, she was simply a one name reference in the index (p. 254), and I learned only that she was a “young mother who left her children in Kensington to wind up in a Gestapo torture chamber”. I had no idea of her last name, let alone what her full story was. The name Odette seemed incredibly fierce and dramatic, and I spent many hours creating my own stories of Odette’s missions. When I finally learned her true story, I have to admit my imaginings weren’t anywhere close to accurate. Still, her chapter was an absolute delight to write. I think, in part, it was because after so many years of imagining her story that I finally found the truth. There’s also a plethora of material available about Odette which made this chapter ‘easier’ to write than some of the others. And finally, I absolutely LOVE the anecdote at the end of the chapter where the thief who stole Odette’s medals returns them via the post. I laugh every time I read his apology!

    Agents - Diana Rowden Diana Rowden

    I loved writing the Diana Rowden chapter. It was by far the most difficult since there has been far less written about her than the other agents. Yet I found writing her chapter incredibly rewarding. As I learned more about her I definitely got the feeling that she and I could have been friends and it really bothered me that her story had been somewhat overlooked. There’s no way to know why this is, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it had something to do with the fact that she lacked the ‘glamour’ or physical appeal of the other agents. Certainly her bravery, contribution to the war effort and her tragic death were all compelling enough to make for interesting reading, so it really puzzled me that her story was not better known. Her chapter became my personal mission and it was incredibly exciting to discover the little facts about her life.

    Agents - Nancy Wake Nancy Wake

    Ahh, Nancy Wake. The whole time I was writing about her I was both in awe and doubled over with laughter. She seemed incredible and fearless and almost, in my opinion, like some sort of super hero. Her story has it all, running away from home, love affairs, secret agent school, narrow escapes, gun battles, attempted assassinations and... a relatively happy ending. If her life story isn’t perfect for a big screen movie I don’t know what is. This chapter was fun, fun, fun from start to finish!

    Agents - Violette Szabo Violette Szabo

    The chapter on Violette Szabo was the very first one I completed. She was so beautiful, it was hard not to be intrigued by her. I had trouble with this chapter in the beginning, since so many of the secondary sources I read offered vastly different accounts of what actually happened to her. My search for the truth led to my interview with Robert Maloubier, who served with Szabo. It was incredible hearing the REAL story from someone who had actually been there. His eyewitness account made the story really come alive, and added a special dimension to this chapter. The Szabo chapter also resulted in my making a new friend, the wonderful author Susan Ottaway, who had written an absolutely fantastic biography of Szabo. This was a chapter of interesting research and new friends!

    Agents - Christine Granville Christine Granville

    Was there a chapter I enjoyed least? Yup. Christine Granville. Not that her story isn’t compelling. There’s just so much to it, combined with confusing Polish place names and given names the spelling of which seemed to change with every source I read. This chapter was very challenging, since her career as an agent was so long and she served in so many different locations. Granville’s sad end was also incredibly depressing for me for some reason. The complexity of Granville’s story and the overall feeling of gloom as a result of her murder took away from my overall enjoyment of writing this chapter, yet my mum informs that this was her favourite one to read!

    Agents - Mathilde Carre Mathilde Carré

    I admit to feeling a sense of guilt when I confess that I liked writing about Mathilde Carré. She really was quite an awful person, and yet there was something about her self-centred awfulness that I really understood. Perhaps knowing that there are people as flawed as she was what made me feel better about my own short comings. Or perhaps I just know enough about myself to understand that if I was faced with the choices she was faced with, I might have done the same thing. So, she was not noble, there will be no plaques commemorating her role in the war, but her story is darn interesting and I really believe there is a little bit of Mathilde in all of us. Just hopefully not too much : )

    Agents - Sonya 1 Sonia Butt

    My favourite, hands down, was the Sonia Butt chapter! Her story had all of ‘cool’ elements (like Nancy Wake’s), her family was incredibly generous in sharing their memories and photographs, she had a Canadian connection (cool for me) AND she had the glamour factor. All of these are compelling reasons for me to have loved this chapter best but... the real reason is, Sonia was exactly who I would have wanted to be! I connected with her on a deep level, and I have convinced myself, that had I lived during WW2 I would have been just like Sonia. I saw so much of myself in Sonia that every minute of writing her story was like living it myself. I’ve had to update my book to include Sonia’s death, this past Christmas, and it left such a strange and hollow feeling inside me. It was like saying good bye to an old friend.

    Agents - 9781445645841

    Robyn Walkers paperback edition of The Women Who Spied for Britain is available for purchase now.

  • 'The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World' by Sharon Poole

    Cunard's advertising boasts of having 'The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World'. It is no idle claim since the company has given us some of the best-known and best-loved ships that ever sailed, their distinctive livery making them instantly recognisable and admired all over the world. As Cunard reaches the milestone of its 175th anniversary, the popularity of this most iconic of brands has not waned, indeed it has increased - quite an achievement in today's global economy. Much of this is the result of building what is the only modern ocean liner - the magnificent Queen Mary 2 - and continuing to operate the only scheduled transatlantic ocean crossing in the world. The three ships of the current fleet draw crowds wherever they are across the globe and the Cunard Lion looks set to roar well into the future.

    Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard ship pic 2Advertising blurb? OK, I confess it is the information on the back of Andrew Sassoli-Walker’s and my latest book. We fell into writing books on maritime history by accident but five books later it is a subject we both still love and hope some of our infectious enthusiasm for the subject will rub off our readers.

    I have been writing books, mainly on local history, since 1987. When P&O Cruises announced their adult-only small ship, Artemis would leave the fleet in 2010, Andrew, who works in the Port of Southampton, contacted me and asked if I would like to collaborate on a small book to mark her passing. Andrew is a semi-professional photographer and has thousands of images of ships in the Hampshire port, while I would bring my experience of recording people’s memories and researching history to the partnership. As regular P&O Cruises’ passengers, we both had a love for the ship and I have been collecting liner memorabilia since my teens. With Amberley on board (no pun intended!), the idea snowballed and grew from being a small self-published memory book, to a full-colour 120 page volume that P&O Cruises were so pleased with, they purchased as a gift for everyone on the final voyage. This then led to them inviting us to pitch for a commission to write a book to mark 175 years of their heritage in 2012, a commission we won! It was a very proud moment to witness the Grand Event when all seven of their ships gathered in Southampton that year and to know we were a small part of the celebrations. In between we have produced books on the cruise ships Oriana and Aurora and a Year in the Life of the P&O Cruises Fleet.

    Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard ship picWe knew 2015 marked the 175th anniversary of Cunard but accepted there would be many straightforward history books. For this reason we decided to mark the event, but follow the format of our Year in the Life of the P&O Fleet book. Our aim is to make the books eminently readable, but to give the reader information they may not know or even have thought about. We have both travelled with Cunard; highlights of our voyages include my being on the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth and, for Andrew, being on board Queen Mary 2 en route to Hamburg with a large number of German passengers when they won the World Cup.

    The preparation time for all our books is around one year and during this period we collect potential images, contact officers and crew, both serving and retired, and invite passengers to send us their anecdotes and memories. Andrew was commissioned to take photographs by the Port of Southampton when Cunard celebrated HM the Queen's golden jubilee. He was afforded unprecedented access to get some very exclusive photos, some of which appear in the book.

    We were particularly lucky in that retired commodore of the fleet, Bernard Warner, was happy to assist us. One of my most abiding memories in writing the Artemis book was being invited onto the magnificent bridge of Queen Mary 2 to chat to Bernard, then her master, about his early days at sea on Royal Princess as Artemis was at that time. Another well-known and much respected contributor was Captain Ian McNaught, past master of the QE2 for many years and now working at Trinity House. Andrew had the opportunity to meet with Commodore Ron Warwick, Captain Robert Camby and architect of Queen Mary 2, Stephen Payne, who gave his valuable time in answering the many questions we had. I think a combination of their enthusiasm along with ours hopefully comes through to the reader. Many others have helped along the way and we are very grateful. Without their photos, memories and mementos the books would not have been so successful. It is a tough job to whittle down the material to fit within the format required and sadly we can’t include everything.Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard event pic

    The book was released in April – just in time for the well-publicised Cunard Salute to Liverpool over the Whitsun bank holiday weekend. I was lucky enough to be on board Queen Victoria for this first time gathering of all three Cunard Queens in the River Mersey. It was an event that will last long in my memory, from the convoy up the river to Liverpool, the water ‘ballet’ performed by these huge ships with a finale of a flypast by the Red Arrows and last but not least, joining other authors, including Peter Snow, for a book signing on the last day.

    Now, what shall we write about next??

    Liners - 9781445646091

    A Year in the Life of the Cunard Fleet by Sharon Poole & Andrew Sassoli-Walker is available for purchase now.

  • Children's Voices of the Second World War - An extract by Christina Rex

    War - Microsoft Word - Document2Food was a constant preoccupation during the war. As small children, we were not directly aware of this, but we lived constantly with the exhortations of the Dig for Victory posters, with the knowledge that food should not be wasted and with (in the towns) the ever-present pig bins in almost every street for vegetable peelings and any food scraps to go to the nearest pig farm to help with the swill.

    Even before the war, this country imported more than half the food needed to feed the population. On the outbreak of war, merchant shipping, which transported the foodstuffs, became a target of the U-boats, so the country had to maximise agricultural production, especially of the staples, wheat and potatoes, to save seamen’s lives, shipping space and use of precious oil for other purposes. A 50% increase in crop-growing land was achieved on farms by ploughing pasture, draining marshy tracts and planting on hillsides. Inspectors from the various Ministries involved “encouraged” the farmers to increase their arable land as far as they were able, but the public were expected to “do their bit” as well.

    The public responded by digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts (if they had them) for vegetable and fruit plots, and municipally-owned parks and sports facilities soon became allotments. Even the moat round the Tower of London was used for vegetables, while sheep grazed in Hyde Park! (Domestically, the soil covering Anderson shelters was almost always turned into a plot for cucumbers, strawberries, or anything edible which would grow there.) Anyone travelling by train saw the embankments near the station had been dug and were growing potatoes, beans, peas and other vegetables. The honesty of people in respect of these allotments was amazing – the big London parks and open spaces boasted innumerable plots, as did the other cities, yet there was little theft of produce. Those people who later shared some of the vegetables and fruit were very pleased with it. Shortly after the war started, about 1.5 million people had taken these allotments – and the land surrounding fire and police stations was enthusiastically dug up and cultivated by the station occupants. By 1943, more than a million tons of vegetables were being produced annually by these “domestic” growers, on its own no small contribution to the war effort.

    In an age when refrigeration in the home was virtually unknown (and domestic freezers unheard of!) preserving the produce was a major concern. The season for any fruit or vegetable was quite limited so it was necessary to preserve today’s glut for tomorrow’s famine, which was done by “bottling”, in “Kilner” jars for fruit, or salting of vegetables (and preserving eggs in water glass), quite apart from the making of jams, jellies and chutneys.

    From Children's Voices of the Second World War:

    Gloria Morgan
    We didn’t “dig for victory”. My parents were no gardeners and we didn’t have a compost heap or grow our own veg. We did, though, have a metal “pig bin” in our street where we put our vegetable parings for regular collection and distribution to the ad hoc pig keepers of the area.

    Linda Zerk
    The median strips in the roadways were dug up and things like potatoes grown; vegetables seemed to be grown on every spare patch of ground. The National Provincial Bank sports ground was ploughed and hay and crops grown. Us kids were encouraged to toss the hay around and jump in it, probably to get it dry enough to make into a haystack.

    Pat Fulmer
    After D-Day, mother and I returned to Catford, London, to live with my grandparents. Grandfather kept chickens but obviously didn’t feed them properly because the eggs all had soft shells! We seemed to eat cabbage most days – my grandmother made me drink the hot cabbage water. I think that is why I’ve had such good health all my life!

    Jean Runciman
    At the beginning of 1941 mother decided we must get away from the Blitz for a while so we joined her sister and family who were in a small village on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. We stayed as paying guests with a Mr & Mrs Gould, an elderly couple. The Goulds kept rabbits and chickens in their back garden to help with the meat ration. I was overjoyed to find lovely rabbits in hutches. I helped to feed them and cuddled them. One was my favourite but one day I couldn’t find him. At lunch, we were eating a very tasty casserole and I asked what the meat was. Mrs. Gould told me it was my beloved rabbit! I turned white, refused to eat my dinner and have never eaten rabbit since.

    War - Children's Voices Cover_HR.indd

    Children's Voices of the Second World War - Doodlebugs, Gas Masks & Gum by Christina Rex is available for purchase now.

  • The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu

    Napoleonic WarsWith the Battle of Waterloo being in the news at the moment, there is renewed interest by the media in these wars that lasted about a quarter of a century. Media coverage of on the likes of Napoleon and the battles is remarkably apt because during the actual era the media giants of the time (the newspapers) were waging their own propaganda war. The Napoleonic Wars however were not the first to use the medium of print for propaganda purposes – The Times, for example, started in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, was not above bias. But this particular era of conflict excelled at printing scurrilous opinions and defamatory cartoons. The leaders of the age knew the power of the press. As Napoleon once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

    However, it wasn’t just opinion pieces that influenced; imagery was often more powerful and lingered longer. Napoleon understood this, and became known for self-aggrandisement. The famous painting of him crossing the Alps (painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805), for example, shows a strongly idealised view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps.

    Napoleon also made sure his coronation as emperor was immortalised in oil paintings, and both he and his wife, Josephine, commissioned regal portraits of themselves in their splendid imperial robes. While Napoleon didn’t plan his own tomb, it continued the themes of power and supremacy – this time with Napoleon as an Adonis; a god among men. Brilliant general he assuredly was, but physically Napoleon was a little on the pudgy side, and had a crooked nose.

    Napoleon had the twin advantages of being both a general and an absolute ruler; he was able to dictate and control the French press. Britain did not provide its monarchs and leaders with the same benefits; it had a freer press, and parliamentary democracy meant magazines could draw witheringly satirical cartoons of friend and foe alike.

    For example, Napoleon’s nickname, ‘Boney’, was a British invention designed to conjure antipathy. At the time, it was thought that having some meat on your bones was a good thing; therefore, horrible old ‘Boney’ was a wraith to be feared or mocked. ‘Boney’ stood in stark contrast to the famous John Bull cartoon popularised first by British print makers. Bull was the national personification of England; a plump, down-to-earth patriot and beer lover.

    Napoleon is often portrayed as compensating for his lack of stature with comically large hats and boots. But to set the record straight, Napoleon wasn’t short. This misunderstanding arose because French measurements were different to British ones, and we now know that Napoleon was a little taller than the average man of his time (although he would probably have looked diminutive standing next to someone like the Duke of Wellington).

    The idea that Napoleon was short still exists to this day, all thanks to British propaganda from 200 years ago.

    Napoleonic Wars - 9781445646633

    To learn about more of the interesting facts from the Napoleonic Wars check out Jem Duducu’s book The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts available for purchase now.

  • The Forgotten Ordinance of 1264 by Darren Baker

    On 28 June 1264 an ordinance was sealed by Parliament following the victory of the Montfortian party at Lewes six weeks earlier. It ordained that the king shall dispose of all the business of the realm, whether dispensing patronage or naming Crown officials, with the advice and consent of a council of nine. These nine would be chosen by three electors confirmed by the king, all elaborated by a system of checks and balances. Officially Henry III gave his “consent, will and precept” to this form of government, which for all intents and purposes changed England into a constitutional monarchy.

    Ordinance - Microsoft Word - Civil war in England 1264 picIt was called an ordinance because it was meant to be a temporary measure, a “form of peace” until the actual treaty drawn up after Lewes was implemented. That battle had been the culmination of six years of strife over the Provisions of Oxford, the reforms enacted to rein in the king’s personal rule. By the end of 1263 Henry had recovered most of his power, forcing his opponents, led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, to agree to arbitration by the king’s other brother-in-law and fellow monarch, Louis IX of France. With supreme imprudence, Louis completely nullified the Provisions of Oxford, resulting in civil war and the two sides facing off at Lewes.

    Henry was winning the war and might have won at Lewes had his son, the future Edward I, not led his division off the battlefield on a murderous joyride. To coax Henry and his son into surrendering, Montfort agreed that the Provisions could be revisited and adjusted under arbitration with French participation. A letter was sent in Henry’s name to Louis shortly after the battle to initiate this new discussion so that a final form of government might be instituted for the realm. The Ordinance, which was essentially the Provisions in stricter form, was to suffice in the meantime.

    Louis never did answer, nor would he, for his pride would be severely affected if he admitted the foolishness of his previous decision. By August 1264, the Montfortians had had enough and sent Louis their own final plan, called the Peace of Canterbury. It was the Ordinance all over again, with one caveat: that this form of government was to survive the king into the next reign. Edward, whether he liked it or not, and all his actions since deserting the reform movement suggested he wouldn’t, would also have to govern under constitutional controls.

    What is truly amazing about the Ordinance of 1264 is not that it had the approval of the king. Henry had also approved the Provisions, but had got the pope to absolve him of his oath to observe them. Rather, it confirmed that England would henceforth be a parliamentary state. That process had begun earlier with the provision that called for the king to summon Parliament three times a year at regular intervals, thereby infringing on royal prerogative to summon it at will. When Henry set out to undermine reforms, it was precisely this provision that he took aim at first. It was that conflict in the winter/spring of 1260 that split the realm into two camps, those for Henry and those for Simon.

    Ordinance - Microsoft Word - English medieval parliament picPreviously, the main function of Parliament had been to discuss petitions and taxation. With the onset of the reform movement, it also began to legislate, not just rules for the king, but for the barons themselves, all bearing in mind that England was a “community of the realm”, meaning all the people and not just the elites. For the Parliament of June 1264, the counties were invited to send four elected representatives to approve, alongside the magnates and clergy, this new constitution. From that moment forward, Parliament would be a national assembly with the power to decide matters of state, including deposing the king if necessary.

    Why Simon de Montfort is better remembered for his next Parliament, where the towns were first invited to send representatives, and not this groundbreaking assembly, has to do with the man himself. He has been accused both in his day and ours of never intending to fulfill the terms of Henry’s surrender at Lewes. He merely agreed to them to get the king to come out alive, and once he had him, he was content to rule the realm in his name.

    For sure, he was one of the three electors and certainly dominated the government, but he had a wide range of support from the clergy, nobility, knights, freemen and peasants. His willingness, moreover, to compromise on the Provisions offered Henry a face-saving measure. Throughout his reign, the king had always despaired for his dignity, now Simon was offering as much as he could give him in defeat. Historians have often overlooked this fact, preferring to see Simon as uncompromising and Henry as weak, despite knowing that it was Edward who lost the battle, and that these two men, in-laws who had once enjoyed a deep friendship, personally meant the other well in spite of their troubles.

    The demand that the French arbitrate also suspiciously looks like Montfort knowing that nothing would come of the treaty terms. He knew Louis well enough to know he would never put peace before pride. Indeed, when the French king received the Peace of Canterbury, he famously reported he would rather toil in the fields than rule as a king under such conditions. And yet Montfort needed outside legitimacy for his regime, and his standing with leading French nobles and clergymen offered the only chance of getting Louis to act.

    Ordinance - Microsoft Word - Henry meeting Louis in France picIt was all over in a little more than a year. Edward escaped from custody, raised an army, and butchered Montfort’s men at Evesham in August 1265. The Ordinance and all acts passed under it were repealed, the estates of the Montfortians were seized, and England was gripped by disorder over the next two years. But there was no turning back. When Henry and Edward tried to secure a crusade tax, it would take at least eight parliaments before they finally got approval. And of course, the next civil war between king and parliament saw the monarchy abolished completely, if temporarily.

    So why then isn’t the Ordinance of 1264, and by its origins the Provisions of Oxford, remembered with the same veneration as Magna Carta? For the same reason the Declaration gets all the glory in America and not the Constitution. The enshrinement of rights is always the first step towards installing the machinery of government. That makes it more glamorous, less technical, an easier sell in any age. Magna Carta had been on the books throughout Henry’s reign and he confirmed it several times even while violating its principles. Louis understood how deeply entrenched this charter of liberties was in the political landscape of England, and so he made sure to announce that his nullification of the Provisions had nothing to do with Magna Carta. You can have your rights, he told the English people, but not your government.

    Ordinance - 9781445645742

    Darren Baker's new book is available for purchase now.

  • Cranborne Chase – A Secret Landscape by Roger Lane

    Cranborne Chase – A Secret Landscape is published this month (June 2015) providing me with the end result of many years of deliberation and two years of research, writing and photography. Most pleasing however, is the coincidental launch of the book with two important events embracing Cranborne Chase in relation to its history and landscape.

    The historical element concerns the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on 15th June 1215 and Cranborne Chase was of course a much favoured hunting ground of his. The city of Salisbury residing on the edge of the Chase is home to the best preserved original copy of the Magna Carta and is the only place in the world where an original can be viewed in a true 13th century setting.

    As important as the Magna Carta is, I have to unashamedly admit to feeling more closely associated with the landscape event, and the launch of my book, sharing the 175th birthday to the month of undoubtedly Dorset’s most acclaimed landscape writer, Thomas Hardy. Hardy used Cranborne Chase in his novels and his poetry most notably in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

    Being first and foremost a photographer, over the years I have been given the opportunity by various editors to accompany my images with words. In this respect I can also regard myself as a writer, although not under any stretch of the imagination a ‘Thomas Hardy’. The only commonality between us is the visualisation and description of the Dorset landscape.

    Thomas Hardy was both a landscape novelist and poet who managed to portray a certain atmosphere of the landscape into his work, providing a backdrop for his character’s lives and frequent tragedies. Had he been a photographer he would no doubt have produced images of the natural world in an equally subtle mood with the use of light reflecting the landscape in his story with much effect.

    Cranborne Chase - Microsoft Word - Document1With Cranborne Chase being featured in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which although set predominantly in the eastern end of Blackmore Vale around the village of Marnhull (Hardy’s Marlot) the story takes the reader into the Chase at Cranborne or the village of Chaseborough in Hardy’s novels. Here, the heroine danced in a barn at Chaseborough near the Flower-de-Luce Inn, seemingly one of the out-buildings of the Fleur de Lys Inn (Now the Inn on the Chase), before returning back across the hills to Trantridge (Pentridge). Cranborne Chase was in fact the scene of the seduction of Tess by Alec d’Urberville.

    The Chase has always had the character of a remote landscape, perhaps something of a forest wilderness with a dark reputation. By the early 19th century it became a notorious region for smugglers and poachers. Even the local squires dressed in their quilted coats and beehive helmets would steal deer and attack the gamekeepers merely as a blood sport. The forest was not brought under control until the 1830s when areas were deforested and the landscape opened up thus reducing the opportunity to hide within the dark forests of the Chase

    Cranborne Chase - Microsoft Word - Document1Today the forest areas are crisscrossed with open rides and footpaths with the rolling chalk downlands along the Wiltshire/Dorset border sculptured clear of the tree-line. The Chase now offers a far less foreboding environment to walkers who now frequent the region in search of the pathways used by our distant ancestors who travelled across the downs on trackways made by feet and hooves over many years of history. The Ox Drove, one of the oldest, traces an ancient route over the Downs, high above the woodland escarpment of Cranborne Chase.

    By the beech clump on Win Green, the very roof of Wiltshire, the traveller can take in a magnificent view from the distant blue of the Isle of Wight in the south-east to the Quantock Hills in the north-west.

    Cranborne Chase - Microsoft Word - Document1The chase has many faces, upland, downland, woodland and open fields; windswept open pastures and sheltered valleys. Despite years of transition by nature, here you can still find the nooks, crannies and wide open spaces moulded by history, agriculture and the landscapes that have inspired writers such as Hardy.

    I have read many of Hardy’s novels and have always been intrigued by his descriptions of the Dorset landscape, agriculture and of the country folk in his stories and settings. This may of course be due in some way to a link with my own childhood. I remember my great grandfather and great grandmother from the village of Durweston near Blandford Forum, where I spent many childhood summers harvesting on the hill, appearing like characters from a Hardy novel. Their names were Silas and Jane and Silas in particular was a strong man with whiskery sideburns but a gentle nature who all horses and sheep seemed to understand and obey. My grandfather also had a wonderful way with working horses and his brother was also a shepherd on the hills above Durweston. The characters I remember from those glorious ‘horse and cart’ summer days were certainly Hardy characters and later when reading his novels their faces would come back to me time and again.

    Thomas Hardy is perhaps the greatest writer of rural life and landscape and as we celebrate his 175th year it is no wonder that his words and indeed the landscape he has reflected should have stood such a test of time. As a photographer in the modern digital age I can’t help but wonder where my work might be in 175 years.

    Cranborne Chase - 9781445649849

    Cranborne Chase - A Secret Landscape by Roger Lane is available for purchase now.

  • Agincourt - June 1415: England prepares for war by W.B. Bartlett

    The plans were all in place, the invasion army was assembling, the ports of southern England were full of ships and sailors. Vast amounts of supplies had been collected, as the fleet looked south across the English Channel towards the beaches of Normandy. Everyone hoped that the June weather would hold, allowing the armada to make it safely across to France. Things were not so different in 1415 than they were in 1944.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2There had been various diplomatic missions to and fro for several years ever since the young, untried Henry V became king. He was determined from the start of his reign to stake a claim to France but the French ruler, Charles VI, had unsurprisingly rejected any such suggestions. Now the time for talking was over, or so Henry thought. Everything was ready until at the last moment there was an unwelcome complication.

    Towards the end of June a peace delegation from France arrived. They chased after Henry, who had already moved off to Winchester on his way to captain the invasion army. The French delegation caught him up and for a few days desultory negotiations took place. These were in all likelihood just an attempt to buy time by the French and Henry had no interest in further delay. His large army, some 11,000 men strong, had not come cheap; this was an army that was recruited, not conscripted. Delay could lead to desertion by the men and the chance to invade might never come again. The discussions got nowhere as they were doomed to do from the start.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2


    This was the scene in England in June 1415, 600 years ago. Men-at-arms and archers had been recruited from across England and Wales and there were some Europeans there too from the English-held land of Gascony and expert gunners from Germany. Ships had been impressed in their hundreds. The Hundred Years War as it later became known had been essentially dormant for decades with just the occasional flare-up in between. Now Henry was ready to renew the conflict and England prepared for a decisive confrontation with the armies of France. The journey to Agincourt had begun.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    Agincourt: Henry V, the Man at Arms & the Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Waterloo Anniversary by Martyn Beardsley

    Exactly two hundred years ago today, at the time I'm writing this - early on the morning of the 18th June - two armies just a few hundred yards apart were making the final preparations for a battle for the future of Europe. Weapons were cleaned, ammunition was checked, and horses were saddled and fed. British soldiers, stiff and sore from the overnight rain, their wet uniforms steaming in the morning sun, gazed anxiously at the glinting armour of the distant French cuirassiers as they galloped to their positions.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1The research for my book on Waterloo was a fascinating experience. To be able to 'see' the battle through the eyes of those who took part made it a much more personal thing than merely reading about military tactics and manoeuvres. In some cases, especially of the ordinary foot soldier like Gunner Edwards (I have the onner of waren a blue and red ribbon as a marke of that day…) I was drawn into the lives of those involved, and it felt like discovering long-lost letters from distant relatives.

    Certain things stood out, and one was the courage of the rank-and-file men like Gunner Edwards. It goes without saying that you need to be brave to fight in a battle, but the way of fighting in 1815 was completely unlike anything in modern warfare. In modern times, the fancy parades might look impressive but can also seem somehow pointless. But the way in which all that marching up and down and manoeuvring has its roots in the kind of fighting that took place at Waterloo became clearer to me as I read the stories.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1Soldiers had to be able to obey an instant command to form a line or a square, to face a particular direction, to keep formation with colleagues without leaving gaps, and to respond instantly to any change in formation or direction deemed necessary in response to the movements of the enemy.

    If the enemy infantry advanced, you would be ordered to form a line in order to bring maximum firepower to bear. The attack might seem overwhelming and there would be a temptation to retreat – but if you did you were lost. This is what happened many times when armies faced Napoleon and his feared armies, and it was the bravery and discipline of Wellington's men that saved them from being routed on many occasions as their comrades fell around them and their ranks were thinned out.

    Then if the cavalry attacked, upon a command you would be ordered to abandon your lines and form a square. It was said that a determined infantry square could withstand any cavalry charge as long as it stood firm, and so it proved at Waterloo. These squares had a 'hollow' centre where among others artillerymen who had to abandon their guns could take refuge till the storm had subsided. Again, perfect formation and discipline was paramount. Any wavering and the square would be overwhelmed, with men being cut down by the cuirassiers and their slashing swords.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1There is always a big debate whenever Waterloo is mentioned about whether Wellington would have lost if Blucher hadn't arrived. Only the other day I overheard someone declare, 'Of course, without Blucher we would have lost'. I think there is a peculiarly British attitude, whether it's to do with war, sport or whatever, along the lines of 'Well, we're really not very good and all of our victories were either lucky or tainted…'

    I stand to be corrected by people who know more about military history than I do, but to me, much of the 'Prussia saved us at Waterloo' debate is spurious. For one thing, Wellington without the Prussians was outnumbered yet still held his ground for the whole day despite attack after ferocious and increasingly desperate attacks by an army that was used to demoralising its opponents. My impression, based on the accounts of those who took part is that a stalemate was the worst that would have happened as darkness came on.


    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    But people seem to forget that the Prussians were part of the plan - they were supposed to be there! It wasn't as if they wandered along unexpectedly or had to be sent for as a desperate afterthought. It was always the arrangement that they would join up with Wellington, and in fact it would have happened earlier had not Napoleon worked so hard to keep the two allies apart. It's almost certainly true that their arrival allowed Wellington to finally, after having fought a brilliant defensive battle all day, launch a decisive counter-attack, but it's wrong to think of it as some sort of outsider coming along to dig the British out of a hole.



    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    Be that as it may, my thoughts today will be with the ordinary British soldier who stood and faced up to the onslaught, and with the many who fell. For me there couldn't be a better tribute than the British Waterloo Monument in Evere. It features Britannia and three lions surrounding a tomb of fallen British officers, but far from being a triumphal monument, when you study it closer it is actually very poignant – because this was a battle won at enormous cost. Britannia looks distraught, and her helmet and trident are lowered. There is a disorderly pile of weapons, looking almost as if they were abandoned in death. And the lions aren't the proud, roaring beasts we are so used to seeing. They lie like spent, shattered soldiers – in fact one seems to be licking its wounds. But still in their pain and exhaustion they remain there, watching over the fallen. The monument is not so much about victory, but about the price to be paid for victory.


    Waterloo - 9781445619828

    Waterloo Voices 1815 by Martyn Beardsley is available for purchase now.

  • What Did Cambronne Say at Waterloo? by Mark Simner

    There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815. Indeed, a number of books have been written that solely focus on these fascinating, yet sometimes frustrating, aspects of the Hundred Days campaign. Some of these myths have since been proved false or otherwise finally laid to rest, but many persist, with military history experts still no nearer to the truth than at any time in the past 200 years. One, which continues to be debated by professional and amateur historians alike, is the alleged words of Pierre Cambronne during the final stages of the battle. But who was Cambronne and what did or didn’t he say at Waterloo?

    Waterloo - CambronneBorn in 1770 at Nantes, France, Cambronne enlisted into the French army in 1791 shortly before the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition. He would rise rapidly through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1893, and took part in the campaigns in the Vendée, the Rhine and in Switzerland. More promotions would follow, including chef de batallion in 1805, and he was present at the battles of Austerlitz and Jena before being sent to Spain. However, he was recalled to France in order to assist with the enlargement of the Garde Impériale, later participating in the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram before returning to the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps luckily, he did not take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia in 1812, but he did play an important part in the rebuilding of the French army the following year. After the Battle of Hanau, fought in October 1813, he was again promoted, to général de brigade, and placed in command of the 1st Chasseurs of the Old Guard. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, he faithfully accompanied his emperor in his exile to the island of Elba as head of the Guard Grenadiers.

    With Napoleon’s subsequent escape from exile and return to France in early 1815, Cambronne was again offered promotion, but this time he refused the honour, insisting that he would stay with his men. However, he would, as colonel-major, take command of the two battalions of the 1st Chasseurs during the Hundred Days campaign, seeing action at both Ligny and Waterloo. Thus, the somewhat incredible and long military career of Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne was about to reach its climatic end and become firmly entwined with the Waterloo legend.

    Waterloo - Garde ImperialeThere is little room within this brief article to offer any detailed description of the advance of the Garde Impériale late in the Battle of Waterloo. Countless books have already dealt with the subject and many different interpretations of the assault exist. Suffice to say, the attack was repulsed by Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army and Napoleon’s last throw of the dice ultimately failed. However, it was following the repulse of the Guard that Cambronne was later alleged to have said, when invited to surrender, ‘la Garde meurt mais ne se rends pas!’, which translates into English as ‘the Guard dies but does not surrender!’ Other eyewitnesses claimed that he simply said ‘Merde!’, meaning ‘Shit!’. Both, particularly the former, quickly became one of the Waterloo myths that were readily believed by so many in the years following the battle. However, these words were later denied by Cambronne himself who, according to the French historian Henry Houssaye, stated ‘I did not say what is attributed to me, I replied with something else.’

    Following such a denial, it, therefore, might seem odd why the myth of what Cambronne said during his capture at Waterloo persisted for so long. However, looking back from the distance of 200 years, we should remember that Waterloo was an embarrassing defeat for France, and nothing short of a humiliation for the men of Napoleon’s elite Old Guard to be taken prisoner in battle. To counter this, what followed was an attempt by some to portray the defeat in a glorious light, or as an act of courageous defiance in the face of the enemy. Houssaye himself believed the whole thing was made up by a French journalist who worked for the Journal général de France. To further muddy the waters, those, on the Anglo-Allied side, who did witness the capture of Cambronne and his Old Guard comrades do not always agree on the details, some accounts even proving to be completely unreliable. All of which acted to merely perpetuate the myth.

    Whatever the actual circumstances of Cambronne’s capture, we do know he suffered a serious head wound at Waterloo and was later attended to by a British doctor. Following the battle, he was taken to England but longed to return to France, which he did in late 1815, where he was arrested on allegations of treason. Later cleared of the charges, Cambronne would resume his military duties for a short period before retiring and spending the last two decades of his life helping veterans of the Garde Impériale. On 29 January 1842, aged 71, Cambronne died, and, in 1848, a statue of him was erected in his honour in his home city of Nantes, where it still stands today.

    Waterloo - 9781445646664

    An Illustrated Introduction to The Battle of Waterloo by Mark Simner is available for purchase now.

  • The Suffrage movement in WWI by Mavis Curtis

    When I started writing my book about the Women’s Institute I did a lot of reading about the suffrage movement. I was surprised to find that many of the women who had been active suffragists, such as Grace Hadow, were among the first people to set up and run branches of the WI. Generally speaking, they were suffragists, not suffragettes; suffragettes being the ones who bolted themselves to railings and set fire to buildings. The suffragists thought reasoned argument would get them further.

    What surprised me even more when I read about the suffragists was that they played a very important part in the First World War, not as soldiers but as doctors, ambulance drivers, organisers of canteens for soldiers and settlements of refugees, as well as the more usual nursing orderlies and VADs. They didn’t just travel to the Western Front in Belgium and northern France. They undertook long and arduous journeys to Salonika, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Because they couldn’t get to Eastern Europe through Germany, they sometimes sailed from Liverpool, travelling across the North Sea and approached Russia via Sweden and the Baltic. They would then either stay in Russia and Poland, or travel south through Russia to Odessa on the Black Sea, from where they could sail to Salonika in Northern Greece, and thence to Serbia. Sometimes they went to France, travelling down to Marseilles from where they could get a boat to Salonika or one of the refugee settlements and hospitals in the Mediterranean.

    Suffrage - Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon

    That is what Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon did. They first met on the boat taking them from Marseilles to Salonika, and stayed together for the rest of their lives. They wanted to nurse in the typhus epidemic that was sweeping Serbia at the time. Typhus is spread by bed bugs and body lice, and though the epidemic was on the wane by the time they got there, there was no shortage of lice. Elsie records that visitors were not allowed in the wards unless children were very ill, because ‘we already had more lice than we needed.’ One child with diphtheria was admitted, not crawling with lice, because, as Elsie said, there was no room for them to crawl. They made a neat grey lining to her vest.

    The two girls were captured by the Austrians who overran Serbia but were repatriated through the Red Cross. They returned to England for a short rest, but then trained as ambulance drivers. They were given a short course of instruction in London on how to drive the heavy Ford trucks and returned to Salonika.

    Suffrage - Suffragists in WWI. Suffragists in WWI.

    By this time the Austrians were retreating before the Serbian army and Katherine and Elsie were following behind the troops, collecting the wounded and taking them back to hospital. Windscreens were taken out of the ambulances, as were the side curtains, because of the danger from splintered glass, so the driver was exposed to rain and snow alike and could consequently get very wet. ‘The easiest way to dry out is to go to bed in your wet clothes and let them dry overnight,’ wrote Elsie.

    The land was mountainous so the drivers drove everywhere in low gear and Elsie had to fill up the radiator at every opportunity because her vehicle boiled fiercely. They only had two stretchers in the ambulance and any journey back from the front line took a long time so moving the wounded was necessarily long and drawn out. After one battle they could fit in only three journeys as the return journey, though only sixteen miles, took four hours. It was a dreadful road, not made easier by the fact that while most of the traffic was going forward, the ambulances were going in the opposite direction. The Serbs said the road was part of the Via Ignacia which had connected the Roman Empire with that of Byzantium. It still had its original stones, but was very steep and narrow and the drivers of the ox carts were in the habit of levering a stone out of the surface to stop the cart slipping when they had to stop to rest their animals. Unfortunately they didn’t put them back when they moved on.

    Suffrage - Ambulance during wartime. Ambulance during wartime.

    At the end of the war the ambulance crews and nursing personnel were paraded in Belgrade and given the Officer’s Gold medal for Zealous Service. Katherine, as organiser of the ambulance service was awarded the Order of St Sava. Elsie wryly notes that the four Serb mechanics who had worked so hard and shared their hardships and triumphs were not even allowed in to the cathedral to the service.

    The two women returned to Oxfordshire, to Katherine’s home village of Spilbury, joined the WI and lived there for the rest of their lives, though they did from time to time have trips abroad in their motor car.




    Suffrage - The WI: A Centenary History

    Mavis's book The WI: A Centenary History is available now.

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