I do read some interesting books don’t I? This is one of the Pan Military History series, originally published in 1980 (that date is important by the way, and I will come back to it) and was a bit dry to be honest. It’s more of a reference book than a page-turner. Which was a pity, because the author has identified something really interesting about military conflict, and the First World War in particular, and that is the tendency of combatants to impose some control on their environment, even in the midst of the bloodiest, nastiest conflict imaginable, by refusing to kill their enemies. Ashworth calls this the live and let live system, whereby troops in the trenches would come to informal understandings with those facing them that they would leave one another alone in certain circumstances, at particular times, days, and for particular purposes. This understanding found its most vivid expression in the extraordinary Christmas truces of 1914, when trench warfare was still a relatively new experience, and when the bloody battles of Ypres, Passchendaele, the Somme etc. had entrenched (if you will forgive the pun) bitterness against the enemy.
For me, this was a bit of a light bulb moment. I knew of course that soldiers in the trenches were not constantly fighting, and that there was evidence from other conflicts, touched on at the end of this book, that a surprisingly large proportion of soldiers would avoid killing one another when they could. But the nature of trench warfare, when troops were in close proximity – certainly in hearing range in many cases – to their enemy for long periods of time – meant that they would slowly begin to recognise their opponents as people rather than abstract entities. Once that happen – these are people that eat, sing, hate the rain, etc., like us – then killing them becomes harder. Peace kept breaking out despite all the efforts of the war machine to stop it. In 1917 there were extensive mutinies in the French army across the whole of their front – mutinies which the Germans opposing them at the time were blithely unaware of. As the author points out, this was no doubt because these fronts were largely applying the live and let live principle at the time – if you don’t attack me I won’t attack you.
The context of the war is important here, and it is something Ashworth doesn’t really mention. The belief that a continental war was coming had been around for decades, fuelling spending on the Royal Navy for example, but in many scenarios the Germans, with our shared Royal family, were on the same side as the UK. France was to many our traditional enemy; we had never fought the Germans in a war, whereas we had hardly stopped fighting the French over centuries. So there was no inherent hostility towards the Germans. The media tried to stoke it up of course, and atrocity stories played a part, but the evidence presented in this book suggests that many soldiers in the trenches were quite happy to consider not killing Germans if the reciprocal could be ensured. When higher commands ordered activity, Ashworth argues and demonstrates that firing to miss was common-place.
I have mentioned one omission from this study, the context of the war, but there are a couple of other factors which are not given any focus. I think the conflict in the trenches was – to an extent – seasonal. The weather dictated the extent and nature of the conflict, and this is supported by the casualty figures I have seen elsewhere. Ashworth identifies many different features which meant “live and let live” was more or less likely to occur, but doesn’t mention these practical considerations of weather and season. A minor point I suppose.
I also mentioned earlier that this book was published in 1980, 35 years ago. The relevance of this is that the author was able to interview and correspond with survivors on the Great War, an opportunity that would not exist today. I wonder if he realised at the time how precious this opportunity was. Diaries, letters and journal can tell us a lot, but I don’t think they could ever be a substitute for the oral history of survivors.