Whenever I think of World War One I hear, like some faint historic echo, the chatter of machine guns and the sucking noises of feet struggling through muddy fields and waterlogged trenches.
I see the sparse surroundings where only the odd skeletal shattered tree can hint at the once lush forest that grew there.
I imagine the yellow, billowing clouds of mustard gas doing their worst and the vibrant young men left to squirm and die terrible, lonely deaths in no man’s land.
It is brutal, shameful warfare, shocking in its profligacy.
But then I come across a few stories that show an altogether different side to those terrible times… a side which highlights the inherent decency of men from both sides who, while risking all for their countries, still found ways to show warmth and humanity for their so-called enemy. They are stories of how, even in the most barbarous of circumstances, love and compassion can shine through humankind’s darkest hours.
Richard Van Emden’s book, Meeting The Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, highlights some of these moments particularly well.
The one incident most people are familiar with which illustrates decency on the battlefield is that of the Christmas truce of 1914 in Flanders. It started off with carols being sung from opposing trenches and progressed to enemy soldiers stepping out into no man’s land and exchanging gifts
The High Commands from both sides were aghast at such fraternization and vowed it would never happen again. They were wrong. The following year it was the turn of the Scots’ Guards when one of their company commanders agreed to a ceasefire which ended up in German soldiers dancing to the music of a Scot’s mouth organ.
Elsewhere, the displays of friendship were less obvious. In one French sector taken over by the British, a note pinned to some barbed wire suggested both sides exchange newspapers. Prior to the arrival of the British, German officers had been in the habit of popping over of an evening for a game of bridge with their French counterparts. That, alas, was soon knocked on the head.
The treatment of prisoners of war was quite civil, too. In one instance a British officer – Captain Wilfred Birt – died of his wounds while in a hospital in Cologne. He was buried with full military honours in Cologne Cathedral at a service attended by British officers who were given safe passage back to their own lines after the funeral.
However, it was fighter pilots who displayed the greatest chivalry. In those days of aerial warfare, pilots had no parachutes. When planes caught fire they could either jump or burn. German pilots regularly found out the names of their victims and would drop details of names and burial sites over the British lines. It was even known for the downed pilots to be invited for a meal in the German officer’s mess.
The British reciprocated with equally thoughtful gestures. When the German ace Max Immelmann was killed, a British pilot dropped off a wreath and message of condolence on his airfield.
Such chivalry may have been influenced by the attitude of German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, who clearly had mixed feelings about war with Britain.
He was half English himself and Queen Victoria’s nephew. The Kaiser was even honorary colonel of a regiment of British dragoons and an Admiral of the Fleet.
Wilhelm was torn in his feelings. Apparently he loved Britain but hated the fact that he was never fully accepted into British high society.
This attitude might explain the treatment of Captain Robert Campbell, which Richard Van Emden uncovered in his research.
Campbell was captured just weeks after Britain declared war on Germany in July, 1914. After two years as a POW, he received news that his mother was close to death. Campbell decided to write to the Kaiser pleading to be allowed home to visit his mother before she died.
Wilhelm granted him two weeks leave – on condition that he promised to return.
Campbell went back to his family home in Kent in 1916 and spent a week with his mother. He was as good as his word and returned to his German prison – where he stayed until he was released in 1918.
War is horrible and pitiless; it doesn’t discriminate.
Sometimes, though, people raise themselves above its carnage and show they can survive the most brutal of treatment and still keep alive the flicker of compassion that makes us what we are.