Beevor at Oxford

My first visit to this year’s Oxford Literary Festival didn’t quite go as planned. When we arrived at the big Christchurch tent, we were told that the Juliet Nicholson event (about the aftermath of the Great War) was cancelled. Having come a fair way on a drizzly day, we felt mildly peeved, but looked to see what else was on at 4 p.m.The programme offered a session about relationships and a session about spirituality. Thanks, but no thanks. There was also the Historian Anthony Beevor talking about D-Day. Not my war of choice, but I reckoned he’d be good.
He was. He had a suave and fluent manner, and offered much to think about.
He had much to say about the savagery of the Normandy campaign, often seen as a softer war than the Eastern Front. He disagrees (and since he’s the author of Stalingrad is probably right). The horror was greater in scale in the East, but the fighting in France was more intense, with more divisions per square mile packing in the destructiveness. He said much about the cost of the campaign to French civilians – claiming that as many French were killed by Allied bombings as English were killed by the Luftwaffe. Can this be true? I’ll have to read his book to see the figures.
He spoke of the war crimes on both sides – shooting of prisoners, for example, and pointed out that this also happened on occasion in the Great War. I liked the way he tried to understand these without excusing them – how some were inspired by motives of personal revenge, and how some were provoked by enemy action. For example, some German units had developed a trick on the Eastern Front of getting one man to seemingly
surrender, and then shooting down the Allied soldiers who came to take him. If you thought your prisoner was going to play tricks like this, shooting him was a logical option.
A questioner asked whether it was true that the death rate in the battle for Normandy was as great as that in the Battle of the Somme. Beevor didn’t have figures to answer precisely, but thought the case could be
made. It probably depends which slice of time you choose. No day in Normandy compared with the first day of the Somme for slaughter, but the cost of post-D-Day operations was greater than the later stages of the
Somme battle. All in all, an excellent session, and by the end I strongly suspected that I got more from it than I would have done from the ones I had hoped to see.

3 Comments

  1. Posted March 21, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    George it sounds like a good talk. In terms of French civilian casualties I am not sure Beevor is right but would need to check. It was certainly something that Churchill was very sensitive about. As to casaulties vis a vis the Somme this is again true though usually the rate is equated to Third Ypres for the number per day. Both around 3,000 per day for the course of their respective campaigns.

  2. Posted March 21, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    So far as I understand, Beevor is basically right. Each country suffered about 60,000 civilian deaths directly attributable to bombing. The overall civilian death toll in France was much higher – perhaps 350,000 – with the greater balance of those deaths the result of Nazi persecution.

    I don’t have any figures for a Somme-to-Normandy comparison, but I’ve read that the death rate for junior officers in Normandy was significantly higher than in Ypres in 1917. Perhaps the more pertinent comparison is between deaths on the Western Front and those experienced by Bomber Command over Germany from 1939-1945.

  3. John Shepherd
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Beevor’s _D-Day_. It’s an excellent analysis of several aspects of the campaign that usually get lost in the dust. Beevor (rightly, I think) stresses civilian casualties and references using several contemporary “point” sources (e.g., French hospital reports) to back up broader statements.

    Among the other “dusty corners” he looks into is the dissimilarity between the French bocage and the hedgerows among which U.S. and British troops had trained before the landings. It has become fashionable in some quarters to question the perspicacity of allied tactical commanders because of their failure to anticipate the nature of close combat in the bocage. Beevor does a good job of pointing out that the two environments were not the same.


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