It’s all too easy to have a limited perspective of a historical period or the people within it. This tends to be because a small group of people were responsible for writing things down for posterity. I’m, of course, referring to the rich and the powerful, while the voices of those who are not rich and powerful have been diminished, if not lost entirely.
Take sex, for example. We know remarkably little about what sex was like throughout the majority of human history. It’s very strange when you think about it, how odd that we know next to nothing about a natural act and yet so much about wars, violence and murder? As sex historian Dr Eleanor Janegar said in Dr Kate Lister’s brilliant ‘Being a Sex Historian‘ article, “No one questions military history, because we all accept large scale violence as normal, but because sex is naughty people can act as though studying sexuality is just a bit of a giggle.”
What we do know is that people had sex, (otherwise we wouldn’t exist), but how most people felt about sex, how they perceived it, what things they liked and didn’t like, whether they were gay, straight, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, or anything else, remains predominantly a mystery. In the case of Britain, I’m putting this down to the fact that most who could read and write for hundreds of years were in the clergy, and they’ve often had a contentious relationship with sex and tended to ignore it or, if in doubt, just labelled it ‘sinful’.
The unfortunate side-effect of this is that we often do not see the rich and varied tapestry that is the human condition in history, and sometimes this can lead us to assume that it simply wasn’t there. We tell ourselves very niche, very limited stories about what people were like and assume that all were like that. It’s this, amongst other themes, that the developers of Sundown: A Dunkirk Story are exploring.
Sundown is a narrative experience that combines subtle puzzle elements with a deep branching storyline. Taking place on a train, players are cast in the role of a supernatural ticket inspector and explore the life of WW2 soldier Private William Harris.
“Sundown actually began as a project centred around time,” project script writer Rebecca Haigh told me, “and the idea was that the train would be a version of the boat that takes people across the River Styx. Each compartment explored the life of one person from a different time period; a soldier, a muse, and a businesswoman.” This initial concept was jettisoned when Rebecca and the team discovered a BBC report called ‘Forbidden Love: The WW2 letters between two men‘, and it was here that they had their epiphany.
“We knew we wanted to tell the story of a soldier at Dunkirk”, Rebecca continued, “and we knew that it would be set on a train, as the train was what the boys returned home on after they were dropped off at the various ports after the evacuation. Dunkirk was an epic within itself, but we felt that the story of a soldier had been told and told again by people with far more time and resources than we had. But the story of a soldier in love with another one? We couldn’t think of anything that had gone there yet in this form of media, so we focused instead on him.”
Forbidden Love was certainly an apt title for the BBC report. At the time of the second world war Homosexuality in Britain was illegal, and for a soldier in the army the punishment for this “improper conduct” was astonishingly severe. The maximum punishment was death by firing squad. Whilst the implementation of this ultimate measure was rare, other cruel punishments were often dished out. According to army historian A.D. Harvey, “at least 230 British soldiers were court-martialled, convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for homosexual offences” during the first world war.
Though the individual experiences of soldiers did vary greatly in the second world war, Peter Tatchell, writing for ‘WW2 People’s War’, told the story of Private Dudley Cave, a “gay soldier” who served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a driver. Cave recalled, “People were put in the army regardless of whether they were gay or not. It didn’t seem to bother the military authorities. There was none of the later homophobic uproar about gays undermining military discipline and effectiveness. With Britain seriously threatened by the Nazis, the forces weren’t fussy about who they accepted”.
Cave goes on to state, “There were none of the anti-gay witch-hunts we had after WW2. Homosexual soldiers were more or less accepted”. Yet Cave’s story was not a consistent experience. In ‘Forbidden Love’, Bethan Bell reported, “life as a homosexual in the 1940s was incredibly difficult. Gay activity was a court-martial offence, jail sentences for so-called “gross indecency” were common, and much of society strongly disapproved of same-sex relationships.”
The proof for this can be seen by the vacuum of evidence. Despite recent projections of around 250,000 men serving in the British Army at the time being gay or bisexual, there is a lack of letters between those in a gay relationship from the period. As gay rights activist Peter Roscoe astutely points out, most couples would want to get rid of anything so incriminating.
This makes the discovery of the love letters between Gilbert Bradley and Gordon Bowsher all the more important, as they are so incredibly rare. It’s a remarkable that they still even exist, as Bowsher wrote a letter to Bradly stating “do one thing for me in deadly seriousness. I want all my letters destroyed. Please darling do this for me. Til then and forever I worship you.” Thankfully for us, Bradley did not do so, though for a long time it was assumed the mysterious ‘G’ of his letters was a woman. Had they have been burnt, we would never have had this touching and meaningful insight into their lives:
“February 1st, 1941 – K . C. Gloucester Regiment, Priors Road, Cheltenham. My darling boy, For years I had it drummed into me that no love could last for life… I want you darling seriously to delve into your own mind, and to look for once in to the future. Imagine the time when the war is over and we are living together… would it not be better to live on from now on the memory of our life together when it was at its most golden pitch. Your own G.”
Rebecca and the Sundown Team were well aware of the importance of the letters: “This extraordinary piece of queer history is so rare because letters like these were usually burned – and rightly so. It was a dangerous time to be queer, and we can only imagine how many other stories like this one are lost to time because of those attitudes.”
The love story between these two men proved to be the foundation for Sundown, the game now exploring the complex relationship between two gay soldiers in the early stages of WWII. Private William Harris would be a soldier in the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, and would be on the beaches during the Dunkirk evacuation. His lover, Samuel Cooke, would have suffered an accident during the Phoney War and so would have been sent home. They would communicate through letters, but sadly William would not make it back.
“We read so many letters before and during the project.” Rebecca told me, “We wanted to tell a military story that people don’t normally get to hear. Even Nolan’s Dunkirk focused on the men in the moment, and not the complex lives and loose ties they left behind them. Just like Gilbert and Gordon, we didn’t want to define our characters by the war that disrupted their lives and their love. We wanted to explore the men that found themselves in that awful situation, their families, their fears, and their boredom. Most of all we wanted to respectfully hold a candle to Gilbert and Gordon, and all of the other men in their position, who are only now having their stories discovered and accepted.”
I’ll leave it to Gilbert and Gordon to conclude this article, who, in one example of their correspondence wrote, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time. Then all the world could see how in love we are.” Could they have possibly imagined, even in their wildest dreams, that one day their letters would not only be published but prove the inspiration for a video game – one of the most popular forms of media in the entire world? Based on what we know about Gilbert and Gordon, one can only imagine they’d be very moved to learn that their story is now so widely accepted and their love for each other can be so clearly seen.
Thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to talk to us and make this article possible. Sundown: A Dunkirk Story is currently in development, intended for release on PC later in 2019. You can keep up to date with the Sundown Team by following them on Twitter @Sundown_Game