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  • Image: Cow Sheds and Massacres January 11, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Beachcombing has had the novel experience, in these days of premature babies, of watching lots of history documentaries. It is one of the few things that you can do while syringe feeding a fifteen-day-old tot and hoping that she will sleep. After years of staying away from television, he’s been treated to a lot of sub-standard stuff, but one that did stick in the mind was the BBC’s Dunkirk (2004) and particularly their coverage of the Wormhoudt Massacre of 1940.

    For those who don’t know on the 28 May of that year British troops – from the Royal Warwicks, the Royal Artillery and the Cheshires –  were holding the approach to Dunkirk against some charming Teutonic sorts in the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. When their lines were overrun by the enemy, the British troops surrendered and a group of about a hundred (including a handful of French POWs) were jammed into a tiny cow shed – see picture – near Wormhoudt. Their captors then threw grenades into the shed and subsequently dragged out several of the survivors who they shot. Luckily, not all the prisoners were killed – in fact, fifteen were to make it through the war that, make no mistake, reflected SS incompetence rather than SS humanity.

    Beachcombing should note that all the normal prejudices of the BBC are on hand in this documentary. So those from the upper middle classes and the aristocracy – with the predictable exception of Churchill – are treated as twerps, including a decent if ineffectual British officer at Wormhoudt. There is also a lot of stamping on ‘the guilty men’ of appeasement: the portrayal of Halifax, for example, would be actionable if that good lord was still alive.

    The impressions are all the more vivid because the BBC documentary is essentially a re-enactment with actors taking the viewer through various key moments in the campaign: we have a porcine chap who is supposed to be the PM, a moustached man who is Alexander etc etc.

    Beachcombing usually objects to renactments, but they just about pull it off though this is no Band of Brothers. The BBC is forever cursed to play Dr Who to the US’s Star Trek, doomed by limited funding and Masterclass Theatre

    As far as Wormhoudt is concerned the viewer is treated to a foul re-enactment of the massacre: Beachcombing surged up from his seat in fury, Tiny Miss B almost falling from his lap in the process. Once his blood pressure had come back down Beachcombing was intrigued though by two decisions on the part of the BBC.

    First, the massacre was not shown as it happened. Men were marched out to be shot and then the grenades were thrown in: a reversal of the actual order of events. Beachcombing couldn’t make any sense of this, either in historical or dramatic terms.

    Second, Beachcombing wondered vaguely whether it was sensible to even show the killings. Of thirty thousand captured Britons in May 1940, only, to the best of our knowledge, about two hundred were slaughtered in this heinous fashion: Le Paradis Massacre is the other sad name from those days. The Germans treated Slav and later the Greek and Italian POWs appallingly. But British and French soldiers in 1940 were, for the most part, treated well on their surrender, perhaps because of crooked racial views, perhaps because these were the first months of the war. This was true, for example, of the survivors of the Wormhoudt Massacre, once they fell into German hands for the second time.

    A plaque on the cow-shed refers to the ‘slain’: that seems an overly eumphimistic way to describe what happened on that day. The cow-shed has been patched back together and its story is told on this outstanding internet page from which Beach borrowed the image posted above.

    Beachcombing is going to take a while to get the photo above out of his mind: a twentieth-century icon of cruelty and horror all dressed in verdant colours of the French spring. The shed is empty here, but the ghosts of the hundred terrified men are there, jammed in, listening to the German outside and trying to breathe, getting ready, praying, hoping… The evil of what happened hardly needs to be emphasised: it stands with Katyn, Malmedy and Biscari. But the failure of the British govenment to ever bring anyone to justice for what was done that day beggars belief, especially given the fact that more than a dozen witnesses survived.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for striking historical photographs: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com .