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Understanding our Brothers in Arms
on 4 September 2013
Written by one of Britain's foremost experts on the First World War this fascinating book provides a refreshingly different take on what must be one of the most written about conflicts in history. Van Emden specialises in first-person testimonies of the Great War and here he uses his considerable knowledge and resources to illustrate the depth of the tragedy which befell the people of Britain and Germany when their countries went to war in 1914.
Examining the pre-war social, political, economic and cultural ties that existed between Germany and Great Britain, van Emden notes that in 1914 the Germans were the 3rd largest immigrant group in Britain and there were tens of thousands of German-owned businesses across the country and inter-marriage was common. Indeed, one of the most revealing things in this book is how the German people, from the Kaiser down, just couldn't believe that the British - with whom they had so much in common - had gone to war with them in the first place.
Once war had been declared though, Anglo-German relations deteriorated quickly - especially on the home front. Thousands of 'aliens' were interned in both Britain and Germany and numerous families were split up by the rigid internment process. Attitudes hardened even more as the war progressed and in both countries 'enemy aliens' were singled out for rough treatment. When the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915 the city of Liverpool erupted in anti-German violence and rioting crowds smashed up German-owned businesses in Everton and Birkenhead. Yet on the battlefield itself things could be quite different. As one Tommy recalled: "the nearer you were to the battle the less hate there was".
There are numerous examples here of personal contacts between German and British soldiers which reflect well on the characters of those involved. When one German soldier found a British Tommy severely injured in a shell hole he dressed his wounds and then carried him to a main road where he hoped he would be picked up and taken to hospital. Each night until he was collected he would visit his "poor friend" to give him "some tea and water" and "tuck him up as well and as warm as I could". Finally, the injured man was collected and taken to hospital where, sadly - and unbeknown to the German who had rescued and cared for him - he died of his wounds a few days later. It also appears that truces and fraternisation were far more common than was generally acknowledged and van Emden is to be congratulated for bringing this little-known side of the First World War to a wider audience.
As well as the general decency of the men involved in the fighting their sense of honour was sometimes quite profound. In a remarkable example of honesty, Robert Campbell, a British Captain, held as a POW by the Germans, wrote to the Kaiser asking for two weeks leave to go home and visit his dying mother. Incredibly the Kaiser agreed and granted his request. Once home, the officer was only bound to return by his word as a British Officer yet, almost unbelievably, he returned as promised. Once back in Germany and freed from his 'bond of honour', he spent the rest of the war trying to escape back to England.
This book has opened a new perspective on the First World War for me and reading it has changed the way I think about the conflict. I'd highly recommend it to any one interested in the Great War or early twentieth century Anglo-German relations. I notice that Mr van Emden also makes TV documentaries and it would be great if he was able to bring a TV version of "Meeting the Enemy" to the small screen in time for next year's centenary of the Great War.