Why do I write about wars?

Some readers of this blog will perhaps be mystified that someone who describes himself as a ‘socialist’ and a ‘humanist’ should have spent so much time researching and writing about war. The answer is simple – I start from family history: yours, mine, everyone’s. That means engaging with the real lives and experiences of (largely) working-class people and their labouring poor forebears. It is a sad fact from the past that it is just such people who most consistently provide the cannon fodder and, increasingly in our supposedly civilised modern times, the civilian targets and victims.

The civilian victims never have the chance to volunteer, though sometimes the soldiers, sailors and airmen have done. One of my maternal ancestors, William Martin, was a regular in the Royal Marines during the Napoleonic Wars and for some time afterwards. My grandfather’s step-father, John McGlasson, joined the Border Regiment as a young man and served in Ireland, India and Burma in the 1880s. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, volunteered on 31 August 1914 and lost his life on 27 March 1918. His widow’s second husband, John Neary, also served voluntarily in WW1. My father, Ray Bashforth, and all his brothers were called up for WW2, though my uncle, Tom Bashforth, was already a seaman in the Royal Navy and Dad was in the Territorial Army (as was my mother’s first husband, Joe Hinnigan). My half brother served in the Air Force after being made redundant when he finished his apprenticeship as an electrician. One of my nephews had a career in the Royal Navy. It is a fairly common pattern of working-class life, so I write about it from that point of view in a relatively matter-of-fact, non-judgemental way, avoiding arcane discussions about military tactics, strategy, weaponry and international diplomacy or the lack thereof.

Personally I believe that the loss of one working-class life in any way, anywhere, for any purpose is a total waste – I’m with the late WW1 veteran, Harry Patch, on that. I can just about stomach some occasions when armed resistance is the only possible response: for example, the resistance to the military uprising in Spain in 1936 that sparked the Spanish Civil War, so I am not an absolute pacifist. I also understand to a degree why young men volunteered in 1914, much more so why there was little problem in 1939 for those wanting to oppose what was presented as a fight against fascism, and even why young men and women continue to sign up for the armed forces today. Politically I couldn’t willingly follow their example and definitely not for anything approaching ‘patriotic’ motives. That does not stop me grieving for those who continue to lose their lives and for the horrors perpetrated on, for example, the victims of gas attacks in Syria or drone attacks in the mountains of Afganistan and Pakistan. Rather, it underpins that grief and links to my own.

As someone who would wish for a very different world from the one that we live in, I want change and I want that change to come about by peaceful, non-violent means, through people becoming convinced in their minds and hearts that a better world is possible and having the confidence to strike out for it.

However, as a historian, I write about the past, not the future, though I do so conscious of the world we live in now and the world I would prefer. Don’t expect me to be ‘objective’! And that applies equally to the pursuit of other areas of historical enquiry than wars, on which I actually spend most of my time.

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An event of extraordinary humanity

Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the most astonishing acts of collective humanity within living memory. Let us pay tribute to the thousands of Italian families who risked their lives and their homes to help escaped Allied prisoners during WW2.

Seventy years ago today, on 8 September 1943, news broke in the prisoner of war camps in Italy that the Italian Government had signed an armistice with the Allies and quit the war. At PG78, a POW camp at Fonte d’Amore, just outside the historic town of Sulmona (the birthplace of the Roman classical poet Ovid), Signalman 2570838 Ray Bashforth was reading aloud the camp news bulletin in the hut. In burst his friend Signalman 2329799 Finlay Donald Martin shouting the news of the armistice at the top of his voice.

There was widespread jubilation, mixed with confusion, to be quickly followed by consternation. Next morning the senior officer, a South African, Major Cochran, assembled the men on parade. He announced that they were not to leave the camp and that they would shortly be provided with arms and be fighting alongside the Italian army.

The men knew better than that from the news they had been getting via a secret radio. It was plainly obvious that the Italian army had ceased to exist – the guards had all disappeared. The Allied forces were hundreds of miles away to the south, bogged down at Monte Cassino and the whole of north and central Italy was awash with German army units.

Next day, 10 September, groups of men began to scatter away into the hills, disobeying orders but acting rationally, fully expecting the arrival of German units any day. (They in fact arrived within two days.) Among the escapers were Ray and Finlay, accompanied by Flight Sergeant Ian MacDonald. It was a daunting prospect. The camp was in bleak, stony countryside, overlooked by precipitous mountains. But the men quickly found tracks that led up through olive groves and into the scrubby, wooded slopes.

They wandered around, climbing ever higher, for several days. At one point they came across a group of men in charge of a rather authoritarian Sergeant, busy butchering a sheep they had caught and killed. They had no intention of being bossed around and the three men quickly moved onwards and upwards.

Eventually they came out onto an alpine meadow, the San Leonardo Pass, where the going was easier. But which way should they go? There was a road of sorts that could clearly be used by German troops. They were tired, hungry and becoming desperate. In the fields near Rocca Caramanico, they could see several Italian peasants at work. Keeping to the scrubby shrubbery, they moved closer and began to shake the bushes to attract attention.

Among the peasants were Rafaelle de Chellis (who had relatives in the USA) and Gaetano Avolio (who had spent time in the USA and spoke some English). They told the men to stay put out of sight until later in the day. As dusk began to fall, the peasants guided the men down narrow tracks, well away from any possibility of encountering German patrols. Down in the village of Pacentro, the men were hidden in the houses, joining scores of others in the same circumstances.

On this 70th anniversary, it is a good time to remember the courage and humanity of these Italian families who, in their hundreds and thousands, opened up their homes to feed and care for escaped prisoners. It was an absolutely extraordinary act, for many that were discovered doing this were shot and their homes destroyed. In the village of Pacentro, several families like the Avolios, hid the men at night, guided them up into caves to hide during the day, entertained them, fed them and, eventually, showed them the way to safety and the advancing Allied lines.

At the end of the war some were officially remembered with cheaply printed certificates and a pitifully small cash handout. The families of those who escaped back to their home countries maintained a debt of gratitude over succeeding generations. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was little that many could do to show their gratitude, life being hard and everything in the UK being severely rationed.

Ray Bashforth returned safely home and became my father, and he never forgot the Avolio family. After his death in 2001, I traced them to their new homes in Welland, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York. I visited and stayed with them in the ‘safe house’ in Pacentro and met others like Rafaelle de Chellis who remembered those times. The same spirit of extraordinary hospitality and generosity was evident there today.

So – a tribute to the Italian people who did so much, and especially to Gaetano Avolio, his wife Carolina and their children in Italy at the time: Maria, Enrichetta, Giovanni and Enerina. Mille grazie!