Sunday, December 21, 2014

Truce: the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy

Truce explores the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 by German and British troops during World War I providing young readers with an interesting account of this unique historical event.


Murphy begins with prewar Europe, setting the back story for the events that led up to the start of World War I. Although Germany was arguably the most powerful nation in Europe in the early 20th Century, Kaiser Wilhelm II was uneasy about France and England, believing that they would, along with Russia, one day encircle Germany. England, France and Russia had formed an alliance known as the Triple Entente. Wilhelm's ally, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary was concerned about the economic and military growth of Serbia and he also wanted to expand his empire to include Poland. This potential invasion of Poland made Czar Nicholas II nervous, as Poland was part of the Russian Empire. France had been defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and had to give up two of its territories, Alsace and Lorraine. King George V was concerned about Germany's growing naval might. All of these tensions and fears, backed heavily by propaganda produced by each of these countries helped foment hatred and the desire for war among within each country.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated this set in motion a sequence of events that led to war. Believing that the assassination was intended to incite a Serbian rebellion in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was encouraged by his advisors and by Wilhelm of Germany to take action against Serbia. Franz Joseph hesitated since there was no evidence that Serbia was involved, but eventually capitulated. Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia containing fifteen demands", the acceptance of which would have required "Serbia to give up a great deal of its national authority..." Serbia agreed to the demands with the exception of Austria's participation in the Serbian investigation into the assassination. Instead, Serbia asked that the issue be sent to the international court in The Hague. Unfortunately, due to Wilhem's encouragement, Emperor Franz Joseph did not accept these terms and ordered his troops to begin attacking Serbia. Meanwhile in Germany, Wilhelm read the text of Serbia's reply to Austria's ultimatum and realized the reason for war was removed. But he was too late. As Murphy writes, "Only those at the highest levels of government knew that the war could have been avoided."

As each country became involved, its men rushed to sign up partly to defend their countries and partly because they believed, as a result of propaganda, that it would be "a quick and glorious adventure" not to be missed. This was also partly due to the fact that both Germany and France had already devised plans for attacking one another. For Germany it was called the Schlieffen Plan, developed by General Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, and called for Germany to invade France by first going through Belgium and then attacking Paris from the north. For the French it was Plan XVII which called for half the French army to invade Germany and retake Alsace-Lorraine.  The first battle at Mons, Belgium provided strong hints that the war was going to be anything but a quick conflict. For one thing soldiers on the battlefield were still fighting according to nineteenth century rules, while facing twentieth century weapons, some of which their fathers and grandfathers could never have dreamed of. Poison gas, tanks, flamethrowers and machine guns all changed warfare.

A series of victories and defeats saw the German and British and French armies bogged down in France due to exhaustion, depletion of ammunition, artillery, supplies and men and also due to heavy rains which made the countryside swampy and mucky. At this point the commanders of both sides decide to dig a long line of trenches wherever the two sides met. In France this became known as the Western Front. The Western Front stretched 475 miles from the south of Belgium through France to a small part of Germany - the Alsace-Lorraine region. The two sides faced off against each other, England, France and its allies against German troops separated by No Man's Land, an area filled with muck, shell holes and razor-wire.

The closeness of the trenches resulted in the two opposing armies becoming familiar with each other and recognizing that they were not so different from one another. This led to more and more fraternizing, trading insults, tinned goods and even setting up shooting competitions. This made the commanding officers furious on both sides. British officers ordered large scale raids under ridiculous conditions in order to put an end to the fraternizing. The result was a needless loss of life which the public back home was not aware of because they were lied to about the success of the raids. With Christmas approaching, the rainy warm weather changed to cold and snowy. Fraternization with the enemy soldiers in the previous weeks created feelings of goodwill and added to the Christmas cheer. The fact that two armies sat facing each other day in and day out seemed ridiculous and many felt that something extraordinary was about to happen. That extraordinary event was to be the Christmas Truce of 1914.


Jim Murphy who has won numerous awards for his fantastic history books for young people, specializes in making history come alive for his readers. He writes on his blog that he wants "to write books that were honest, informative and dramatically involving, and largely focused on the experiences and emotions of those who were actually in these conflicts."  And Truce does just that for a generation of readers a century after this remarkable event. The writing makes the story of the Christmas Day Truce come alive as Murphy sets the stage for the beginning of World War I by introducing the Kings and Emperors and the major countries involved and then describing the early months of the war in 1914, leading up to Christmas. In Truce, Murphy presents some of the most discussed aspects of The Great War to young people; the rush to war by various countries, the effect of trench warfare on the troops and the ordering by generals, far from the front, of thousands of soldiers to their deaths through senseless attacks.

Murphy effectively describes how a unique set of factors set up the conditions for the soldiers, after only four months of fighting, to wonder "Truly, there is no longer any sense in this business."  He also explains how trench warfare, where soldiers could hear the enemy affected them and countered to some degree the indoctrination they had experienced in their home countries about the enemy.

"The incidental contacts with the enemy made each side curious. They had been induced to fight in part because they'd been led to believe the enemy was inferior to them or a mindless monster. What they were now hearing might be in a different language from theirs, but the sounds were still very familiar."
This humanizing of the soldiers resulted in less anger towards the enemy and a lessening of the desire to kill someone who seemed very much like themselves. This combined with the obvious inability to gain ground against their enemy led directly to the Christmas Truce.

Truce is remarkably interesting and easy to read. It is divided into six chapters with a Preface and an Epilogue. In the Epilogue, Jim Murphy suggests one the reasons he has written this book is for the lessons younger generations might learn from history.
"...some wars are justified (such as the Second World War against Hitler and his allies) while other are not. But there is no reason why lessons can't be drawn from history. World War I might very well have happened anyway, but it is fair to ask how the world would have been different if the sides involved had been more willing to sit down and negotiate their differences. At the very least, the Christmas Truce of World War I demonstrated that the combatants were more alike than not."

Spread throughout this informative book are interesting photographs, of life (and death) at the front lines. Murphy has included photographs of German, British, Scottish and French in their trenches as well as pictures of No Man's Land and some of the commanding officers. There are also many fascinating photographs, taken by the soldiers themselves, of the Christmas Day Truce. Like any good historian, Murphy has included several maps showing the Schlieffen Plan, the Western Front, and Europe after the war to help orient young readers.

The back of Truce is chock-full of more information: a Time Line, an extensive Notes and Sources, and a section on More About World War I which lists print, movies and online sources. The book is also indexed allowing readers to access information with ease. Truce is informative reading for those interested in history and will make a great supplementary resource for high school students studying World War I.

Those wishing more information on the Christmas truce can check out Canada's Veteran's Affair Website webpage and the following webpage about the British soldiers and the Christmas Truce as well as at the Imperial War Museum website.

Book Details:
Truce by Jim Murphy
New York: Scholastic Press   2009
115 pp.

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