The Dunkirk Project

by Liz Mathews

Second edition, fully revised for 2015

Imagine a river of stories flowing through time. In the river are all our stories, those we live and those we imagine, all in the same river. 75 years ago in May 1940, thousands of people shared a story that has become one of our national legends.

On Sunday 26th May 1940, the first ships sailed from Dover for Dunkirk, to begin the rescue of 300,000 troops who had retreated to the stretch of coast near Dunkirk, and were under heavy bombardment. When Operation Dynamo began, it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. Nine days later, by Monday 3rd June 1940, 316,663 British and French troops had been lifted from the beaches and brought to England, by merchant ships, passenger and store ships and tugs, as well as over 800 small ships, many of them crewed by volunteers. The Port of London alone sent 34 motor life-boats and 881 ship’s boats. Many of the boats were from the Thames Estuary, some had never before been further than Ramsgate. Together, in a hastily improvised and scarcely organised armada, they brought most of the army home.

Seventy-five years on, Dunkirk holds a special place in our national consciousness. It’s one of the events of the Second World War that has particularly caught the British imagination and still moves us deeply – possibly because it appeals to our best ideas of nationhood, of voluntary, spur-of-the-moment courage, of individual honour independent of the state, of all mucking in together in a gloriously triumphant English muddle, of heroism on a small, amateur scale making a difference. Operation Dynamo has been celebrated in many works of art during the last seven decades, including Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose, John Masefield’s The Nine Days Wonder, Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, Michael Balcon’s Dunkirk and Richard Eurich’s Withdrawal from Dunkirk – all vivid imaginative treatments which have contributed to our collective ‘memory’ of this extraordinary time. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk still holds for us all a kind of legendary significance, in the context of the complex issues of national identity that face our society today.

The Dunkirk Project explores the slippage between the official history and the thousands of individual stories that make up such a momentous shared event (including those hidden voices which have not yet been heard), in an online installation that invites you to add your own story or imaginative response to this collective memory, and to share in the creation of a contemporary interpretation of one of the legends that expresses and shapes our national identity. The 70th anniversary in 2010 saw the beginning of this project and since then many thousands of people have read these stories, and The Dunkirk Project has received a huge response in contributions to add to the River of Stories. In 2015 we still have the chance to hear first-hand memories from some of the 300,000 people who were there in 1940, to gather family stories about a relation’s involvement, and to engage in an imaginative association and awareness of our inheritance of the continuing issues, while our perspective is that of personal involvement filtered through our understanding of the results and consequences of that time. Whatever our background, age or gender, the country we live in has been shaped by these consequences; we still have time to learn from the past.

The Dunkirk Project online has two elements: first Thames to Dunkirk, my huge free-standing paper sculpture in the form of a monumental book, on one side a 17m long watercolour of the Thames, with the small boats that rescued the BEF, and on the other side the great sweep of the Dunkirk beaches, where the waiting thousands stand, some up to their necks in the sea.  The texts I’ve chosen to set are by BG Bonallack, a poet who was there, and Virginia Woolf, who recorded the view from England in her 1940 diary – the lines of Virginia Woolf’s are from The Waves. Many thousands of people saw Thames to Dunkirk on show as a key piece of Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands at the British Library 11th May to 25th September 2012.

Here, Thames to Dunkirk is shown page by page as the story unfolds – each page stands 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide – and you can enlarge any page to full-screen size by clicking on it. I hope you’ll be able to imagine it standing open like a curved concertina, and having to walk all the way round it to read the text. (It’s possible to visit this sculpture and experience its scale in reality at the British Library, as it’s held in the permanent collection there – details at the foot of this page.)

And running alongside, a River of Stories – which have been added live online daily on each of the nine days from Tuesday 26th May 2015 to Wednesday 3rd June 2015, as the tale unfolds – a stream of memories, first hand accounts, poems and stories to which you are invited to add your own story, memory, family tale, poem or comment, attaching it to the river, contributing to the continuing flow of the narrative. You can add a comment directly to the stream, or send me your response by email to the.dunkirk.project[at]pottersyard.co.uk, and I’ll include it. New contributions will mostly be found at the end of each day’s page, most recent last.  Throughout May 2015 until Tuesday 26th the day pages were blank and only became live day by day, so that each day’s events could be read as they happened, and the stories followed through the whole ‘nine days’ wonder’ and beyond.

Some highlight contributions:

A ‘safely home’ postcard from Jimmy, Elspeth Owen’s father, on 1st June 1940 – Homeward

A birthday on the beach: Liz Archer’s father celebrates his 22nd birthday with bread and jam on 27th May 1940 – An extraordinary armada

Lt George Wilkinson’s account of his experiences as a medic begins on 26th May 1940 – A very tight corner

John Dibblee’s moving account of his experiences on board HMS Skipjack begins on 30th May 1940 – The view from the air

James Killen’s story of his grandfather Tammy Thorburn, boiler man on the Skipjack, and his return home, on 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water

‘Back Every Friday’: Roy Martin tells of troops sent into France immediately after the evacuation on 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk

Charlie Bonallack’s images of his Dunkirk Phossils begin on 28th May 1940 – Out there

A treasured newspaper photo sent by Linda Rowley shows Alec Harrison among the last soldiers to be rescued, on 3rd June 1940 – Towards the end

In thousands of visits to The Dunkirk Project since May 2010, many people have responded or contributed to the River of Stories, revealing individual unheard experiences and alternative views, as well as new poems and artworks. This has made The Dunkirk Project a true fusion of commemoration and re-evaluation, which combines first-hand accounts of a momentous event with a heightened awareness of its contemporary significance, including the difficult interface between individuality and communal responsibility that is reflected in any society’s myths by the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’ (Kathleen Raine). I’m aiming for exactly this transformation, a mosiac that builds up a wider, fuller, truer picture of this vast event which still has consequences for us all today.

This is a wonderful project. True remembering is essential to our humanity.

Jeremy Hooker

(The Dunkirk Project has been selected by the British Library for its UK Web Archive, and the River of Stories – and all contributions included – will be preserved permanently in this archive as part of The Dunkirk Project; the archive is updated regularly in order to save successive versions of the websites and blogs it preserves. Thames to Dunkirk has been purchased by the British Library for its permanent collection, and was on show during 2012 as part of the British Library’s major exhibition for London 2012 Writing Britain.)

Liz Mathews London 2015

To Thames to Dunkirk.

To River of Stories.

All text and photographs © Liz Mathews.