‘Hair Bought’: A brief history of hair

Over the last ten years in the UK there has been a plethora of books of historic photographs. Their titles are invariably and deliberately evocative, and include: Britain’s Lost Cities; Lost Victorian Britain; and Lost London, 1870-1945. Their production and consumption seems to demonstrate strong current interest in historic, or heritage, images.

One book, published in 2015, Picturing England: the Photographic Collections of Historic England, has a particularly striking cover image. It is of a street scene in Bristol, in 1866. It evokes a distant, even medieval past. In subject matter and style it is redolent of Eugene Atget’s now-famous photographs of Paris taken somewhat later, during the period 1898-1926. The weird, almost otherworldly character of that Bristol street also put me in mind of something else, something fantastical: the set design for the 1920 German film, The Golem.

steep-street

Steep Street, Bristol (Photo: Historic England Archive)

As I looked more closely at the Bristol photograph I noticed that in the shop window, located at its centre, is a sign: it reads ‘Hair Bought’. I was intrigued. I had recently researched the life of a man born in 1869 whose family owned a business in Glasgow – a hair factory. The history of hair – animal and human – is an interesting one that has received little attention compared with, say, the history of fur – a more overtly glamorous, political (and politicised) subject.

There are areas of overlap of course: any catalogue of artists’ materials will include brushes made of hair from animals more associated with the fur trade, such as squirrel and ‘sable’ (in this case actually a variety of weasel). People have harvested and traded in  animal fur for centuries. Pig and hog hair (or bristle) went into the manufacture of brushes, typically for scrubbing. Being of good length and shape retention, horse hair (primarily from the tail) could be put to a wide variety of uses, from hats to window blinds to upholstery filling. The advent and development of the internal combustion engine contributed to a decline in the horse population of the UK and other western countries. Manufacturers simply imported even more horse and other hair from Russia and China. Subsequently industry would come to rely increasingly (though never quite exclusively, even up to the present) on synthetic materials.

Of all hair, that of humans has the most complex and complicated history. In her recently published book Entanglement, anthropologist Emma Tarlo deciphers some of its myriad meanings, contemporary as well as historical. She reports on a visit to China, and a meeting with the owner of one of the world’s largest wig and toupee manufacturers. She recounts a controversy that erupted in Orthodox Jewish circles in 2004. A rabbi banned wigs worn by married women for religious reasons: the hair from which they made had originated in India, and he deemed it impure and unsuitable. She also tells us about BuyandSellHair.com, possibly the world’s largest online market place for human hair. Sellers – women almost without exception – emphasise their healthy diets and lifestyles. They invest their hair with personal qualities, and enhance its commercial potential.

Individual online transactions make up, however, only a tiny fragment of the now billion-dollar trade in human hair. Much of its originates in Asia, where it earns its owners only a pittance. By the time it reaches the market place, all trace of its origins has been effaced. It has become another globalized commodity. This is nothing new, Tarlo tells us; the gathering of human hair has always been a big, and backstage, business, little known to those outside the trade.

barbersHistorically, hair gathered in Britain and Europe came from hairdressers, obviously, but also from hospitals, prisons, workhouses and even convents. Pedlars bought and sold hair, as they did many other things. Parents auctioned their daughters’ tresses at hair markets. In the early 1920s, America experienced a kind of craze for hairnets made from human hair, originating in China.

Hair has long been a marker of identity: personal, gendered, religious, ethnic and racial, with positive and negative connotations. In an address to the Anthropology Society of Paris in 1879, one academic claimed that the practice of classifying hair dated right back to Herodotus. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, hair classification fed into theories of racial hierarchy justifying slavery, colonialism, apartheid and eugenics.

Hair loss is a symbolic as well as physical and emotional experience. So too is hair removal, whether voluntary or involuntary. The sight of hair severed under coercive conditions has the power to shock, as many visitors to Auschwitz have testified, after seeing mounds of human hair on display there. Nothing else, according to Tarlo, conjures up the absent bodies of victims more directly than the mangled fibre left behind.

In  the end, trimmed and shorn, bought and sold, advertised in shops or online, hair, it’s worth remembering, is still a body part.

Some Useful Reading:

Philip Davies, Lost England, 1870-1930 (2016)

Mike Evans, Gary Winter and Anne Woodward, Picturing England: the Photographic Collections of Historic England (2015)

Emma Tarlo, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair (2016)

John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University

John Stuart

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Little Englander’: some personal thoughts on a contested label

In a teaching session recently I was asked about the term ‘Little Englander’ – what it means, why it is used and where it comes from. I had to admit that, while it is one of those terms that many historians of British history are familiar with, it remains a label that is not easy to define or pin down. Moreover, it has tended to shift in meaning over time, and has served a variety of polemical and ideological purposes.

Daily-Express-EU-crusader

I pointed out that the label is quite old and contested, but has clearly made a big comeback in recent times, especially in relation to Britain’s departure from Europe and the resurgence of a very ‘English’ form of nationalism within the United Kingdom. It is mostly used by critics today to capture the essence of what they regard as something profoundly negative and ugly: the new insularity and xenophobia that has emerged in British politics and in much of the rightwing press, especially since the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

It has certainly reappeared as a term in political discourse at Westminster. In 2016, the then-Conservative leader David Cameron said he wanted to see ‘a strong Britain in Europe’ rather than UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s ‘little England’. The term has also re-entered common usage in the media. For a number of years now, the UKIP-supporting Daily Express newspaper (owned by the controversial media baron Richard Desmond) has carried regular articles and editorials calling for ‘freedom’ from Europe, and has often employed an image of St. George standing firmly in defence of England’s shoreline against ‘Johnny Foreigner’ and hordes of ‘migrants’. Critics of this type of deeply unhistorical chauvinism have pointed to the irony that England’s patron saint had a ‘foreign’ background himself, and to the ill-informed and highly-selective ‘Little Englander’ outlook of both UKIP and the Express, especially on the topic of migration.

Similarly, on the day after Prime Minister Theresa May finally explained her ‘Brexit’ plans to the UK’s Parliament, there were very mixed responses: while there was plenty of enthusiastic (and predictable) praise from much of the UK’s Eurosceptic right-of-centre press, at the same time various critics pointed out that May’s stance merely confirmed their suspicion that her 12-point ‘plan for Britain’ was designed mainly to appease the ‘Little Englander’ mentality, an outlook held by many of her Conservative backbenchers and, according to polls, significant numbers of the (English) voting public.

daily-mail-18-jan-2017

And, evidently, parts of the British press remain very keen indeed on the ‘Little Englander’ imagery. Rather than be embarrassed about it in any way, certain newspapers have embraced the associated symbolism with relish. This was typically illustrated on the front-cover of the strongly Eurosceptic Daily Mail newspaper (January 18th), which devoted the whole of its front page to a visually striking cartoon image of Mrs. May standing upright and defiant, with hands on hips: the PM was placed under a Union Jack and positioned on the edge of what was clearly meant to be the White Cliffs of Dover, trampling an EU flag underfoot. The Mail headline next to this also sought to tap into certain historical memories of a previous Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher: ‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’. The Mail has never really recovered from the overthrow of Thatcher by her own party, and appears desperate to portray May as the ‘new Thatcher’, out to save ‘middle England’ (interestingly, when Mrs. Thatcher was still alive, she once responded to one of her MPs who had complained about being labelled a ‘Little Englander’ by saying: ‘There is no such thing as a little Englander, only a big Englander’).

But what was especially depressing to a number of critics was the stark ‘Little Englander’ message employed by the Mail newspaper – the claim that the UK was now ‘free’ from the bossy ‘Eurocrats’ of Brussels, and could now pursue its own course again on the exciting high seas of the wider globe. This kind of message was summed up again in some very ill-judged comments made shortly afterwards by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who warned EU leaders not to give ‘punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape rather in the manner of some World War Two movie…’. Again, a number of commentators on internet discussion forums referred to Johnson’s narrow-minded ‘Little Englander’ language, and – I have to admit – I share their distaste.

So, where did this term ‘Little Englander’ originate? Does it have a ‘history’? It was arguably a product of the Victorian era, but possibly had roots going much further back. Some experts, for example, point to William Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII (1601), where there is a reference to ‘little England’. But most historians seem to agree that the term ‘Little Englander’ – in its more modern sense – was actually invented as a tool of political labelling in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it was quite a ‘fluid’ term: rather than being a label attached to ‘reactionaries’ (as one might naturally assume), it was initially given by critics to ‘progressives’. It seems to have been first used to describe a section of the UK’s Liberal party, members who were strongly opposed to the further expansion of the British Empire and the ‘scramble’ for more colonies.

This was sometimes applied to the top leaders. The Prime Minister and Liberal leader William Gladstone (1809-1898), for example, was occasionally referred to as a ‘Little Englander’. Similarly, the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908), who was briefly Prime Minister from 1905 to 1908, was accused by his critics of having ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘Little Englander’ tendencies because he had opposed the Boer War of 1899-1902.

little-englander

Moving further into the twentieth century, the term ‘Little Englander’ appears to have gone through further transformations and changes in meaning, moving from being a term used to describe ‘timid’ Liberals to becoming a term to criticise ‘zealous’ Conservatives. In the 1920s and 1930s – in so far as it was even used (which was not much) – it increasingly denoted the pro-Empire, ‘Die-hard’ type of Conservative. However, in the dark days of 1940-41, there was further ‘fluidity’ – the term briefly went from being a mainly negative label to something much more positive and unifying. When Britain appeared to stand alone against the might of Nazi-occupied Europe, the imagery of ‘Little England’ was utilised for propaganda purposes by the government – to help boost morale and stir up heroic images of the ‘little man’ patriotically standing up against the ‘big bully’ of Nazi barbarity.

After the War, the term appeared to fall out of fashion for quite some time, and was not really resurrected in any meaningful way until the 1990s. During the Blair governments, with the creation of a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and a devolved government for Northern Ireland, the question of an ‘English’ identity increasingly arose. And, in my reading of things, it is during this period where the term ‘Little Englander’ seems to have been rediscovered and heated up again. In 2000, for example, the annual survey of social attitudes by the UK’s National Centre for Social Research (SCPR) found that there had been a marked increase in the proportion of English people saying they owed allegiance to ‘England’, not Britain. Furthermore, the SCPR survey detected a significant number of such people freely admitting to being racially prejudiced. In addition, they were ‘consistently more inclined to want to shut out the outside world’. Zooming in on the report’s own use of the term, the UK’s quality press quickly labelled these citizens ‘Little Englanders’, and also noted that many of this group thought that Britain should quit the EU altogether. The ‘red-top’ press soon joined in, arguing that such views deserved to be heard.

britain-and-white-cliffs

Sensing the possible dangers in this growth of ‘Englishness’, the Left tried to create its own alternative version, highlighting instead what they saw as the English historical traditions of tolerance and inclusivity, and how these could sit just as comfortably within a British framework of multiculturalism, alongside other forms of identity. In 2011, however, the growing insularity and rejection of a wider world was given a degree of gravitas when it was expressed in a heavily-criticised article by the historian Dominic Sandbrook. Writing in the Daily Mail, which remains one of the UK’s biggest-selling newspapers, Sandbrook attacked the pro-EU ‘metropolitan liberals’ in British society and proclaimed that: ‘We should be proud of being Little Englanders’. He said that he looked forward to the ‘rebirth’ of a newly confident English identity. A number of commentators welcomed Sandbrook’s ‘bold’ and outspoken comments, and his rejection of ‘political correctness’.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that this rather unhappy, intolerant and xenophobic strand of English nationalism, given a new kind of respectability by writers like Sandbrook, has been bubbling away just below the surface for about 20 years now, and broke out into the open in a big way in 2016, largely as a consequence of the Referendum campaign. Yet, rather than directly confront this ‘Little Englander’ tendency, with all the highly negative meanings it has today, many British politicians have instead chosen to pander to it and exploit it.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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A United Kingdom: a review and brief analysis

Billed as ‘the true story of a love that shook an empire’, the movie A United Kingdom opened the London Film Festival in October, 2016, before going on general cinema release in the UK. To date, box office receipts exceed £2 million. The film opens in the US in February, 2017.

Press reviews were favourable, almost without exception. Reviewers praised the direction of Amma Asante, lead performances by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and the cinematography of Sam McCurdy. At press conferences and interviews, Assante and Oyelowo asserted the film’s importance in terms both of subject matter and of personal commitment to racial diversity in filmmaking. A United Kingdom is in many ways a big success.

a-united-kingdomAt one level the storyline, based on historical events, is conventional, even banal. A man and a woman, both in their 20s, ‘meet cute’ at a social event in late 1940s London. He is black, she is white. They overcome racial prejudice and their families’ disapproval, marry and become lifelong partners. What gives the story additional, deeper resonance is the man’s background: he is Seretse Khama, heir to an African chiefdom. And, for complicated geopolitical as well as racial reasons, his romancing of and marriage to Ruth Williams ignites controversy, in Africa and in Britain.

The chiefdom was in a British colony, the Bechuanaland Protectorate – now the Republic of Botswana. Since the late nineteenth century, white settlers in neighbouring South Africa had coveted the territory. In 1895, Seretse’s grandfather and two other African leaders travelled to London and successfully petitioned for British imperial protection. In that endeavour, they found support from various political and religious organisations.

Bechuanaland was not at all well known in Britain. Yet, for people interested in imperial affairs, it represented a kind of ‘bulwark’ against the expansion of South Africa – and of South African racial attitudes and practices. Within the protectorate, Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, schemed and politicked to keep Britain ‘onside’ and resist South African attempts at encroachment. Seretse had been only four years old on the death of his father in 1925; he would succeed Tshekedi and assume a leader’s role on coming of age and following necessary affirmation by his people. It was a challenging prospect.

Nevertheless, events seemed destined to follow a reasonably predictable course. Seretse travelled to England in 1945 with the aim of completing his education and, in effect, his training for leadership. He and Ruth met 21 months later, and their relationship took time to develop. It confounded all expectations.

What is evident from the historical record, and what the film makes clear, is how resolute Ruth and Seretse were – in their commitment to each other and in their shared resistance to familial, social and political pressures. They were certainly at the centre of a storm. In filmic terms it is a remarkably still centre, probably true to life, but lacking intensity. With some exceptions, most of the film’s drama (and humour), comes from the interaction of Ruth and Seretse with others. Pike’s declaration (as Ruth) ‘I am not a typist’ to a civil service inquisitor provides a neat, glancing, almost nuanced indication of her character’s concern with status. As Seretse, meanwhile, Oyelowo is most emphatic – and emotional – in his addresses to the tribal kgotia, or council.

The film focuses to a fairly limited extent on secondary characters, most successfully perhaps Seretse’s sister Naledi, who articulates her family’s ambivalence, and initial coolness, towards Ruth. It is a pity that the realtionship between Seretse and Tshekedi goes unexplored. There was a 16 year age gap, but the difference in terms of generation and temperament was much greater. Seretse ultimately won the support and acclaim of his people only in part through his own efforts; tribal dissatisfaction with Tshekedi was also an important factor. Feelings ran high in the protectorate.

a-united-kingdom-official-posterThe film’s cinematography and editing emphasise the contrast between grey, foggy London and sunny Serowe, in Bechuanaland. Political machinations are not unknown in Serowe (neither is race prejudice), but Westminster is the real centre of political decision-making, and of deceit. The intrigue is not easy to follow. A general election in South Africa has brought to power a government committed to policies in support of apartheid. Seretse’s marriage to Ruth is an affront to those policies. Pretoria makes secret representations to the Labour government in Britain, which – in March, 1950 – banishes Seretse from the protectorate for a five-year period. And the injustice has only begun. The Conservative opposition criticises the decision and then, after assuming power in late 1951, makes the banishment permanent.

Those decisions stimulated a storm of protest in Britain. The film correctly emphasises Labour MP Tony Benn’s active support for Seretse. However, the controversy had a broader invigorating impact on the Left, within and also beyond the Labour Party. It fed public concern about racial discrimination in Britain’s colonies and about Britain’s relations with South Africa. Seretse was banished for geopolitical reasons: at the beginning of the 1950s imperial Britain needed a close relationship with South Africa for reasons of mineral wealth and Cold War defence and security. By the middle of the decade, as the impact of apartheid deepened and spread, Britain began to distance itself from South Africa; the government ended Seretse’s exile in 1956. And, in 1966, he became the first president of independent Botswana.

In terms of direction, lead performances, photography and set design, A United Kingdom works well. Susan Williams’s book Colour Bar, originally published in 2006 and on which the film is based, tells the complicated story better. Penguin has published a new paperback edition to coincide with the film’s release.

Useful Reading:

Stephen Chan, ’50 Years of Botswana’, History Today 66, 9 (2016)

Neil Parsons, Willie Henderson and Thomas Tlou, Seretse Khama, 1921-1980 (1995)

Susan Williams, Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation (2016)

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University

John Stuart

 

 

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Thatcher’s Germanophobia? Newly-released files offer more clues

The latest round of declassified files from The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, released last Friday (30th December), offer some further fascinating insights into Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister (PM) in the 1980s. The files, which mainly cover the period 1989-90, throw new light on the twilight years of her premiership, including her foreign policy outlook.

In particular, the files appear to confirm the longstanding suspicion of a number of historians (which I happen to share) that Mrs. Thatcher held some notably negative, and arguably xenophobic, personal stereotypes about ‘foreigners’, especially the Germans and the German ‘character’, prejudices that inevitably impacted on her public policy towards Europe and German reunification in 1989-90.

The National ArchivesI think it is no exaggeration to say that Mrs. Thatcher was always deeply interested in history and, as a young schoolgirl, she had read and enjoyed the pro-Empire works of writers such as Rudyard Kipling. According to her biographers, she was also especially impressed with Robert Bruce-Lockhart’s book Guns or Butter (1938), a strong critique of appeasement, and also a book that she apparently borrowed a number of times from her local library in Grantham.

Unsurprisingly, one of her great heroes was also Sir Winston Churchill. Later in her own political career, perhaps to reinforce her reputation as a Churchillian-style ‘conviction’ politician, and via a highly selective reading of the past, it was quite striking how Mrs. Thatcher regularly referenced the great events of British and European history (most notably the Second World War) in her speeches and political rhetoric. Much of this involved proclaiming how Britain’s destiny lay in being ‘great’ again, or how important it was that the UK should never ‘appease’ dictators (whether Russian Communist, Argentinian, or even the ‘enemy within’ i.e. trade union ‘barons’). And, as with a number of other PMs in the British past, it would appear that Thatcher liked to have her private prejudices confirmed by her own favourite ‘inner circle’ of advisors and experts, including a number of historians.

margretthatcherSignificantly, in July, 1990, a government Memo was leaked to the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday about a (now quite notorious) confidential meeting that Mrs. Thatcher and her Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had quietly convened at Chequers, the PM’s official country house. Held in March that year, the secret seminar had been on the subject of Germany and the pros and cons of German reunification, and whether certain features of the German ‘character’ had changed or remained the same. The leaking of the Memo and its contents proved highly embarrassing for the government, as this was just days after Nicholas Ridley, a close Cabinet colleague of the PM, had given a very controversial interview to the Spectator where he had suggested that the proposed European Monetary Union (EMU) had become ‘a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe’, and made a number of other dubious claims about the Germans, ideas which appeared to echo Thatcher’s own views.

The new TNA files now available include a file which contains the full text and some further details on the controversial 1990 ‘Memo’ episode. As I have made use of this incident in my own teaching, I was especially keen to find out more. Six ‘independent experts’ were invited to attend the PM’s residence to give their views on Germany and the German ‘character’. The group included the historians Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) and Prof. Norman Stone, journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash, George Urban (formerly director of research at Radio Free Europe), and two historians from two top U.S. Universities – Prof. Fritz Stern of Columbia and Gordon Craig from Harvard.

The Memo, drawn up by Charles Powell, the PM’s Private Secretary, said that the government needed to reach an assessment ‘of what a united Germany would be like…’. Not all the historians agreed with one another, and various assessments of Germany’s past and future were voiced. However, what was also clear from the day’s discussions is that a series of quite negative observations were made about the German people, including claims that Germans were aggressive, assertive, insensitive, self-pitying and egotistical. Although this was a summary of the discussions written up by Powell, who possibly added his own flavour to the summary, one can imagine that some of this was music to the ears of Thatcher, who had her own very strong views about Germany’s past history.

Indeed, what the newly-released files also reveal more generally is how uncomfortable the Prime Minister was about the whole idea of German reunification, and how she feared that a reunited Germany could possibly become a big problem again in the future. It would appear that she could not break free from her conviction that the Germans had been a ‘problem’ in the past and could easily resort to their old ‘habits’. Moreover, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, she had to be cajoled by her special advisors into issuing a statement of congratulations to the Germans. Similarly, in October, 1990, on the eve of the formal reunification of Germany, Thatcher had to be cajoled once again into  making some positive statements about the new country.

More shockingly, the files reveal that – at Mrs. Thatcher’s behest – her Private Secretary Charles Powell (the author of the Chequers Memo) had already sabotaged a special reunification ceremony that had been carefully planned by Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, for October 3rd, 1990. Powell had rung the American White House to persuade the U.S. President, Bush Sr, not to attend. In fact, Thatcher’s apparent hostility towards the Germans caused some puzzlement and alarm among the Americans, who were clearly taken aback by what they regarded as the British PM’s somewhat insular and backward-looking notions.

One suspects that the recent decision for ‘Brexit’ shows that such attitudes have continued to play a role in British political culture.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Photos: WikiMedia Commons)

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The Christmas Truce of 1914: not unique?

Speaking in 1963 for a BBC series on the Great War, the author Henry Williamson, whose best-known work probably remains Tarka the Otter, gave some fascinating details about what he witnessed in December, 1914, when he was serving as a private in the British Army on the Western Front.

He recalled that, starting late on Christmas Eve, the guns fell silent and a strange calm fell over the battlefield. Williamson was also surprised to see a Christmas tree go up on the German trenches, and to then hear the enemy soldiers singing Christmas carols. British soldiers sang carols in return. Moreover, at first light the very next day, on a cold Christmas Day morning, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches and went out into the frozen areas of ‘No-Man’s Land’, which became, he said, ‘khaki and grey as far as the eye could see’.

christmas-truce-1914

Christmas Day, 1914 (photo: WikiMedia Commons)

According to Williamson, this Christmas truce actually lasted for four days, until strict orders to stop such ‘fraternisation’ were issued by the exasperated Generals on both sides.

The ‘Christmas Truce of 1914’, as it is now usually called, where British and German soldiers left their trenches and went into No-Man’s Land to meet, chat, exchange gifts, swop addresses and even play football, did receive some newspaper coverage at the time, but it has often been seen as a unique moment amid the terrible bloodshed of the First World War, never to be repeated. It has certainly become an iconic and startling image when used as an anti-war message in various war films, and has even featured in a pop ballad and also in a large retailer’s Christmas advert.

However, new research for a book by the historian Thomas Weber suggests that the truce may not have been as unique as we thought. The British media, including The Times and the Daily Telegraph, together with a number of news websites, yesterday (December 20th) gave extensive coverage to intriguing evidence uncovered by Professor Weber which indicates that smaller-scale truces of the same nature as the 1914 one in fact occurred at other points in the Great War, despite the growing brutality and enormous loss of life on both sides.

Professor Weber is a historian at the University of Aberdeen and is also the author of some ground-breaking work on the early military career of Hitler, which helped to puncture and de-mythologize the Nazi leader’s own highly-selective autobiographical version of his time in the trenches. Weber’s latest research retains its focus on the Western Front and raises some important points about the official records of the army regiments and also those of senior officers. Using a range of private correspondence and soldiers’ letters to their families, Weber’s careful investigation of the testimony of ordinary soldiers has found that ‘fraternisation’ between the rival sides did not just occur in 1914, but also during other key moments in the conflict, a pattern that was ‘purged’ from the official military records. He said that, as he worked through the large number of private letters, he came across ‘a surprising number’ of references to truces beyond 1914.

According to Prof. Weber: ‘When officers failed to prevent fraternisation from happening, they rarely reported those cases up the chain of command for fear of being court-marshalled. In the few cases that were officially reported, they tended to be written out of the story after the event. There is strong evidence that instances of fraternisation were purged from the official regimental war diaries before they were published in book form in the interwar years’.

Examples of further Christmas truces occurred in 1915, and also at Vimy Ridge and on the Somme in 1916. Weber said: ‘The general view is that after the first Christmas there was no repeat because of the circle of violence and its ensuing bitterness that then set in. In fact, what we see is that despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising’. Indeed, the top-brass in the British military became so determined to stamp such behaviour out that officers were instructed to start using snipers against any friendly German soldiers when men met between the lines of trenches during any locally-arranged truces. Soldiers in the lower ranks of the British Army, however, were not happy about this and sometimes recorded their disgust at such ‘un-British’ tactics.

Dan Snow, the BBC broadcaster and historian, who has himself become something of an expert on the First World War, commented to the UK’s media that he thought this topic was clearly one of the big ‘untold stories’ of the Great War.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

 

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