The 1914 Christmas truce has been thoroughly sanitised by the establishment, argues Paul Demarty
Towards the beginning of this year, Michael Gove - then secretary of state for education - penned a bizarre op-ed in the Daily Mail, blaming the generally poor reputation of World War I on ‘lefties in the media’ and singling out the trench-set last season of Blackadder for special criticism.
Gove’s intervention was widely mocked; it was one thing to offer patriotic bromides in the immediate wake of the slaughter, but there are 100 years of historiography in place now, and the leftwing “myths” Gove sought to ‘correct’ (primarily that the war was characterised by catastrophic military misleadership) are simply the commonplaces of rightwing history nowadays. Even Niall Ferguson, that atrocious and incompetent Tory boy, weighed in to say that entering the war was a mistake for Britain.
Having failed to revive self-deluding, retrospective jingoism, the government was rapidly forced back to plan B, so far as commemorations go - throwing weight behind the orthodox ‘lions led by donkeys’ line, in which the monstrous human cost of the war occurred in spite of the courage and tenacity of ‘our boys’, and was instead due to strategic ineptitude on the part of the military brass.
This is not, to be sure, the sort of story a conservative wants to tell about the great men of his nation; but it is a more than acceptable compromise with the raving lefties, who refuse to let the 17 million dead lie quietly in their graves. It is a story of the salt of the earth triumphing against adversity; the spirit of tenacity and valour that a good Tory associates with ‘British values’. Rupert Brooke’s ‘The soldier’ tells the tale:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
It is in this context that we must view the ‘festive’ commemorations currently being bludgeoned over our heads: it is time to remind ourselves of the Christmas truce! For those who are unaware of this - which, given the amount of guff floating around on this topic, must surely include only the most historically illiterate of cave-dwellers - we are approaching the centenary of Christmas 1914, when at several points along the line, soldiers from both sides joined in song and met in no man’s land. They buried the dead; they exchanged gifts; most legendarily, they played football. And then they got back to killing each other.
A prince has been dispatched to unveil a trite memorial - two hands clasped fraternally, set in a metal outline of a football, couched in the usual vagaries of glorious historical apology: “It really is the most fitting culmination of the Football Remembers programme, and will serve as a permanent reminder of one of the key moments of World War I,” said the Duke of Cambridge.
Mawkish as that ceremony was, it surely cannot compare to - of all things - a Christmas advert for Sainsbury’s. A big-budget, two-minute extravaganza, the ad plays the story completely straight, only ending with a Sainsbury’s logo and a message about how good it is to ‘share’ (provided, one assumes, you are sharing things that were purchased at Sainsbury’s). Quite apart from being clunky and unimaginative, there is something especially nauseating about the way that the events of Christmas 1914 are not tied explicitly to the joys of ‘buy one, get one free’ matchmakers for Christmas 2014 - it is almost as if an earnest holocaust documentary was cluttered with product placement for Coca-Cola.
From its official sanctification by those two ugly artefacts of British post-imperial decadence - the celebified monarchy and the big-budget Christmas advert - we may surmise that the Christmas truce has been made safe for the establishment: it certainly was not at the time. This spontaneous outbreak of festive solidarity was received most angrily by the proverbial ‘donkeys’; shelling was ordered to commence immediately the next morning, to stop anyone else from sticking his head out of the trench, and fraternisation was subject to an enormous clampdown.
As well it might be. It is overwhelmingly the working masses who end up in trenches. The rise of vast combinations of those masses - whether in trade unions or socialist political parties on a scale seldom matched before or since - was a significant concern in the political life of all belligerent countries: most particularly Germany, where the Social Democratic Party numbered in the millions, but also in Britain, which had just seen the election of the first tranche of Labour MPs. If Tommies exchanged words, gifts and through-balls with Johnny Foreigner, what would be next? The Christmas truce was not a football match - it was an act of working class rebellion.
“One of the key moments of World War I,” says prince William, and perhaps he is right. Yet we cannot resist indulging in some counterfactuals, however much better such idle exercises suit the likes of Niall Ferguson. What if the soldiers had not taken up arms again, had refused to obey orders to begin shelling? What if the SPD and its sister parties had not sold out (and the Labour Party - well - had not been the Labour Party) and the lines had been riddled with agitators?
We cannot imagine the war could have continued much longer; it would be the subject only of academic history, like countless other ‘small wars’, and not of Ben Elton sitcoms or Govian op-eds. The death toll would have stopped at hundreds of thousands, instead of millions. It may even have been the prelude to revolution in Europe - those soldiers returning home, fired up at having prevented a slaughter whose scale they would never have had to contemplate, and asking serious questions of those who would have fed them into the mincer.
In the event, the donkeys won out. Years of total war hardened nationalist instincts, which, along with the alert suspicions of officers, made future episodes of this kind unlikely, to the point that - famously - the pointless bloodletting continued more or less up to armistice day, when the final defeat of the central powers was inevitable.
Thus began the history of Hobsbawm’s “short 20th century”, with the October revolution and the rise of fascism the most direct results; and thus also the tentative reabsorption of this episode into the national narratives of the victors. The response of the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century was a precursor - the war was represented as unrepresentable, a direct encounter with hell itself, glimpsed in the image of the traumatised returning soldier, who turns up in everything from Mrs Dalloway to the paintings of Otto Dix.
While, for the high modernists, the great war was a spiritual catastrophe, for ruling class propagandists (and, presumably, the marketing department at Sainsbury’s) it was an episode of adversity, in which the British proved their essential courage. What both these views have in common is their excision of the war from wider history. It is quite understandable that artists should respond to the war in such a way; mustard gas killed world views along with soldiers.
For our esteemed establishment, the base motive is plain enough: it is a fine thing to concede that the war was not prosecuted efficiently by its organisers, so long as attention is diverted from its causes and motive forces. ‘Good’ wars, after all, are bloody too - the American civil war was a war to end the crime of human slavery in the south, and constituted something like a social revolution. It, too, was fought brutally, often ineptly, at enormous human cost and to the total exhaustion of the conquered.
During World War I millions of people were exterminated, many in the most barbaric ways - for what? For the right to divide the ill-gotten spoils of empire, to exploit and brutalise those in the colonies. On the German side, it was a last-ditch attempt to get in on the action; on the British, a last-ditch attempt to forestall an accelerating decline. Neither side, in those terms, won: in the second round, come 1945, Britain’s hopes of maintaining global supremacy were destroyed, and the whole practice of formal colonial subjection was dealt a death-blow (with one or two exceptions).
What makes the foot soldiers of two opposing armies, who have been busily killing each other for months, wander out into no man’s land? It was not the ‘spirit of Christmas’, or the fun of team sports. It was the deeper understanding that the two sides have a lot in common: and - dare we imagine? - the lingering question, as they bury their dead: what on earth it was all for.