Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Theatres of Memory: 1914 and 2014

Rereading Raphael Samuel’s ‘Theatres of Memory’ after a gap of some twenty years makes me regret, once more, the fact that I was never taught by him, nor collaborated on any projects with him. What an intellectual experience that would have been! But, all I can do is to embark on something true to his tutelary spirit and what better way for that can there be than to contribute critically to the 2014 World War One Centenary discussions?
The traditional and ‘heritage-official’ narratives need augmenting: German-British ‘Live and Let Live’ practices; the unofficial truces and the football matches; conscientious objectors; mutinies; the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign; the rent strikes; trade union strikes; the limited nature of democracy back then; Ireland; Empire; military executions; the need for state control; the presumed bellicosity of women - all these and more spring to mind as a way of extending discourse.
There is also the question of how future historians and sociologists might look at this Centenary and its representations: would not some be reflecting on how this past conflict might have been seen as a unifier, a sort of ‘Golden Age’, a message to a public fed up with contemporary involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? A nation united? There would be a whole mesh of conscious policy making by governments and unintended consequences at work here.
I am sure that Samuel would also have pointed out how the family history boom and the cultural remilitarization of our society in the new millennium have also led to a seeming equality of sacrifice: austerity might mean an Edwardian disparity in wealth, but that might be forgotten when both duke and dust-woman are shown by the TV cameras gazing at the uniform commonwealth gravestones.
Then again, there might be a future focus on how war might be presented as a modernizer, a clean force that swept away restrictive traditions. Oh well done trade unions for allowing dilution of labour and unskilled workers back then – what a lesson for today! Oh well done war for giving women the vote!  Oh well done women war workers for striking a blow for equality! So much more effective than the direct action of pre-war! (Carefully ignoring the fact that only women over 30 with property gained the vote; those canaries and phossy-jaws didn’t get the vote until 1928. Carefully forgetting that in that war fought for democracy, only 60% of men had the vote between 1914 and 1918 – but, then again, it was ‘For King and Country’ after all.)
Future historians might also take a cue from ‘Theatres of Memory’ and how the late 20th century saw an academic debate about the nature of ‘historical empathy’. These historians might well look at the debate that rages between the WW1 schools of historians: the patriots versus the war poets camp, as it were; they might look at the photographic and documentary sources and begin to think, ‘What do we really know about how the average Tommy felt during the conflict?’ They might well go down that old school route of ‘differentiated historical empathy’; there was not only a wide difference between soldiers but the feelings of the average soldier might well vary according to time and place on the front line.
Then again, looking at presentations of the Centenary, historians might focus upon the unintended deceit of calling it the Centenary of World War One. It should be, of course, strictly speaking, the Centenary of the Great War. And does that matter in any way apart from pedantry? Yes, I think it does: soldiers and munition workers thought they were fighting for a war to end all wars, not for a series of strategic mistakes that would lead to Fascism and the whole bloody thing all over again.
In conclusion, speaking as a 1951 war baby, whose father and grand-father both saw action of a combined nine years, what can I contribute personally to WW1 Theatres of Memory? Too much to write about, but how can I forget my gran poking at the sparks in the soot in the chimney, singing ‘Old soldiers never die, they only fade away’? How can I forget the music hall singsongs that we all had at Christmastide? And that is my final point: when recreating the WW1 past and its centenary, let’s not forget performance: ‘Oh! It’s a Lovely War!’ You don’t need an official formal occasion; get the songs (I shall be posting them up before long) and have a right old singsong – that will provide some good old ‘differentiated historical empathy’ and a right old barrowful of narratives.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Live and Let Live: the 1914 Truce in Context

The 1914 Truce in Context

It wasn’t, in fact, a bolt from the blue,
Instead the 1914 Truce was part of a pattern,
That both preceded that Christmas and continued beyond:
There were ‘cushy’ sectors, involving ‘laissez-faire’,
‘Rest and let rest’, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’,
‘Mutual obligation element’,
‘Tacit truces’, ‘mutual understanding’,
‘Compromise, and be mighty glad to be alive’,
Running along the British front line on the Western Front.

There were respected rituals during the day:
Breakfast bacon and ration party truces,
When as Ian Hay wrote in 1915:
‘It would be child’s play to shell …ration wagons
and water carts…but on the whole there is silence…
if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations…
he will prevent you from drawing yours.’

In addition, both sides faced General Winter:
A German officer commented in 1914:
‘Friend and foe alike go to fetch straw from the same rick
to protect them from the cold and rain and to have some sort of bedding
to lie on – and never a shot is fired.’

Sometimes, defused rifle grenades were tossed into trenches,
Containing messages, sometimes weather truces
Led to salutations, conversations and jokes,
(‘”Waiter!”... fifty Fritzes stuck their heads up…”Coming Sir.” ’);
Sometimes, a deliberate policy of positive inertia
Was recognized and reciprocated,
Sometimes night patrols would studiously avoid each other.

Weaponry, even when used, could also send messages:
Rifle and machine gun fire might be aimed too high,
Hand bombing led to a signaled, invitational
And deliberate misplacing of explosives:
‘their trenches…no more than ten or fifteen yards from ours…
was a good insurance against strafing on either side.
The mildest exchange of hand grenades or bombs…
Would have made life intolerable.’

Heavy artillery took a different line:
Here messages were sent by the fact that often,
The same spot would be shelled at exactly the same time each day:
‘Twelve little Willies at noon to the tick,
Got our heads down, and go them down quick,
Peaceful and calm was the rest of the day,
Nobody hurt and nothing to say.’

‘Nobody hurt and nothing to say’:
I have compiled this prose-poem from ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System’, by Tony Ashworth (Macmillan, 1980); his conclusion is that:
‘Altogether it does not seem unreasonable to assert that live and let live occurred in about one-third of all trench tours made by all divisions within the BEF. Such was the scale of this undertone of trench warfare.’
This ignored and forgotten history is something to talk about in centenary year.

Live and Let Live

When you’ve been out ‘ere as long as I ‘ave,
You get to know the ropes and have a laugh,
Keep’ yer ‘ead down aint enough for Fritz,
You’ve got to show you can live and let live.
When Fritz has his breakfast, let ‘im be,
Then he’ll let you ‘ave your bacon an’ yer tea,
But if you shells ‘im when ‘e’s having grub,
He’ll pay ya double back and there’s the rub,
An’ when yer out at night lookin’ for straw,
If you sees Fritz then give ‘im some, and more,
Then he’ll do the same and ease yer bed,
Instead of aimin’ for yer ‘ead.
An’ when it rains and raids is off,
Send Fritz a joke and make ‘im laugh,
And when he fires and aims too high,
You shoot ‘im back but in the sky.
Live and let live, that’s our way,
That way we live another day.
“Eh?  What’s that? My best memory?
Of this whole long ruddy war?
It aint the medals. It aint the glory.
It was No Man’s Land. That first Christmas.
In the snow. Playing Fritz at football.”

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas 1914


There was, of course, more than one football match
In the long line of unofficial truces
That stretched all along the front in Flanders;
Indeed, the matches themselves were a sort of climax,
Punctuating the peace that started before Christmas
With shared burying of the dead in No Man’s Land,
And that lasted in some areas until the early spring.

But on Christmas Eve, Christmas trees appeared,
Glowing in the gathering Tannenbaum twilight:
‘Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches’;
Miracle of miracles, the rain stopped,
A full moon stepped across the cloudless sky,
A hoar frost shimmered in the starlight,
Boots crunched on mud now stiff as duckboards.

Soldiers moved as if in a trance or dream,
Climbing out of their trenches, milling around,
Swopping bodies, kodaks, insignia, Schnapps, beer,
Tobacco, jam, stew and addresses;
Saxons laughed at Scots, blue beneath their kilts,
Over at frozen, peaceful, Ploegsteert Wood,
Then caps were dropped on the ground for goalposts.

Kurt  Zehmisch, 134th Saxons, wrote in his diary:
‘Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love managed to bring mortal enemies together for a time… I told them we didn’t want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas either. They agreed.’
So there they were, dodging shell holes, fox holes,
Barbed wire, ditches, turnips and cabbages,
Some roasting a pig together, chasing hares,
Feasting further on plum pudding and wurst,
In what Sergeant-Major Frank Nadin called
‘A rare old jollification, which included football.’

His comrade in the Cheshires, Ernie Williams said:
‘The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side… They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part…Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us…There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all.'
So fraternization continued, with singing and smoking,
Tea and cocoa, until darkness descended,
When as Private Mullard of the Rifle Brigade said:
‘Just after midnight you could hear, away on the right, the plonk-plonk of the bullets as they hit the ground, and we knew the game had started again.’

And so the dream ended, the nightmare restarted,
No more ‘Wotcha cock, ow’s London?’
Nor, ‘Are you the Warwickshires?
Any Brummagem lads there?
I have a wife and 5 children there.’
No more: ‘ we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’.’
No more ‘Dearest Dorothy, Just a line from the trenches on Xmas Eve – a topping night with not much firing going on & both sides singng.’
No more ‘Friede auf der Erde’, ‘Peace on Earth’,
No more headlines like ‘TOMMY’S TRUCE BETWEEN THE TRENCHES’.

Instead, a boast of sharing cigars
‘with the best shot in the German army…but I know where his loophole is now and mean to down him tomorrow.’
Instead, the German Londoner who shouted:
‘Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country;
I fight for mine. Good Luck.’

Instead, ‘ I do not wish to hurt you
But [Bang!] I feel I must.
It is a Christian virtue
To lay you in the dust.
Zip, that bullet got you
You’re really better dead.
I’m sorry that I shot you-
Pray, let me hold your head.’

Friday, 20 December 2013

Stroud Farmers' Market and a Navvy's Curse

If you put this market out to tender
(And make the wrong decision),
Springs might rise up from the pavement,
Drown Cornhill’s imagination,
Cut ditches through your anxious brow.

If you put this market out to tender
(And make the wrong decision),
Captain Swing will wander through your dreams,
Stretch your nightmares out on tenterhooks,
Turn your eyes a sleepless Stroud Scarlet.

If you put this market out to tender
(And make the wrong decision),
And talk of ‘Value for Money’,
Then don’t be surprised if Stroud’s Genius Loci
Boycotts a misplaced innovation.

If you put this market out to tender
(And make the wrong decision),
Grass will grow in your pockets,
Celandine in your bank vaults,
Weeds in your account books.

But if you leave things as they are,
Then money will rain upon your heads,
Goodness will grow within your heart,
And generosity within your soul.