BG Bonallack, Virginia Woolf’s diary and the making of Thames to Dunkirk

BG Bonallack in uniform (c. 1940) Image shown by kind permission of BG Bonallack's family

BG Bonallack in uniform (c. 1940)
Image shown by kind permission of BG Bonallack’s family

When I began research for my huge artwork Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, I was intrigued both by Virginia Woolf’s account in her 1940 diary of anxiously waiting for news of friends and neighbours stranded at Dunkirk, and also by The Retreat, a poem I’d found years before in Kenneth Clark’s Faber Book of English History in Verse, and never forgotten. The poem’s vivid imagery and perfectly restrained drama fired my imagination irresistably, and I was convinced that only someone who had actually been there and experienced it for himself could write about Dunkirk like that.

Along with this, Virginia Woolf’s tale of her neighbour Harry West’s rather ignoble experiences at Dunkirk (and getting away from there) led me to think how diverse the individual stories must be about this one event shared by more than 300,000 people, and I started to explore both the mass of published material about Dunkirk, the official history, and the archives full of unpublished stories, records and photos in the Imperial War Museum, and to seek out artworks, films and recordings relating to the event. I also began to ask people about their family memories or stories of Dunkirk.

Books and DVDs from my collection of material related to Dunkirk 1940

A few books and films from my collection of material related to Dunkirk 1940

After an obsessive few months becoming more and more overwhelmed with the sheer variety of human experience involved in this one event, I began to see the official history as inadequately diverse. Remembering The Retreat and a few lines from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, I felt that together they represented all the myriad different experiences and stories I had found.  I wanted to make an artwork that would reflect all the stories and points of view, even the hidden and subversive ones, the untold ones and the dissenting voices – an artwork about the individuals caught up in this huge event, about real lives, not a patriotic celebration of militarism, or even triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Page 1

It seemed to me that that the two texts, though so different, were not oppositional, but created a dynamic tension in their juxtaposition.  I thought that if I were to set them together in a surreally large book, almost too large to handle (to grasp), the reader/viewer would be able to engage with the enormity of the event by reading between the lines, while at the same time gaining some physical experience of the surreal scale of Dunkirk 1940 by having to walk all the way round the 17 metre-long book to read it – or by having a certain difficulty in turning its enormous pages. The idea was to turn something that should be familiar, portable, easy to handle, reliable, predictable (a book) into something altogether unwieldy and disorienting, unmanageable and surreal – while still retaining its essential ‘bookness’, and that the concept, as well as the contents of the volume would itself be symbolic of the event.

Thames to Dunkirk (endpaper/cover)

VW’s text, lettered freehand with a driftwood stick from the Thames in a lyrical hand (not unlike her own handwriting though on a huge scale) flows beneath the type-text (lettered with a brush) of BG Bonallack’s poem as an undercurrent. To me it sounds an alternative voice, that of an individual caught in events not of their own choice or making, a person questioning their own responsibility, complicity, and resistance to overwhelming forces of authority, duty and compulsion.

TtoD p 22 detail

Within this huge book, the two ‘lines’ of the two texts were set alongside a third line: a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of the little ships that came so gallantly to the rescue (each set as near as possible to its place or port of registration):

Detail of London page

Detail of London page with the Princess Freda at Westminster

And on the other side, a fourth line: a watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches from De Panne and Bray Dunes eastwards of Dunkirk town, westward to Gravelines and beyond, with the vast queues and crowds of waiting soldiers represented by the names of some of those whose accounts I’d read.

Thames to Dunkirk (Dunkirk side detail)

The composition of the Dunkirk side mirrors the line of the Thames, incised through the paper pages, and the watercolour images of town and burning oil refineries are based on RAF photographs of the evacuation from the air.

Page 19

Many of these photographs are familiar images to us – the queues of men, the pall of smoke, the wrecked port and the boats and ships endeavouring to lift the men off have appeared in many treasured publications:

'The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico with line drawings by Anne Linton, based on photographs in the IWM archive, some of which were published in John Masefield's 'The Nine Days Wonder', also shown here

‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico with line drawings by Anne Linton, based on photographs in the IWM archive, some of which were published in John Masefield’s ‘The Nine Days Wonder’, also shown here

I wanted to reflect this familiarity with the tools and materials I used in the making process: here, I’m making the individual marks that represent each person in the crowds on the beaches with a wooden peg, a symbol of old-fashioned domesticity in itself, with a suggestion of the hastily-improvised nature of the whole evacuation:

Thames to Dunkirk in progress

The unifying idea of the four lines running concurrently was again inspired by Virginia Woolf, who wrote (in a letter to Stephen Spender):

I should like to write four lines at a time, describing the same feeling, as a musician does; because it always seems to me that things are going on at so many different levels simultaneously.

With the concept and design decided, I tried to find out more about BG Bonallack. (Having read VW’s diaries many times for years I felt fairly confident that I knew as much as she would want me to know about her.) I tried for information from the editor and publishers of the Faber book without success, and other leads proved fruitless, so that when the British Library purchased Thames to Dunkirk for their permanent collection in 2010, I was obliged to tell them that I had been unable to contact the copyright holder in his text, and could only cite the Faber book as my source. I was delighted when members of BG Bonallack’s family saw Thames to Dunkirk on show in the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition in 2012 and contacted me, and they have since been extremely helpful with information which I’m now able to add to The Dunkirk Project.

Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews on show in the British Library's 2012 exhibition 'Writing Britain'

Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews on show in the British Library’s 2012 exhibition ‘Writing Britain’

Among the many people who asked me for more information about BG Bonallack was Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, who in 2014 selected The Retreat for his superb anthology of modern war poems, The Hundred Years’ War, and in that book he gives a brief biography of BG Bonallack:

B.G. Bonallack (1907-2003) was commissioned into the 92nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, at the outbreak of war, was mentioned in despatches (Dunkirk) and awarded the Military Cross in 1943 (Primasol Bridge, Sicily). After the war he commanded a Territorial Army regiment and managed a family firm of coachbuilders. He also published an historical novel, The Flame in the Dark: A Chronicle of Alfred the Great (1976).

In the acknowledgements for The Hundred Years’ War, the editor adds the information that ‘Retreat from Dunkirk is an extract from ‘British Expeditionary Force’, first published in Lowdown, the journal of the 92nd Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Artillery, Anzio beachhead, May 1944, published by permission of the estate of BG Bonallack.’ I was delighted to meet members of Basil Bonallack’s family at the publication launch of The Hundred Years’ War in 2014, where they told me about presentation copies of this longer poem from which The Retreat is extracted, typed by BGB himself. His type-face was extremely similar to the 1940’s one which I lettered (on a huge scale) on the pages of Thames to Dunkirk, without having first seen this typescript.

Lettering the type-text by brush (upside-down)

Lettering the type-text by brush (upside-down)

Here for the first time are some images of extracts from BGB’s presentation typescript (entitled Bonnie Dunkirk – a nod to the elegiac Bonnie Dundee, perhaps, as well as a tip-o’-the-nib to BGB’s own nickname) shown by kind permission of BG Bonallack’s family, as well as his photograph and a poignant scrap-book press cutting preserved by his wife:

The opening stanzes of Bonnie Dunkirk by BG Bonallack

The opening stanzes of ‘British Expeditionary Force’ or ‘Bonnie Dunkirk’ by BG Bonallack – typed by the poet

Bonnie Dunkirk p13

Page 13 of ‘Bonnie Dunkirk’ by BG Bonallack, with the beginning of ‘The Retreat’, which starts at ‘That night we blew our guns.’

Bonnie Dunkirk p14

Page 14 of Bonnie Dunkirk by BG Bonallack, with the rest of the poem set on ‘Thames to Dunkirk’

Bonnie _ MC - Version 3

Cutting from Kent Messenger December 1943 about BG Bonallack's award of the Military Cross for gallant and distinguished services in Sicily

Cutting from Kent Messenger December 1943 about BG Bonallack’s award of the Military Cross for gallant and distinguished services in Sicily

Of course it was true about BG Bonallack’s actual presence at Dunkirk – hence the mention in despatches – and his daughter Jenny Peters tells me that he was brought back to England by the Medway Queen (featured on pages 12 and 23 of Thames to Dunkirk) – apparently among the last soldiers to return, having fought in the rearguard action.  As the press cutting mentions, Basil Bonallack appears as ‘Boyd’ in the bestselling Return via Dunkirk by ‘Gun Buster’ (Battery Captain of Y Battery in the 2004th Field Regiment) published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1940 and already in its 13th edition by my own 1942 copy.  The astonishing ‘story of the British Army in their glorious retreat from Dunkirk’, told with great gusto in this gripping book can be followed in part through the pages of the River of Stories, and you’ll also find images from the dust jacket and a map of Y Battery’s trouble-strewn route to Dunkirk as one of the four artillery regiments chosen as rearguard to cover the retreat of the troops.

It was an honour, undoubtedly.  But for the moment most of us thought the news a bit depressing.  We weren’t carried away by any false heroics.  A rearguard action covering the evacuation was going to be no picnic. (Return via Dunkirk by Gun Buster, p182)

As we would expect from BGB’s own poetic account, ‘Boyd’ is brave, sensitive, and somewhat laconic (he describes their plight as ‘uncomfortable’ now and then), but with a strong sense of humour, which must have helped. And when they finally get on board the Medway Queen, the last battery in the BEF to come out of action, they head for the ward-room in their sea-drenched clothes and have a jolly good sleep all the way home to England.

Thames to Dunkirk p12 detail

TtoD p23 detail

BG Bonallack’s own name is lettered as the last of the soldiers on the beaches, on page 23, as a kind of statement of my original certainty that The Retreat could not be such a vivid, unforgettable poem without also being one among these hundreds of eye-witness accounts now collected together by The Dunkirk Project.

TtoD p23

For this new edition of The Dunkirk Project in 2015, BG Bonallack’s grandson Charlie Bonallack, who is an artist, has made and photographed a very special commemorative collection: Dunkirk Phossils.  Shown in full for the first time on a new page Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack, these beautiful artworks are porcelain panels, each with a hand-painted image drawn from a photographic source and fired onto the porcelain at high temperatures. Some of the photos Charlie has interpreted for this series are family photographs of his grandfather in the 1940’s; others are images from the Imperial War Museum’s photographic archive.  One shows Basil in uniform on horseback, recalling his exploit on the chestnut horse to entertain the gunners quoted in Stave XII of his typescript of Bonnie Dunkirk (shown in the image above):

I caught a chestnut horse

And mounting, cantered down the line of guns

And jumped the ditch.  The gunners cheered and laughed.

Dunkirk Phossil 66 by Charlie Bonallack

Another of these moving images shows Basil with his wife Kate and their first son John on holiday in Ireland, probably in 1943.  With a smiling Basil in uniform, and little John in Kate’s arms, the peaceful image recalls the scene in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve where HMS Torrin’s captain and his family happily picnic high up on the South Downs while spitfires and Luftwaffe fight it out over their heads in the Battle of Britain.

Dunkirk Phossils 67 by Charlie Bonallack

And Charlie’s portrait of his grandfather (in a climate obviously warmer than Ireland’s) gives a touching picture of Basil, who like so many of the unforgettable characters in these stories from Dunkirk 1940, clearly managed to retain his own personality in spite of being in uniform:

Dunkirk Phossil 65 by Charlie Bonallack (detail)

Charlie’s process imparts an extraordinary degree of intimacy to these images, at the same time as a kind of patina that evokes the age of the image, the distance of the moment eternally caught.   And this is exactly what I’ve aimed to do with The Dunkirk Project –  to recapture how it really was for individual people in that very particular place and time, 75 years ago.

Many thanks to BG Bonallack’s daughter Jenny Peters, his sons Tim and John Bonallack, and his grandsons Charlie Bonallack and Christopher Peters for contributing information, images and permissions so generously. All photographs on this page are the copyright of the estate of BG Bonallack, except the images of Thames to Dunkirk, my book collection and the image of The Snow Goose and The Nine Days Wonder which are © Liz Mathews, and the three images of his Dunkirk Phossils which are © Charlie Bonallack.

The Hundred Years’ War ed. Neil Astley (Bloodaxe 2014, ISBN 978 1 78037 100 9) can be found on this link and for a review of this brilliant, harrowing and timely book click here on How did they bury them all by Frances Bingham

One Response to “BG Bonallack, Virginia Woolf’s diary and the making of Thames to Dunkirk”


  1. It’s a real shame Basil is not still with us as he would not only have been bowled over with the compliment of focusing on his work, which despite his clunky noisy typewriter, he went about very quietly. But he, along with his peers, would have greatly appreciated the recognition. He did use to recount a few tales to us but few and often they involved humour. I think his generation endured horrors (he also lost his elder brother Jack in WW1) we cannot imagine. This, along with possibly not seeing your family for years too must have taken its toll on many. Your work here does more than a bronze statue or a cold memorial covered with names, it’s a living testament that will hopefully grow with time.
    It goes without saying that I’m honoured and grateful for this opportunity to contribute something both to your wonderful project but also Basil’s work, so thank you very much.


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