All Together Now – and the Christmas Truce 1914
The statue ‘All Together Now’ is quite unique in that it is a ‘peripatetic sculpture’ that has been travelling around different parts of Europe since it was first unveiled in St Luke’s Church, in the centre of Liverpool, on 15th December 2014. St Luke’s is known locally as ‘The Bombed Out Church’ as it was hit be incendiary bombs during the Blitz of the Second World War and the shell that remained has, since that time, been left as a monument to those who died in aerial bombing. However, the statue doesn’t have any direct connection to anything that happened in WWII but to a significant event at the beginning of the First World War (sometimes described, for some bizarre reason, as ‘ The Great War’) and that is the so-called ‘Christmas Truce’ of December 1914 where soldiers of the German and British armies put down their guns and kicked around footballs in ‘No-man’s Land’.
The work of a Stoke-on-Trent sculptor called Andy Edwards it depicts private soldiers from both sides tentatively about to shake hands, each with a wary look on their face as this was going where soldiers rarely went. As a reference to the kick-abouts that followed this first contact a football sits on the mud between them.
The present statue is made of fibreglass and is in three parts to make it easier to be transported from place to place but there are plans for up to four bronze copies to be made if the money can be found. The first would go to Messines in Belgium, close to where some of these events took place, and one of the others would be set up in a public space in Liverpool.
(It is interesting to bear in mind that this project might struggle to obtain what is a relatively small amount of money (£200,000) when we consider that whatever government Britain will be cursed with after the 7th May 2015 the people of the country will be shelling out £30 billion plus pounds for the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet.)
The two men are approaching each other but it’s obvious they are not totally trusting of the other. There would have been few occasions when they actually shared a language as the fraternisation was, in the main, between men of the working class on both sides, many of whom would have been barely literate.
In an earlier model they were actually clasping each others’ hand but the final sculpture has captured the final moment just before that happened, their fingers only an inch or so apart. Their wariness is also shown in the way that they don’t look directly at one another and also by their stance, which is bent forward as if creating distance whilst at the same time they are about to touch one another.
This is really the maquette from which the bronze statues will be based and the final statue will be situated out in the open and this model felt strange inside a building, albeit in a large hall. It might have been better if it had been placed in the middle of the hall, with lots of space around it, rather than close to the stage. Also if it had been placed parallel to the windows then the light would have been more even and would have allowed visitors to get an idea of the detail rather than being blinded by the light behind the British figure.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of those involved in this quite unique event would have been long-term professional soldiers. Very few volunteers, even those who did so in the first days of the war, would have received sufficient training, or even had been kitted out with uniforms and boots, to have arrived at the front less than 5 months after the start of hostilities.
What also has to be remembered was the idea that existed in Britain during those months was that ‘the war would be over by Christmas’ and many of the volunteers didn’t really think they would end up at the front. When they did arrive they were full of patriotism and love of King and Country, for which not an insignificant number of them were to die within the next four years (and is the slogan carved into the stone at the Menin Gate in Ypres). If the line had been full of volunteers they would not have had the same approach to the ‘Hun’ as the professionals. Volunteers would have been on a mission, something which the jaded men who had started to experience the new form of trench warfare, with its long periods of just being there and doing nothing interspersed with short periods of sheer horror, were starting to question.
One of the questions that has to be asked about the ‘Christmas Truce’ was why it was just that, over a few days at most and only a truce? If you don’t think it’s worthwhile killing other workers from another country on one day why go back to ‘business as usual’ the next? There had been some serious fighting in those first few months of the war but nothing like the carnage of the likes of the Somme or Verdun.
They could have just decided that perhaps those European political parties that had discussed the upcoming war in Stuttgart and Basle (in 1907 and 1912 respectively) were correct in calling upon workers to refuse to kill other workers for the sake of their respective ruling classes. They could have walked away from the front for good and left the officers to fight it out, at least it was for the interests of their class that the war was being waged. But lack of political leadership in both Germany and Britain meant that such mutineers would have felt isolated and would have been ostracised and pilloried back home. It’s no surprise that recent Labour Governments have taken the country to war (or supported wars when in supposed ‘Opposition’) when they can trace their roots back to the jingoists and warmongers of the early 20th century.
If we now move forward a couple of years we have to ask another question: Why was this not repeated? Why was there no real opposition to the war, either at home or on the front lines, when the situation was immeasurably worse than it was in the winter of 1914?
The enthusiastic volunteers at the start and, from 1916, conscripts joined what remained of the ‘professionals’ of the British Expeditionary Force but there was never anything comparable to the breakdown in discipline that was seen along such an extent of the Belgium trenches.
After experiencing the fear and the noise and the mud and the rats and the water and the gas and the shells and the hopeless charges and the death of friends and the incompetence of the leadership and the fatuous statements of the politicians and the hopelessness of their plight and the loss of hope of ever getting back to their families and loved ones and the despair of ever living a life again where pain and destruction was absent the British soldier never stood up again and said NO!
The only mutiny that took place amongst British forces wasn’t of the men who had ‘lived’ in the trenches but in a British training camp near the French town of Etaples. There the men who hadn’t even faced a gun fired in anger stood up and fought against the brutality of their own side, the sadistic Army trainers who considered their role in life to terrorise young men who had a one in three chance of not returning home at all or doing so seriously wounded, either physically or mentally.
I support the little that they did in September 1917 but why wasn’t there anything more significant carried out by those who had seen and suffered so much?
The only example where soldiers decided that they were merely being pawns in the hands of capitalism and imperialism and that they had had enough was the mutiny of the Russian peasants and workers who, in their hundreds of thousands, walked away from the front at the beginning of 1917. The difference here was that they had the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the only signatory to the Stuttgart Resolution and Basle Manifesto who actually stuck to what had been decided long before the dogs of war were let loose. They then went on to make the October Revolution and start the long and arduous task of trying to construct socialism.
On the other extreme there were those who really enjoyed the blood lust that is war and when denied the opportunity to kill their fellow workers from other countries then turned against their own people. Germany produced the Freikorps who were involved in the murder of the revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other Communists (in 1919) and who later morphed into the SA and SS of the German Fascists. Britain produced the Black and Tans who terrorised the Irish working class during the Irish War of Independence (1920-22).
So what’s the situation now, a hundred years after it was shown that war wasn’t really a part of human nature (if only for a short time)?
The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s purloins the story and makes an advert to attract shoppers through its stores at the busiest and most competitive time of the year – but it’s OK as any profits from the chocolate bar shown will be donated to the Royal British Legion.
The events of late December 1914 will eventually be swamped by the rest of the ‘celebrations’ about the war (I’ll never understand how we have got ourselves into a situation when we commemorate the beginning of a war), which will be going on for another three years yet, and will be forgotten when it comes to the anniversary of such fields of slaughter as the Battle of the Somme.
Scenes of the killing fields of Flanders and stories of what it was like to be in the trenches doesn’t seemed to have put off young people from joining the British armed forces, even though they can see what it is like for present day squaddies who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the warmongers are gearing up for other conflicts. Some of those who are wanting to enlist are of an age that they can never remember a time when this country hasn’t been at war in the Middle East yet they’ll volunteer to go to war and a not insignificant number of them will come back suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why don’t they see that they are fighting (and some dying) for control of oil or the geopolitical ambitions of the western capitalist powers?
At the same time as the country remembers ‘The War to End All Wars’ we are in the hypocritical situation of allowing the government of Britain to continue invading and causing havoc in country after country with no foreseeable end. (As an aside here I recently saw a map of the world and of the 196 countries that exist only 22 of them haven’t been invaded at some time in the past by the British!)
Adverts for the armed forces, which virtually disappeared when the British army was kicking in doors in Northern Ireland are now everywhere and with direct reference to fighting in desert regions of the world. And every year there is now Armed Forces Day at the end of June. This latter introduced by a Labour Government this all creates an atmosphere where war is a part of everyday life, a natural consequence of the world in which we live. Parents of soldiers who have died in combat are quoted as saying their children dies ‘doing what they loved’. What an infantry soldier is trained to do is to kill so why do we accept psychopathic behaviour as honourable if in uniform but punishable (in some parts of the world by death) in other circumstances?
Until we can come up with a solution to all those issue then ‘All Together Now’ will only represent what could be, even should be, but not what is.