Britain seems to have gone truce-mad. But this extraordinary moment in World War One is interpreted in very different ways. Nick Megoran explains why it matters
This year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas TV advert is a hugely-expensive and carefully produced film about British and German soldiers sharing friendship and chocolate in December 1914. The Premier and Football Leagues, with the encouragement of Prince William, have been holding truces themed-matches and photoshoots.
The unofficial truces that spontaneously took place at Christmas 1914 were amongst the most poignant moments of World War 1. Up to 100,000 men the length of the western front found themselves singing the same carols which led to them meeting up, exchanging gifts, and burying their dead. Some stopped to worship or play football together.
‘It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight,’ recorded 19 year-old Arthur Pelham-Burn, 6th Gordons, of a bilingual Christmas worship service held in no man’s land.‘One has given me his address to write to him after the war,’ a soldier from Gateshead wrote home about a German he befreinded.
‘They were quite a decent lot of fellows, I can tell you… I am sure if it were left to the men there would be no war.’
Needless to say, it wasn’t left to the men. The high commands of all sides were enraged, and crushed the truces with orders backed by threats, and by replacing men on the front line by those ‘untainted’ with the truces.
More than just a heartwarming moment
The use of these truces by supermarkets and sports franchises has sparked outrage. Historian Neil Faulkner argues that ‘when big corporate organisations like the Premier League and Sainsbury’s talk about the Christmas Truce, they trivialise it. We should condemn their hypocrisy.’ Instead, Faulkner welcomed as ‘excellent news’ the re-release this week of classic pop song about the truces, All Together Now.
A host of music stars under the banner of ‘The Peace Collective’ have come together to re-record The Farm’s 1990 hit. Originally written by lead vocalist Peter Hooton and guitarist Steve Grimes, the song interprets the truces as a rejection of war – then and now. Going head-to-head with an X-Factor creation for the Christmas number 1 slot, with proceeds going to the Red Cross rather than Simon Cowell, the re-release is surely something the peace movement should champion.
But not everyone is convinced. Activist Bruce Kent thinks that, ‘The 1914 Christmas Truce is getting a bit overplayed.’ He describes the truces commemorations as ‘Good heartwarming stuff,’ but complains that they leave out bigger questions such as why the war occurred, why there were relatively so few conscientious objectors, and why we are still pushing ahead with the Trident weapons replacement programme at a time of crippling national debt.
Kent has a point. Like the poet-soldiers often revered by the peace movement, the men who took part in the truces didn’t renounce war. However reluctantly, they were fighting again hours or days later, and 15 million people would perish before the mass slaughter was finally brought to a halt by strikes, mutinies, and US armed forces flooding into Europe.
Mark Perryman, of Philosophy Football, has similar concerns. He welcomes the re-release of the song as ‘Anything that celebrates the cause of peace rather than cheers for war has to be good,’ especially when ‘done in the spaces of popular culture rather than on planet placard.’ However he worries that in the process of being supported by the Premier League, ‘it seems to have lost that cutting edge,’ becoming ‘more a celebration than a questioning - and that's a pity.’
All Together Now – linking past and present
So is All Together Now still radical after all these years?
All Together Now was born as anti-war song. Originally entitled ‘No man’s land,’ its six verses described the outbreak of the truces, the political embarrassment they caused at home, and the high command’s efforts to crush them and prevent them recurring.
When recording it in 1990 for the album Spartacus, four of the original verses were excised, and a chorus added based on Johann Pachelbel's haunting Canon in D Major. A third verse, beginning ‘Same old story again / nothing learnt and nothing gained… let’s go home’ was added as a searing attack on the upcoming US-led war on Iraq. This was historically-informed, anti-war popular culture at its best: recalling a deeply subversive moment of the past to critically reflect on violence in the present.
Although an anti-war song, its very popularity as a dance anthem led to its radical political message being watered down. The low point of this was its 2006 re-recording by Atomic Kitten for the football World Cup. A computer-animated version featuring Goleo and Pille, the ‘official mascots’ of the corporate jamboree run by corrupt and unaccountable FIFA, removed all references to the First World War and the truces. Worse still, Atomic Kitten’s own video version entirely depoliticised the song, transforming it into a sordid eroticisation of the female body.
The 2014 re-recording recaptures the original political edge: not only the name Peace Collective, but also its donation of profits to the Red Cross makes this intention clear. Peter Hooton explained that initially, ‘there was talk of doing it with the British Legion, but we wanted a non-political, humanitarian organisation doing work in conflict zones around the world to help victims of war. The Red Cross has a historic link to the First World War, helping all sides.’
Hooton is scathing of the Sainsbury’s advert. ‘The First World War was about market share – the rise of German industry. Sainsbury’s is worried about losing market share to German companies – Lidl and Aldi. It is ironic that the ad uses the Christmas truce in a sentimental way to protect market share against German companies today.’ The advert, he admits, ‘is brilliantly produced, but it doesn’t put anything in context.’ In contrast, as the opening words of the song insist, in thinking about the truces it is vital to ‘remember (boys) that your forefathers died/ lost in millions for their country’s pride.’
This is ultimately why commemorating the truces is so important – memory. The way we remember the past is not neutral, but informs how we understand the present. The military-political establishment has colonised so much of civilian space. Innumerable monuments in town and village centres, and countless plaques in hospitals, universities and churches, confuse sacrifice for slaughter and hide mass murder behind memorials.
Why the Christmas Truces matter today
There is nothing innocent about the government’s programme of funding or encouraging World War 1 commemorations, from local schools researching the names on war memorials to the ‘Tower of London Remembers’ poppy-fest. David Cameron indicated the political intent here when in 2012 he unveiled massive funding plans for the commemorations, saying he wanted ‘A commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country... like the Diamond Jubilee.’
That’s why it is important to remember the truces, because - if only temporarily - ordinary men recognised their common humanity and implicitly rejected the nationalistic belligerence of their superiors. ‘We were cursing the generals to hell,’ wrote Sergeant George Ashurst of the Lancashire Fusiliers about the officers who restarted the fighting. He was infuriated that people in Britain were sanctimoniously condemning him and his comrades for fraternising: ‘…We want them here in front of us instead of Jerry so we could shoot them down,’ he stormed.
And that is also why the Christmas truces in particular are worth marking. In spite of the capture of the season by corporations producing drinks and toys, the basic Christian festival of Christmas contains images and messages that the military-political establishment find deeply unsettling.
Welcoming the release of the song, Dr John Heathershaw, a politics lecturer at Exeter University and a leader of Pinhoe Road Baptist Church, which is marking the truces this year, said, ‘The Christmas truces give us hope that the senseless violence that is perpetrated by all governments, including our own, can be ended if we recognise Christ's call to love God and one another, not worship our nations.… Those who either valorise or sentimentalise war today do so in the vain hope that it makes us safe. Jesus told us that was nonsense and his birth, death and resurrection mean that our hope lies in living without violence.'
Likewise, Jill Segger, of progressive Christian think tank Ekklesia, said that All Together Now reminds us that the Christmas Truces ‘face us with uncomfortable facts' - that officers on both sides had to force the men back to their guns, as high commands were terrified that fraternisation made them ‘more aware that [in the words of the WW1 socialist slogan] "A bayonet is a weapon with a working man at each end of it." No wonder the military has found it hard to colonise Christmas.'
We should commemorate the truces. They were a brief moment of sanity amidst the horrors of the industrialised slaughter of trench warfare, and enraged the elites who benefitted politically and financially from the war’s continuation. If the schools, churches, and football teams in our locality have overlooked them, encourage them to mark them next year or at any other Christmas during the centennial commemorations. Free resources such as those created by the Martin Luther King Peace Committee make this easy.
But The Farm’s original admonition in the song is vital: only do so if we are prepared to change the way we live now. Ben Griffin, of Veterans for Peace, welcomes the re-release of the song and puts its challenge well:
‘It is important to remember the truces today only if we are willing to foster in the present the spirit of those who on Christmas Day 1914 put down their weapons and walked out to meet the enemy.’
So regardless of where you buy your Christmas goodies, buy All Together Now and after a year marked by the sinister glorification of the war, this Christmas let’s really celebrate something worthwhile - peace. Even if that peace only lasted a few hours.
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