Review Blog

Dec 11 2015

Shooting at the Stars: the Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix

cover image

Abrams Books, 2014. ISBN 9781419711756
Amongst all the stories of horrors that have emerged from World War 1 and which have been at the forefront of much of what our students have learned this year, comes a beautiful, true story of hope and heroes.
By November 1914, it was clear that the war was not going to be over by Christmas which was a common belief of those who marched off to serve in those very early days. And so as seasons turn to winter and snow and sleet and rain bring more mud and disease to the exhausted troops in the trenches often only separated by a few yards from the enemy, unofficial truces began to happen - part of the "etiquette of war" of the professional soldier of the time. The wounded were recovered, the dead were buried, trenches were shored up and there was even banter and barter between the opposing sides. According to the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zxsfyrd on Christmas Eve the German's lines were dotted with Christmas trees and candles and eventually the two sides started singing carols. The next day there were spontaneous football games and while there was much anger from the High Command because they feared mutiny, the stories have endured.
Based on primary sources, Shooting at the Stars is the story of Charlie, a young British soldier of the time written in a letter to his mother and accompanied by the most evocative illustrations. Rain has turned the trenches to thick, heavy mud and rats fight the soldiers for the meagre food rations. However while thick frost stabilises things on Christmas Eve it is also very cold so the troops chance a fire to keep warm. As they step outside they hear singing - from the German trenches which are festooned with tiny Christmas trees lit with candles. And so begins the retelling of this remarkable night when the true spirit of Christmas was celebrated. War had taken a holiday. The dead were buried, photographs taken, mementos exchanged, even an impromptu football game with an old biscuit tin. And even though the high-ups are furious and order the soldiers to load their rifles ready to fire on those they had spent the day with, quite possibly they would shoot at the stars.
Beautifully designed, this emotional story is accompanied by historical notes, a glossary, an index and a bibliography making it more for the older reader but also very accessible for those a little younger. It shows a human side to a horrible conflict, one that brings the soldiers of both sides into focus rather than just being faceless, unknown and almost invisible. Some of the images are available at http://www.abramsbooks.com/product/shooting-at-the-stars_9781419711756/ and combined with the subject, the text and the layout, the package is a most powerful story.
Barbara Braxton

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