Sword of Bone. Anthony Rhodes’ telling of the phoney war from 1939-1940, culminating in the Dunkirk evacuation, takes its name from Milton’s tragedy, Samson Agonistes. The latest in the series of reissues from the Imperial War Museum, Bone has its literary moments. The word ‘Shakesperian’ is produced on the second page, and by page 6 we’re being treated to a theological discussion that is based on mathematics.
This is far from a stuffy book. Indeed, the style of the narrator veers closely at times towards comic travelogue. There’s too much incompetence and stupidity to go round: from the army, from French petty bureaucracy, from the hosts of the billets; but it’s clear that Rhodes has some affection for the people he lived among for the long days in which there was little to do but, it seems, procure champagne and foie gras. He’s there for months, and he makes the most of it – he treats every week as though it will be his last before moving to the front – he has no idea about when it will end, or what kind of war to expect, or whether or how he will play his own part in hostilities. As a result, his narrative is curiously detached: he describes the men’s visits to the local brothels, but doesn’t go himself. In a way, that’s the point of the book: this isn’t, until the end, a story about life on the front line, nor is it a story about sitting back at headquarters with a map and a set of codes. This is about the the waiting around that the middle ranks experience.
Rhodes is good company: perhaps ten years earlier he would have done the Grand Tour, for his observations have a ‘man of the world’ feel to them but veering closer to sophisticated than weary. He is a cool observer of the occasional tensions and dramas but other than a dodgy moment when he is nearly caught for nearly bunking off to Paris with a mate, these are other people’s dramas. (Two nearlies is two too many.) The style is meant to enable the reader to take in different views and experiences from a supposedly objective perspective. And it fits the low-energy months of the phoney war.
The title was first published in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still uncertain. There is a matter-of-fact-ness about the army’s unreadiness but the assumption that if a retreat is happening it must be due to the failing of other allied forces, not Britain’s. It is pointed out that Britain would like wars less if they happened in Britain itself. This seems to resonate with current discourse. Rhodes’ portrayal of civilians and soldiers alike as desperate to find facts to fit their preferred narratives (‘Italy has declared war on Germany’, the Germans couldn’t possibly be ready for battle) reminds us that fake news is not a new phenomenon.
The second half of the book takes place in May 1940. All of a sudden there is a long journey west. After talk of cafes, ubiquitous champagne, and a mad dash to buy an emergency clarinet, the mood changes. The final two chapters are about Dunkirk proper. There is a terrifying paragraph in which someone, for exposition’s sake, says what every soldier knows but this reader did not realise: that the firebombing of the local farms was being done to light up the beaches on which thousands of men were huddled and the shallow waters on which the smaller evacuation boats were operating, the Luftwaffe the better to target them. Haunting stuff, especially given the lightness of the previous pages.
As is usual with this series of titles, I found myself searching for more information. This time I explored among other things, the geography of Belgium and northern France, and the construction of the Maginot Line.
Deceptively light, this novel illuminates an ambiguous episode in the Second World War and tells the story of how those involved in it came to be so. Another great pick by the curators of the Imperial War Museum.
Thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy.