Pet Massacre or Mercy Killing?

A neglected element of ‘history from below’ concerns people’s relations with animals and vice versa. For a disturbing and unusual insight into an incident, or series of the same, illustrating human-animal interactions, the most recent book by Hilda Kean, covers the killing of thousands of pets at the start of WW 2 in the UK. Called ‘The Great Cat and Dog Massacre’ it is just published by the University of Chicago Press. Details can be found here:

Film buffs may remember Glorious 39, starring Romola Garai as a young actress called Anne Keyes, and directed by Steven Poliakoff, which contains a scene where she stumbles upon one of these processes of pet killing under way. While not the main concern of the film, it hints at how the events are remembered more by a deliberate attempt to hide and forget. Not surprising as the events sit uncomfortably next to the myth of Britain as a nation of animal lovers. I look forward to reading how Hilda Kean deals with all the ambiguities and conflicts that will have been involved.


A Year of Anniversaries

Every year is a year of anniversaries and it is the mainstay of the heritage industry and easy journalism to commemorate them. More importantly, for the family historian it is where personal history and public history often intersect to remind us that we are participants not mere spectators. Examples can run from the distant past to our own modern lives.

150 years ago, on 12-13 December 1866, there was a series of explosions in the underground workings of the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley which took the lives of over 360 men and boys, including rescue workers. None of those involved was a Bashforth, but the events still intersected with our family. Bridget MacDonald (née Drudy), of Irish extraction, was the wife of Patrick (aka Peter) MacDonald and had a young son called John. Patrick and his brother Michael, also Irish, were killed in the explosion, leaving Bridget destitute – among many other widows from the disaster. How she managed in the years afterwards, who knows, but in 1869 she married my three-times great grandfather Thomas, who was a widower with two young boys, and they went on to have four more children.

Of course, 2016 has been the latest of a series of centennial commemorations of the Somme Battles of 1916. Three bearers of the Bashforth name fell that year. Private Willie Bashforth from Conisbrough, serving in the 12 West Yorkshire Regiment at Ypres, died of wounds on 27 March 1916 and is buried at Lijssenthoek in Belgium. Private Arthur Bashforth of 1/5 KOYLI died in an attack on the Leipzig Salient on 23 July 1916. 2nd Lieutenant John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth died in a futile attack on the Quadrilateral on 15 September when one of the first tanks to be used failed in front of the 9 Norfolk Regiment, leaving them exposed behind uncut barbed wire. Both the latter are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Memorable event followed in the 20th century. 1926 saw the General Strike from 4-13 May. On 4 October 1936, there was the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End and the Spanish Civil War was in full swing. In 1946, Winston Churchill made his speech about the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the Cold War was essentially launched. All apart from the last of these were before my time but have had echoes for me down the years of my own development, impinging on my consciousness.

On a more personal note, October 1956 made an impact on me because of the Hungarian Uprising, ruthlessly suppressed with Russian tanks in the November, alongside the Suez Canal invasion by French and British troops, and a growing awareness as I entered my teenage years of the dangers of nuclear warfare. While too young to do much about any of them, these were the seeds of future development. In 1966 Harold Wilson was re-elected with a massive majority for a Labour Government akin to the landslide of 1945, only to sell out any mandate to the IMF, whack up interest rates just as my parents bought their first house after years of scrimping and saving, since when I have never trusted the Labour Party as representatives of the interests of the working-classes. The same year I was confirmed in my opinion of both the Labour Party and the heavily bureaucratic nationalised industries by the events at Aberfan and the skinflint treatment of the local community that followed that tragedy.

As I wonder about 2016 and how it will be commemorated in the future, I recall the 40th anniversary of the death of topical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs on 9 April 1976. Check out his version of ‘When I’m Gone’ on YouTube – much more nuanced than cover versions I have heard. It is worth looking at these commemorations for signs of hope such as this and to restore faith and courage for the future. Goodbye 2016.

History is Personal 1916-2016

History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.

I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.

The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.

Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.

There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.


Do Museums Have Value?

Apparently not much! In recent weeks I have heard of the closure of at least two museums in the north-east of England with which I have had connections.

The DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will be closing in April, despite a campaign to keep it open. The museum is the depository for huge numbers of artefacts connected with the history of the Durham Light Infantry and its forebears. The regiment has close connections with all communities across the north-east and it is ironic that it should be closing in the middle of centenary commemorations for the First World War and the 70th anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Many local families, including my own, have gifted personal items into their collection. It is proposed to put the collection into permanent storage, though apparently this will be in a disused former tobacco factory on a short lease and with presumably dubious atmospheric conditions for conservation purposes. The museum was housed in a modern building in extensive parkland that was used recreationally by local people, including events at the museum such as those for fathers and children on a Saturday morning. It is proposed to sell the land for redevelopment, so there will be no turning back at a later date in better times.

The facilities at Bede’s World in Jarrow were closed at short notice in February. The site has national and global significance, as this is where the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People during the early 700s. He was locally born and is nationally and internationally renowned. Until recently Bede’s World was directed by Mike Benson, assisted by Kathy Cremin and a host of enthusiastic volunteers, young apprentices, former offenders and local people. It was buzzing with social and cultural significance, the second place that Mike and Kathy have enthused with their particular vision for heritage. Sadly, the Charitable Trust was not up the task and went into liquidation and all this hard work, hope and energy has been wasted by men in suits. Mike has gone on to the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire (I wonder how much longer that will survive in the current climate, since it is quite remote) while Kathy has left the museum sector.

In recent decades, £millions have been poured into the heritage sector only for recent austerity measures and economic downturn to render the survival of the institutions in doubt. Not even major national museums are exempt. The National Railway Museum took millions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national funding bodies to open up its library and archives seven days a week, all year round in a new facility called Search Engine. That vision survived only a few years before staff cuts were made and opening hours shredded. The same sad story is affecting museums, archives and libraries across the country – though there will always be a hand in the till for London and the facilities for the élite few.

And why? In the last analysis it is to prop up the bankers and their culture of high salaries and bonuses for failure. Usually this is couched by the politicians in terms of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Where is the responsibility in trashing the country’s social and cultural heritage in this way? Where is the responsibility in trashing facilities for the disadvantaged, the sick and the poor?

The Big Question is ‘Where the hell is the opposition?’ Why is the population of this country just accepting of this? Where is the clarion call from the so-called anti-austerity ‘Hard Left’ Labour Party leadership? It would seem they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Short answer: sorry, Britain, you get exactly what you deserve. If you sit on your hands – this is what you get and what you, by default, have asked for.

I was recently involved in an AHRC funded project asking the question: who makes heritage decisions? Not the ordinary people, that’s for sure. That was the doubt I began with and the one I still end with.

1914-18 and all that (1)

Sooner or later some voice from the narrowly nationalist right wing of British politics was going to break cover on the debate as to how we should commemorate the First World War and play the ‘Patriot Game’. There is an Orwellian logic that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, should be the one to parade his personal ignorance. In the process he has kicked off what has been described in some quarters as ‘the history wars’. I doubt this will be the ‘war to end all wars’, any more than was the subject of his infantile broadside – just the latest of his attempts to impose on schools his bigoted version of British history.

In promoting a narrowly ‘patriotic’ approach to the commemorations, he has totally missed the point. For most people it is not about which individual party was to blame, nor about which side won (if anyone did), nor even about the conduct of the war at either a political or military level. For most people who have any interest at all, it is because they have a relative who died or was severely traumatised by the war and their families, over several generations, have had to deal with the emotional and psychological fall-out. Gove’s comments are an insult in that context and lack any sound intellectual foundation.

Firstly, the 1914-18 War was the first global conflict of the 20th century. Thinking about it from a purely British standpoint is rubbish. The experiences and consequences profoundly impacted on millions of people across the globe. The consequences still impact on us to this day – in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and the Caucasus (to name a few).

Secondly, the war itself arose out of conflicts that had gone on before in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. It was about the imperial territorial expansionist ambitions of Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, Russia and the USA (among others). Britain, having got in early on that particular act, was largely on the defensive, trying to keep control over its fractious overseas dominions, especially close to home in Ireland. They made sure they got in on the post-war land grab.

Thirdly, despite the rhetoric, it had nothing to do with the rights of small nations – something that was opposed and contradicted by all the imperial powers, including the USA seeking their own spheres of global influence. Serbia had ambitions of expansion in the Balkans at the expense of the Austrian Empire and its own neighbours. ‘Plucky little Belgium’ had its own, particularly bloody colonies, in central Africa.

Fourthly, and most definitely, it was not a war for liberal democracy – there were none at the time. Only Germany had anything like universal suffrage in 1914 and that did not extend to women at all. Voting in the UK was restricted by property qualifications and the years before the war had seen cruel and despotic suppression of the women’s suffrage campaign. The USA came late into the war, once it could decide which side represented the best opportunity to advance its own interests, and it too denied women the vote and happily bullied smaller nations – a practice that continues to this day.

Sadly, there will be others who choose to peddle Gove’s narrow viewpoint or something like it. Even worse will be those who (as during the War itself) see an opportunity to make a quick buck. This is already happening in Suffolk, where the appropriately named commercial enterprise, ‘Khaki Devils’, is peddling its wares round the county and anywhere else, and have successfully visited on one small village near Bury St Edmund’s a crass ‘First World War Experience’ where the punters can pay for the privilege of playing at soldiers in trenches and, no doubt, buy all the tacky souvenirs the firm can muster. It will of course be stripped of all such inconveniences as dysentery, scabies, lice, rats, and the constant hazard of gas attacks, trench raids and artillery barrages – and the inconvenience of having to stay in them for two weeks at a time in the same clothes without leave. Personally, I hope they do get one of the problems – a trench six feet deep in rain water and mud. It is an insult to people like my grandfather and local people who have supported this idea should be ashamed of themselves.

Much as I might have preferred something different, as someone who has written about the First World War, I guess this will only be the first of many such blogs over the coming years.

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.

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!