In his introduction to “St Valery, The Impossible Odds” Birlinn, the editor Bill Innes, says that the gallant rear-guard action in 1940 has burned itself into the consciousness of the older generation of Scots, but has never been given the wider recognition it deserves. That was written in 2004. Today, 14 years later, we are living in a very different Scotland where there is a greater concern about our history. Part of this development is a suspicion of received wisdom. Every time there is publicity about the events of France in 1940, social media is awash with ill-informed accounts of the fate of the 51st (Highland) Division. One origin of this is the very title of Saul David’s book “Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division”. As a result, there is ill informed and positively misleading descriptions of the fate of the 51st Div. around social media.
In his book Innes gives just enough of the history of the events for the reader to be aware of the background, but not so much that it overshadows the writings of people who were there which makes up the bulk of the book
If one wants a history of the events from 10th May 1940 to 12th June there are, as Innes points out, better places to go. It is unfortunate that despite the valiant work of Brigadier Charles Grant, and the 51st Div. Online Museum that the only detailed accounts which Innes recommends is the war time Eric Linklater’s “The Highland Division” and Saul David’s book mentioned above. The 40 or so pages of the introduction set enough of the background to put the following articles into context.
The writings of the four authors which make up the rest of the book are in themselves important. There is the well-known account, “A Cameron Can Never Yield” by Gregor Macdonald of his escape from the march into captivity. This is an extremely important piece of history, as it not only gives an account of the France during the occupation, the work of Rev Donald Caskie, and above all the horrors of the Spanish Concentration camps.
Donald John MacDonald had an entirely different story to tell. Originally written in Gaelic and published as Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika in 1974, it is the story of those who did not manage to escape, and his account was of the privations which the 51st suffered from the time of the Great March through to the liberation of the Camp. It appears that he did not suffer the dangers and privations of the Long March – 9th January – 11th April 1945 but had a much shorter march only lasting a few days.
Our next Gaelic Writer, Angus Campbell, who had been a regular soldier, recalled to the colours, unlike all the other writers, who were all Territorials, was not so lucky. Ten pages of his “Suathadh ri Iomadh Rubha” (Touching on many points) are devoted to his account of the Long March, as well as giving us an account of the events from his going to Fort George on being called up, until he returned to the Islands. There is a very poignant reminded that many of the 51st who escaped from France were subsequently sent to the Far East, where they were captured by the Japanese.
A fourth account is the very short “Big Archie Macphee’s story” It begins with him under fire at Arras and continues until he was repatriated and became an Ambulance Driver. In between it is a series of almost anecdotes about what life was like. Finally there is an order of battle for the 51st and a short appendix about life in the Salt mines. The book is for sale in the Museum Shop and should be possessed by everyone who takes a serious interest in the 51st and St Valery-en-Caux.
This Review was written by museum volunteer, Edward Andrews (pictured right). Ed is a retired Military Chaplin and a valued part of our Front of House team. St Valery The Impossible Odds is edited by Bill Innes, published by Birlinn, and is currently for sale through The Highlander’s Museum Shop.