A reminder for us all…..
In rereading James Cameron’s wonderful account of the first year of the Great War his closing account of Christmas in 1914 served as a stark reminder of what most of us in the 21st century take for granted; to live a young and carefree life before adulthood imposes its wearisome restrictions.
War, and especially the two great World Wars took many lives on an unimaginable scale but for those teenage boys propelled into premature manhood via the trenches and the bayonet it truly concentrates the mind. Comparing today’s generation to those who suffered in the past is a pointless exercise, we never truly know what we are capable of until we are tested and so we should instead remember those who never had the chance to enjoy all that we take for granted.
Cameron describes how England, on Christmas Eve in 1914, was attacked from the air for the first time in her history. In what must have been a remarkable moment despite its failure to have an impact- (the small bomb it dropped from its biplane hitting the garden of Mr. T.A. Terson of Dover causing little more than a small crater) its significance in raids to come shouldn’t be underestimated. Not to be thwarted, the Germans returned at noon on Christmas Day and crowds gathered to watch the dog fight over Sheerness between the German monoplane and three British aircraft sent to intercept it. That in itself must have been a sight the onlookers would never forget.
But the 1914-18 War was all about the foot soldier, young men sent to their deaths as they ran towards gun and canon fire and Cameron in his account of Christmas Day in 1914 perfectly captures the essence of that horrific time and the misery of the men sent to fight: “From the German Commands went out laconic messages of Christmas cheer and encouragement. ‘Continue in cold blood’, wired the Crown Prince…The Crown Prince of Bavaria’s message said ‘No words and wishes, just will and work’ That Christmas Eve along many miles of the entrenched front there was to be observed a curious phenomenon: along the parapets of the German positions appeared rows of small lights, and across the frozen tormented mud of no-man’s land came a sound few soldiers had heard for many months: the sound of men’s voices singing hymns. After a while it paused and there was complete silence: by and by the singing began again, louder, and the lanterns were raised above the trench-tops on the points of bayonets. Very soon the numbed and doubtful soldiers of the B.E.F. and the French saw the Germans climb one by one from their trenches , singing and signalling as they came. They themselves then climbed out, leaving their rifles behind them, and very soon there were many hundreds of men, many thousands of men between the Channel and the Vosges, meeting together and greeting one another in what words they could contrive, exchanging gifts and sharing cigarettes. This was the Christmas truce the Command had refused: it was the subject of many disciplinary measures and it was never to happen again”
When the truce was over the soldiers returned to their positions: “Down the long arc of wretchedness from Picardy to the mountains the men waited among the mud and the ice, the gun-limbers and the vermin. Very soon the horizons would open up again; someone in Whitehall or the Invalides would press the button again and they would climb-wearily, angrily, fearfully, gloriously-over the parapet again, and what would happen then no one could say”
We should all let that sink in…
A review of 1914 by James Cameron can be found here
For more information on the life of James Cameron, Journalist including reviews of all of his books please click here
Categories: James Cameron