On Wednesday 14th December, Mr McArthur treated us to a seasonal Aspire Lecture entitled ‘The Christmas Truce, The Somme and the Somerset Light Infantry’. The lecture began with a reminder of the infamous Christmas Truce of 1914, courtesy of the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas advertising campaign. The legend goes that British and German soldiers came together in no man’s land of a battlefield in France to exchange Christmas gifts, sing carols and play football. Mr McArthur led us through the advert, revealing which parts were true and which were embellishments: numerous diary entries and letters suggest that the men did indeed sing and swap trinkets such as buttons and photographs, but there has been no evidence thus far that a football match actually took place. It was also, contrary to the suggestion of the advert, the Germans who made the first peaceful move, not the British!
The truce, that was intended to last just for Christmas day, actually stretched for nearly two weeks. It was a fascinating insight into the psyche of mankind: it is difficult to continue to harm those who do not remain anonymous. Indeed, on 30th December, a German soldier sent a letter to the British trench, which expressed this poignantly, “we will remain good comrades. If we shall be forced to fire, we will fire too high”. They remained true to their word, and the truce eventually came to an end when those higher up the chain of command became suspicious of the lack of firing, and the front line soldiers were replaced.
The second part of the lecture focused on the horrors of The Battle of the Somme in 1916. We were shown drone footage of Serre Road cemetery, which brought into harsh perspective the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the battle. Mr McArthur further sharpened our insight by drawing an analogy with life at school. We imagined that the soldiers were RHS students and the teachers were officers. The battlefield would have stretched from the Winfield Centre to Gatehouse, but by the time that the teachers reached the steps of the Winfield Centre, they would all have been killed. He explained that this was what led to the catastrophe of The Somme; once the officers were dead, there was no one left who knew the plan of attack.
The session focused our minds poignantly on the loss of life during the war, but also the humanity of mankind. We were shown many gravestones of fallen soldiers from the Somerset Light Infantry, but none was more moving than the one which marked the grave of a 15-year-old Jewish boy; as Mr McArthur reminded us, he would have been in Year 10 when he died.