DUNKIRK: THE MEN THEY LEFT BEHIND by Sean Longden

Last July I found myself looking out from the white cliffs of Dover peering across the English Channel at France. After touring the tunnel caves carved out during Napoleon’s time and put to use by the British during World War II I began to wonder what it was like for the soldiers who were not rescued by the “mythical British flotilla” that saved so many at Dunkirk. While browsing in the main bookstore for the historical replication of the tunnel caves I came across Sean Longden’s DUNKIRK: THE MEN THEY LEFT BEHIND. What unfolds in Longden’s narrative is the horrific experience of the 40,000 British soldiers who were not rescued as the Germans marched through France and threatened the channel coast. These were the men who performed a rearguard action that allowed the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to escape. The story of the rearguard soldiers who would spend five years as prisoners of war was not publicized by the British government as they sought to translate the Dunkirk evacuation not as a defeat, but as a victory. Therefore, the plight of the POWs was kept hidden from the British public for years. According to the author it took until the publication of Richard Collier’s THE SANDS OF DUNKIRK for the true story of the evacuation to be told. Longden has resurrected the story of these men through numerous personal interviews and mining the vast historical documentation. What emerges is the application of the survivor’s descriptions and emotions from their experiences interspersed through a well written and extremely thoughtful narrative.

Longden begins the book with a history of the Dunkirk evacuation and explores how the British found themselves in such dire straits in May, 1940. The author describes the lack of training given to recruits and the equipment that was World War I vintage. The German advance through Belgium and France that fostered thousands of refugees is described as is allied military incompetence. The resulting carnage of the British retreat is described with stunning images. Once the order to fall back was given a rearguard action was instituted to allow as many British soldiers as possible to escape across the channel. The British government highlighted the evacuation and purposely forgot about the men who were left behind. Many of these men felt abandoned, though there were other rescue attempts that did not come to light until sixty years later.

The author takes the reader along on the odyssey that befell the remaining British Expeditionary Force who were not fortunate enough to reach Dunkirk. The reader witnesses all aspects of what the soldiers experienced. The poignant and difficult stories abound as some soldiers tried to escape through other venues; while others were captured by the Germans and turned into POWs who were marched across Western Europe to their destination in camps in eastern Germany. The detailed descriptions of the horrors the POWs experienced as they marched including daily humiliations, malnutrition, shootings, and exhaustion by their German captors leaves nothing to the imagination. The Germans did their best to foster hatred between British and French captives, and singled out the English soldiers for “systematic inhumanity” as reported by a later government investigation. (369) Longden description on p. 373 summarizes the plight of these men well, “For so many of the marchers it was a lonely existence. They were surrounded by thousands of men. All were sharing the same hideous experiences, all had known the horrors of battle and seen their friends slaughtered, yet they had no emotions to share. Instead each man became wrapped up in his own small world – a world that revolved around the desperate desire for food and rest.”

The plight of the POWs continued over the next five years of captivity. The narrative employs the words of the survivors to recreate their experiences. The Germans were totally unprepared to house the massive influx of POWs, particularly as it related to their medical condition. What resulted were years of depravity, continued malnutrition, dysentery, gastro-intestinal issues, lice and a host of other problems. Emotions were shattered as they witnessed the shootings of their comrades and the total disregard for humanity exhibited by their German guards. The lives of the prisoners “revolved around forced labor, inadequate food, disease, violence and death.” (456) Not only does the author describe daily life but he accurately explores the physical, and especially the mental state of the prisoners during captivity.

After five years in POW camps the prisoners were finally liberated in April, 1945. The liberation created a confusing situation as to whom to surrender, which direction they should follow, how to gain enough sustenance to make their way west, and how to deal with their own physical condition. The earlier march east was endured by heat; however the march west was so cold that frostbite was a regular occurrence. As they left the camps they continued to witness the horrors of war. Soviet vengeance against the Germans was ever present, contact with Holocaust survivors, performing what seemed to be barbaric medical procedures on their “mates” to save them, starvation leading to eating and drinking the foulest things just to survive, are all difficult to imagine.

The stories of liberation are heartwarming, but repatriation and homecoming could not possibly go smoothly based on the condition of the men and what they had experienced. Post traumatic stress disorder was very common, but in 1945 it was not a diagnostic category with recommended treatment. Longden correctly points out that the mindset of the returning soldiers centered on the failures of the British army in France in 1940 as they felt they were trained as a 1918 force to go up against a mechanized German machine. “They had witnessed the superiority, in both numbers and quality, of German tanks and aircraft….and seen allied armies outmaneuvered by advancing Germans…..they had been let down by a government that had sent them to France in 1940 ill-prepared for modern warfare.” (525-526) “As the prisoners returned home there was a general lack of understanding of what they had endured…..Whether it was the soldiers surrounded at St. Valery, the men who received disabling wounds during battles, or the men who had been plucked from the sea following the sinking of the Lancastria, the plight of those left behind at Dunkirk seemed like a footnote to history.” (528) The story of the miracle of Dunkirk seems to have passed these men by and they felt it upon their return home and for many years to follow. What separates Longden’s book from others is the use of the words of the captives describing their emotions and what had they had experienced. It leads to a powerful narrative for anyone interested in reading a work of history that sets the records straight.

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