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