Tag Archives: Blackadder Goes Forth

Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Christmas in the Trenches by Alan Wakefield

 

One of the most eponymous – and in some ways, most tragic – images of the First World War is that of the Christmas Truce in 1914. A real-life event, the Christmas Truce has taken on an almost mythical status, to the extent where it was even featured in mournful conversation during the classic last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. The term ‘home by christmas’ also entered popular consciousness during the Great War.

The 1914 Christmas Truce really did happen. It began in an unplanned manner, with Tommy and Fritz initially not firing upon each other, and then exchanging compliments across no-mans-land, then advancing to meet each other and pass the time of day. Men swapped gifts, and in places even played football matches. There is something very warming and innocent about the Christmas Truce, in the early days of the war when men had hoped that the war would be over in time for them to be home by Christmas Day.

The British authorities were horrified by the truce. Heaven forbid that men might realise that their enemies were human just like them – it might make it harder to fight and kill them. In future years the Generals issued stern edicts forbidding fraternisation, to the point of threatening court martials, even to the point of treason. Despite this in 1915 there were attempts to renew the Christmas Truce, ironically enough by units of the Guards Division. This incident caused a minor scandal.

But where this book is important is the broader emphasis, looking at Christmas during wartime, and not just in 1914 on the Western Front. There are some fascinating stories about how men made the most of Christmas during wartime, even in the front-line trenches. There is something pretty stirring about how British troops always seemed to be able to find themselves a Turkey for Christmas Day. Loved ones at home were also able to send parcels and comforts, thanks to the British Forces enviable postal system. The King and commanders also made a habit of issuing seasonal christmas messages to their troops, and Wakefield has quoted from many of them.

And not only were British troops serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium. During the First World War British and Commonwealth troops spent Christmas in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Italy, East and West Africa, Palestine and after the Armistice also in Germany with the occupation forces and in North Russia. The men spending Christmas in far-flung parts of the globe in particular must have felt far from home and their loved ones.

Excellent use is made of photographs in the Imperial War Museum‘s collections, of christmas cards sent home from the front, and also of soldiers diaries and personal accounts. Perhaps one area where the author could have expanded on is that of Christmases spent at sea by sailors of the Royal Navy – there must be plenty of photographs and accounts in sailors diaries, and the senior service definitely has more than its fair share of christmas traditions. Apart from that, this book is a very useful social history of the First World War, but with lessons that resonate far beyond that conflict.

Christmas has traditionally been a time when people take stock of the year just gone, the year to come and where they are in life. Christmas is also a time to think of those less fortunate than us, such as the British troops serving in Afghanistan over Christmas. Christmas also has to be a time when we pause to think that British troops have been serving over christmas for hundreds of years, and – sadly – probably will continue to do so for years to come.

Christmas in the Trenches is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One