Header overlay

Hanging Out on the Maginot Line

In 1989 I was commissioned to write and present a programme about the Phoney War for BBC Radio 4. My research took me to the Imperial War Museum’s sound archives and the testimony of a Dunkirk veteran called Anthony Rhodes, who was commissioned into the Royal Engineers shortly before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. At that stage I’d no idea Rhodes had written a book about his experiences, but what he had to say on tape was exemplary.

For instance, on arrival in France Rhodes and his comrades were shocked to discover that the impregnable Maginot Line did not extend along the Belgian frontier to the Channel. So if the Germans overran Belgium, as they had in 1914, there was nothing between them and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), based near Lille, but a line of barbed wire. On the other hand Rhodes, like most Britons, was confident that the ‘mighty’ French Army, in alliance with the BEF, was more than a match for the Wehrmacht. Hitler had only been in power for six years. It took far longer than that to create a modern army from scratch. No wonder people said that the German tanks one saw in newsreels were made of cardboard!

Of course Rhodes was speaking retrospectively, but he didn’t give the impression of being wise after the event. This was confirmed when I began to read his memoir Sword of Bone, the existence of which I learned about from a member of the museum’s staff. It opens with a bombastic pep-talk by a general that does nothing to dispel what Rhodes calls his ‘Passchendaele’ notions of war. He had nightmares about trench warfare, ‘the lowest and meanest form of life to which man has ever been ordered to sink’. But instead of wading through mud under shellfire he took part in that bizarre interlude known as the Phoney War, when it really was all quiet on the Western Front and Rhodes was mocked by a padre, of all people, for refusing a third cocktail before lunch in the front line. Then, in May 1940, not long after the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that Hitler had ‘missed the bus’, it became all too apparent that he hadn’t. Within a few weeks Rhodes was literally burying his head in the sands of Dunkirk, a target for the Stukas and Messerschmitts overhead.

If Rhodes recoiled from the prospect of trench warfare this was not simply because it was so horrible. It was also because he and his contemporaries had been told that never again would the British Army be mired in such an aberrational conflict as the Great War, which ran contrary to military practice as the War Office understood it. ‘Thank God that’s over,’ a British general is supposed to have said in 1919, ‘now we can get down to some real soldiering again.’ By ‘real soldiering’ he meant a small professional army engaged in regimental duties, recreations like polo and occasional skirmishes on the north-west frontier of India, a country to which the Army had an almost mystical attachment.

Real soldiering suited the Treasury, too. The cost of maintaining a huge army on the continent for four years had almost beggared Britain. It had no wish to repeat the experiment. But when, in March 1939, German troops entered Prague, the British government reluctantly concluded that Hitler could not be appeased. Conscription was reintroduced and it was obvious that sooner rather than later the Army would have to cross the Channel and once more ‘do its bit’.

Born in 1916 Rhodes had spent his early years in India, where his father, a regular soldier, was on the Viceroy’s staff. After Rugby School he entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where officer cadets destined for the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers were trained. He then read mechanical sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1939. Most young officers did not go to university then and by the time he graduated Rhodes’s horizons were far broader than those of the average subaltern. He invokes Balzac, quotes Herrick and Goldsmith, and is even familiar with the concept of feng shui some forty years before it became a fad in the West.

Sword of Bone – the title is from Milton’s Samson Agonistes – was first published in 1942, the same year that Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy appeared. Rhodes and Hillary, near contemporaries, had a lot in common. Both enjoyed experience for its own sake and were unimpressed by slogans and proprieties. For instance Rhodes is frank about the Army’s use of brothels, something the brass hats tried to keep under wraps for fear of demoralizing wives and sweethearts at home, and he has an amusing anecdote about the confusion that arose from there being red lights over the doors of doctors’ houses in north-east France. His tone of voice, like Hillary’s, is tolerant, sceptical and ironic. Of a suave French liaison officer he writes: ‘He had the air of having lived permanently at Pruniers, and of having drunk more cocktails than were good for him; all the signs, in fact, of a civilized man.’ Another mark of a civilized man is his desire to live in peace. Even so, Rhodes did not expect to find, on a visit to the Maginot Line, that there existed an unofficial truce between its defenders and the Germans opposite.

Of course not everyone wanted to live and let live, a prime exception being Rhodes’s divisional commander, a ‘dynamic little man of obvious compressed energy’ who was said, rather ominously, to be a glutton for punishment. Despite this, he was not only immensely popular with the troops but also with the Press. Although unidentified, this is clearly Montgomery. And since he was more than two years away from becoming a household name, it was percipient of Rhodes to single him out.

Conscious of how vulnerable they were to a German attack through Belgium the British began to construct anti-tank ditches and pillboxes, the material for which it was Rhodes’s job to purchase. He was rarely in one place for long, which adds spice to his narrative. He thought Paris in the spring of 1940 had never been lovelier, his eye for a pretty girl, which more than one reviewer noted, given free rein. How appropriate, then, that he should learn that the war had begun in earnest from a young woman whose figure, her maid had assured him, was breathtaking:

It must have been about six o’clock on the morning of May the 10th when my bedroom door was opened so violently that I woke; and my mind, still wandering in its own personal no-man’s-land, had barely time to register the quick, fluttering movement of a form that passed the bed and alighted near the window. It was in this way that I was able to see Mlle Wecquier for myself. She was wearing a silk nightdress and, charmingly situated against the rays of the sun, her figure justified all that Marie had said of it . . . ‘Lieutenant,’ she said quite simply, ‘we have been invaded.’

Alas for the Allies the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line and attacked through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, the defence of which had been just as neglected as the Belgian frontier. Within two weeks they had reached the English Channel, pulverizing the French with their blitzkrieg tactics and outflanking the BEF, who had no sooner dug in along the bank of the Belgian river Dyle than they were ordered to retire (the word ‘retreat’, as Rhodes reminds us, was never used in the British Army). So began ‘a strategic withdrawal according to plan’ that ended two weeks later at Dunkirk.

Rhodes and his unit were astonishingly lucky. Somehow they managed to evade the marauding columns of German tanks that caused such havoc, fortifying themselves en route to the coast with looted delicacies like foie gras washed down with champagne. His account of their progress is a bit like a Shakespearean battle: the fighting takes place offstage. At one point there’s a surreal episode involving an arty brother officer of Rhodes’s called Stimpson who insists on trying to replace clarinet he’s lost. ‘He wants to pick one up bon marché,’ Rhodes explains to a suspicious gendarme. For many of the civilians they met it was history repeating itself. The madame of a local brothel who’d always watered their drinks is philosophical. While admitting she would miss the Tommies, she consoles herself with the thought that if the last war is anything to go by, she will get even more custom from the Germans: ‘They are certainly the most regular. You can rely on them.’

You could also, as Rhodes soon discovered, rely on the Germans to bomb Dunkirk so regularly every half hour that you could almost tell the time by them. The docks were a prime target, making evacuation from there impossible, and Rhodes was told to take his men to the beach where thousands of troops had one eye on the sky for bombers and the other out to sea for ships. Although applauding heroism, Rhodes had no time for heroics: ‘The officially advocated behaviour of standing up and firing a Bren gun at the aeroplane, even when it is on top of you, was put into practice by two of our men, who were promptly riddled with bullets.’ What he doesn’t say is that he himself was wounded in the back by a bomb splinter and temporarily lost his hearing.

Eventually, after queuing for hours in water up to their waists, he and what remained of his men were picked up by a rowing boat and transferred, via a trawler, to a destroyer, in which they crossed the Channel. On arriving home they were treated as heroes. But Rhodes knew he had taken part in a débâcle. His polished, wry and really rather subversive memoir belongs to what George Orwell called ‘unofficial history’ – the kind that is ignored in textbooks and lied about in the Press. At a time when we take spin for granted and free speech is under threat it certainly deserves a fresh airing.

Anthony Rhodes saw no more action after Dunkirk. He was involved in camouflage and coastal defence work and then sent to lecture in Canada and the United States, where he married a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler. This was not a success, and following a nervous breakdown he was invalided out of the Army in 1945. Ten years later, after taking a degree in Romance Languages at Geneva University and teaching at Eton, he decided to write full time. He wrote novels, biographies and travel books, but is probably best known as the author of a three-volume history of the Vatican in the twentieth century. At his death in 2004 he was described in an obituary as a ‘cosmopolitan and well-connected man of letters’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Michael Barber 2016
This article also appears as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: Anthony Rhodes, Sword of Bone

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.