The evening of 14 January 2015 was a special occasion for the Suffolk branch – our 200th meeting. We celebrated it in four ways: most importantly by having as our guest Professor Peter Simkins, who talked to our Chairman, Taff Gillingham, about his fifty years as a military historian; but also with a special edition of our monthly branch briefing, with a meal beforehand at our local Indian restaurant and with a celebration cake!
The branch was founded by the late Stuart Bufton and by Fred Hodson in April 1998, the two having met and hatched the idea at the previous year’s W.F.A. Armistice Day Lunch. The attendance of 22 people at the inaugural meeting has more than doubled – and we reached 61 at one of our recent meetings. We still meet at the British Legion Club at Stowmarket and we have had only two chairmen in those seventeen years, Stuart and then Taff Gillingham. We have welcomed over 90 ‘outside’ speakers including several favourite returners such as Peter Simkins (a branch member until his move to Cheltenham in 2005), Peter Hart, Michael Stedman, the late Bob Bushaway, Richard van Emden, Ian Cull and Professors Brian Bond and John Derry; but nearly twenty of our own branch members have also addressed us on a wide variety of topics. We have had a close connection with our neighbouring branches, Norfolk and Essex, with a frequent exchange of speakers.
When we were planning our 200th meeting, we learned that Peter was due to give an interview to Hugh Bradbury at the Norfolk Branch meeting the night before ‒ a perfect opportunity! Would he come to us as well? Peter’s tales of his career as a military historian were much enjoyed. It was a career fuelled initially by boyhood reading about the Dambusters and The Great Escape and watching Richard Todd defeat the Germans single-handed on screen, but more seriously, at university (reading Modern History at King’s College, London) by his admiration for Sir Michael Howard, the founder of the Kings College War Studies Department, who remains an inspiration.
In 1961 Peter started a PhD on the origins of strategic bombing but sidestepped into the job of helping Sir Basil Liddell Hart catalogue his vast archive in readiness for its transfer to King’s. Peter had some entertaining tales about his eighteen months ‘in residence’ with Liddell Hart, a great eccentric, at the latter’s home in Medmenham. With sponsors like Liddell Hart and Michael Howard, Peter had little difficulty in being appointed exhibits curator at the Imperial War Museum; he remained at the IWM, from 1976 as its Senior Historian, until his retirement thirty-five years later. In 1988 he published ‘Kitchener’s Army’ the fruits of his research. His proudest achievements at the IWM, however, are: obtaining H.M.S. Belfast for the museum (and having her transported from Portsmouth to her London location); initiating the museum’s appropriation of the R.A.F. Duxford site and many of its first acquisitions; and the further acquisition of the Cabinet War Rooms and opening them to the public. He has entertaining tales of each of these events – and of his involvement with John Terraine and Correlli Barnett in their use of IWM film archive material for the BBC’s ground-breaking 1964 series on The Great War.
Peter gave us an insight into the evolution of revisionist perceptions of the First World War. His own realisation of the competence of senior leadership on the Western Front came through his research during the 1970s; he spoke, for example, of his discovery of the excellence of General Sir Ivor Maxse’s 18th (Eastern) Division. A visit to Sandhurst and the beginnings of connections with historians like Ian Beckett, Brian Bond and John Lee brought the further discovery that there were others thinking along the same lines as himself. By the early 1980s revisionism was well established and making good progress on Friday afternoons in the Two Eagles in Austral Street where Peter and his colleagues at the IWM were regularly to be found by any like-minded historians who happened to be in London! Asked whether he felt that revisionism was now the mainstream of historical understanding of the war, he argued that that is certainly the case in academia (and in the W.F.A.!): he cited the work and influence of several prominent military historians well known to us all, but also of many of the more recent graduates of the University of Birmingham Department of First World War Studies. However, the media and the laziness of their approach to the war remain a stumbling block in getting the message through to the general public.
Peter had many tales of his guiding experiences, recalling first one of his earliest visits to the Western Front, an early IWM staff tour led by Rose Coombs; the photographs show the men clad in suits and ties with folded raincoats over their arms, the women in high heels. Then there was the occasion when, looking for a late night drink in Arras, Peter, accompanied by his wife and his father, unwittingly ensconced himself in a bar which turned out to be a brothel. (Another entertaining story concerned his guiding of a regular battlefield tour group entitled ‘(Nigel) Farage’s Forages’!)
Asked about the current status of the WFA, he told us that it was in good shape; he mentioned, in particular: the two journals – the quality of their scholarship and the attractiveness of their appearance; the engagement of the Association at every level; and the number of big active branches in existence. Looking ahead, he felt that Commonwealth involvement was an important move; he reminded us that one sixth of the British Army in the First World War had consisted of Dominion troops. The recent appointments of Chris Pugsley and Roger Lee as Vice Presidents had now ensured that the Association would have links with New Zealand and Australia.
Sadly, Peter did not have the same optimism when asked about the current status of the IWM. The appointment of a new director with no background in military history, staff redundancies, short term contracts, the decision to close the library and make cuts of 4 million pounds after a refurbishment programme costing 20 million made little sense. The museum needed someone with the vision of a Richard Holmes. Peter reminded us of the revolutionary change in the understanding of museums and collection that took place in the 1970s, particularly through the influence of Frank Atkinson at Beamish.
And all this is only Peter’s career in military history; he has had a whole other life as a talented jazz pianist, respected by some of the leading American jazz musicians of his day. On the completion of Peter’s interview, branch members spontaneously rose to give him a standing ovation: the very first occasion that has happened in all our seventeen years!
… And then there was the cake – which had to be seen to be believed! Finally, we are grateful to the W.F.A.’s former chairman, Bruce Simpson, and to its current vice-chairman, Colin Wagstaff, for making the journey to be with us on this occasion.