The latest edition of the IWM's First World War Centenary newsletter highlights the topic of "Christmas at War", which is a coincidence as that's what I was just going to write about. Not really a coincidence, of course, since it's only five days until the big day is upon us, but certainly fortuitous from my point of view as it has given me a few thoughts beyond the obvious - the obvious being the well-worn story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. For some reason, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear the story is an episode of Steptoe and Son, in which evil old Albert Steptoe became sentimental when recollecting his experiences in the trenches. "And then," he recounts to his son Harold, "he went back to his trench and I went back to mine." "And then," adds Harold, "you shot him."
It's the kind of dialogue Siegfried Sassoon could have written if he'd ever become a TV scriptwriter. Wilfrid Brambell, who played Steptoe senior, never served in the war, having been too young at the time (and Irish to boot), but he would certainly have remembered it, and it always surprised me that jokes about the war were allowed, especially on the BBC, at a time when many viewers would have had clear memories of those terrible years. Perhaps there were complaints. There were certainly complaints about a later sitcom, Dad's Army, when it first appeared on screen in 1968, yet it went on to become one of the all-time jewels in the BBC's crown.
Dad's Army was based on the true experiences of writer Jimmy Perry, who had served in the Home Guard at the age of seventeen and modelled many of the characters on people he remembered, in much the same way as Sassoon fictionalised his own experiences in the Sherston trilogy. It would not have done for those not personally involved in the war to have made light of it, but for soldiers to do so was almost de rigueur; how otherwise would they have kept their spirits up?
It has been estimated that over 100,000 men participated in unofficial truces up and down the front line at Christmas 1914. It seems to have been the Germans who started it - the truce, that is - by decorating parts of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees, and proceeding to sing carols. But there was so much more to Christmas 1914 than games of football in No Man's Land and the exchange of cigarettes. In December, the women of Germany wrote an open letter to the "women of all nations", urging them not to let "the thunder of guns and the shouts of the jingoes" cause them to forget their humanity. The letter was printed in a British magazine, and an Open Christmas Letter was issued in response by a group of prominent women led by Emily Hobhouse; the signatories included Margaret Bondfield and Eva Gore-Booth. This letter had to be sent to the neutral USA for publication.
The restrictions on the French press were far worse; they were not allowed to report that French soldiers had participated in a truce with the enemy, and this led to the impression that the truce had happened only in British-held sectors of the Western Front and helped give it the status of a legend, resulting in the fact that many people in later years did not believe it had actually happened.
Thus we see that, long before Siegfried Sassoon began making his outspoken criticisms of the way the war was being handled, there were many people throughout Europe who did not approve of it and would gladly have ended it immediately if they had been able. Most importantly, such people existed on both sides. However, just as Sylvia Pankhurst, who was speaking out against the war as early as October 1914, took the decision to support the British war effort by providing work and food for servicemen's wives, so the German Social Democratic Party went from protesting against the declaration of war to supporting their government, and the French socialists behaved in similar fashion; the assassination of the pacifist Jean Jaurès on 31 July 1914 was a major blow to their hopes of pulling back from the brink.
Could the war have been stopped at this stage? I am no expert on either the politics of the time or the military strategies of the countries involved, but it seems to me that what caused it to continue, despite the sincere wishes of the common people, was an unwillingness on the part of their respective governments to give way, to be seen to "fail" or "lose" the war they had started. Let us not dwell on that thought as we head towards the season of goodwill. Let us just be grateful that there were men like Sassoon and Owen among the troops, to tell it like it was; if it were not for them, we might have forgotten.