Life and times

The his­to­rian has been busy dis­cov­er­ing ship­wrecks and swap­ping war sto­ries with Peter Jack­son

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His­to­rian Dan Snow

RE­CENTLY I FOUND MY­SELF in waders, step­ping off a pon­toon in Portsmouth har­bour as the sun rose, at one of the low­est low tides of the year. I had been in­vited by a spe­cial­ist in in­ter­tidal ar­chae­ol­ogy to visit two ship­wrecks, only vis­i­ble at the low­est tides, and we were tasked with con­firm­ing ex­actly what role these ves­sels had played in the First World War.

One his­to­rian in­stantly went down to his waist in the gluti­nous mud and had to be hauled out with a rope. Smugly I went on, tread­ing as lightly as I could, and made it to the wrecks. By com­par­ing gun­nery re­ports with the sus­tained dam­age, we were able to iden­tify them as Ger­man de­stroy­ers, both present at the Bat­tle of Jut­land in 1916. It was pre­vi­ously thought that none had sur­vived, but it tran­spires that the de­stroy­ers were towed there af­ter the armistice and used as tar­gets by Royal Navy ships, prac­tis­ing their gun­nery.

I left it un­til the last mo­ment to re­turn across the mud. The tide was push­ing higher, lap­ping at our boots, and soon it was up to my thighs. The fi­nal few me­tres took an age. Heav­ing and crawl­ing, the ef­fort merely pushed my limbs deeper into the mud. I ended up just get­ting the tips of my fin­gers on to the gun­wale of a dinghy and hauled my­self the last few feet – leav­ing be­hind my waders for fu­ture in­trepid ex­plor­ers to find.

I TOOK MY DAUGH­TER, Zia, who is seven, to meet a re­mark­able man dur­ing half-term. Dr Wil­liam Fran­k­land was born in 1912. He was cap­tured and held by the Ja­panese dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, and then had an il­lus­tri­ous med­i­cal ca­reer, work­ing with Alexan­der Flem­ing on peni­cillin. He was even flown to Bagh­dad to treat Sad­dam Hus­sein. The Iraqi pres­i­dent had a chest in­fec­tion and as­sumed it was an al­lergy, but Fran­k­land told him he needed to quit smok­ing. He re­mem­bers a dis­tinctly frosty at­mos­phere and was later told that a pre­vi­ous Iraqi doc­tor had been shot for sug­gest­ing that the pres­i­dent give up the cig­gies. Dr Fran­k­land is now 106 and is still pub­lish­ing pa­pers – he’s work­ing on one at the mo­ment. If my daugh­ter lives to be 100 (sev­eral of her fe­male rel­a­tives have been in that ball­park) she will be able to amuse her 22nd-cen­tury chums with tales of the man she met who was born 200 years ear­lier.

SOME WEEKS AGO, I watched the breath­tak­ing doc­u­men­tary They Shall Not Grow Old. The di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son has se­lected film ar­chive of the Western Front from the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum and slowed it down, stead­ied it, en­hanced it, colourised it, added a sound­track and ren­dered it in 3D. Some peo­ple have crit­i­cised it, but I think it’s as­ton­ish­ing to see the troops in full colour, with the sound of their squelch­ing feet in the mud-filled trenches – it shrinks the time be­tween us and them.

While pre­par­ing to in­ter­view Jack­son for a pod­cast, I dis­cov­ered that he is ut­terly ob­sessed with the war. He says he owes his ex­is­tence to the Ger­man ma­chine-gun­ner who wounded his grand­fa­ther on the first day of the Somme; he was evac­u­ated, hos­pi­talised, mar­ried his nurse and along came Jack­son’s dad.

On the day of the in­ter­view, we spent ages googling to check whether his grand­fa­ther had served un­der my great­grandpa at the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres, but he was in a next-door unit. I asked why Jack­son didn’t make a First World War epic and he said that he didn’t want to work on his hobby. It’s his first pas­sion, so why ruin it?

On This Day in His­tory, by Dan Snow, is out on 15 Novem­ber (John Mur­ray, £14.99)

He was later told that a pre­vi­ous doc­tor had been shot for sug­gest­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein give up cig­gies

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