WWI mistakingly taken for a test of manhood: “When the Guns Fall Silent”

When the Book Depository start their “25 hours 50 books”, one should really just ignore the e-mail sent about it. Unless one wants to buy a bunch of books one has never heard of before, but at a great price. I love the Book Depository because they treat you to shipping wherever you are in the world. But while they used to be cheaper than Amazon, they no longer are. Until they have these offers.  Every time, I try to look as many hours as I can, because what IF they have some of all the books on my wish list on Amazon? And just like an auction can stir you to bid on an item, just because you don’t have time to consider if you REALLY want the item or NEED it, likewise you end up buying books you know nothing about, because people are buying them like crazy. You see them disappearing, 250 of them in just 2-3 minutes. And if others act in that hasty manner, the book must be good right?

Usually I sit and try to look the book up quickly and see how others rate it, or at least what it is about. But last week when they had this 25 hour sale, I was not fast enough for the other buyers were quick. So I acted without thinking and imagethen I read about it and the reviews. This book did not get good reviews because people expected it all to be about the famous football match that took place on Christmas Day in 1914, between the Germans and the British. Mixed teams. That was their main complain about it and the fact that it was predictable, an elderly man going over to a cemetery with his grandson in 1964 and runs in to one of the German players.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder at people’s taste. Had the book been about footballing, I would have had to throw it in the garbage because football has never, ever interested me one bit. I hated playing it in gym class and I would not dream of watching a game on TV. Sorry, Zlatan! No, this book is about so much more. It’s about that little man who always get caught in a conflict and who is easily sacrificed by the privileged classes, because his life matters so little to them. To them, he is like a chess piece which one can move around, and if he dies, just get another chess piece on to the board because there are lots to take from.

The old man in the book,  Jack, resembled my father-in-law tremendously. The latter could not bear talking about WWII, when he in his Super-Fortress (B-29) faced kamikaze pilots from Japan. His name was also Jack, and he was a quiet, reserved man who prefered to be alone. Jack, in the book, has never spoken about the war to his family at all. His grandson, 12-year-old Perry, is in 1964, studying World War One, and have lots of questions for his “mute” grandfather. The grandfather refuses to think about those days and the first chapter in the book is very touching. I had to start taking notes because Jack thinks thoughts like “Trust is based on Truth”. He can not lie to his grandson, but since he feels he can not talk, he comes up with the alternative: Take him to Flanders and let the boy see for himself and that will satisfy his curiosity. So they go there and moving around the cemetery where Jack’s friends are buried, becomes yet another touching thing in this chapter. Who knows who the author geared this book towards, children, certainly not, young adults, perhaps, but I enjoyed it and one could really feel Jack’s pain. In the war cemetery, the author claims that the white headstones stand row upon row “like a ghostly army lined up for inspection” and I certainly can relate to that after visiting the war cemeteries in Normandy. It is a ghostly feel. If they were all to rise up at that moment, comrades having fallen beside each other… It’s not like any old cemetery where you have a mix of young and old, rich and poor. Here you have young men of almost identical age and they were ALL soldiers and they ALL died within days, months, or very rarely, years of each other.

I have not had the privilege to be to Flanders myself, but I trust the author knows what he is talking about when he writes “Why are Flanders poppies such a deep scarlet hue? Are their roots nurtured by Hell’s dark streams of blood?”. Good question! When Jack has finally located his best friend Harry’s grave, never having bothered to visit before, he notices that someone has just been there and put not only flowers but also a photo of a football team made up of German and British soldiers. He and his grandson finds it strange and even stranger when they hear “God Save the Queen” on the other side of the cemetery, from the German part. Jack realize that after all, it was an old German hymn that the Royal Family, who was German, brought with them to Britain. But still. He and Perry goes to investigate and that is when they run in to the German goalie from 1914, Erich, and his granddaughter.

This is when the story takes us back to 1914 and the 4th August. 12-year-old twins Dorothy and Florence, are in school to hear the farewell speech to all the children who are now considered old enough to start working. But headmaster Cleal, has no speech for them at all, he only declares that Britain is in war with Germany, and then leaves. The girls fetch siblings on the way home, eager to tell their mother about the war. This is where the book is a gem in my opinion, because it goes through the social part of the war in several places. This war offered hope for both genders. Girls were not expected to do anything when 12 except prepare themselves for becoming mothers to ten children or more, and spend the rest of their lives cooking and cleaning. The boys were expected to start working six days a week and long hours. War meant a break in life’s unending cycle of poverty and boredom. None of the them thought of dying though. When the girls arrive home to their mother, who stands pregnant with child ten and a baby who needs help, washing brown-stained knickers, her comment to the war news is one every mother can relate to, I think: “God, I wish I could go to war’ she sighed.”

Jack Loveless, our “hero”, worked in a bakery, the 4th August 1914, and was 16 years old. His friend Harry Newell, worked in the dockyard, and both of them were very promising footballers, dreaming of going professional. They suspect that the older players on the town of Portsmouth’s team, might join up and that can mean an opportunity for them. True enough, it does. But the strange thing is, that joining the team Pompey, means that they have to be drilled by their old headmaster, now Captain Cleal, in to soldiers as well. When they after a week of hard drills, decide to forego Friday’s drill, in order to play their best in the Saturday match, against Portsmouth’s arch enemies Southampton, they get punished after the match. They are sent to Aldershot for two weeks, to drill. When they come back, they don’t head home but to the recruiting office where both of them lie about their age. They now have turned 17 but the age required is 19. This is one of the most shocking things in that war, in my opinion, how recruiting officers were just out to get a number, and did not ask the age. If someone asked, like someone did, and a boy said 14, the officer just told him to walk around the square and when he came back, he should say 19. The youngest boy dying in the war was John Condon who died 14 years old in May 1915. (Or like the book says, 1914. Wikipedia says that he might actually have been 18 at his death. So, the author was not up to date with research.) But fact is that boys lied about their age since war was seen as a great test of manhood, one they wanted to go through. And everyone said the war would be over by Christmas. Add to this, all the posters with Lord Kitchener making you feel guilty for not going and the ladies with their white feathers! It was just a ghastly thing. They had no idea what waited in Flanders and the ones who did, did not even go close to a trench.

So, both boys arrive home, saying that they have joined up and they are off to France the next day. Talk about insane! At the train station, they meet another school friend, Freddie Feltham, who was always overweight and bullied, and his doting mother. The three try to stay together but soon realising that one can not really take care of each other, the way Freddie’s mum tried to make Jack do. When they get to France they end up in a tent without beds, getting to sleep on the ground with just great coats over them. Even though they are under canvas, they are “ankle-deep in mud”. Soon they are full of lice, always soaked and stinking. They starve on a diet of just a couple of  hard biscuits and cheese for breakfast, since that is their only meal of the day. They are held at the reserve camp for a long time and the author writes: “It was a stark choice: stay put and starve to death, or go to the Front and die on a full belly.”

Their first experience of war is on the 3rd day in the camp when the Germans bomb the camp. Jack cries and so do a lot of the others. But they have to get a grip and help out, where the bombs have fallen, which is on the camp stores, stables and command posts. “The dead were cooks, medical orderlies, instructors and horses”. Mild-mannered Freddie, shoots his first person, a man laying on the ground begging for a mercy killing.  When they move closer to the front, their task becomes to bury dead Germans. Jack gets to take the Germans’ paybooks to Brigade Headquarters where he gets to drink tea out of a real china cup and he notices a box of cakes from Fortnum and Mason, on the table. He feels sick when he thinks of his mates, half starving in rickety cow sheds. The social injustices of the day, sure has followed them to the trenches.

Their second experience is when they are all requested to go out and watch an execution of a young shell-shocked man. They have already set in to motion a standardised way of doing things. A bag has to be put over the person’s head so that the onlookers can not see his facial expressions as he gets scared, and then twist. They would become deserters if they saw it. And a rag is stuffed in the person’s mouth, since his screaming, or praying, or noises, would put the firing squad off. At the end of November, the Hampshires go up the line for ten days at the front and ten days in reserve. They barely have arrived, when the punctual Germans, start bombing at 22:00. Jack is told that there will be a 45 minute smoke and cat-nap break later on. Their first night, 13 “men” die and 15 get wounded.

On day 6, which is 1st December and Jack’s mother’s Birthday, he receives a letter from home where his sister Florence tells him that their mother has started war work, packing and sending food to the troops. If the following is true, I don’t know, but it is fascinating considering that this was 1914: “Some girls are really daring wearing trousers, smoking, going to the flicks and pubs on their own, even wearing make-up and them do-dahs on their chest.” German battleships have sailed up the Solent and shelled Portsmouth and all Germans have been interned, just like they were during World War Two. One can easily imagine how much pleasure these boys felt, when Jack shared his cake with the others and Freddie, who had already had five letters and packages, shared both cakes and toffees. Poor Harry received nothing, which probably did happen, parents caring less for children than others did.

Jack writes back, what food is like. That they eat bully beef every day mixed with raw onions and bread to that. Imagine their upset stomachs! Petulance and diarrhoea! And no proper facilities… He continues to describe that they sometimes get a treat like a tin of plums or apple jam. Plums of course wreaking havoc with their bellies. He explains that the tins become home-made bombs and the labels are used for “bum paper”. One of those details that adds to a book, right?!

If one should be picky, it is a shame that the author did not catch himself in the mathematical dilemma he put himself in when he on the 1st December, say that it is day 6 at the front. On page 88 he suddenly says that it is day 16 at the front, on the 1st December. It gets even more confusing when he says that relief is 16 days overdue, since if one is at the front for 10 days, then relief should arrive on day 11. If it is 16 days late, then one has been at the front for 26 days, on the 1st December and since they moved up the line to the front at the end of November, it does not add up. This irritates me. It is simple to check up your numbers, dates and so forth. Readers are no fools and I am a control freak when it comes to things like this. An author ought to proof-read their book lots of times before it goes to print.

Soon there are only 60 left of the 200 that came with Jack and his friends. They have seen bombardment, going over the top but they have not been sent on the sort of suicide missions that the Indian corps were forced to go on. The latter had been forced to go and fight a far off war in Europe, since they were part of the empire and they were loosely promised their freedom from the Empire IF they did so willingly. I am sure that is what was promised to them, an empty promise as it was. During one of the skirmishes that Jack takes part in, his chubby friend Freddie suddenly get the sole of his right foot shot off. They think it is a sure “blighty” and see him carried off. Surely he will lose his foot. When the trench gets ravaged by a fire, Jack looses his eye-sight temporarily and his hair gets burned. While in hospital he stumbles in to Freddie, who has had to have his entire leg amputated. They talk and Jack realise that Freddie is most unhappy since he has overheard the doctor mentioning gangrene. When Jack goes out in to the garden, he hears a shot and sadly it is Freddie who has blown his brains out, since he did not want to die a slow painful death in gangrene.

Jack finds out that his always silent father, has joined up and has been sent to Alexandria, in Egypt instead of to the trenches. His sister also reports of the German POWs that now live nearby. They are relieved that their diet of turnip soup for breakfast, turnip jam on turnip bread for dinner and turnip mash for tea with acorn coffee, is finally over. Not that the British soldiers are fed a nicer diet, and it’s a very unfair one, which is something Jack finds out when he goes to hand over Freddie’s personal effects to the officers. The officers are not even near danger, they don’t have any battle experience at all, since they refuse to go live with their men on the line. They joke and pretend fight with wooden swords, and one can feel how Jack’s resentment is building when the author writes that in that war there are three fighting units, the Germans, the officers and then the regular men. He does not feel that the officers do a single worthy thing. And they are so clueless that they miss the most important events that take place the 24-25 December 1914. First of all, the Germans start singing Christmas songs and soon the British join in with their Staff Sergeant “Taff” Morris’ baritone voice making all the difference. It’s agreed between the two combatants that there will be a truce since they are all tired of fighting and want to go home. The British realise that the German officers must be off as well, since without them, sense can rule. On the 25th the Germans put a Christmas tree in no man’s land and then the two forces start playing a football game. When the Germans are close to winning, they decide that who cares who wins? They are having so much fun that they instead divide up the teams in to mixed teams and they play till they are completely sweaty, muddy and the ball breaks. This is when they start exchanging gifts like “cigarettes for chocolate, sausage for bully beef, cake for knitted wholly hat”. Jack starts talking first to Fritz the Captain of the German team and then to Erich Pohl, the goalie, who shows a photo of his wife and two children. Jack shows photos of his family and after all this, the men really refuse to fight. The officers suddenly show up and to have a scapegoat for all the non-sense that has been going on, they take Staff Sergeant Taff Morris’ stripes away and then they shoot him for having fraternized with the enemy. An attack is planned for Boxing Day, so on the 26th they all go over the top on their officers’ orders and Harry gets killed. But Jack can’t stop. He gets injured and Fritz falls right beside him, begging for water, before he dies.

That is where we leave the war, and the last chapter has the blind goalie Erich Pohl and Jack Loveless sitting holding hands. Their grandchildren decide to read every name on every tombstone and scream out “never again” respectively “nie wieder”, till they have read all the names, as a symbol that their deaths were not wasted.  And that is what this book really is all about, what a waste war is. Solves nothing. And it’s usually started by idiots, idiots that never sacrifice anything themselves, who just easily and gladly waste other human beings’ lives. At least it was like that during World War One, when the soldiers usually had hardly any education and had no idea why they were really there. When they thought that war would be an adventure, but instantly was cured of that idea as soon as they arrived at the front. The singing and football match showed that they had more in common than differences.

Last night, I sat up late and watched a documentary about this British tank company. And it struck me, when watching that and the documentary that came after it, about how the Nazis rose to power, that World War Two was somewhat different in the respect of who the soldiers were. When the Germans went to war in 1939, they had been indoctrinated for at least 6 years, with a hateful ideology. Some had been part of the Nazi party for years, part of the SA and part of the fight for that party to get in to power. All the soldiers in uniform in 1939-1945 were more or less monsters. Some might say that they were not nazis and only did as ordered. But it is no excuse. They were not as innocent as the Boche sitting in the trenches, who had no idea of being part of a master race that had the right to take the entire world. The soldiers that marched out to war in 1939 and thereafter had sworn themselves to the Führer and had grown up in Hitler Jugend and gone to nazi indoctrinating schools. They went out as the master race and to conquer land they felt belonged to that race, to exterminate the Jewish race and make all other people, their slaves. If a British Jack had run in to an Erich, he might have had a nice chat but at the same time, Erich would in all probability have been part of mass slaughter of innocent civilians, and let’s say, the early 20th Century innocence was by no means there.


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