Whereabouts Unknown – The KOYLI in France 1940

Tim Lynch, historian, was our speaker on 2nd September with his talk entitled ‘Whereabouts
Unknown – The KOYLI in France 1940’.
Tim interestingly told us that the biggest part of history is story; Dunkirk is a familiar story but that
alone is not history. We were informed and entertained with stories of individual characters but
also details about what happened to the KOYLI in France. They were untrained, badly equipped,
but willing to do whatever they had to do. These are the men we forgot to remember.
The roots of what happened in 1940 can be traced back to the end of the First World War. Tim
informed us that the country had the largest army ever known in 1918 but it was expensive.
Consequently defence spending was drastically cut after the war; 766 million in 1919 to 189 million
by 1921. This led to a rule that there would be no major war for 10 years which was repeated year
on year. Stanley Baldwin’s belief that the ‘bomber will always get through’ led to the belief that the
army was not going to be all that important. Everything was pinned on the Navy and the RAF.
This, Tim told us, led to the situation in the late 1930s – a country which was under equipped to
defend itself. The French were building the Maginot Line, covering the French/German border,
which had strong defences in some places but weaker ones in others and Britain relied on this for
defence. The RAF were still using biplanes and the Navy had also been cut back. There were
problems in China and Japan; Britain could either defend itself or protect the trade routes to the
In this context, Tim believed that Chamberlain’s appeasement was not cowardice – he needed to
buy time. It would take months to fight a war effectively in terms of training and equipment and
many believed that the country would not be fit to go on the attack until 1941; despite this, Hore
Belisha had stated in parliament that in the event of war, Britain would send 19 divisions to France.
Tim showed us images of the British army in 1939 wearing WW1 uniforms and using WW1
weapons. Trucks requisitioned from private companies were not the best quality and it was said
that the movement of a division could be traced by following the trail of broken down lorries. We
had tanks but not a lot of training on how to use them and no radio communication between them.
Tim then went on to tell us in detail of the chaotic movement of the KOYLI and other divisions at
this time. Initially the idea had been to dig in along the Belgian border and wait for things to kick
off; essentially we were looking at a replay of WW1 and trying to hold things off until 1941 when we
would be better equipped to fight.
The idea was to create a militia in 1939; men would join up for 6 months and we would have a pool
of trained soldiers if we needed it. We also start to recall reserves such as Val Thomas who spent
some time in Wakefield. Tim told us stories of other individuals such as John Brown, a KOYLI
sergeant, who kept a diary of his experiences.
Tim told us of the three territorial divisions comprised of untrained soldiers who were sent to
France to work in the ports, where universal conscription in France meant manpower was needed
in these places. They would work on the ports furthest away from the battlefields to get their
supplies in but some of these ports were hundreds of miles away from the front line. Tim
interestingly told us, as an aside, of the origin of the well known phrase ‘popped up’ which came
from the soldiers drinking champagne in Poperinghe and how British soldiers had problems
remembering or pronouncing ‘vin blanc’ and resorted to calling it ‘plonk’.
The presentation showed us how time and again the Germans had superiority over our ill equipped
and ill trained army resulting in terrible loss of life, bombing roads and using tanks that were in
communication with each other and transporting their infantry in trucks. This was compounded by
British soldiers being called up to the front to fight when they were nowhere near ready, either in
training or equipment, and confusion over orders. He also told us tales of heroism such as
Archibald Bentley Beaumont, the 3rd youngest general in the British army in the FWW at the age
of 27. He had a Jewish past which didn’t count for much in the army of the 1930s and was
sidelined because of this but he was brought back as a temporary Brigadier General in WW2 to
organise lines of communication in the north. He quickly grasped his situation and realised what
needed to be done, organising men into his division successfully; an amazing piece of work which
didn’t get the recognition it deserved. Tim detailed what went wrong at places like the Canal du
Nord and how men who were heading for Le Havre were overrun by the Germans at St Valery en
Caux and had to surrender.
To conclude, Tim told us what happened to the individual characters mentioned in his talk and
showed us that what we know of Dunkirk in 1940 is part of a much bigger story.
Lorraine Simpson

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