Sword of Bone (No. 35)
Sword of Bone, Anthony Rhodes, Slightly Foxed
  • ISBN: 9781906562922
  • Pages: 320
  • Format: 110 x 170mm
  • Publication date: 1 September 2016
  • Producer: Smith Settle
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Binding: Cloth hardback
  • Trimmings: Coloured endpapers; silk ribbon, head- & tailband; gold blocking to spine; blind blocking to front
  • NB: Hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000
  • Preface: Michael Barber
  • Number in SFE series: 35
Made in Britain

Sword of Bone (No. 35)

Anthony Rhodes

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It’s hard to imagine that anyone who took part in the disaster of Dunkirk could write an amusing book about it . . .

But that is what Anthony Rhodes has done in Sword of Bone, his wry account of the events leading up to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940 – a ‘strategic withdrawal according to plan’ as the chaos was officially described.

But this isn’t a heartless book. Rhodes doesn’t deny the awfulness of war, though the fighting mainly takes place offstage. But being observant and cool-headed, with an ironic sense of humour, he manages to capture the absurdity as well as the tragedy of what took place. Sword of Bone is very far from what is usually meant by a ‘war book’.

Fresh from reading mechanical sciences at Cambridge, Rhodes was commissioned into the Royal Engineers on the eve of the Second World War. Memories of the First War were all too fresh in 1939, and he had nightmares about trench warfare. Instead, hanging about in France during the period known as the ‘phoney war’, he and his fellow officers were entertained to sumptuous meals by local dignitaries and enjoyed sociable springtime visits to Paris and to the Maginot Line. However, the French had failed to extend this supposedly impregnable fortification as far as the coast in order not to offend the neutral Belgians, so the British set about doing so – work for which Rhodes had to requisition the materials.

The whole experience had elements of French farce – the hastily arranged billeting of the platoon in a convent; the embarrassments caused by the fact that French doctors had red lights over their surgery doors; the lack of supplies followed by huge over-supplies of building materials – but when the Germans finally bypassed the Maginot Line, all that was over. Rhodes gives a terrifying description of what it was like being dive-bombed by the Germans on the beach at Dunkirk. It was an experience that would affect him deeply. For all its humour, Sword of Bone is a penetrating comment on the cruelty of war.

‘Elegantly written, scrupulously fair and informative on matters much obscured by the mutterings of fools’ Sunday Telegraph

    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...

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    ‘Sword of Bone charmed me utterly . . .’

    ‘Sword of Bone charmed me utterly. If I apply the tried-and-tested dinner party criteria of ‘Would I invite the author?’ the answer is a resounding yes. Anthony Rhodes’s tone is laconic,...

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    Comments & Reviews

    1. B. Tiwari says:

      I enjoyed this book so much that I gave away my original copy as a Christmas gift. I then regretted not owning it so much that I ordered another copy. You might say, it’s so good, I bought it twice.

    2. They’ve done it again! Slightly Foxed have brought out yet another fascinating, entertaining, and well-written memoir – and another one that I would never have heard of without their curated collection in Slightly Foxed Editions. This time, it’s the memoir of a billeting officer during the Second World War – with the added interest that it was originally published in 1942 when, of course, the war was far from over.

      Rhodes is apparently best known now for a three volume study of Venice (so it is appropriate that I read this book in Italy), but I didn’t discover this until after I finished the book. To me, he was simply a soldier detailing his time spent between the beginning of the war and Dunkirk. And it is a truly astonishing portrait of Dunkirk – being an event that I have heard so much about, but never read about from an authentic first-person perspective.

      ‘Three of our officers have just got married,’ said the officer who welcomed me at the mess. ‘Seems like war doesn’t it?’

      It was 3 September 1939 and it seemed even more like war two days later when a general visited us and addressed the troops for a quarter of an hour.

      ‘Officers and men,’ he said. ‘The test has come and we are at war. The enemy is strong and cunning but we can defeat him. You fellows are now going to put all your knowledge – and all your training to the test, the acid test – the test of war,’ he said sternly. ‘… I know you will not fail, you are all Englishmen.’

      There were two Welshmen in my section who were very offended by this, and out of the two hundred and fifty men in the company only a very small proportion had been to more than two Territorial camps, so that it was hardly fait to talk about ‘all our training’; but it appeared that in spite of this we were destined to go abroad very shortly as part of a regular division. The general who had addressed us that morning was fortunately not going to command us in the field, he was merely touring the area making encouraging valedictory speeches. Our own divisional general certainly had no illusions about us or the state of our training; he ordered our major to make us work like navvies.

      This is how Sword of Bone opens, and it gives us a good sense of Rhodes’ tone from the outset. He is not the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Tommy who is unthinkingly patriotic and keen to get into the sway. Rhodes is an intelligent, wary, and brave man who wants to make the best of the situations in which he finds himself – and wants to support those around him – while also recognising that war means, essentially, hell.

      His intelligence is clear throughout; he quotes Herrick and Goldsmith, he speaks of Balzac, and (as Michael Barber points out in his introduction), he ‘is even familiar with the concept of feng shui some forty years before it became a fad in the West’. Even the title of Sword of Bone is a quotation from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (which doesn’t quite, to my mind, justify what an off-putting title it is; if this weren’t between Slightly Foxed covers, I suspect it would have been enough to put me off reading the memoir).

      We witness Rhodes’ experiences through the phoney war, finding housing and provisions for his men while many of them are champing at the bit for a chance to fight the enemy. He does not have this sort of foolish spirit himself. Indeed, when inspecting the Maginot Line he discusses the Germans as ordinary men who are equally unlikely to want to fight – an unpopular way of writing in 1942, one imagines – and has less friendly things to say about aggressive or stupid men on his own side. Incidentally, his investigations of the Maginot Line and the men living in it are fascinating in humanising and detailing a world that has become something of an embarrassing footnote to history; he is far more charitable than legacy has been to this line of defence; more charitable even than 1942 was, it seems. He has some stern words for critics of ‘Maginot mentality’.

      This is one of many ways in which Rhodes doesn’t tread party line at all times, and shows aspects of soldiering that were seldom exposed at the time – from the men’s frequenting of brothels to the occasionally poor choices of the high-ups (his men are assigned a doctor who speaks little French and specialises in gynaecology). None of this is done with the spirit of framing an exposé, however; he simply writes about army life as it was, with solid, engaging intelligence.

      But it is the final sections, describing a blow-by-blow account of Dunkirk, which will stay with me the longest. We see the confusion, the fear, and the changing plans. We see also the boredom beforehand – the long queues of traffic to the coast. And then the secrecy, the lying to the locals and refugees who believed that the Brits were there to protect them. Every detail is here, and though the tension is not absolute – we know broadly what happens, and we know that Rhodes must have survived in order to write this book – he still does an excellent job at portraying the uncertainty and drama of that extraordinary day.

      There are any number of war memoirs out there, but I don’t think any can equal the immediacy of Rhodes’ – nor the (to use the word again) intelligence. To write and publish it when the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt was an extraordinary feat – and helps preserve it as an astonishing record today.

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