Meeting the Enemy

Review: Meeting the Enemy: the Human Face of the Great War by Richard van Emden

This tour de force of research casts new light on meetings
between the British and Germans in the First World War

As Guardsman Norman Cliff passed two decomposing bodies on the Western Front he was overcome by conflicting emotions. Two soldiers, one German, the other British, lay hand in hand “as though reconciled in mutual agony and in the peace of death”.

This grim yet deeply moving scene evokes Wilfred Owen’s great poem Strange Meeting, written shortly before he was killed in action in 1918. One line, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, sums up the often paradoxical relationship between deadly enemies on the Western Front which is the central theme of this book. Despite industrialised carnage, fighting men at the front could often feel greater comradeship with their enemies-in-arms than their own countrymen back at home.

meeting-the-enemyRichard Van Emden’s tour de force of research casts a fascinating new light on the human face of the Great War, allowing us into some of the strangest of meetings between British and German enemies in the trenches, behind the lines and on the home front.

A German soldier named Weingartner found the British Private Charles Mole lying severely wounded in a shell hole. Weingartner dressed Mole’s wounds and brought him a cup of tea. In a letter to Mole’s parents, Weingartner said, “Before I left him I knelt down at
his side and prayed with him ….. I was moved to tears to see how grateful your son looked at my little services.” Two days later the 19-year-old Charles Mole died of his wounds and was buried in a German military cemetery that contained a memorial stone inscribed: “The Sword divides, but the cross unites.”

The cross often did unite, helping to forge the sometimes brotherly love between enemy troops at the front. Christian and Anglo-Saxon culture was reinforced by the shared horrors of trench warfare, as well as professional admiration for bravery and skill at arms.

One young British machine gunner, Private Ginger Byrne, pinned down all day in a shell hole by an enemy machine gunner, remembered: “I was lying there almost admiring what he was doing. He certainly knew his job.” Not well enough perhaps, as Byrne got away unscathed.

Despite some extraordinary and often inspirational stories of comradeship between foes, Van Emden points out that “most men remained enemies in life and friends only in death”.

During the 1914 Christmas truce, while sharing a cigar with a German sharpshooter, a British soldier made a mental note of the German’s firing position so he could shoot him the next day.

With British infantry overwhelming their defences, a German officer handed his field glasses to a Royal Fusiliers sergeant as a token of surrender. The sergeant thanked the officer, took the glasses and shot him in the head. Van Emden knows too much about men in war to make a moral judgment on this sort of heat-of-the-moment killing.

Politicians and lawyers now so eager to impose peacetime justice on the battlefield should read this book carefully, taking note of the words of one of the Fusilier sergeant’s officers: “If you start a man killing, you can’t turn him off again, like an engine.”

Controlling soldiers programmed to kill is a perennial concern for all of us who have led troops into action. On the eve of our assault into Iraq in 1991, my brigade commander told me he was concerned that the troops might ill-treat captured enemy. He needn’t have worried. He was a superb leader, and leadership is always the deciding factor.

When hundreds of starving, dehydrated, ragged Iraqi troops surrendered, our men gave them their own rations, their water and even their socks. The same humanity their grandfathers had often shown in the Great War, and sometimes received in return.

Not always, though — 1916 brought a chilling foretaste of things to come. British prisoners of war were packed into cattle trucks and sent eastward to the Russian front to be worked to death in camps. A Royal Marine described the survivors as “human wrecks ….. simply a
frame of bones covered with skin ….. eyes sunk deep in their sockets”. Among many compelling photographs in this book, there is a grainy and heartbreaking image of a bowed and broken British prisoner tied to a post and left in the snow.

In 1918, General Ludendorff’s shockingly successful spring offensive lost momentum when half-starved German soldiers overran British field canteens and supply depots. As men gorged on plentiful Allied rations and filled their pockets with cigarettes, commanders
struggled to drive them on. The German Army may have marched — or in this case halted — on its stomach, but the British Army marched on its sense of humour, and still does. The closeness of the enemy lines on the Western Front allowed the troops to extend their
legendary wit to German-baiting, which sometimes saved morale. Recalling that Germans were the mainstay of London’s prewar restaurant staff, cries of “Waiter!” were frequently shouted from the British trenches. One soldier remembers his taunts being met with
“Coming sir, coming sir!” from the German side.

Even the German supreme commander admired the soldiers of the nation he blamed above all for the impending destruction of everything he stood for. In May 1918, Brigadier General Hubert Rees was captured during the spring offensive. In what for him was the
strangest meeting of the war, he was taken to see the Kaiser who was visiting the front. The final comment made to Rees by the man who, enraged, had sent back his British medals in 1914, was: “The English always fight well.”

Published in The Times, 31 August 2013. © Richard Kemp