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Popular British history is, in fact, replete with similar examples. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made famous in the film Zulu, starring Michael Caine, is remembered for the small unit of British soldiers who held off thousands of African warriors. The Black Hole of Calcutta grabbed the popular imagination, describing the infamous prison in India where scores of British soldiers captured after the fall of Fort William to the last independent ruler of Bengal died in appalling conditions. The Retreat to Jalalabad—or the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army—is remembered for the British troops slaughtered by Afghan forces fleeing Kabul in 1842. Even Boudicca, the native warrior queen crushed by Roman conquerors, is honored with a statue outside Parliament—erected by the Victorians while they were busy putting down their own colonial revolts.
There are seemingly endless examples. Britain chooses not to remember the Battle of Omdurman in present-day Sudan, when imperial troops massacred the African enemy using the overwhelming technological superiority of the machine gun. Instead, what has lodged in the memory is Gordon of Khartoum, the imperial officer who died in the siege of the city before British troops could relieve him. Equally, Britain chooses not to remember its real strategic failures: the Battle of the Chesapeake, which led to the loss of Yorktown—and the United States—or the fall of Singapore, which was captured by the Japanese during World War II; the Dutch burning the English fleet in 1667, or the partition of India in 1947.
Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and a professor at the London School of Economics’ Institute of Global Affairs, told me that the events Britain chooses to remember are designed to appeal to its romantic image of success against the odds, which is why leading Brexiteers such as Johnson are returning to them once again. By citing the Charge of the Light Brigade, or even Dunkirk, Johnson and others aren’t appealing to the celebration of defeat, but to adversity on the road to victory.
“That’s what [Johnson] is trying to appeal to: It will be a temporary setback, but on the long road to rebuilding Britain’s greatness,” she said.
And yet the episodes paint a largely misleading picture of Britain’s recent history: The real victories in British history are Waterloo, fighting alongside the Prussians; Trafalgar, establishing British rule of the waves; and World War II, made possible by American might and Russian blood.
Mary Beard, a Cambridge history professor, agrees that Britain is focused on the wrong lessons from its history. “I think there is a fascination with ‘valiant’ defeats,” she told me in an email. “But more than that, it is old Empire/‘buccaneering’ (i.e. piratical) language.”
The real lesson from British history, then, is not the myth of the plucky underdog but the power wrought from financial dominance, military alliances, and overwhelming force: D-Day, not Dunkirk.