Phoney War

March 21 2011

The eerie quiet of Tokyo (BBC).

The last city, outside a war zone, to be faced by the possibility of a disaster on this scale was Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic in the first half of 2003.

Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942) is set during the Phoney War, the phase of the Second World War in Britain and France from September 3 1939 to May 10 1940, and just afterwards.


“In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War – days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace – and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.”


“[Basil] had told them [that there would be no war] the night before, not as a speculation, but as a fact known only to himself and half a dozen leading Germans; the Prussian military clique, he had told them, were allowing the Nazis to gamble just as long as their bluff was not called; he had had this, he said, direct from von Fritsch. The army had broken the Nazi party in the July purge of 1936; they had let Hitler and Goering and Goebbels and Ribbentrop remain as puppets just as long as they proved valuable. The army, like all armies, was intensely pacifist; as soon as it became clear that Hitler was heading for war, he would be shot.”


“The air raid scare seemed to be over for the time and those who had voluntarily fled from London were beginning to return, pretending that they had only been to the country to see that everything was all right there. The women and children of the poor, too, were flocking home to their evacuated streets. The newspapers said that the Poles were holding out; that their cavalry was penetrating deep into Germany; that the enemy was already short of motor oil; that Saarbrucken would fall to the French within a day or two; air raid wardens roamed the hamlets of the kingdom, persecuting locals who walked home from the inn with glowing pipes. Londoners who were slow to acquire the habit of the domestic hearth groped their way in darkness from one place of amusement to another, learning their destination by feeling the buttons on the commissionaires’ uniforms; revolving, black glass doors gave access to a fairy land; it was as though [“as though” is not quite right here], when children, they had been led blindfold into the room with the lighted Christmas tree. The casualty list of street accidents became formidable and there were terrifying tales of footpads who leaped on the shoulders of old gentlemen on the very steps of their clubs, or beat them to jelly on Hay Hill [Mayfair].”


“Winter set in hard. Poland was defeated; east and west the prisoners rolled away to slavery. English infantry cut trees and dug trenches along the Belgian frontier. Parties of distinguished visitors went to the Maginot Line and returned, as though from a shrine, with souvenir-medals. Belisha was turned out; the radical papers began a clamour for his return and then suddenly shut up. Russia invaded Finland and the papers were full of tales of white-robed armies scouting through the forests. [The Finns used more white camouflage than the Russians.] English soldiers on leave brought back reports of the skill and daring of Nazi patrols and of how much better the blackout was managed in Paris. A number of people were saying quietly and firmly that Chamberlain must go. The French said the English were not taking the war seriously, and the Ministry of Information said the French were taking it very seriously indeed. Sergeant instructors complained of the shortage of training stores. How could one teach the three rules of aiming without aiming discs?”


“This was February 1940, in that strangely cosy interlude between peace and war, when there was leave every week-end and plenty to eat and drink and plenty to smoke, when France stood firm on the Maginot line and the Finns stood firm in Finland, and everyone said what a cruel winter they must be having in Germany.”


“A quiet day at the Ministry of Information. The more energetic neutral correspondents had mostly left the country by now, finding Axis sources a happier hunting-ground for front page news. The Ministry could get on with its work undisturbed. That afternoon a film was showing in the Ministry theatre; it dealt with otter-hunting and was designed to impress neutral countries with the pastoral beauty of English life.”


“Summer came and with it the swift sequence of historic events which left all the world dismayed and hardly credulous; all, that is to say, except Sir Joseph Mainwaring, whose courtly and ponderous form concealed a peppercorn lightness of soul, a deep unimpressionable frivolity, which left him bobbing serenely on the great waves of history which splintered more solid natures to matchwood. Under the new administration he found himself translated to a sphere of public life where he could do no serious harm to anyone, and he accepted the change as a well-earned promotion. In the dark hours of German victory he always had some light anecdote; he believed and repeated everything he heard; he told how, he had it on the highest authority, the German infantry was composed of youths in their teens, who were intoxicated before the battle with dangerous drugs; ‘those who are not mown down by machine guns die within a week,’ he said. He told, as vividly as if he had been there and seen it himself, of Dutch skies black with descending nuns, of market women who picked off British officers, sniping over their stalls with sub-machine guns, of waiters who were caught on hotel roofs marking the rooms of generals with crosses as though on a holiday post card. He believed, long after hope had been abandoned in more responsible quarters, that the French line was intact. ‘There is a little bulge,’ he explained. ‘All we have to do is to pinch it out,’ and he illustrated the action with his finger and thumb. He daily maintained that the enemy had outrun his supplies and was being lured on to destruction. Finally [after Dunkirk], when it was plain, even to Sir Joseph, that in the space of a few days England had lost both the entire stores and equipment of her regular army and her only ally; that the enemy were less than twenty-five miles from her shores; that there were only a few battalions of fully armed, fully trained troops in the country; that she was committed to a war in the Mediterranean with a numerically superior enemy; that her cities lay open to air attack from fields closer to home than the extremities of her own islands; that her sea-routes were threatened from a dozen new bases, Sir Joseph said, ‘Seen in the proper perspective, I regard this as a great and tangible success. Germany set out to destroy our army and failed; we have demonstrated our invincibility to the world. Moreover, with the French off the stage, the last obstacle to our proper understanding with Italy is now removed. I never prophesy, but I am confident that before the year is out they will have made a separate and permanent peace with us. The Germans have wasted their strength. They cannot possibly repair their losses. They have squandered the flower of their army. They have enlarged their boundaries beyond all reason and given themselves an area larger than they can possibly hold down. The war has entered into a new and more glorious phase.’

“And in this last statement, perhaps for the first time in his long and loquacious life, Sir Joseph approximated to reality; he had said a mouthful.”


“This is the country of Swift, Burke, Sheridan, Wellington, Wilde, TE Lawrence, [Ambrose] thought; this is the people who once lent fire to an imperial race, whose genius flashed through two stupendous centuries of culture and success, who are now quickly receding into their own mists, turning their backs on the world of effort and action. Fortunate islanders, thought Ambrose, happy, drab escapists, who have seen the gold lace and the candlelight and left the banquet before dawn revealed stained table linen and a tipsy buffoon!”


“The grey moment was passed; Sir Joseph, who had not ceased smiling, now smiled with sincere happiness.

‘There’s a new spirit abroad,’ he said. ‘I see it on every side.’

And, poor booby, he was bang right.”


My Back Garden exhibited 1940 by Sir George Clausen 1852-1944

My Back Garden, painted by my great grandfather, George Clausen, in his 88th year during the Phoney War.

It was a long last look at the garden of the house in Carlton Hill that he had bought in 1905. “As the bombs began to fall”, according to some family accounts, but probably a little earlier, he and Agnes Clausen left London to live with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren at Cold Ash in Berkshire.

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