Tracking down Tommy: Life as a Soldier in the First World War

Two soldiers make their way back to the front from Victoria railway station.

What was life like for the average soldier in the First World War? It is, of course, a crucial question that every literature student studying the war should be able to answer. If we don’t know what the experience of the average Tommy was, how can we make reasonable judgements on the representation of the war by poets, dramatists and novelists?

Is this poem sentimental? Is that dramatist being sensational or realistic? Is this novelist describing the ordinary– or the extraordinary? You can’t function as a literary critic without making these kind of judgements. And of course, if you’re an AS student with AQA, you’ll know that one of the Assessment Objectives that you must meet in coursework and examinations is to “Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received”. Which means that when studying for the AQA AS exam, a knowledge of history matters.

So: here are some links that will help you to understand what life on the front line was like for your average infantryman and soldier.

The BBC’s history website, as ever, provides excellent resources for those studying the First World War. Their six-part World War One movie presents an accessible visual account of a soldier’s life, from ‘Volunteering and Recruitment’ onwards. The site also has a powerful account of his wartime experience from Harry Patch, one of the last British survivors of WWI.

Durham University also has a fabulous website entitled ‘What was it really like to fight in the First World War?’. Its gateway allows you to explore the everyday life and combat experience of soldiers through a number of primary sources. I found the page that describes the structure of a typical infantry regiment during the war very useful- it can be really confusing trying to grasp the hierarchy of platoons, companies, regiments, battalions and so on. Well, it’s all here.

Chris Baker’s website, ‘The Long, Long Trail’ goes into even more detail about the composition of an infantry battalion, and you can find it here. But it is his resource, ‘Soldier’s Life’, that every conscientious AS student should read. You can learn about Basic training in Abergele; look at birds-eye views of trench designs; look at a table of all the crimes a British soldier could commit, and the punishments they might face; and see, movingly, the Army telegrams and forms that were sent home in the event of death. This is one of the best First World War resources on the web.

Over at the History Learning Site there’s a short account of what an infantryman’s life was like, with especial focus on Lewis gun teams. These were the men who wore what was known as the suicide badge, ‘LG’. It was rumoured that the badge meant death if captured by the enemy, such was the loathing reserved for enemy machine gunners. In fact, as Robert Graves testifies in ‘Goodbye to All That’, neither German nor British Prisoners of War were safe when captured by the enemy: loathing and mission expediency all too often led to impromptu executions.

Finally, the essential way for a literature student to learn about the life of soldiers during the First World War is to read the memoirs produced by those who fought. When asked what memoir is best for A level students to read about the war, I always recommend the book mentioned above: ‘Goodbye to All That‘. Graves’ book is vivid but unsentimental. Graves himself is humane but can be almost chilly in his objectivity when writing about his wartime experiences. This temperamental combination of heart and head is an excellent feature for a war writer to have (the best example of this kind of writing isn’t a WWI memoir at all, but George Orwell’s later Spanish Civil War memoir, ‘Homage to Catalonia’). Graves also gives an important first-hand account of Sassoon’s war protest, vital for anyone studying WWI literature to know about.

Of two other memoirs I particularly recommend, the first is Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised ‘Memoirs of An Infantry Officer’. Sassoon’s testimony about the First World War is so interesting and central to First World War literary studies that you really must read this book, even if only through extracts. It’s not an easy book to read– but it certainly is rewarding. The second is Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’. This book provides a much needed German perspective on the fighting, and has the pointed quality of a well whittled stake: Junger was something of a ‘happy warrior’, but is never sparing on the realities of combat. There are many other excellent memoirs, however: the opinions of this reviewer at World War One Battlefields can be trusted.

Finally, for the adventurous reader (or the foolhardy) I recommend David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’— or at least the first chapter of Jones’ book. This is a tough read for some, but the beginning is very accessible as an account of decamping from training ground to war. Jones’ account is also unlike those above, because it is the account of a private rather than an officer: reason enough to read him. Buy a photocopying card, go down the library, copy the first chapter and see what you make of it. You may push on with Jones to the end.

As a last recommendation, for brevity and precision in describing what life for the average Tommy was like, there is a short but excellent book published by Osprey books, ‘British Tommy 1914-18’. Watch out, though, this one’s expensive: buy it used, maybe. In fact, as with all the books mentioned here, seek them out second-hand first, at sites like AbeBooks.com, or down your local second hand bookstore. They’ll be cheaper, and you’ll be recycling. Save your money for the university fees.

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(David Jones)

From David Jones' cover for 'In Parenthesis' (1937)

I was given a copy of a book by David Jones recently. Called ‘In Parenthesis’, it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read: part poem, part novel, and brilliantly written. The person who gave it to me– my mum!– had seen Jones featured on a BBC Wales television program called ‘Framing Wales’. You can watch this program here, on BBC iPlayer (Jones’ life as a soldier and artist being mainly dealt with from 21.15 mins onwards [Apologies: my first link went to the wrong episode, now rectified]). The program also provides a description of the infamous battle of Mametz Wood, where 400 of Jones’ fellow Royal Welch fusiliers were killed: an attack which provided some inspiration for ‘In Parenthesis’.

David Jones is a unique figure in Great War poetry. In the first instance, as well as being a writer, Jones was a trained artist.

Now, this is also true of Isaac Rosenberg, of course. Yet it’s striking how much the methods and manner of the two artist-poets differ. Rosenberg’s poetry is brilliant, but was also in one sense quite traditional: the humane mysticism and striking imagery of the great Romantic poet William Blake, for example, seems to have been channeled through his work.

Jones, however, was a modernist.

What was modernism? Well, ‘Make it new!’ was the modernist’s cry. From around a hundred years ago onward, Modernists demanded a revolution in art, in response to the rapidly changing world of the early Twentieth Century. Think of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada in art; T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in literature. They all looked to overturn what had become a cosy notion of what art and literature should look like. So, they embraced the new: while, at the same time, often searching the past for inspiration and roots, as if looking for an anchor to hold them safe in a scary new world of newspapers, processed meat and mass democracy. Modernism would also be a response to the horrors of the First World War and the technologies and culture that created it. Understanding this makes Jones an interesting figure in early twentieth century poetry.

Jones looked to write about his own wartime exeriences in a new way. ‘In Parenthesis’ is the remarkable result: and it remains a novel that is, remarkably, truly novel, or new. As with all experimenters in art, Jones divides critics: Paul Fussell, for example, doesn’t think much of him, while Jon Stallworthy thinks him excellent. We’ll get to study Jones in good time on ‘Move Him Into The Sun’, as we make our way through Stallworthy’s anthology– but enough here to have an introduction to the man and his art, courtesy of the Beeb. Enjoy.

Happy St. David’s Day!

It’s St. David’s Day!

So indulge me please as I dedicate a posting to Wales and the Welsh in poetry and prose from the First World War. You should expect nothing less from a Griffiths on March 1st.

A quick story. My wife is American and over a decade ago, before we married, I took her back to visit the Welsh town where I’m from. It’s a place called Llanelli. That weekend the national rugby team were playing at Llanelli’s famous rugby ground, Stradey Park. A marching band were in attendance and the crowd, jammed into the little stadium, were singing traditional Welsh songs with gusto: Sospan Fach, Calon Lan, Cwm Rhondda. It was a great warm up to the big game. The marching band began to come down to our end of the field. My wife, a little disconcerted, points to the band.

‘What is that?’

I say, ‘It’s a marching band, clever.’

‘No, no,’ she says, laughing. ‘What is that?’

She points to the front of the band. There is a goat being led on a rope by a soldier in a red coat and white hat. People are cheering.

‘Oh, that’s the regimental goat,’ I say.

‘The regimental what?’ she says, laughing.

‘The goat,’ I say again. ‘The regimental goat. A goat that belongs to the army regiment. It’s at all the Welsh games. I think it’s called Shenkin.’

At this, the American erupts into laughter. “I love it,’ she laughed. ‘A goat. At every game. Great!’ There followed a number of comments about how small the ground was, how great the goat and the singing was. She even enjoyed watching the rugby. Reader, I married her.

Shenkin the Goat.

So why on earth was there a goat at the game?

Shenkin was the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Army regiments across the world often have peculiar traditions and rituals; a culture all of their own that their soldiers preserve. The story of the goat goes back to Victorian times and the Crimean War, when the goats were actually eaten by the soldiers. One night, after a sentry fell asleep on duty, a goat woke up the regiment as the Russian enemy started to attack, saving the men present from massacre. The Royal Welch have had a goat for a mascot ever since. Since the regimental system has always been tied to particular areas, the Royal Welch– and its goat– have represented Wales and Welsh pride for many years. And in terms of reading about the First World War in poetry and memoirs, Welshmen, the Royal Welch– and other Welsh regiments– are better represented than many others.

Why? Two great literary names, to start with: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Neither were Welshmen but both were officers with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their brilliant accounts of the First World War, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’, memorialise the actions of the Royal Welsh at infamous battles like that of Mametz Wood. These aren’t patriotic accounts: as Graves noted “Patriotism, in the trenches, was to too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out” (p.157, ‘Goodbye to All That’, Penguin 1960). But they do give intense pictures of what Welsh soldiers were like in the First World War.

Graves also spent time with the Welsh regiment (Note the difference in spellings!). The Welsh Regiment was a “rough and tough” regiment, less professional than the Royal Welch. Non-conformists and North Walian hill farmers– stolid, highly independent people– were among their ranks. Here’s an atmospheric account of the Welsh– and Graves– going to the trenches for the first time, under bombardment.

Collecting the draft of forty men we had with us, we followed… through the unlit suburbs of the town– all intensely excited by the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. None of the draft had been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sung Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when pretending not to be scared; it kept them steady. And they never sang out of tune.

We marched towards the flashes, and could soon see the flare lights curving across the distant trenches. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Presently we were among the batteries. from about two hundred yards behind us, on the left of the road, a salvo of four shells whizzed suddenly over our heads. This broke up ‘Aberystwyth’ in the middle of a verse, and sent us off balance for a few seconds; the columns of fours tangled up. The shell went hissing away eastward… (p.81)

Graves is given a lecture about managing the soldiers in the Welsh regiment on his arrival at front by Captain Dunn:

These Welshmen are peculiar. They won’t stand being shouted at. They’ll do anything if you explain the reason for it– do and die, but they have to know the reason why… They are good workmen, too. But officers must work with them, not only direct the work… (p.86)

Welsh singing is a source of constant admiration in poetry written about Welsh soldiers in the First World War. In the anthology, of course, we have Sassoon’s great poem ‘Everyone Sang’, about the celebrations at the Armistice, which you feel must have been influenced by serving in regiments of singing Welshmen:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Another great poem that doesn’t feature in the anthology is Ivor Gurney’s ‘First Time In’. Ivor Gurney is one of the most underrated war poets of the First World War: a talented composer but mentally brittle, he went mad after the war’s end. He leaves us this poem about going, like Graves, up to the front for the first time– and encountering, to his surprise and wonder, a Welsh regiment.

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

I realise that I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen, an English son of the border country, with a great love and longing for Wales. Neither have I dwelt on the remarkable Welshman David Jones, a private in the Royal Welch, whose work I shall be returning to very soon: but time, I’m afraid, doesn’t permit.

Let me then end somewhere near I started, at Stradey Park, listening, with my wife-to-be, to the crowd sing ‘Sospan Fach’. ‘Sospan Fach’ is one of Wales greatest folk songs, a shaggy-dog story about a Welsh housewife having a bad day. I once told an Irish friend what the nonsense-lyrics meant, and he was tremendously disappointed. “I thought it was about God or angels, or something of that kind”, he laughed.

Well, the song clearly made an impression on Robert Graves too. He produced his own poem entitled Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan), which obviously re-imagines some of the episodes from ‘Goodbye to All That’ I’ve printed above. With it I’ll end this tribute to Wales and the Welsh in the First World War on St. David’s Day:

Four collier lads from Ebbw Vale
Took shelter from a shower of hail,
And there beneath a spreading tree
Attuned their mouths to harmony.

With smiling joy on every face
Two warbled tenor, two sang bass,
And while the leaves above them hissed with
Rough hail, they started ‘Aberystwyth.’

Old Parry’s hymn, triumphant, rich,
They changed through with even pitch,
Till at the end of their grand noise
I called: ‘Give us the ‘Sospan’ boys!’

Who knows a tune so soft, so strong,
So pitiful as that ‘Saucepan’ song
For exiled hope, despaired desire
Of lost souls for their cottage fire?

Then low at first with gathering sound
Rose their four voices, smooth and round,
Till back went Time: once more I stood
With Fusiliers in Mametz Wood.

Fierce burned the sun, yet cheeks were pale,
For ice hail they had leaden hail;
In that fine forest, green and big,
There stayed unbroken not one twig.

They sang, they swore, they plunged in haste,
Stumbling and shouting through the waste;
The little ‘Saucepan’ flamed on high,
Emblem of hope and ease gone by.

Rough pit-boys from the coaly South,
They sang, even in the cannon’s mouth;
Like Sunday’s chapel, Monday’s inn,
The death-trap sounded with their din.

***

The storm blows over, Sun comes out,
The choir breaks up with jest and shout,
With what relief I watch them part–
Another note would break my heart!

Three months to go! So…

Tick tock...

That’s right! Today is the 23rd of February, 2011. An auspicious day. Yet, we must leave. Let us climb aboard our time machine.

We hop on board the rickety machine, you and I.

Night follows day like the flapping of a black wing as we speed to the morning of the 23rd of May, 2011, three months from now.

There, we climb off the machine. It is a typical early summer’s day in London. From a black sky drops hail the size of golf balls, smashing violently all around us: we run towards the nearest building, and find ourselves outside a curious hall.

There are a strange people here. They seem a little like you– but different somehow. They are thin, and seem to lack sleep. Some have their eyes closed as they mumble to themselves. Words? Numbers? It is hard to tell. One male, tall, seemingly energetic, laughs nervously as he looks from his papers to his watch.

You suddenly halt. At the entrance to the hall, a door opens. You grab my arm. There!– at the front of the queue!– who is that person that looks– so much like– you?

It is you.

This is the moment before you sit your AS level English paper, on May 23rd, 2011.

Don’t Panic! Here’s where you can get AQA Past Papers and Markschemes to prepare for the times ahead.

[Once you’ve linked to the page, you’ll see a tab called ‘Key Materials’ underneath the four handsome Aryans that AQA have chosen to advertise their qualifications. Click on this and go down to ‘Past Question Papers and Markschemes’. Then select one of the three exams that have been held so far. Good luck!]

We are the ragtime infantry!

Here’s a popular song sung by British soldiers during the First World War. I love it, though it can seem a little obscure today. It goes a little something like this:

We are Fred Karno’s army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We’ll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.

It takes the tune of an old Christian hymn- ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, sung stodgily here on YouTube- and irreverently switches that song’s worshipful lyrics for amusing self-deprecation. The soldiers who sang this song were celebrating their own inefficient humanity, caught as they were in the European war machine.

The song mentions Fred Karno and ragtime. For years I didn’t know who Fred Karno was. I knew what ragtime was, however: in fact, it was listening to a ragtime song that prompted me to write this post. Stick with me for a few more sentences and you’ll get to hear some ragtime yourself.

Fred Karno was Britain’s most famous talent spotter and impressario in the twenty years before the First World War. “Karno was the star-making Simon Cowell of his day”, Tim Brooke-Taylor says, and he’s right: Karno found comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and made them stars before either went on to Hollywood and became global entertainers. There’s a nice article about Karno on this site dedicated to his birthplace, Exeter.

Karno ruled music hall. Music hall was popular theatre and the chief form of entertainment in Britain from the 1850s until at least the 1920s and 30s. It was the form of entertainment many of the British soldiers in the First World War knew best.

Music hall took its name from the music halls all around the country where the popular entertainment shows played. The music hall show consisted of a variety of performers: singers, comics and speciality acts like magicians, memory men and the like. Karno was famous for his touring troupe of entertainers: a motley crew who were known as ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. This group of balladeers and clowns became proverbial for chaos and disorganisation, hence ‘We are Fred Karno’s Army’. Imagine our soldiers in Afghanistan proclaiming they were ‘Simon Cowell’s Army’ or on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ tour abroad, and you get a sense of the bloody-minded pride and sarcastic mockery of the British Army going on here (and indeed, in other versions of the song the impresario’s name is replaced by Kitchener’s).

So what, then, was the ‘ragtime infantry’?

Well, ragtime was the popular music of the age. Ragtime (along with Blues music) lies at the very beginning of modern pop: ragtime is at the roots of a tree that leads to the Beatles and Motown, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Janelle Monae. Ragtime took European music– jigs and marches played on piano– and mixed them with African American music, with its syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythms. What was produced was a new form of dance music, played mainly on piano, pioneered by black artists like Scott Joplin and his ‘Twelfth Street Rag’.

Scott Joplin, Ragtime star.

Here are some links to Joplin’s music, so you’ve got an idea of the kind of ragtime that was popular with the troops during the war. Some of his songs you may have heard already: like ‘The Entertainer’, perhaps; or another, his ‘Maple Leaf Rag‘. Last of all, I’ve found a clip of the Jazz king, Louis Armstrong, playing ‘Twelfth Street Blues’ many years later, in 1961. When Armstrong plays you really get a sense of the kind of pleasure ragtime gave, played live.

This feeling of fun is sometimes absent, understandably, when we think about the First World War. It can seem sometimes like all this happened to people from a dismal black-and-white world. Yet ragtime, and the happy sarcasm of the soldiers in their uncensored songs allows us a better understanding of the happier lives and better times of the ragtime infantry.

The Great War Blitz: ‘The War in the Air’ and ‘Zeppelins’

In my last post on Zeppelins, I promised some pointers to texts about dirigibles and the First World War. Today I’ve got two texts to look at: a passage from HG Wells’ novel, ‘The War in the Air’, describing an imagined air attack on New York and a poem entitled ‘Zeppelins’, written by Nancy Cunard in 1918.

HG Wells first. ‘The War in the Air’ isn’t strictly a First World War text at all: it was written in 1907. It’s worth posting here, however, because it so cleverly anticipated the nature of aerial warfare– and it captures a set of common anxieties about Germany in the years leading up to the war. It’s interesting to read Wells’ foreword to the book when it was republished after the First World War in 1921. Wells reminds the reader of the central idea of his novel: that “with the flying machine war alters in its character; it ceases to be an affair of “fronts” and becomes an affair of “areas”; neither side, victor or loser, remains immune from the gravest injuries.” Wells was horrified that his warnings about the First World War had been ignored. “Seven years before the Great War, its shadow stood out upon our sunny world as plainly as all that… the great catastrophe marched upon us in the daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived.”

If you haven’t heard of HG Wells, you will have certainly heard of the books he wrote: Science fiction classics such as ‘The Time Machine’, ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Island of  Doctor Moreau’. Wells called these novels ‘Scientific Romances’, and he wrote them as he started out as a writer, in the last years of the nineteenth century. Through them, Wells became one of the most famous writers in the world.

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Wells started penning stories that struggled to predict what the future would bring. He called these stories his ‘fantasies of possibility’. ‘The War in the Air’ predicted a world massively transformed by science, technology– and air travel.

The full name of Wells’ story is ‘The War in the Air: and particularly how Mr. Bert Smallways fared as it lasted’. Bert Smallways is Wells’ hero. He’s just an average Londoner, living in Bun Hill, somewhere near Bromley. One weekend Bert goes on a cycling tour with a friend. When he gets to the coast, as the two pals rest near a beach, a balloon drops out of the sky containing a famous British aeronautical inventor. A mishap occurs, and Bert and the inventor swap places; Bert rises up into the yonder in the balloon, with the inventor’s plans for a new aircraft. When his balloon finds land again, Bert is captured by Germans, mistaken for the inventor and is taken across the Atlantic in a fleet of dirigibles. He witnesses the new war in the air first-hand, and is horrified by it.

In this extract, the Germans, led by the Crown Prince Karl, are about to attack the USA. The German airship, the Vaterland, hovers over Manhattan. Bert, trapped on board, looks out the window. The attack begins:

“Something had dropped from the aeroplane, something that looked small and flimsy. It hit the pavement near a big archway just underneath Bert. A little man was sprinting along the sidewalk within half a dozen yards, and two or three others and one woman were bolting across the roadway. They were odd little figures, so very small were they about the heads, so very active about the elbows and legs. It was really funny to see their legs going. Foreshortened, humanity has no dignity. The little man on the pavement jumped comically–no doubt with terror, as the bomb fell beside him.

Then blinding flames squirted out in all directions from the point of impact, and the little man who had jumped became, for an instant, a flash of fire and vanished–vanished absolutely. The people running out into the road took preposterous clumsy leaps, then flopped down and lay still, with their torn clothes smouldering into flame.”

Wells, remember, was writing in 1907- his description of watching bombs falling from above onto poor civilians below was still stuff of the purest imagination (the Wright brothers, after all, had only invented the first working powered airplane in 1903). What is remarkable here is Wells’ realisation that the real distance that flight gives you from humans on the ground also translates to an emotional distance- hence the “really funny” little people below, seen as they desperately attempt to run in panic to safety. The narrator continues:

“In this manner the massacre of New York began. She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and grotesque limitations of aerial warfare. She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction. Given the circumstances, the thing had to be done. It was impossible for the Prince to desist, and own himself defeated, and it was impossible to subdue the city except by largely destroying it. The catastrophe was the logical outcome of the situation, created by the application of science to warfare. It was unavoidable that great cities should be destroyed. In spite of his intense exasperation with his dilemma, the Prince sought to be moderate even in massacre. He tried to give a memorable lesson with the minimum waste of life and the minimum expenditure of explosives. For that night he proposed only the wrecking of Broadway. He directed the air-fleet to move in column over the route of this thoroughfare, dropping bombs, the Vaterland leading. And so our Bert Smallways became a participant in one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world’s history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below.

He clung to the frame of the porthole as the airship tossed and swayed, and stared down through the light rain that now drove before the wind, into the twilight streets, watching people running out of the houses, watching buildings collapse and fires begin. As the airships sailed along they smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card. Below, they left ruins and blazing conflagrations and heaped and scattered dead; men, women, and children mixed together as though they had been no more than Moors, or Zulus, or Chinese. Lower New York was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape. Cars, railways, ferries, all had ceased, and never a light lit the way of the distracted fugitives in that dusky confusion but the light of burning. He had glimpses of what,it must mean to be down there–glimpses. And it came to him suddenly as an incredible discovery, that such disasters were not only possible now in this strange, gigantic, foreign New York, but also in London–in Bun Hill! that the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity, that nowhere in the world any more was there a place left where a Smallways might lift his head proudly and vote for war and a spirited foreign policy, and go secure from such horrible things.”

Twenty years after his 1921 foreword, Wells’ mood had darkened even more. Britain was at war with Nazi Germany and death from the skies in war was commonplace: the Blitz had begun. Wells rewrote his introduction, concluding furiously: “I told you so. You damned fools.”

The second of our texts today is a poem, written by Nancy Cunard. In 1914 Cunard was an 18 year-old heiress to the Cunard Shipping firm. As the Zeppelins flew over London, she witnessed the bombing of the city. Late at night during the air raids, searchlights would light up the sky and the crump of bombs could be heard across the town. Policemen would ride around on bicycles, ringing their bells in warning. Londoners would stay in their homes, or if caught out, flee to the tube stops and safety underground. Anti-aircraft guns fired at the Zeppelins overhead as the bombs and incendiaries fell. Some Londoners died of fright: no-one had experienced war this close to home.

Cunard was a fascinating woman. She was born into privilege but rejected convention. During the war she married an injured army officer, but this relationship ended after two years. Cunard would go on to live in Paris, helping to support writers and artists with her fortune. Later she would become an anti-fascist campaigner involved in the French Resistance; later again she became a civil liberties protester in the US. ‘Zeppelins’ however, a poem written during the bombings of London, is the mourning voice of a young on the Home Front during the First World War.

‘Zeppelins’

I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thoughts to kill;
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags royally, and stamped his feet.

The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town,
Most where the sadder, poorer houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.

And many died and hid in unfounded places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night;
And death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked in imitation of their faces.

But in the morning men began again
To mock Death following in bitter pain.

You can watch a BBC animation of the poem here. If you’re interested in the air raids of the First World War, an excellent book to get hold of is Neil Hanson’s ‘First Blitz’. You may well be able to get this at your local library. The air-raids of the Second World War– ‘the Blitz’– were so massive that today they crowd out our imaginings of the earlier Zeppelin raids. Yet it’s worth learning something about the first war in the air– and its effect on the civilians who endured the German bombings of British villages, towns and cities in 1914-18.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

I’d wager that if you asked the average person to name one important event during the First World War, many people wouldn’t plump for a military action. It’d be an interesting experiment to find out how many people in Britain today know the name of any major battle, beside the Somme. There’d be takers for Verdun, perhaps, Passchendaele and probably Ypres (although just like many of the men who were stationed there, hardly anyone, including me, would quite know how to pronounce Ypres– the British soldiers stationed there called it ‘Wipers’).

German and British soldiers meeting in no-man's land, Christmas 1914.

No, the event that has lived longest in the popular memory– that has provided fodder for songs and pop videos, and has become a myth all of its own– is the Christmas truce of 1914.

On Christmas day, 1914, despite orders to the contrary made by British commanders, an informal ceasefire took place between German and British soldiers on the Western Front. For just over a day soldiers on either side in Flanders held off attempting to kill each other: a peaceable act that has become a kind of popular shorthand for the good faith the common man has for his fellows, even in the worst of circumstances.

What are the facts? You’ll find them nicely laid out at The Long, Long Trail website. Only five months into the war, neither trench lines nor mental lines were drawn as absolutely between the combatants as they would become later. Fraternisation with the enemy, especially at Christmas, was recognised as a risk to discipline: General Smith-Dorren ruled early in December that “unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited”.

Yet as Christmas neared, local truces occurred. These meant that wounded men could be retrieved from no-man’s land, and that the dead could be buried.

In addition, the close proximity of the two sides to one another meant that one side could hear the other singing carols– even see the other erect Christmas trees above the trenches. Christmas, and the feelings stirred by the season, seemed to encourage the “‘live and let live’ theory of life” that Smith-Dorren feared would destroy “the offensive spirit in all ranks”.

On Christmas Eve, the miserable wet weather of the season relented a little, with a hard frost that made life easier for all on the front. Fighting continued, but meetings were held between the sides to collect and bury bodies. This fraternisation continued into Christmas day, tolerated but not approved of by the British army authorities: it is the Germans who generally initiate contact. Some men share cigarettes and cigars; elsewhere beer and plum pudding; letters are passed on; often the erstwhile combatants simply talk. You can read some of the fascinating first-hand accounts at the well-sourced Hellfire Corner. There’s something genuinely humbling about the tales the soldiers tell: and a wonderful sense of perplexity and delight amongst those taking part that such a thing could occur.

'An Historic Group: British and German soldiers photographed together': from the front page of The Daily Mirror.

If you want to read in more detail about the Christmas truces, I heartily recommend Operation Plum Pudding’s excellent site, The Christmas Truce 1914. Here, volunteers have collected many of the personal stories printed in the columns and letter pages of newspapers about Christmas 1914.

Those of you English A-level students who are more ‘visual learners’ (read: ‘lazy’) you can check out some good snippets from documentaries on YouTube: a tale from Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium and a first-hand account from a British soldier. There’s also a dramatisation from the great 60s anti-war satire, ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’. This takes from some of the sources above, but channels them into a humanistic critique of the conduct of the First World War. It’s well worth watching: though remember that what you’re watching isn’t real, it’s an interpretation of the known events with a modern message– that war is wrong. Bear in mind that, as much as you may agree with that point of view, the actual people involved in the truces were caught in a far more complicated net of feelings about war and peace.

‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ takes the Christmas Truce of 1914 and understands it as a triumph of human fellowship in the face of modern warfare and modern politics. Yet, if we wanted to, we could complain about this point of view, too, and call it sentimental nostalgia: after all, it was Christian values that allowed these men to talk together in no-man’s land, but Christian values were in little evidence in the build-up to war. Or we might observe that the Christmas truces were the last flowering of a more honourable age of warfare, dying more or less on Christmas day 1914. Or we could complain about the way the Christmas truces have been separated from context and become a bland, popular fairy tale: watch Paul McCartney’s video to Pipes of Peace (1983), for example. We can gripe about much of the myth when compared to the fact.

Ultimately, however, the Christmas Truce as a myth and in fact speaks to us today as saying something basically optimistic about human beings. Without the rules and necessities that propel us towards evil the truces seem to suggest that human beings are basically good. That sentiment is encouraging: as is the knowledge that, in truth, many men really did stop killing one another during Christmas 1914, and treated each other like decent human beings. Something to celebrate.