The Whole Wretched Mess

Jan 19, 2018

Referring to the 1914 Christmas truce, high school student Andrew Taylor reflects on the possibilities of peace between human beings contrasted to the overarching political aspects of war in this Radio Readers BookByte.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Hey, this is Andrew Taylor, a 17-year-old junior from Wheatland High School coming to you from Grainfield, Kansas.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is an interesting look at many different perspectives of World War I. At the center of these is a horse named Joey. Throughout the war, Joey trades hands from a farm boy named Albert to Captain Nicholls of the English cavalry, to being captured by German soldiers.

While working for the militaries of both sides of this war, Joey meets very strict men who treat him with the same care as they would a pile of sticks. He also finds that there are men who greatly appreciate how valuable a creature like him is. It doesn’t matter which group he is with; he finds these types of men in both sides of the war. This brings up a theme which the author talks about in this book: the idea that fighting in a war can make someone forget who the men across the lines are. They are just like the man who lives next door, or the owner of the local bakery, but just from a different country.

One great moment from the book which demonstrates this very well is when Joey escapes from being shelled by enemy artillery and gets lost. After many hours of wandering, he finds himself in No Man’s Land covered in mud and scrapes. The mist clears, and a German and a Welsh soldier climb out of their respective trenches. Instead of fighting over the horse, they have a peaceful conversation on how to settle the dilemma of who keeps Joey. They decide on flipping a coin, and the man from Wales calls heads and wins him. These men shake hands, and the German says “In an hour, maybe, or two, we will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think He has maybe forgotten why. We have shown them, haven’t we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?” The Welshman responds “I think if they would let you and me have an hour or two out here together, we could sort out this whole wretched mess. There would be no more weeping widows and crying children in my valley and no more in yours. If worse came to worst, we could decide it all on the flip of a coin, couldn’t we?”

Learning of a truce like this made me wonder if something like this had actually happened, so I had to do some research. I looked around on the internet and found something interesting on History.com. In the days leading up to Christmas of 1914, soldiers of the French, British, and German armies met to talk and sing carols in an unofficial “Christmas Truce”. They exchanged small gifts, food and some made new friends among the enemy. There was even a soccer match that was played on No Man’s Land on Christmas Day. Many men were reluctant, but fighting had to resume for fear of being accused of treason for consorting with the enemy. The next year still had scattered gatherings, but nothing as large as 1914 happened again.

Truces like these happen not only in war, but in everyday life as well. Not to make light of the grave conditions of war, but sports make a relatable comparison for people who haven’t gone through what soldiers have. Football players try as hard as they can to crush the people lined up in front of them, and then pick them back up after the play is over. Players on the basketball court leave their aggression behind after the game is over to talk with the other team. As a high schooler, I personally see this type of thing every week. Sometimes, both of the teams even kneel in the middle of the football field or the basketball court to hold hands and say a prayer. The thing I love about Morpurgo’s message is that it is both strange and surreal in the context of war, but expected of people in the context of their everyday lives. I only wish that people in combat today would realize that we are all human and do something to end the fighting.