Remembering War During War: Recalling the Anglo-Dutch Wars During the First World War (Part 1)

I’m typing this blog on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, during a period when the centenary commemorations of the First World War are already well under way. Moreover, we’re only a year away from the anniversaries of Agincourt and Waterloo. Regular readers might remember that I’ve already made a plea for the 350th anniversaries of the events of the second Anglo-Dutch war not to be overlooked during what might well become a period of ‘anniversary fatigue’ – or at least, not overlooked in Britain, because the Dutch will most certainly be commemorating their brilliant attack on Chatham during 2017. But all of this got me thinking. After all, the 250th anniversaries of the second Dutch war fell during the First World War, so how, if at all, were the events of the former remembered during the latter?

Fortunately, that superb resource, the British Newspaper Archive, provides quite a lot of fascinating evidence with which to answer that question. Perhaps inevitably, the most memorable event of the war – the Dutch in the Medway – appears most frequently in the papers, usually as a point of comparison for ‘dastardly’ German raids. This was evident in the early months of the war, in response to the bombardment of the east coast ports of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool by the battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet. On 17 December 1914, for example, the Manchester Evening News named the Dutch attack as the nearest parallel in history to the German raids, and reminded its readers of the havoc the Dutch had wreaked. A similar line was taken by the Evening Telegraph and Post on the same day, which went into considerable detail about the chronology of De Ruyter’s attack.

Britannia demands revenge for the German raid on Scarborough, 16 December 1914

Britannia demands revenge for the German raid on Scarborough, 16 December 1914

However, not all of the coverage of the raids made the same, relatively measured, comparisons. Hysterical reporting of the German raids in both the British and, especially, the American press drew forth a response from one of the most distinguished historians of the age, A J Pollard, Professor of History at University College, London, and later the founder of the Institute of Historical Research, who wrote a lengthy letter to The Times, published on 19 December 1914. Pollard was particularly exercised by American suggestions that the raids demonstrated Britain’s command of the sea to be purely nominal, and proceeded to list the many occasions since 1066 when the British coast was ‘not merely bombarded but invaded’. Chatham featured on the list, but so, too, did the French attack on Teignmouth in 1690 (an event omitted from more than one recent book about invasions of Britain), along with thirteen other enemy attacks from 1338 to 1797. ‘If the raid on the East Coast disproves our command of the sea,’ Pollard observed, ‘then we have never possessed it’.

Unfortunately, the reasonable and entirely correct judgements of historians like Pollard carried little weight alongside the torrent of hysteria being peddled by the popular press. For example, the Dutch attack on Chatham was recalled later in the war, too, as a (perhaps unlikely) point of comparison for Zeppelin raids. In July 1917, the Daily Mail thundered after one such attack that ‘Since the Dutch burned Chatham 250 years ago [they didn’t, but accuracy has never been the Mail’s strong suit], making mock of the miserable system of passive defence which the feeble English government of that age had organised with Stewart slovenliness [that’s ‘Stuart’, proto-Paul Dacres], there has not been a more discreditable event in our military history than Saturday’s raid’. The 250th anniversary was noted by others, too. On 13 June 1917, the Liverpool Daily Post reported how Prime Minister Lloyd George had heard, from Whitehall, the sound of the bombardment that opened the battle of Messines, and compared this with Charles II hearing the guns of De Ruyter’s fleet as it came up the Thames exactly 250 years earlier: with the ‘Whiggish’ view of history typical of the times, it commented that ‘Cromwell had left the name of England feared; the poltroon Charles left the country a vassal of France’.

Not that sort of gun fleet: James, Duke of York's fleet at the Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665

Not that sort of gun fleet: James, Duke of York’s fleet at the Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665

Finally, it should be remembered that, at the time of the First World War, there was a much greater popular awareness of the Dutch wars, and of seventeenth century history in general. The average man in the street was likely to know who Robert Blake and Prince Rupert were in a way that would be inconceivable today, when many people think that ‘Nelson’ refers to ‘Mandela’. In the Cornhill Magazine for May 1917, for example, Bennett Copplestone commented on how certain families contributed men to the navy for generations on end, as a way of explaining the superiority of the British ‘seamen by heredity’ to the upstart Germans: ‘You may read the same names in the Trafalgar Roll and back to the Dutch wars. Most of us were Pongos [soldiers] before that – shore Pongos who went afloat with Blake or Prince Rupert – but then we became sailors, and so we remained, father to son’. On the other hand, the nostalgic and complacent assumptions so beloved of, say, certain Secretaries of State for Education, that schooling was so much better in the ‘olden days’, receive a sharp corrective from the little piece in the Newcastle Journal for 16 March 1915, a date which, the author claimed, was the 250th anniversary of the Duke of York’s establishment of a ‘gun fleet, the first regular system of naval warfare in England’. Evidently, the author had disastrously misinterpreted the name of the Gunfleet anchorage off the Essex coast, where James, Duke of York, took command of his fleet in March 1665.

(To be continued)

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Finally for this week, a quick update on the forthcoming movie about Admiral Michiel De Ruyter, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: it seems that Charles Dance has been cast as King Charles II, no doubt to capitalise on his high profile from Game of Thrones. Some might quibble about the 67 year old Dance playing the king, who was 43 in 1673 (when the film is set), but then, De Ruyter was 66 in the same year, and the actor playing him is 44, so I suppose it all evens out! Personally, I think it’ll be fascinating to see Dance’s take on Charles; he’s an outstanding actor, so it could well be inspired casting.

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