Now this looks like an interesting project. The Nottingham Radical History Group have used their long-standing experience of investigating and remembering radical moments from history to examine the cases of the 103 Sherwood Foresters who were sentenced to death or sentenced on mutiny charges during the First World War.
The project was deliberately chosen because of the high profile nature of the centenary. The group’s researchers soon realised the scale of their task and that their investigations would require them to familiarise themselves with the often arcane legal and organisational landscape of the military.
They have documented their approach in a brilliantly detailed initial pamphlet, which covers their work and the pattern of their investigations. It’s a fascinating example of the historical process and is written in an engaging and, at times, necessarily angry manner with footnotes that are as lively as they are informative.
The second in the series of pamphlets is also available. This begins the case study approach that the group has selected and focuses on the story of Private W. Harvey, who was sentenced to death for desertion in February 2015 (a sentence later commuted to two years’ hard labour).
As with the best works of history, this core story expands to examine the situation and context that surrounds it. Consequently, the pamphlet includes material on the lives that the soldiers left behind when they went to war and the experiences that the regiment offered once they had done so.
Movie portrayals of warfare can be very powerful, even when the war is not the central focus. Michael looks at an example from the 1990s
William Boyd’s 1999 film The Trench depicts a fusilier section during the 48 hours leading to the start of the Battle of the Somme.
The soldiers’ accents suggest a group drawn from different parts of the country, apparently in pairs with shared peacetime backgrounds. The putative lead, the Lancastrian Private Billy MacFarlane (Paul Nicholls) is partnered with his brother Eddie (Tam Williams) while a private dispute emerges on the part of the two Glaswegian soldiers over the issue of one’s clandestine engagement to a girl of their shared acquaintance. Lance Corporal Victor Dell (Danny Dyer) is a Cockney and Privates Ambrose (Ciaran McMenamin) and Rookwood (Cillian Murphy) Irishmen. Fusilier Colin Daventry (James D’Arcy) is evidently of a higher social class than his comrades and the likely beneficiary of a grammar school education (he has at least a smattering of German and has to pointedly moderate his latinate vocabulary to make himself understood even by his fellow Anglophones). He is, nevertheless socially inferior to the naive section commander, Second Lieutenant Ellis Harte (Julian Rhind-Tutt) who numbs his sense of being out of his depth with repeated slugs of whisky and private deferrals to his Sergeant, Telford Winter (Daniel Craig), the sole professional soldier in the unit.
The film’s action is almost entirely contained within the titular trench, creating an intentionally claustrophobic atmosphere that recalls a stage production. The young cast, mostly drawn from recent graduates of drama school is a reminder that the men who populated the trenches would, in other circumstances, be regarded as boys, a point emphasised by their scripted eagerness to participate in demonstrations of petty bravado, earning one lad a ‘blighty’ or in acts of barrack-room possessiveness over contraband photographs of nude girls.
Indeed, it is this matey comradeship (that includes minor rivalries) that is most impressive about this film. Take away the scenery and the uniforms and these lads could really be anywhere. Anywhere that raising your head too high might get you shot, that is. The effect of the scripting and the, let’s be honest, less than perfect nature of the performances (the young leads have all developed their acting skills since this film was made), lends The Trench a human quality that reminds us that the young men who fought in the real trenches were young, inexperience, scared and human.
The Christmas Truces are among the most celebrated events of the First World War. But what did they mean to the men who observed them?
As we have discussed before, the question of the Christmas Truces on the Western Front in 1914 is a vexed one. Although truces and ‘fraternisation’ are a matter of historical fact, they have been mythologised and turned intro material for ceremony, advertising and jokes. It’s easy to see why. The truces, symbolic of common humanity amid chaos and destruction, make for stories that are at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. But can they be more than that? It is to be hoped that they can and that this compelling phenomenon might prompt people to question the nature of war in general and this war in particular.
The truces certainly prompted questions back in 1914 and gave its participants cause to question what they were doing in the trenches, what their opposite numbers were doing and what they had both been told.
One of the highlights of the BBC’s Great War interviews, conducted in the early 1960s in advance of the half-centenary, is the series of anecdotes by Henry Williamson, who was in 1914, serving at the rank of Private in the London Regiment. At Christmastime 1914, he and his comrades were sent into no man’s land to hammer in some stakes to secure a key position. They were fifty yards from the German lines and, fearful of machine gun fire, began their sortie by crawling across the frozen ground. As time went on, they noticed that no gun fire came and they could walk freely on two legs, laughing and talking. ‘And then’, according to Henry ‘about eleven o’clock, I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches. And there was a light’.
The British soldiers approached the barbed wire which had been strung with empty bully beef tins so that it would rattle if a man drew near. Very soon they were exchanging gifts with the Germans. Smoking, talking and shaking hands, they swapped addresses so that we could write to one another after the war. And then they stopped to bury their dead.
The Germans used ration box wood to create makeshift memorials for their fallen comrades and offered a few words. ‘Für das Vaterland und Freiheit’, [For the Fatherland and freedom]. Williamson stopped him there. ‘How can you be fighting for freedom?’ he asked. ‘You started the war and we are fighting for freedom’.
‘Excuse me, English comrade’, replied the German. ‘But we are fighting for freedom’.
‘And here, you’ve put “Hier ruht in Gott” [Here rest in God]. ‘Yes,’ said the German,’ God in on our side’
‘But he is on our side’ replied Williamson.
That was, according to Williamson, a tremendous shock. ‘Here were these chaps, who were like ourselves, whom we liked and who felt about the war as we did, who said would be over soon because they [the Germans] would win in Russia and we said no, the Russian steamroller is going to win in Russia’
‘Well, English comrade’, replied the German ‘do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.’
And quarrel they did not. Very soon, of course, both sides received stern orders to cease their fraternising and get back to their own trenches. But when the German machine guns resumed their fusillade, they were fired deliberately high and the British were advised to keep under cover in case ‘regrettable accidents’ happened. The truce, however, was over.
Henry William Williamson 1st December 1895-13th August 1977