As the sun sets on Day Two of the Chalke Valley History Festival and festival goers head to the bars where the clink of glasses and rattling of ice can be heard above the chatter and laughter, it has been another fascinating day of living history and highly informative talks.
The day opened with a Second World War morning, the audience being appropriately entertained with period songs like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” before the arrival of the speakers.
James Holland introduced a veteran, General Stuart Watson, who had landed on Sword Beach in Normandy with the 13/18 Hussars on June 6th 1944. The General described his recruitment and early training in Scotland and East Anglia, his astonishment at the array and complexity of the weapons being prepared for D-Day, particularly the Duplex Drive tanks – “Who would ever have thought that a tank could swim?”.
He expressed his amazement that the Germans always believed that the invasion would be at the Pas de Calais, and that although 150,000 troops were amassed in the south of England and there were civilian witnesses to the weapons and the landing practices on various beaches, no word ever leaked out. On his part of the beach there were gun emplacements at either end – but, happily for his unit, without guns. The real struggle was to get off the beach through the minefields.
Eventually they crossed the Seine where they were greeted by cheering crowds. Yet the failure of Operation Market Garden was still to come and he was part of the troop withdrawal from Nimegen. Even once the Rhine was crossed the Allies continued to suffer from attacks by the retreating Germans. He remembered the relief and exhilaration, but also the exhaustion that he felt when Monty accepted the German surrender on 5th May 1945. It was a huge pleasure to listen to one of the diminishing band of those “who were there”, and the General was rightly given a huge round of applause.
Comedian Al Murray then took the stage with Waitman Wade Beorn and Alexandra Richie to talk about the Eastern Front. However, their subject matter was anything but comic. Beorn’s contention was that there was no increasing “barbarisation” of the Wehrmacht as the war progressed; on the contrary their orders were clear from the beginning that, in the East, this was a war of unrelenting massacre. The audience, clearly already knowledgeable, was appalled by the brutality described, perpetrated by the Wehrmacht, not just the SS.
Particularly shocking was the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Russian POWS, left to starve and die in their camps. They were never recognised by Stalin as worthy soldiers because they had “surrendered”. They still lie in mass graves, unknown and unacknowledged.
The Germans who massacred French civilians at Oradour sur Glane in 1944 had fought on the Eastern Front and brought the norms of behaviour from there with them. The speakers agreed that Western Front was a war quite distinct from the Eastern Front in its aims, and therefore the conduct of the German army fighting there. Somewhat subdued, the speakers and audience then moved outside for a talk and demonstration of the T34 and the Sherman tanks.
At Speakers Corner Andy Chatterton talked about the Auxiliary Units of the Second World War, sometimes known as Churchill's Secret Army, a sabotage organisation set up in 1940 in case of a Nazi invasion. It’s a little known story – how civilians were recruited to dig underground bases, slow the German advance with special weapons and explosives and send intelligence back to the British army.
It was a ruthless set-up in its conception – members of each unit were to be shot rather than fall into German hands, also civilians should they accidentally stumble upon the underground bunkers. Vicars, doctors and teenagers were trained to be spies should the Germans ever occupy their villages. The units were eventually disbanded - some men joining the SAS or SOE, and were finally stood down in November 1944 when the threat of invasion had totally receded. Sadly, they had no recognition, never being allowed to speak about their wartime roles, yet they had been prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Dan Snow was back in the afternoon with an audience re-enactment, this time it was the Battle of Agincourt. Always a great speaker, he led the troops through the battle and its background, with the use of longbows and some brilliant ham acting from the participants, particularly of their death scenes. There was a sharp intake of breath from the audience when he whispered that the French army was probably outnumbered by the English - a most unpopular opinion - don't take our victory from us! He courted further controversy by telling us how he had recently been 'cancelled' for saying that Henry VI was a useless muppet - a claim he repeated in his talk to much laughter.
In the tented talks, we heard veteran broadcaster James Naughtie talk about his latest book about America, how Trump was an inevitable consequence of the past 50 years of their political history, and how they are more divided now than they have been over the past five decades and the end of the Vietnam War. It was an enlightening talk from a journalist who knows so much about American politics and had some inside stories to share of his meetings with past presidents.
Although the schools festival isn't taking place due to current restrictions, there were small school groups exploring the site. Several tried their hand at Soldier School; learning how to stand to attention and how to use a bayonet under the tutelage of a fierce looking Drill Instructor. Others were learning about World War I on the Western Front manned by some enthusiastic and very realistic living historians, others were being given talks on Tudor remedies. It’s a pleasure to watch the children responding with eager “hands up” to the questions posed by the re-enactors – this is education through absorption and action rather than in a stuffy classroom.
As the evening drew in there was a fascinating talk in the outdoor IPGL stage by Laura Thompson, biographer of the Mitford sisters. Crowds gathered on wooden picnic benches with their food and drinks to listen to her very enthusiastic talk about this popular and iconic family. Her passion and knowledge of the subject shone through and having met two of the Mitford sisters in their later years, she did wonderful impressions of their cut-glass British accents.
Sitting outside to listen to her speak was lovely, and I hope that the festival continue with outdoor stages even once the current situation is over. The birds overhead making their final chorus of the day, watching the sun set behind the clouds, the wood smoke curling up from the green army tents in the valley, the colourful flags gently flapping in the breeze all enhance the whole experience.
As I left the festival, the evening visitors were arriving in their smart linen jackets and shawls, some were unpacking their wicker hampers of chilled wine, others sitting down for a meal in the dining tent, champagne corks were popping and the laughter was increasing in volume; a fun civilised evening is ahead for many.
I bumped into a friend at the festival today who was visiting for the first time.
"This is great, I could get addicted to this" he said.
We all do, Peter, we all do.