12 December 2015
Could it be that you are still short of a Christmas present? For a person interested in the history of the Second World War and its consequences?
Norman Davies is well-known for his research into, and knowledge of, Central and Eastern European history. The subject of his latest book is no exception: Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents.
Professor Davies made an odyssey himself in search of survivors, their stories, and some unique personal photos in their possession. These, combined with a solid background of historical fact, make for a highly personal take on this familiar tale of heroism.
If the journey of General Anders and his men is NOT familiar to you, dare I say it ought to be? To bring the starving, exhausted remnant of the Polish Army out of the prison camps of the Soviet Union to the slopes of Monte Cassino in 1944 was a miracle. Stalin intended them to rot. Why he allowed them to leave, and how General Anders, himself a prisoner in the notorious Lubianka prison, brought them out (like Moses bringing the Jews out of Egypt), should be compulsory reading in every class room.
Not only did General Anders bring the 80,000 soldiers out of Soviet Russia; he also somehow negotiated the release of approximately 50,000 civilians from the camps and villages in Siberia – provided they could make their own way to Guzar, where the army was mustered. Many of the soldiers and civilians were near to death.
Norman Davies has a list of publications as long as your arm. White Eagle, Red Star, his first book, brought him to public notice with an acclaimed account of the Polish Soviet War which began in 1919. Since then he has become a recognised, though occasionally controversial, expert in the field.
General Anders is a man of legend. Superb horseman, beloved by his men, and, like Nelson, not averse to turning a blind eye to orders. He survived the War and died in 1970. He chose to be buried among his men in the Military Cemetery at Monte Cassino.
The book couldn’t but remind me of a few lines I wrote in an article twenty-six years ago. Here is part of it:
“. . . ex-soldiers of the Polish 13th Battalion (5th Rifles Division) meet for an annual party (in our church hall). 1989 is the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and before you are saturated with commemorations, let me tell you about these veterans of the Italian Campaign.
In 1953 the Combatants Association of the 13th Battalion founded a lively club in Cowley, Oxford, where ex-soldiers, their families, and indeed all members of the numerous Polish community could socialise and obtain the help needed to cope with the complexities of living in a strange country.
As time went by, families found their feet and were absorbed into the host society. Sadly, a few of the men were too damaged by the war to be able to manage on their own and were ‘confined to barracks’ in psychiatric hospitals.
Regular visiting and events such as the New Year party (‘Sylwester’ is much-celebrated in Poland) keep these few in touch with their compatriots and homeland. This year only half-a-dozen will tuck into the traditional meal, presided over by the Polish chaplain, Fr Klyza, and take home a parcel of goodies. (Pyjamas, slippers, a sweater, tobacco, shaving kit, sweets and magazines in Polish…)
Ryszard Alwinger, ultra-modest war hero and inspiration behind the continuing care, told me the work will go on as long as there is a need. Funds from the 5th Division support not only the needs of ex-soldiers, widows, and orphans in this country, but all over the world; not least back home in Poland. Close links are maintained with the Dorset Regiment, with whom the Poles fought, side by side on the slopes of Monte Cassino.
As long as there are comrades to remember, these exiled old soldiers will not fade away.”