Sir Martin & The First & Second World Wars

I remember many striking, unusual occur­rences from my very early years which made me wonder why things were as they were. I can remember the assembling hall in my school, where there were long lists of names of men who had been killed in the First World War. I can remember flying bombs falling in London. I can remember hearing on the radio Churchill and the King speak, with some other boys, and our being very curious to hear whether the King would stutter or not.

I remember getting off the ship from Canada in July, 1944, in Liverpool (I was sent abroad to Canada during the war for safety, as many children were), and seeing all the destroyed buildings. I wondered what this meant, how it could happen, and what caused it.

Sir Martin on the battle field of Ypres with his assistant,1969
Sir Martin on the battle field of Ypres with his assistant,1969

Sir Martin’s inspiration

From 1945 to 1955 I was at a boarding school in London, Highgate School. Two history teachers there, Tommy Fox and Alan Palmer, encouraged me to learn history – and to write it. Several of the teachers had fought in the First World War, including the headmaster, Geoffrey Bell, who had won the Military Cross, and A.P. White, whose letters from the trenches were published only a few years ago.

From these masters came my interest in the First World War – an interest that was to lead me to make many visits to the battlefields of the Western Front, to war cemeteries, and to monuments and memorials throughout Britain and Europe, the Gallipoli peninsula, and the Middle East – including the British war cemeteries in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Martin on the Duchess of Bedford
Duchess of Bedford which took Martin and other child evacuees to Canada, 1940​ ​

In the summer of 1940, as a three – and – a – half year old evacuee to Canada, I was on board a Canadian Pacific ocean liner, the Duchess of Bedford, then part of a large convoy, when German U-boats attacked. The Duchess had the speed to hurry away, her captain having ordered the lifeboats to be extended on their davits as he hurried westward. The slower merchant ships had no means of escape, and five were torpedoed.

My memories of that voyage, and what I learnt about it after the war, influenced me in my determination to give due weight to the merchant seamen who carried food and war supplies across the oceans at such great risk. Perhaps it was that experience that first made me curious about the war, which I was to write about in several of my books.


Sir Martin & Second World War Films

Sir Martin Gilbert: Non-Jews who helped Jews during the Second World War

In The Righteous—Non-Jews Who Helped Jews During the Second World War Gilbert tells how, as the Third Reich carried out its program to exterminate European Jewry, many Gentiles risked their careers and lives to conceal and rescue Jewish refugees. His stories on the Righteous include such now-famous names as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, as well as ordinary people who exercised ordinary decency in

Sir Martin Gilbert Interview on Pope Pius XII during the Second World War.

One of the world’s most respected historians of the Second World War, Sir Martin Gilbert, speaks about his personal research of the action of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War.


Sir Martin’s First & Second World War Blogs

What Tolkien Taught Me About the Battle of the Somme

Governor General of Canada speaks of Sir Martin at the Battle of Britain ceremony

More a Time for Mourning


Sir Martin’s First & Second World War Book Talks

First World War

Second World War


Buy Sir Martin’s First World War Collection

Buy Sir Martin’s Second World War Collection


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