None of us are strangers to the images of war. We grow up memorising dates and battle names in our history classes. We walk past the memorials in our cities. We march to cinemas to watch the films and documentaries. While the images of destroyed buildings and impressive war machines are a striking and essential form of understanding what war means, the most important element is a simple one: the humans involved in it.
In journalist and military historian Iain Ballantyne’s latest, Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron, we shadow the soldiers and civilians who lived through those fated ten days. Based on over 25 years of research and face-to-face interviews, Arnhem is a fascinating and humanising glimpse into battle.
With the 75th anniversary approaching, we want to celebrate the people who fought for freedom in the Battle of Arnhem, so here are our favourite moments of humanity from Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron:
Bowler hats and umbrellas
In a lovely display of British eccentricity, we’d like to introduce you to Major Digby Tatham-Warter, a 27-year-old battalion commander on the advance to the Arnhem road bridge. You see, Tatham-Warter took his unremarkable military uniform and decided to add a little flair: a bowler hat and umbrella. It was alleged that he made this choice because he could never remember the daily password, so, rather than finding a way to commit it to memory, he thought he’d dress as distinctly British as possible, so as not to be mistaken for anyone else. The most remarkable thing is it worked, and the umbrella even came in handy as a makeshift weapon once or twice. Here at Agora, we’re huge advocates for unexpected accessorising, so we tip our metaphorical bowler hats to you, Major Tatham-Warter.
Daphne du Maurier: a fashion icon
We promise we care about more than just the fashion of war, but please allow us just one more moment of haute Arnhem couture. The soldiers of the British Airborne forces wear a maroon ‘red beret’. What prompted this choice, you may ask? Are berets the most practical silhouette for combat headwear? Red to symbolise power and/ or bloodshed? The answer is much simpler: Daphne du Maurier (yes, that Daphne du Maurier) just thought they would be an inspirational addition. The iconic author was married to the commander of Britain’s I Airborne Corps, Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning. Apparently, over dinner conversation or written letter (we’re not actually sure), du Maurier proposed the accessory as a way to set them apart from other elite bodies. So, British Airborne forces have the Rebecca author to thank for their fearsome nickname, The Red Devils.
Myrtle the parachuting chicken
We admit this doesn’t strictly fall under the umbrella of ‘humanity’, but we’d be remiss to not mention our friend Myrtle the parachick. One day, for an undisclosed reason, Lieutenant Pat Glover decides to bring a chicken straight into the heart of combat. Attached to his shoulder in a canvas bag, Myrtle — who, by the way, is formally trained in the art jumping out of airplanes — falls to the earth with her soldier and takes battle head on. She bravely fights, sheltering from bullets and climbing through trenches (stopping for a peck or two in the ground along the way, naturally), adorned with her very own Para wings attached to an elastic band around her neck. We won’t reveal Myrtle’s fate, but we will proudly share her story as a reminder of the small pockets of joy that survive through war. Myrtle didn’t serve an obvious purpose, but we’re willing to bet she brought a smile or two to the people she fought with.
While war, and the Battle of Arnhem, is full of failures of all kinds — strategic, mechanical, and human — it’s important to remember the small victories, silly stories, and compassionate moments. Removing humanity from our history is doing a disservice to our future, so heading into the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, we’re thinking of the men, women, and, yes, chickens who fought so bravely for the freedom they believed in.