Broinowski, Alison: Greg Lockhart’s little war history: a day on Île d’Yeu

Alison Broinowski*

‘Greg Lockhart’s little war history: a day on Île d’Yeu’, Honest History, 24 June 2023

A review of a book by Greg Lockhart.

When Greg Lockhart promised to send me his slim 160-page book, I feared that he, a former ANU colleague, might have mistaken the name of a French Island I’d never heard of. How wrong I was. From his visit in 2012 to Île d’Yeu, I now know better.

Île d’Yeu, ‘the Isle of God’, in the Bay of Biscay, is a small island in the Vendée region. Its name was apparently transliterated from Old Norse Oya. Over the centuries, its Atlantic location made it an intersection for adventurers, survivors, heroes, villains, slavers, fishers, Vikings, missionaries, British, and Germans. The island produced wheat, wine, and fish but today EU restrictions on fisheries have reduced its main income to tourism.

France’s Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun, disgraced as a Vichy collaborator, is buried on the island; or was until his coffin was exhumed in 1973 by three conspirators who wanted it buried at Douaumont, in accordance with Petain’s wishes. Corpse and coffin were soon found in a Paris garage, Dr Lockhart recalls, and re-interred in Île d’Yeu.

With his Francophone wife Monique, Greg Lockhart spent a single day exploring Île d’Yeu. They managed almost as many experiences as James Joyce could cram into 24 hours in Ulysses. They drove around the island with their friends, the Turbés, who share the Christian name Dominique. Turbé is a common name on the island, and there’s an Hôtel Turbé.

From the moment of their ferry’s arrival, Greg’s eye for detail makes the reader slow down. He offers detailed observations, particularly of the sky, and of colour, as if he were Cézanne. At Port Joinville, with its white fleet and stone buildings around the harbour, and a tricoleur above the mairie, he ‘registers the bands and blocks of colour’ on the surfaces of boats and houses like those of Mondrian abstraction.

As the four friends travel round the island, Greg notes in the omnipresent sea the same ‘maze of saucer-shaped agitations’ as Monet and John Peter Russell both painted at Belle-Île. Overlooking the sea is a fourteenth century château, complete with moat and drawbridge, where governors of the island lived for three hundred years. In 1355, a small garrison fled before an assault by Britain’s Black Prince on his way to France. He left les hommes rouges (the English red-coats) to occupy the island until they were expelled in 1392.

Greg, a Duntroon graduate, former ADF officer and Vietnam veteran,  as well as a literary omnivore, has many soldierly observations to make about what he sees. He also relies on several French histories of Île d’Yeu, and on his reading of Pierre Loti, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The war histories he cites include those by Robert Paxton and Paul Brickhill on the allied side and WG Sebald, Heinz Knoke, and Saburo Saki on the Axis side.

In the cemetery, Greg sees a grave shared by seven airmen from RAF Bomber Command, Canadians and New Zealanders, who crashed in 1942. They were a crew ‘whose history is instantly intelligible’ to Greg, who recalls their joint training and their high death rate, and the fact that they were commanded by Britain’s Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris. The crash, Greg later discovers, was witnessed by a girl who, by 2013 an old lady, described it to Dominique and Dominique. Greg contacts the family of the Canadian pilot to tell them.

There’s much more to fascinate honest historians about Île d’Yeu, and Greg’s elegant, contemplative account of it.

*Alison Broinowski AM is a former Australian diplomat and prolific author. She is President of Australians for War Powers Reform. Both she and Greg Lockhart have been frequent contributors to Honest History (use our Search engine) and she was co-editor of The Honest History Book (2017). 






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