Thursday, 20 December 2012

'War and the Spirit of Christmas' by A L Berridge

It’s hard trying to think about Christmas when you write about war. My characters may be fiction but the war they fought is not, and it feels rather heartless to abandon them up to their knees in trench-mud in order to put tinsel on a Christmas tree. 

'Sentinel of the Zouaves' by William Simpson - Crimea
And mud, of course, is the least they had to contend with. My current novel follows the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, where our troops spent the winter of 1854 huddled in rags in freezing trenches, without fire, without rest or proper medical care, and often even without food. I’d planned to blog about it here, but apart from the fact it's been done definitively in this brilliant post by our December guest Helen Rappaport, it just didn’t seem right to regale you with horrors at the height of the festive season. It’s as if war and Christmas simply don’t mix.

Yet actually they have a relationship we don’t often imagine. Christmas isn’t just about celebration – it’s a time for love and hope and thoughts of family, a time of yearning for peace. It’s a truism to say that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ isn’t found in the tinsel, but it can and has been found amid the horror of war.

If anything, that’s when it’s most important. It’s a beacon of hope at the turn of the year, a time to let go of the tragedy of the past and look forward to brighter times ahead. Midshipman Wood quotes a ‘senior Regimental officer’ on Christmas in the Crimea:

‘Standing that day on Green Hill… caused many reflections – sad and solemn retrospection for the brave men who slept the sleep of death around us; joyful and glorious perspective picturing to myself the ultimate fate of the formidable fortress... Such was Christmas Day 1854; yet to that hour the Division to which I belong had not received an ounce of meat a man for dinner – in fact dinner we had none.’

Only hope. The men in the WW1 trenches actually fared better for food, but before their eyes was still this same image of hope for the future. There’s a terrible poignancy for us in this famous army Christmas card where the year blazing gloriously on the horizon is – 1915:

It seems such a cheap thing now, a glib printed card to cheer the troops. Standard issue cards for the men to send home typically gave space only for a ‘To’ and ‘From’ section to be personalized. But who’s to say what they meant to the people receiving them – a positive proof that their son, their husband or brother, was alive and thinking of them at Christmas? And what would be our emotion if we received something as personal and precious as this?

Christmas card from unidentified British soldier 1916

Even the little things matter. Holly, mistletoe, a Christmas card, something ‘better than usual’ for dinner. The ‘trimmings’ can serve as a reminder of happier days, and boost a determination not to allow war to destroy a much-loved tradition. Soldiers foraged for mistletoe in the fields of Flanders, and army messes for over a century have given the ‘feast’ an air of saturnalia by having NCOs wait on the men, and officers on the NCOs.

Soldiers collecting mistletoe on the Flanders front
Even in the starving Crimea officers struggled to produce something ‘special’ for Christmas. The young Garnet Wolseley actually attempted to make a plum pudding out of figs, biscuit, and some ‘very rancid suet or grease’. He used a Russian round shot and a section of 13” shell as pestle and mortar to pulverise the biscuit into flour, mixed the whole lot into a ‘horrible looking mess’, and wrapped it in his own towel to cook over the fire. Unfortunately he and his friend were unexpectedly called to trench duty and decided to eat the pudding half raw – with the predictable result that by 10pm he imagined ‘I could feel, if not actually hear, each piece I had swallowed of that infernal pudding’ and had to be helped back to his tent bent double with pain.

Wolseley’s memoirs laugh at this recollection, but there’s one casual line in his description that made me sit up straight. He always makes light of the actual fighting, which at this time was pretty constant, but on Christmas Day he records with surprise that there was ‘no firing going on anywhere.’ None.

German Christmas card 1915
Perhaps he should have expected it, since Christmas is about the bond of humanity which anyone can share. While the British were sending home loving Christmas cards in WWI, so were the Germans - and the messages are all but identical. If the British wanted a quiet Christmas and a break from killing, then it's only natural that the Germans should too.

And famously in 1914 they had one. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is no myth, but a reality testified to by countless letters from the trenches all telling the same story. There was no official truce, no one big single event, but all along the lines were little pockets of quiet as British and Germans exchanged first words and then carols, then rose from the trenches to meet each other in No Man’s Land. 

Christmas Truce 1914

Here, for instance, is Rifleman Reading in a letter to his wife in Chesham: ‘During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English… At 4 p.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and "God save the King", and "Home Sweet Home." You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them... I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream.’

Christmas Truce 1914

 Here’s another, from a soldier still unidentified: ‘There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down…. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them… After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.... We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two—it all seems so strange'

Strange indeed. These are wonderful stories, yet for me there’s still a desperate sadness about them because the truces were only temporary.  Here’s Captain J C Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers describing how hostilities re-started on his section of the front:

'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet.  He [a German] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet.  We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.'

'The Khaki Chums' - Cross marking the site of a Christmas Truce 1914

Back to war – but with everything even worse, because now they knew the men they fired at. The Christmas Truce is a beautiful thing, but for me it simply screams with the whole futility of war. Recognizing the bond of humanity was something kept only for that one day of Christmas – and soon not even then. The War Office discouraged ‘fraternization’, the officers were made to forbid it, and while isolated incidents occurred in both 1915 and 1916, by 1917 they had disappeared completely.

British Christmas card 1917
To the Powers That Be, Christmas has no place in war except to whip up hate against the enemy. Here’s an official  British Christmas card for 1917, and if you can see the spirit of Christmas in it that’s more than I can do. 

We’re no better now. The war in Afghanistan may feature different religions, but I can’t see anything Christian about this gleeful report in the Daily Mail of British troops attacking the Taliban on Christmas Day and marching back to base in Santa hats. 

I don’t blame the soldiers. They do their job, and it is politicians who dictate what that is and how it should be conducted. Yet when everything else is burnt away, the men who fight come closer to understanding the bond of humanity than politicians ever can. The Truce of 1914 began with ordinary soldiers, and for them it isn’t just for Christmas.

I saw this first in the Crimea. From the letters and diaries of ordinary men I’ve learned that there were truces for the burial of the dead, and on these occasions British and Russians talked and laughed together, sharing wine and tobacco and stories of home. I’ve learned that ‘friendly’ contests were arranged, and that a secret artillery duel was played out between the rival 68-pounders of a Russian and a British battery until the Russians signalled defeat. One even more extraordinary challenge was issued, and for several nights after the burial truce of March 1855 a Russian and a French officer met secretly near the Inkerman ruins in order to determine which of them was better – at chess. 

Soldiers at war don’t have to lose their humanity. Some reviewers scoffed at the scene in ‘The War Horse’ when the Germans help the Allies free a terrified horse from the barbed wire, but to me this seems perfectly plausible. Even in the Crimea such things happened. Midshipman Wood describes how a drunken Frenchman reeled crazily about between the lines singing the Marseillaise, but the Russians showed fellow-feeling and never fired. Another time two wounded British lay groaning in the open on the edge of the Left Attack, but the Russian sharpshooters raised a white flag to show they would hold their fire to allow their friends to bring them in. These are events in April and May 1855, but to me they show the spirit of Christmas. 

So does this. After the Battle of Inkerman in November 1854, Captain Clifford of the Rifle Brigade was passing wounded Russian prisoners when ‘a man among them ran up and called out to me, and pointed to his shoulder bound up. It was the poor fellow whose arm I had cut off yesterday. He laughed, and said ‘Buono, Johnny!’  I took his hand and shook it heartily, and the tears came in my eyes. I had not a shilling in my pocket, but had I had a bag of gold he should have had it.’

Watercolour by Captain Clifford
It’s only one moment of bonding in a whole war of savage stupidity, but it reminds me of Wilfred Owen’s haunting poem ‘Strange Meeting’, where a soldier is greeted in death by a man who tells him, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ It’s moving, uplifting, and utterly excoriating in what it says about the insanity of war.

So’s Christmas.  When I first read ‘A Christmas Carol’ I was puzzled by Scrooge’s line ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year’, because it seemed ridiculous to eat turkey every day and live in a house perpetually full of tinsel. Now I understand it better, and its truth is plainest in the tragedy of war. For just one day we should stop killing each other? For just one day we long for ‘peace on earth and goodwill towards men’? For just one day?

I hope we can do better. I doubt any international statesmen are reading this blog, but that won’t stop me wishing that politicians the world over would shut up and listen not just to the angels, but to the humanity of their own soldiers. The message doesn’t have to be confined to a particular religion; it doesn’t have to be confined to religion at all. But once we recognize and celebrate our shared humanity, then the spirit of Christmas will be everywhere and always, and the horrors of the Crimea and the WWI trenches can be left where they belong – in history.

A.L. Berridge's website.


Katherine Langrish said...

What a marvellous, touching post! Thankyou Louise!

adele said...

A truly moving and beautiful post. Thank you Louise.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you Louise. It is truly heart-breaking that men could be friendly one day and killing each other the next.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a good and thoughtful post, Louise!

Vince said...

Except that Christmas for the Russians is not the same as Christmas for us. So any cease is more important if anything.

Jessica Brockmole said...

Such an excellent post, Louise! It's the " moment of bonding in a whole war of savage stupidity" that I look for in historical fiction. Novels allow that to be shown more easily than reality does.

Stroppy Author said...

What a wonderful, touching post - as always. Have a lovely Christmas, Louise xx