The Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk is a ‘tour de force’ of filmmaking and a fascinating study in historical representation. Seeing it is a riveting experience – the film is an anxiety inducing nail-biter – one that I hope (and think will) spark some interest in the British experience of the Second World War among wider audiences. At the very least, it will inspire some googling by theatergoers who want to know more about the dramatic events of 1940.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in May/June 1940 holds a special place in the popular mythology of the Second World War. In this context, a historical ‘myth’ does not mean a falsehood; it means and easy or a convenient way of communicating a big complicated event (or events). Historical myths often have moral or political connotations to them as part of the process of storytelling. In narrating ‘big’ events, we interpret them, which sometimes (or always) blurs the whole truth and leaves a lot out much (most) of the story. For example, though the story of the evacuation at Dunkirk is well known (the British side of it at least), the story of allied strategic failure and military collapse – i.e. the extremely important events leading to the evacuation – garners little attention. Operation Dynamo and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is not only the more positive story to tell, but it is one that feeds into something bigger than just little boats.
The myth of Dunkirk has worked in different ways depending upon the context in which it has been interpreted. During the war, Dunkirk was seen by many as a symbol of resolve, ‘as something totemic of an indomitable Albion’, a triumphant story of deliverance, determination, and can-do spirit (Alexander 100). The myth changed after the war, so some degree. In an age of dwindling international power and imperial decline, Dunkirk remained a source of pride in a complicated post-war and post-colonial national narrative (Alexander 104). It will be interesting to assess how people are interpreting Dunkirk in light of Nolan’s reimagination of the evacuation; no doubt, the film will provoke some discussion about Britain’s current place in the world (but not here, thankfully).
Indeed, the story of Dunkirk, as it is usually told, reflects many sympathetic virtues that make for a good national story – resolve, pluck, courage, patriotism, sacrifice, comradeship, a sense of community – while overlooking some of the messier aspects of history (though Nolan’s film engages with some messiness too). From the moment that the first soldiers began arriving back from France, the story of their survival and rescue inspired public imagination. Churchill himself had a role in constructing the myth itself at the time of the evacuation. He defined Dunkirk as both a ‘colossal military disaster’ and a ‘miracle of deliverance’ and thus framed the event for the public as a dynamic prelude to the Battle of Britain that would be waged later in the summer.
So what does all of this have to do with Jack Peirs? (Or is this just a shameless attempt by our digital history project to ride the Dunkirk wave?)
Thank you for asking.
At the start of the Second World War, there were discussions in the British government on forming a type of ‘home guard’ in response to what most believed was a very real military possibility – a German invasion of the British Isles. This concern became paramount after the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium on 10 May 1940. As the French army and BEF moved to meet the German threat, the War Office officially created the Local Defense Volunteers (LDV) on 14 May 1940 (later called the Home Guard). Thousands of men aged 17 to 65 immediately volunteered to defend their communities against the coming German invasion.
So as men were being evacuated from Dunkirk, others in Britain were volunteering to repel the expected Nazi invasion of the home islands. One of these men was Jack Peirs.
In the spring of 1940, Peirs was a fifty-one year old solicitor living with his wife and daughter in St Albans. According to his obituary, Peirs was the first man to enroll in the LDV in St Albans. Indeed, he served in the Home Guard until a few months before his death in 1943.
Peirs was indefatigably patriotic and it is not surprising that he retained his sense of national duty. He was in good company in the LDV: thousands of fellow Great War veterans also volunteered. Many had extensive combat experience; indeed, despite their age, some had more military experience than the soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk. Certainly this was the case of Peirs. Though middle-aged and likely a bit creaky in his joints, the fifty-one year old former Lt. Colonel wore ribbons on his chest indicating that he saw some stuff in France the last time around. He was hardly a bumbling amateur playing soldier in his garden; he was a commander who knew what it was like to survive attack and setback (Le Verguier) and live to fight again (the 100 Days).
So when Churchill spoke on June 4, 1940 of fighting on the beaches, the landing grounds, etc., Peirs was one of those who was eager to serve and willing to meet the Germans (if they showed up), if not on the beaches, then certainly on the outskirts of St Albans. In that way the dramatic events of May 1940 provided Jack Peirs an opportunity to serve his country again.
Source: Martin Alexander, ‘1940: The French Army and the BEF’ in Robert Tombs and Emile Chabel, Britain and France in Two World Wars (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
For more on the context of the events of 1940, I recommend the following:
Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (Oxford: OUP, 2016)
Robin Prior, When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 (New Haven: Yale, 2015)
Note: We do not have any sources on Peirs in the LDV. If anyone out there does, please let us know.