Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Truce: The Day The War Stopped; a Book Review

One of my Christmas presents was the very timely The Truce: The day the War Stopped by Chris Baker. The book was released to coincide with the anniversary of the infamous 'Christmas Truce' that occurred on the Western Front in 1914 and is the perfect antidote to the vast amount of mawkish sentimental mythologising of the event that has been building in strength over the last few months.This post is a review of the book as I read it very quickly and found it difficult to put down.


(Image from: http://www.1914-1918.net/thetruce.html)

First things first, it's a relatively short book, with 170 pages of text, plus a bibliography and several well produced maps in the appendix, the latter are very useful for comparing places mentioned in the text. There is also a short section of photographic plates in the centre section with some interesting modern views of the places mentioned in the text. Chris Baker's writing is good and flows well, however, there are a number of jarring typos throughout the book, which makes me wonder if an editor or proofreader was employed in the publishing? But, to be honest, that is the only negative thing about the work, from my point of view. 

What the book attempts to do, which a lot of the recent commentary on the truce event has failed to do, is to actually put Christmas 1914 into its historical context. With this in mind, the work is divided into two parts, events in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day are covered in part one and the actual Christmas Truce is covered in part two. Part one provides the historical context of several British (and Indian) attacks on the German lines (and counter attacks) which demonstrate that the BEF of late 1914 was at the very beginning of the learning process which would see it in the vanguard of victory in 1918. The devolution of command, which was partially responsible for success in 1918, was at a very early stage and although the pre-war 1909 Field Service Regulations espoused that battlefield command should favour 'the man on the spot', this was written with forces much smaller than the BEF in mind. What was needed in late 1914 was a rigid hierarchy of command that would avoid the piecemeal attacks with little artillery support that were the mainstay of this period. Hindsight is a great thing, but the 1914 GHQ were not blessed with it and these shortcomings are examined in part one of The Truce, but without judgement.


Part one takes us through each of the attacks performed by the BEF in December with thorough research from the National Archives and even demonstrates that other truces had occurred in early December when men from the 2nd Essex and 181st Saxon Regiment had met in No-Man's-Land, so the precedent was already set for Christmas Day. Part one also covers the fact that there were a lot of dead left out in no-man's-land as a result of these attacks and one of the reasons for the truce was to allow the opposing soldiers to bury their casualties. This is a point that is very rarely commented on in contemporary media articles and the truce is seen as some form of protest against the war. This was not the case and the real reasons behind it were far more prosaic, including the desire to see the enemy in the flesh, boredom, the desire to get out of filthy trenches (they were dug into the water table rather than the later breastworks, in 1914) and the need to deal with the dead.


(Image from: http://www.1914-1918.net/truce.htm)

Part two of the book studies the truce itself by taking a detailed look at the war diaries of the individual British units that formed the BEF line on 25 December 1914. Again, this is something that is woefully missing from contemporary media articles on the truce and highlights that it was not an occurrence along the entire front line; some British soldiers climbed out into no-man's-land to meet their German counterparts, but others, such as the Grenadier Guards continued hostilities throughout the day. Along with the unit diaries, Baker has also pulled in other contemporary sources, such as letters, personal diaries, recollections of veterans and newspaper publications. The second section has attempted to corroborate some of these sources in a proper historical sense, rather than just relying on one letter or diary entry as empirical evidence, which some other commentators on the truce have done.


This is where some of the interesting aspects of the book shine through. It is notable that some of the letters that were published in newspapers in 1914/5 speak of the Germans as being 'fed up' of the war, almost as though this is providing a morale boost for the readers. The use of contemporary evidence also challenges the much mythologised football 'match'. This 'match' was the centrepiece of the recent high profile Sainsbury's Christmas advert (I'm not providing a link to it, cos I hate it...) and a UEFA event that commemorated the truce (ditto).


The 'evidence' for such a match appears to hinge on the recollections of a few veterans, conducted 50 years after the events. Historical scrutiny shows that some of the units mentioned by them were not even in the same place as described and one had even lied about the rank he had achieved! Veterans recollections are notoriously difficult to use as a historical tool, as interviews are generally conducted some time after the events, which leads to misremembering, influences from exterior sources and even interviewer bias. This is not to say that recollections are useful, they just have to be checked against other historical sources for their accuracy. The Truce perfectly sums up these problems in the final section on football in the trenches.


*misremembers

There undoubtedly were football matches between men in British units and even the Germans kicking a ball across no-man's-land is mentioned, but none of this adds up to a 'match' between the opposing armies by any means. Several pages of The Truce specifically debunk this myth that appears to have taken hold in the public's shared knowledge of the First World War. The fact that the British diaries barely mention football in a period when the game was at a peak of interest at home and in the army says a lot about the myth!


All in all, this is an excellent book, full of good rigorous revisionist historical work on a largely mythologised subject and all proceeds go towards up keep of the Long, Long Trail website, so is worth the cover price for that alone. Now, all I need to see is a sister publication that examines in detail the German unit diaries that were opposite the BEF on Christmas Day 1914.

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