Tommy, p.61Richard Holmes
All along the trenches coal scuttle helmets appeared. I spotted a machine gunner at the near end as he got his gun into position.
Keeping my eyes on him I sent another message to our guns.
‘Ready any minute now.’
The machine gunner was absolutely still. Did he guess that over a mile away six guns were pointing in his direction? Did he banish thoughts of wife and children as he concentrated on the target appearing up the spur? A red spurt of flame flashed from his gun.
‘Fire!’ I shouted.
‘Fire!’ the signallers repeated the order.
Within seconds we could hear shells going over and immediately the trench disappeared from sight as duck-boards shot into the air. We were dead on target.
‘Repeat,’ I shouted before the last round had arrived. Now for the other half of the trench.
‘Switch two minutes right, five rounds gun-fire.’ Some shells were falling short.
‘Add twenty – three rounds gun-fire.’
As the trench became visible again I saw the machine gunner. He was covered in blood, terribly wounded, yet he was struggling to get his gun back into position. I’d have to silence him.
‘Left section only, return to target one, five rounds gun-fire.’
A minute or two passed as the guns were re-aligned. Through my glasses I could see Jerries running along the trench but the brave machine gunner stayed at his post…
Every Remembrance Day during the two minutes silence I can see him and recall the moment when he disappeared in a shower of rubble.147
Captain Robert Dolby had been told that the Germans were automata ‘incapable of separate independent action’, but soon saw how wrong this was when his battalion was overrun at First Ypres:
They poured out of the ends of the trenches, spread out into the most perfect open order and advanced at the double: nor was any officer visible. Some ran and dropped, so that I thought the whole line had been wiped out by our fire, but these men were foxing; and those who fell face downward soon got up to run forward again. Not so with the killed or wounded, they lay on their sides or, spinning round in the air, they fell supported by their packs… Taking cover of every natural object, they got behind trees or wagons or mounds of earth; so they advanced up to within 100 yards of our position, and our field of fire not being good, there they found shelter. The under officer was particularly gallant, for he ran to a mound of light soil, laid his glass on the top and closely examined our trenches with his elbows spread upon the top. From time to time he would turn his head and speak to two orderlies who crouched beside him like spaniels.148
Beating off this sort of attack brought a mixture of emotions. Corporal Charles Arnold reported that when the Germans attacked in mass at Mons:
We then had revenge for poor C Company. I think the Germans will always remember my company, A Company, 1st East Surreys. They came at us in hundreds and we poured rapid fire into them until our rifles became too hot to hold and we were sick of killing. Just before we retired, I had a last look round. I saw the German dead piled up in heaps, the sight sickened me.149
Most officers and men saw more Germans after capture than they did in the line, and found them a very mixed bag. Lieutenant Joseph Maclean thought prisoners taken at Ypres in 1917:
A very poor looking crowd – thin and small and some very young – but there are boys of the other sort, and in fact the average Bosche seems to be a very well set up sort of fellow. Yet most of them are sick of the war, much more than we are.150
Many prisoners worked at labouring duties behind the lines under the command of their own NCOs. J. B. Priestley thought that ‘they were far more frightened of their own sergeant-major characters – iron men with Iron Crosses, Kaiser moustaches, terrible rasping words of command – than they were of us, the utterly amateur British’.151 German doctors and stretcher-bearers generally carried on with business as usual after capture, often going back onto the battlefield, without orders from their captors, to help clear the wounded of both sides. But perhaps the best example of proper behaviour on the part of prisoners was a very docile group which was sent back across the battlefield with a single escort. He fell into a shell hole and accidentally ran his bayonet through his leg, but his charges loyally carried him the rest of the way.
Burgon Bickersteth could not deny his admiration for a captured officer who would disclose no confidential information. He was ‘an extraordinarily nice fellow I thought. He would tell me nothing except his regiment and division. He was good looking and well-dressed and perfectly calm and collected.’152 Edward Vaughan chatted to a badly-wounded German in a captured pillbox with an officer-to-officer courtesy which somehow made light of circumstance, and the German offered him the only hospitality at his disposal: a piece of sugar, crumbling and so bloodstained that Vaughan could not face it, but ‘slipped it into my pocket while pretending to eat it’.
Dead officers sometimes struck a spark of admiration too. Billy Congreve thought that Lieutenant Meyer Zu Wambergen, adjutant of the 57th Regiment, ‘died an Iron Cross death all right, leading his men inside the enemy’s line… I wonder if I shall ever have the chance of finding out more about him?’.153 Charles Carrington spent several hours in a shell hole on the Somme in the company of a dead German officer, a well-dressed and handsome man about his own age: he removed the Iron Cross from the body, somehow not as a trophy, but for reverend safe keeping.
Soldiers speedily discovered just how heterogeneous in composition the German army was. In May 1916 Edward Underhill wrote that:
A few nights ago four Huns came across and gave themselves up to the battalion on our left. They were fine great men, and were pleased at getting safely through. They were Alsatians, and very much objected to being called Prussians… They belonged to the Guard, probably the Reserve Guards Division, and deserted because they had been addressed by their generals, who told them they mustn’t mind going over the top nor dying for the Fatherland. They had relieved the Bavarians on May 4th, who had gone to Verdun. They also told us about several new mines, and quite a lot of information was obtained from them.154
A year later Bernard Martin’s company was commanded by:
an old Captain who had just come to us from a Kitchener army unit [and who] said contemptuously, ‘By all means give the Hun his due, serve him right, all Huns deserve to die, descendants of that butcher Ghenghis Khan.’ This was a sentiment not general at this period of the war. Most PBI [Poor Bloody Infantry] recognised that Germans were not all alike – Prussians were aggressive bullies, others from Bavaria, Saxony, Württemburg, might be ‘good’ Germans.155
George Adams had enlisted underage into the Middlesex Regiment and survived Loos: ‘I am sorry to say that nearly all the fellows I knew have gone and Dad, Jack Badrick, the bricky who used to work for Harry Rooney has gone as well.’ He told his parents on 30 October 1915 that they had ‘a kind of arrangement’ with the Germans opposite: ‘They are Saxons you see they are club waiters and barbers and they don’t like the war and are decent fellows. Now the Prussians, who they relieved, if you show your head an inch above the parapet you get it, they are no bon as the French say.’156 Lieutenant Graham Greenwell wrote on 4 June 1915 that the Saxons hated the Prussians far more than the British, ‘and when they are relieved by them they call out: “Give it them hot tomorrow, it’s the Prussians".’157
In many sectors opposing trenches were so close that it was easy for shouted conversations to take place. Bernard Adams, then serving in the ranks, affirmed that at Cuinchy in November 1915:
The Germans opposite us were very lively. One could often hear them whistling, and one night they were shouting to one another like anything. They were Saxons who are always at that game… It was quite cold, almost frosty, and the sound came across the 100 yards or so of No Man’s Land with a strange clearness in the night air. The voices seemed unnaturally near, like voices on the water heard from a cliff. ‘Tommee – Tommee. Allemands bon – Engleesh bon.’ ‘We
The authorities now try to stop our follows answering. The entente of last Christmas is not to be repeated.158
The entente in question was, of course, the celebrated Christmas truce of 1914, when there was widespread fraternisation. Second Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather of 1/Royal Warwickshire exchanged two of his buttons with a German officer; a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade swapped a tin of bully beef for a German spiked helmet (he was asked to return it the following day, and sportingly did so); and near Fromelles a joint burial service was conducted by the chaplain of 6/Gordon Highlanders and a German divinity student. There may even have been a proper football match – the Lancashire Fusiliers’ history reported a 3–2 victory – but it is more likely that there was the occasional less formal ‘general kickabout’.159 There was nothing on the same scale thereafter, largely because outraged officialdom issued severe warnings that, as Wyn Griffith put it, ‘we must confine our goodwill not to fellow Christians, but to Christians of allied nationality’. However, even then there was a good deal of shouting ‘Merry Christmas Tommy’ and ‘Merry Christmas Fritz’, and some bartering of souvenirs went on in No Man’s Land.160
Yet if large-scale fraternisation was rare, small-scale contact was common. In front of Guy Chapman’s battalion,
‘Hallo Tommee’ cried a German voice, ‘are you soon going home on leave?’ ‘Next week,’ the Englishman shouted. ‘Are you going to London?’ was the next question. ‘Yes.’ ‘Then call at two-two-four Tottenham Court Road and give my love to Miss Sarah Jones.’ ‘I’ll go round all right and I’ll jolly well…’ The fate of the lady was eclipsed in a roar of laughter from our side and the angry splutter of a machine gun from across the way.161
One British infantry section was surprised to hear a German shout: ‘It is I, Fritz the Bunmaker of London. What is the football news?’
‘A blurry supporter of blurry Chelsea,’ muttered Bill – hitherto the most aggressive man in the section. ‘’e must be a damned good sort of sausage eater.’162
Billie Neville wrote from the line near Albert in late 1915 that:
We have a rather sporting crowd of Huns opposite, as when we shell them they crawl out next night & put German flags in the shell holes! Also this morning they stuck up a white flag of sorts and a big dummy man, we all blazed at it & they signalled the shots, bullseyes, inners & magpies with another flag!163
On another occasion the Germans mounted a raid with artillery support; however, ‘They did not come as a fighting patrol… but carried placards which they dropped into the bays, and in big bold letters the placards read: “Deutschland welcomes the 29th Division to France.” They must be a sporty lot over there.164 The Germans often demonstrated a good knowledge of the units opposite them, and V. F. Eberle, an engineer officer near Ploegsteert in May 1915, observed that: ‘The Germans opposite are now more chatty. On our battalion relief nights the incoming troops are greeted with “Hullo, the Blanks”.’165 Sometimes, less well informed, they called across to ask what the relieving unit was. Scenting the chance of a wind-up, soldiers usually replied with something dramatic but untrue, like ‘First Black Watch’ or ‘Th’Oirish Guards’.
There were times when it was difficult to feel much real hostility to the men in the trenches opposite. When Brigadier General Count Gleichen was told by a sentry that he often saw a German not far away, he asked why the man had not shot him. ‘Shoot him,’ said the man, ‘why, Lor’ bless you sir, ’e’s never done me no harm.’166 One of Frank Dunham’s comrades gave just the same reply when a sergeant asked him why he had not fired at a German who had just looked over the parapet: ‘No, I couldn’t kill him, for he ain’t done no harm.’167 Even Frank Crozier, not backward when it came to killing, could not see the sense in sniping ordinary Germans when there was no battle on: the practice revolted him and he gave it up.
Soldiers on both sides periodically deserted by creeping across No Man’s Land, though it was always a tricky business. Gerald Burgoyne was shocked to report that:
A young German, 18 to 19 years of age came across to the Wilts line the other day to give himself up. He asked for bread and wanted to give himself up. The men let him come within 20 yards and then riddled him with bullets. I call this nothing less than murder.168
Another, who tried the same with Frank Hawkings’s battalion, was luckier.
At dusk this evening a Hun appeared and slid over C Company’s parapet, much to the astonishment and fright of the adjacent sentry, who, however, soon recovered when the German informed him in fairly good English that he had come over to surrender. We crowded round him, and while he told us that he was ‘a great kamerad English’ and that he had been a waiter in a London hotel before the war, we relieved him of his buttons and badges as souvenirs.169
The hunt for souvenirs was universal – ‘rather like looking for mushrooms’ – and prisoners and the fallen were routinely pillaged of cash and collectibles. Those, British and German, who knew the rules ensured that watches and other valuables were easy of access at the moment of capture in order to avoid a dangerous scuffle as captors sought their dues: one British officer was told that his men had been ‘given’ watches by their prisoners out of sheer gratitude, but was realistic enough to wonder. The 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, reprimanded by their brigade headquarters when a German prisoner claimed his watch had been stolen, ‘sent down two dozen for him to choose from’. Prisoners often showed their captors photographs of their wives and children to make the point that they too were family men whose deaths would spread rings of sorrow: one fell on his knees and babbled to Edward Vaughan of his wife and ‘zwei Kindern’. There was a ‘natural utilitarian morality’ which encouraged men to loot bodies, both British and German. ‘A tin of bully in a dead man’s pack can’t help him,’ affirmed George Coppard, ‘nor can a packet of cigarettes.’ But the business of going through the wallet of a German brought him up sharply: ‘There were wives and children, parents, old chaps with big whiskers, nearly all dressed in black, as if attending a funeral. Respectable, clean and tidy was the general impression.’170
There were occasional local truces, usually dictated by the need to bury the dead or recover wounded, and these continued despite official disapproval. Often men would not fire on stretcher-bearers or doctors clearly going about their business, and one British soldier, bravely caring for the wounded just in front of the German parapet, was eventually asked by a German officer if he wanted to ‘come over’. When he replied that he did not, the German firmly told him that he would have to go back to his own lines or be shot: he walked back unmolested. In February 1917 the Germans allowed Rowland Feilding’s men to recover their wounded, and he walked forward to supervise the operation. ‘I found Germans – almost shoulder to shoulder,’ he told his wife, ‘leaning over their parapet, exposed from the waist up: on our side it was the same. All were intensely interested in the stretcher-bearers at work in No man’s land.’ He then discovered that there had recently been a divisional order forbidding precisely that sort of thing: ‘In short, our methods henceforth are to be strictly Prussian; the very methods to abolish which we claim to be fighting this war.’171
This pattern of respect illuminated by flashes of chivalry was wreathed with darker clouds. First, there was no guarantee a man’s surrender would be accepted. If he maintained a brave defence to the last moment and then threw down his arms he was likely to be killed out of hand, sometimes with a gruff: ‘Too late, chum,’ as the bayonet went in. Charles Carrington explained that:
No soldier can
Thomas Penrose Marks, a private and then an NCO in the infantry, was disinclined to show mercy to machine gunners who surrendered at the last moment:
They are defenceless, but they have chosen to make themselves so. We did not ask them to abandon their guns. They only did so when they saw that those of us who were not mown down were getting closer to them, and the boot is now on the other foot.173
Ernst Junger, on the other side of the line, argued that:
The defending force, after driving their bullets into the attackers at five paces’ distance, must take the consequences. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes. He does not want to take prisoners but to kill.174
Private Stephen Graham was taught that when trench-clearing: ‘The second bayonet man kills the wounded… You cannot afford to be encumbered by wounded enemies lying about your feet. Don’t be squeamish. The army provides you with a good pair of boots: you know how to use them.’175 George Coppard reported ‘an unexpected bonus’ when two German wagons left it too late to get away from the front line with the sun coming up behind them and were ruthlessly machine-gunned, ‘but there was genuine regret about the horses’.176
Next, successful surrender usually depended on a brief but clear break between combat and capitulation. Even then it was a dangerous time, as Guy Chapman discovered when talking to a moody company commander:
‘What’s the matter, Terence?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Nothing… At least… Look here, we took a lot of prisoners in those trenches yesterday morning. Just as we got into their line, an officer came out of a dugout. He’d got one hand over his head, and a pair of field-glasses in the other. He held out the glasses to S—, you know, that ex-sailor with the Messina earthquake medal – and said, ‘Here you are, sergeant, I surrender.’ S— said, ‘Thank you, Sir,’ and took the glasses in his left hand. At the same moment, he tucked the butt of his rifle under his arm and shot the officer straight through the head. What the hell ought I to do?’…
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