The Gentlemen’s War

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.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II

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.

Captain Robert Campbell

Captain Robert Campbell

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.
SometimesMeeting The Enemy, 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.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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32 Responses to The Gentlemen’s War

  1. P. C. Zick says:

    David, very interesting post about some of the unknown realities of war. The same thing happened during the United States’ Civil War. Sometimes the men on pickets on opposing sides would raise the white flag so they could talk to one another through the long boring shifts. The reality of war is sometimes much different than what we’re taught in school.


  2. John L. Monk says:

    I’m so glad I found this blog. I love this. It’s like an education without going back to college, thank you for writing it.
    I read the entire Master & Commander series. Fiction, granted, but I also read Hornblower, and I believe they researched their work heavily. In these books, POW’s were regularly given “parol”, which is a sort of freedom behind enemy lines to come and go as they choose, so long as they didn’t try to escape.
    I plan to read the series again some time.


  3. Another fascinating post, David. These “little” gestures during WWI ensured people knew that those were human beings on the other side of the line. We have lost so much – perhaps most of all humanity – with modern warfare.


  4. rhchatlien says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book. Such gestures only throw a brighter spotlight on the overall inhumanity of war. The stories you cite remind me of Jean Renoir’s incredible film Grand Illusion, which also shows human connections during WWI.


  5. Iain Martin says:

    Great post.

    Reminded me of the great story of when the German flying ace Ernst Udet met the French ace
    Georges Guynemer in a dogfight in over the trenches in a one-on-one combat.

    (from Wikiepdia)

    It was during his service with Jasta 15 that Udet wrote he had encountered Georges Guynemer, the French ace, in single combat at 5,000 m (16,000 ft). Guynemer preferred to hunt alone; by this time, he was the leading French ace, and one of the war’s leading aces, with more than 30 victories.

    Udet saw him coming and the two circled each other looking for an opening. They were close enough for Udet to read the “Vieux” of “Vieux Charles” on Guynemer’s Spad S.VII. The two opponents tried every tricky aerobatic they knew; the Frenchman ripped a burst of fire through the upper wing of Udet’s plane. Udet evaded him and maneuvered for advantage. For an instant, Udet had him in his sights, but his guns jammed. While pretending to dogfight, he worked to unjam them. Guynemer saw his opponent’s predicament, waved, and flew away.[2] Udet wrote of the fight, “For seconds, I forgot that the man across from me was Guynemer, my enemy. It seems as though I were sparring with an older comrade over our own airfield.” Some experts say that Guynemer spared Udet because he wanted a fair fight. He was also likely impressed with Udet’s skills in their battle and hoped that they would fight again someday.


  6. Amazing the amount of anecdotes and details you keep digging up. Thanks for these interesting stories which always add something new to what we thought we knew.


  7. Joss Landry says:

    Wonderful stories. My grandfather had a few of them, so did my great uncles. I like that someone is digging up these anecdotes and giving our young ones a taste of that courage and fortitude was all about. We learn from our past to make a better future.


    • Sorry for the late reply, Joss. I didn’t receive notification of a comment. Very nice of you to say. I agree, about learning from the past. The sad thing is that so much of the past is forgotten and the lesson is lost


  8. I don’t read much about WWI (I read a lot of about WWII though). It sounds like a great book.


  9. Owen says:

    This is a very topical subject this year and it is always interesting to read about ‘lest we forgt’.

    All the best,


  10. I immediately thought of my husband when I saw this. So I went to Amazon and gifted a copy to him. Thanks for the sneak peak.


  11. Chris Rose says:

    Yes, I must echo Christoph’s sentiments on this one, thee are some astounding anecdotes there.

    And whenever I hear/read of stories like these, I’m forever amazed at the absurdity of the whole thing… Mind blowing stuff.

    Great post.


    • Thank you, Chris. Apologies for the late reply. I never received notification of a comment. War is such a terrible waste, and seeing the humanity within all that carnage only confirms that opinion


  12. Johnf993 says:

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  13. Johnb943 says:

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