Waley, Daniel, 1921-2017

by Trevor Dean

30 Oct 2019
20 (pages 305-324)

Daniel Waley was one of the leading medieval historians of the second half of the 20th century: author of major, enduring textbooks on Italy and on Europe, he also produced a long series of studies of Italian cities, their governments and their armies in the 13th century. Exceptionally for such a productive medieval scholar, he also wrote impressive works on British modern history, and made a mid-career change, from lecturing at the London School of Economics to managing a department in the British Library.

Posted to Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, XVIII


After one year at Cambridge, Daniel volunteered for military service, and served in the Eighth Army, 1940–5, with periods in the Intelligence Corps (Field Security), and attachments to ‘a strange cosmopolitan “private army” in Tunisia’ in 1943, and to an Italian ‘First Motorised Group’ in 1944. In a memoir of his experience in Tunisia, Daniel described his ‘totally undefined role’, mainly as an interpreter, to a multi-national ‘secret unit’ of British, French, Spanish, Greek and Austrian soldiers.3 The memoir mixes a historian’s concern to categorise the unit’s activities—punitive expeditions, patrolling no-man’s-land, and raids behind enemy lines—and to assess its achievements, with a more personal and emotional reminiscence—his fear before going on raids, his relief at the cancellation of a raid which, he later discovered, would have been a death trap, and his witnessing of a war crime (‘I made no protest at the time’; the incident later gave him nightmares, according to Christopher Whittick). He recounts one hare-brained spying scheme: ‘One operation which was suggested was that I should be dressed as an Arab fruit vendor, with a donkey, and should visit some German positions. I had only a few words of Arabic, and I turned the idea down …. I thought it quite likely that this operation would have concluded by my being shot.’ The tale of another near-miss was marked by the same detached, retrospective amusement: ‘the nearest I came to being shot at was fire from the Bren gun of a nervous British infantry outpost’. He also recalled with pleasure his friendships with fellow-soldiers, an evening with some dancing Arabs, and a day when they drove to visit the Roman ruins at Dougga. He also served in the Sicilian campaign in the summer of 1943, and in his memoir he recreates some memorable episodes: problems with his puncture-prone motorcycle, an order to teach Italian to other members of his unit despite his own limited knowledge based on recipes, his involvement in the rounding up of active Fascists (‘I interrogated many and arrested quite a few’) and his outbreaks of malarial fever, requiring treatment in a field hospital near Syracuse. From Messina, he also embarked on the allied invasion of the Italian mainland.

‘My war experience had a big impression on me’, but, like many veterans, he did not talk much about it: according to Caroline Barron, he made out that he had had a clerical war, doing nothing much but sign cheques and write chits. He left Italy in September 1945, initially on leave, then on discharge, and within weeks he was back in Cambridge, newly married, belatedly joining the Michaelmas term, and opting for just one further undergraduate year (under special regulations for service-men), studying medieval European history and ‘St Francis and the early Franciscans’, a special subject taught by David Knowles, who left strong impressions on his students for his lectures, ‘quite beyond the effect of the words themselves’, for their ‘beauty of language and depth of thought’.4 Daniel himself praised Knowles as ‘a great teacher’, ‘mio maestro’.5 So what was the ‘big impression’ that the war made on Daniel? Foremost must have been a new interest in Italian history: in a conference paper at Assisi in the 1970s Daniel recalled his first sight of that city in October 1944 when his army division was advancing along the main road, en route to the front in the Apennines.6 Second, Daniel came to have an abiding historical interest in military strategy, recruitment and leadership: it was failings in these very fields that he recalled of his experience in Tunisia in 1943.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

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