Three towns painted later in the same vein

December 5, 2013 § Leave a comment


So how was it possible that the British soldier was able to enact and organise the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with the ‘enemy’? Ashworth explains that this did not necessarily involve direct verbal communication between the opposing forces:

This understanding was tacit and covert; it was expressed in activity or non-activity rather than in verbal terms. The norm was supported by a system of sanctions. In the positive sense it constituted a system of mutual service, each side rewarded the other by refraining from offensive activity on the condition, of course, that this non-activity was reciprocated.

So an ‘understanding’ was reached, by careful study of action and reaction by the troops on both sides, about acceptable levels of violence. This was enforced by a negative sanction if the unwritten and non-verbalised ‘agreement’ was infringed as one British soldier recounted:

…the incident related occurred during an un-certain period during which the Germans appeared to be exceeding the existing level of offensiveness. ‘The Germans about this time also fired minenwerfers [Minenwerfer (‘mine launcher’) was a class of short range mortars used extensively during the First World War by the German Army. The weapons were intended to be used by engineers to clear obstacles including bunkers and barbed wire; that longer range artillery would not be able to accurately target.] into our poor draggled front line; this in-humanity could not be allowed and the rifle grenades that went over no-man’s-land in reply, for once almost carried out the staffs’ vicarious motto: give them three for every one. One glared hideously at the broken wood and clay flung up from our grenades and trench-mortar shells in the German trenches, finding for once that a little hate was possible.’ The arrival of the minenwerfer made clear the violation of the norm. The term ‘inhumanity’ is either a reference to the in-formal norm or else it is meaningless. The sanction was immediate: the maximum and officially prescribed offensiveness. The author, however, makes clear that such retaliation was not the rule.

The disapproval (and reply) of the British troops to this unusual transgression was an attempt to re-establish the ‘quiet front’, rather than deal death to the ‘enemy’ as the Generals wanted on a day to day basis. Interestingly this negative sanction also reciprocally applied to their own actions and those of their officers as was explained by another ‘Tommy’:

‘The most unpopular man in the trenches is undoubtedly the trench mortar officer, he discharges the mortar over the parapet into the German trenches . . . for obvious reasons it is not advisable to fire a trench mortar too often, at any rate from the same place. But the whole weight of public opinion in our trench is directed against it being fired from anywhere at all’

In this case the decisions of the trench mortar officer could seriously damage the unwritten ‘agreement’ by unleashing the negative sanction, this time from the German-side, and in so doing endanger British lives.

Such tacit ‘agreements’ as ‘live and let live’ combined with the ritualization and routinization of offensive activity had to remain partially or wholly ‘hidden’ from the upper echelons of military command on both sides, else the ‘agreements’ would be forcibly broken by these powers. It had to ‘look’ and ‘sound’ like something was happening for the benefit of the ‘brass’, even if the troops themselves were in little danger. Ashworth notes:

We have here a curious and paradoxical situation in which a ritualized and routinized structure of offensive activity functioned within the informal structure as a means of indirect communication between antagonists. The intention to Live and Let Live was often communicated by subtle yet meaningful manipulation of the intensity and rhythm of offensiveness. The tacitly arranged schedule which evolved established a mutually acceptable level of activity. To the uninitiated observer such a front line would appear to show a degree of offensive activity compatible with officially prescribed levels; for the participants, however, such bombs and bullets were not indicators of animosity but rather its contrary.

So it was necessary that the collective ‘fraud’ was tacitly accepted by all (including front-line officers) and kept secret from the ‘brass’, as this was in the interests of both the British and German combatants.

Ashworth concludes his paper by noting that such forms of cooperation by supposed front-line adversaries began to undermine the nationalist propaganda which was intended to divide them from ‘the enemy’ and motivate them to kill each other. He argues:

The experience of tacit co-operation came as a reality shock to combatants. It demonstrated to each side that the other was not the implacably hostile and violent creature of the official image. The latter eroded and was replaced, as we have seen, by an indigenous definition based on common experience and situation. This deviant image stressed similarities rather than differences between combatants. The institutionally prescribed and dichotomous WE and THEY dissolved. The WE now included the enemy as the fellow sufferer. The THEY became the staff.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Ville Varumo

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