When Guns Fall Silent

One boy’s journey to the trenches of World War I, bringing to life the fear and horror of being in the midst of war. A remarkable account of the day when fighting gave way to football on the frozen ground of No-Man’s-Land.

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Jack was right. 

Within a couple of weeks, six first-team players had joined the colours. No one forced them. No one said ‘Show an example to other youngsters’. They just upped and went, queued for hours in the rain down at Lake Road Recruiting Office.

Perhaps Lord Kitchener’s handlebar moustache had something to do with it. It followed you everywhere. A whopping great poster plastered on street corners, pillar boxes, and lampposts.

There was old Kitchener glaring at you, pointing at YOU, those snake eyes looking straight down the gun- barrel arm.

 

‘Your Country Needs YOU’

 

You could almost imagine him leaping out of the poster, grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and bellowing in your face.

‘You, You, You! That’s right, lad, I mean  YOU!’

In the daytime, Jack and his mates would poke fun at the silly old buffer, jabbing their fingers at little girls, twirling an imaginary moustache and snarling, ‘Your country needs YOU!’

The poor kids would flee in terror as the older boys marched away in a gang, laughing their heads off and singing:

 

‘My old man’s a dustman,

He fought against the Huns,

He killed ten thousand Germans

With only a couple of bombs.

One lay here, one lay there, one lay round the corner

And one poor soul with a bullet up his ’ole Was crying out for water.’

 

Of a night time in bed, however, the boys weren’t so bold. More than one had nightmares. A giant moustache would be smothering them, stuffing their mouths full, choking the living daylights out of them. A gloved hand would be at their necks and an iron-hard finger would be hammering on their heads until their eyes popped out.

‘We need YOU! We need YOU!’

It was like the rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire.

Jack’s dad reckoned it was all a cunning plot, got up by some secret government office, to hypnotize people into joining the army.

‘It’s always the nobs who’re keen on war,’ said Dad. ‘They live on war, and live in peace on war. Workers see war as a disaster right from the start; they’re the ones who have to do all the dirty work and stop the bullets.’

Dad shaved off his moustache in protest.

Despite Dad, a war fever was sweeping through the streets like the Black Death. All of a sudden, newspapers discovered the evils of the foe, the true face of the enemy they were up against.

The innocent English, being cut off by sea all round their little island, hadn’t witnessed the beastly crimes of the horrible Hun. How could they know that Germans living in England, who had always pretended to be so nice—and who cunningly looked like us— were plotting the most dastardly crimes?

With every passing day the papers informed readers of new plots and crimes; and these were chewed over in home and pub each night.

 

Eyewitness Account of Hun Horrors

Lady Askwith-Smythe yesterday visited Belgian refugees in a Paris hospital. During her visit she overheard a Belgian girl ask her mother to blow her nose for her. ‘A big girl like you, who can’t even use her own handkerchief!’ snorted the English lady. The child said nothing, but her mother replied, ‘Madame, she has no arms,’ and burst into tears.It turns out that German soldiers chop off the arms of Belgian children to stop them taking up weapons against them. ( Sunday Chronicle )

 

The Times had proof. It showed pictures of Germans slicing off children’s hands. One captured German was reported to have the fingers of seventeen children in his pocket!

If The Times said so, it must be true.

Other papers ran stories of babies nailed to walls on Belgian squares, of a German soldier ripping an infant from its mother’s arms, tossing it in the air and catching it on his bayonet.

They claimed to be Christian men. Yet they strung up Belgian priests as clappers in church bells (‘Must have made a ghastly BONG!’ said Harry).

The trouble with the British was that they were too soft, too trusting. They hadn’t realized that Germans had been planted in their midst long before the war by the German High Command—as spies and saboteurs.

Who would have thought that meek and mild Mr Grubbel, who ran the barber’s shop down the road, was secretly slitting throats and dumping the dead bodies in his cellar, like Sweeney Todd?

No one suspected that Otto the greengrocer on the High Street was poisoning his sprouts and swedes to destroy the British race. So that’s why old Ma Figgins had got the trots and died in agony with the gip!

Who could have known that the smart-suited, bowler-hatted gent, who sang in the church choir and owned a soap factory, was all the while melting down dead bodies to make oil and soap (that’s why it was red!) to send back to Germany?

Now that the truth was out, exposed by our trusty newspapers, the British could fight back. Even if they couldn’t make it across the sea to Belgium, they would clobber nasty foreigners living in England.

Of a lunchtime and after church on Sundays, well- bred gents in natty suits would march down the street with walking sticks over their shoulders. They were heading for German ‘establishments’ to teach the fiends a lesson.

And when the pubs turned out at night, mobs of bold brave lads hit back for England in the dark, smashing windows, looting shops, beating up ‘aliens’, as Germans were now called.

For their own safety (as well as to stop them spying and murdering), the police had to put these enemy aliens in prison.

The government did its best to winkle the Hun out of every nook and cranny of English life. Notices appeared in newspapers.

‘The Government has banned the playing of all “alien’’ music.’

So bride and groom had to trip down the aisle without Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’! As for his ‘Funeral March’, the dead had to be laid to rest without its sombre strains echoing in their ears. Some played ‘Rule Britannia’ instead. ‘It is henceforth an offence to call German shepherd dogs “German shepherd dogs’’. They are to be known as “Alsatians’’.’

That was one in the eye for Jerry! He wouldn’t fancy the new bulldog spirit one little bit.

On the quiet, the king was thinking of changing his name: Saxe-Coburg-Gotha really gave the game away. He would keep the ‘George’, but call himself ‘Windsor’ after his castle. Cunning ruse that; kings usually called castles after themselves . . .

A few other Germans living in England tried the same trick. But since they owned no castles, they had to stick to their nasty German-sounding names.

‘Serves ’em right for being German,’ the Dog and Duck landlord, Willy Forster, remarked.

And he removed German sausages from the menu in his eating parlour; he called them boiled bangers instead. 

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