Orwell’s Dunkirk

Internet is perhaps the most democratic country you can get. I concede that it has its own ugliness but show me one democratic country that doesn’t have its claws soaked in viciousness? With all its traps and tribulations, this is how a free and open society would perhaps look like. Finders of information and seekers of knowledge never had a better time in the history of humanity.

Personally, I can keep roaming through the walkways of this amazing nation forever. One moment you are trying to understand the long history of republic and oligarchy in the harvested fields of Bihar, another moment you are trying to do a study in reverse of the Dunkirk retreat during the 2nd World War post Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal outing on the sands of time – the lanes of internet have time-machines for cabs.

Orwell is one of the writers I immensely admire and since he saw the war from as close as you can get without killing yourself (he almost killed himself once), I was left wondering about his whereabouts during the Dunkirk evacuation. Dunkirk evacuation was carried out from 26th May to 5th June, 1940. Orwell during this time was in London and kept diaries to note down his observations of the war and its people.

Huge advert on the side of a bus: “FIRST AID IN WARTIME. FOR HEALTH, STRENGTH AND FORTITUDE. WRIGLEY’S CHEWING GUM.” (Orwell’s Diary – 06.06.40)


In the same entry, Orwell writes,Both Borkenau and I considered that Hitler was likely to make his next attack on France, not England, and as it turns out we were right. Borkenau considers that the Dunkirk business has proved once for all that aeroplanes cannot defeat warships if the latter have planes of their own. The figures given out were 6 destroyers and about 25 boats of other kinds lost in the evacuation of nearly 350,000 men. The number of men evacuated is presumably truthful, and even if one doubled the number of ships lost it would not be a great loss for such a large undertaking, considering that the circumstances were about as favourable to the aeroplanes as they could well be.”

A few days later on 20.06.40, he writes, “The belief in direct treachery in the higher command is now widespread, enough so to be dangerous… Personally I believe that such conscious treachery as exists is only in the pro-Fascist element of the aristocracy and perhaps in the Army command. Of course the unconscious sabotage and stupidity which have got us into this situation, e.g. the idiotic handling of Italy and Spain, is a different matter. R.H. says that private soldiers back from Dunkirk whom he has spoken to all complain of the conduct of their officers, saying that the latter cleared off in cars and left them in the soup, etc., etc. This sort of thing is always said after a defeat and may or may not be true. One could verify it by studying the lists of casualties, if and when they are published in full.”

The roaming didn’t stop here. A few steps before this entry, I find Orwell at crossroads looking for a dear one, “Last night to Waterloo and Victoria to see whether I could get any news of [Eric]. Quite impossible, of course. The men who have been repatriated have orders not to speak to civilians and are in any case removed from the railway stations as promptly as possible. Actually I saw very few British soldiers, i.e. from the B.E.F., but great numbers of Belgian or French refugees, a few Belgian or French soldiers, and some sailors, including a few naval men. The refugees seemed mostly middling people of the shop-keeper-clerk type, and were in quite good trim, with a certain amount of personal belongings. One family had a parrot in a huge cage. One refugee woman was crying, or nearly so, but most seemed only bewildered by the crowds and the general strangeness. A considerable crowd was watching at Victoria and had to be held back by the police to let the refugees and others get to the street. The refugees were greeted in silence but all sailors of any description enthusiastically cheered. A naval officer in a uniform that had been in the water and parts of a soldier’s equipment hurried towards a bus, smiling and touching his tin hat to either side as the women shouted at him and clapped him on the shoulder…. (01.06.40)

Dunkirk claimed many lives. One of those lives was named Laurence Frederick O’Shaughnessy, a celebrated heart and chest surgeon who had volunteered to serve the wounded at Dunkirk. He was an exceptional name on the medical scene of the time and had made great efforts to understand if Orwell was suffering from Tuberculosis at Preston Hall Sanatorium. Laurence was Eileen’s brother. Eileen O’Shauhgnessy was Orwell’s first wife. Orwell had gone to Waterloo and Victoria to get any news of Laurence [Eric]. Whether Laurence was killed by a bullet or a bomb explosion, I am not sure. There are differing accounts. Orwell though, died of tuberculosis in the year 1950.

 The whole reading threw me on a different trajectory altogether – that of objectivity. As a writer, there are times we are subjected to think how much of objectivity is desirable and how long can we remain objective. When a bomb drops in your backyard, would you get up and pen an account of it in your diary the next morning or would you get shell-shocked for life and perhaps never write again? Writing is not an easy choice. Few know it as well as Orwell did.

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