History, they say, is written by the victors.
Which is another way of saying that you can tell who is in charge by how the story is told. Christopher Nolan’s new film of Dunkirk is no exception. A tour-de-force of tension from second minute to last, it is the tale of British character under extreme pressure, a homage to our doughty resolve to meet any challenge, a paean to our plucky Heath Robinson ingenuity when traditional methods fail – to build a sea dock from trucks overlaid with planks, to send out pleasure boats to rescue an army.
Tombs’ much lauded recent The English & Their History is similar: focusing on the loss of German nerve, the stubbornness of the French rear guard, quiet English stoicism, and Churchill’s granite determination that there would be, could be, no negotiating with Hitler.
But it is not quite the way the country lived the story at the time.
So convinced were the military that disaster was inevitable that King George called the nation to a National Day of Prayer on Sunday May 26th. Millions responded. The Daily Sketch claimed, ‘Nothing like it has ever happened before’.
There followed a series of ‘fortunate’ events.
Hitler overruled his generals, and halted his armoured columns ten miles from Dunkirk, relying, Churchill believed, on airpower to annihilate the British Army. On Tuesday May 28th, however, a huge storm hit Flanders, grounding the Luftwaffe, and allowing the British troops to scamper, largely unharried, to the beaches. Despite the Flanders storm, an uncharacteristic calm settled over the Channel, enabling the armada of smaller ships to make the crossing. Over 335,000 men got back to Britain: ten times the original estimate.
A day of National Thanksgiving was declared for June 9th. C.B. Mortlock, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said: ‘the prayers of the nation were answered … the God of hosts himself had supported the valiant men of the British Expeditionary Force.’ Churchill, addressing the Commons, called it, perhaps more ambivalently, ‘A miracle of deliverance’. Many officers and troops were clearer: God had stepped in.
But time passes, values change, and the tale is re-told by today’s cultural victors who choose to suppress these inconvenient, now academically awkward, witnesses to the glory of the living God.
Our call, as Psalm 145:4 reminds us, is to commend God’s works to the next generation, whether we see his hand on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields… we shall never stop praising his name.
Executive Director, LICC