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The organisation cultural legacies of the Christmas Day Truce & The Accrington Pals

January 5, 2015

For me, 2014 was memorable for the 100th anniversary commemorations of the commencement of World War One. They were poignant, especially a torchlight vigil in Towneley Park, Burnley on 3 August, a stark personal narrative of the impact of the War – 16% of the male population of the town lost their lives. It spurred me to find out more about the humanitarian aspects of the War, and the chronicles of two aspects of the War gave me particular cause for reflection – The Christmas Day Truce, and the story of The Accrington Pals.

The Christmas Day Truce of 1914 is celebrated as a symbolic moment of peace in an otherwise devastatingly violent War. Along the Western Front, a scattered series of small-scale ceasefires between German and British forces provided a brief festive respite. The arrival of December 1914 was proof, if any were needed, that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’.

For the men at the front, months of tough fighting were to be followed by a festive period away from home. Throughout December, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. King George V sent a card to every soldier, and his daughter, Princess Mary, lent her name to a fund, which sent a small brass box of gifts, including tobacco or writing sets, to serving soldiers.

By Christmas Eve itself, the damp weather gave way to the cold and a festive frost settled on the Front. As the main night of celebration in Germany, candles and trees went up along parts of the German line. One account by a British soldier recalls:

It was a Christmas card Christmas Eve. There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground. At about 8pm we saw some lights and we heard the Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’. They finished their carol, we applauded them, then we thought we must reciprocate in some way so we replied with ‘The First Noel’.

When we finished they began clapping, then they struck ‘O Tannenbaum’. So we went on, first the Germans singing one of their carols then we’d sing another of ours. Then we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and the Germans immediately joined in singing the Latin words of ‘Adeste Fideles’. Well I thought this was rather an extraordinary thing really to think of the two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

Along the Front, some men responded to the events of Christmas Eve by emerging from their trenches into No Man’s Land on Christmas Day and spontaneously exchanged gifts and took photos. However, the temporary truce did not have full support from the military hierarchy.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of British 2nd Army Corps Expeditionary Force, issued strict warnings to his senior officers about preventing fraternisation with enemy soldiers. High Command was angry, they feared that men would question the war, and even mutiny, as a result of fraternising with the enemy that they were meant to defeat. Stricter orders were issued to end such activity, with harsh punishment for any man caught refusing to fight.

Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessations of hostility along the Western Front, and it’s the ‘tunics for goalposts’ tales of football matches that really capture the imagination.

There is evidence that football was played in at least four places between troops from the opposing armies, including the 133rd Royal Saxony Regiment pitched against Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where the Scots won 4-1. Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer, who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962. In Graves’s version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.

Another started after a ball was kicked from the British lines into No Man’s Land, outside the trenches around Ypres. The match was recorded by Staff Sergeant Clement Barker in a letter home. He described how the truce began after a German messenger walked across No Man’s Land to broker a temporary cease-fire. British soldiers went out and recovered 69 dead comrades and buried them. Sergeant Barker said the impromptu football match then broke out between the two sides when a ball was kicked out from the British lines into No Man’s Land.

Royal Field Artillery Lieutenant Albert Wynn wrote of a match against a German team (described as ‘Prussians and Hanovarians’) played by the Lancashire Fusiliers, near Le Touquet, using a ration tin as the ball. In Frelinghien, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers played football with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1. Many professional footballers served in the forces, those killed in action included Bradford Park Avenue’s Donald Bell – the only professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The camaraderie shown by the soldiers to their enemy is poignant, amidst the horror in the mud. Camaraderie is a word I’ve used a lot this year as I’ve experienced a number of the War commemorations in Lancashire, home to a number of ‘The Pals’ regiments, where groups of men from the same town came together to go to war. Their stories epitomise camaraderie.

The Accrington Pals is the best remembered of the battalions raised in Lancashire in the early months of the War in response to Kitchener’s call for a volunteer army, due to the tragic outcome for the battalion and the town in terms of casualties. Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and its neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinctively local identity.

A month after the outbreak of war, the Accrington Observer & Times of 8 September 1914 reported that the War Office had accepted an offer made by the mayor of Accrington to raise a complete battalion. When recruitment began on 14 September, 104 men were accepted in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together; by 24 September the Accrington battalion had reached a full strength of 1,100 men. Around half the battalion had been recruited from Accrington, the majority of the remainder came from neighbouring towns.

The Pals were ordered to France, to take part in the attack on the Somme, the objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre, and form a defensive flank facing north. In the early evening of 30 June, the 11th East Lancashires left camp at Warnimont Wood for an arduous seven-mile trek to the trenches of Serre. At 2.40am on Saturday 1 July, they reached the front line trenches.

At 6.30am, the British artillery commenced its final furious bombardment of the German front line. At 7.20am, Captain Tough led the Pal’s first of the battalion’s four waves 100 yards into No Man’s Land. A few minutes later, the second wave followed, led by Captain Livesey.

At 7.30am, the leading waves rose and walked in line towards the German positions. Machine gun and rifle fire immediately tore into the advancing lines of infantry. One British observer likened the lines of dead to swathes of cut corn at harvest time. Incredibly, groups of Pals defied the machine gun fire, threaded their way through the barbed wire and dropped into the German front line.

All was in vain. Behind, the third and fourth waves suffered dreadful losses before reaching No Man’s Land. The leading companies were cut down, some of the Pals – their officers killed or wounded – pressed on towards Serre, never to be seen again. The remaining survivors in the German front line, bereft of reinforcements, were forced to withdraw. By 8am, the battle for Serre was effectively over.

In its first major action, the Accrington Pals battalion suffered devastating losses on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. When the roll was called by RSM Stanworth that evening, less than one hundred men answered their names. Records show that out of 720 soldiers who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes.

The losses were hard to bear in a community where nearly everyone had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded. Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry – drummer Spencer John Bent; Private William Young; Second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith; Second Lieutenant Basil Arthur Horsfall.

Two remarkable stories from the Great War, that make you question the humanitarian aspects of leadership, and fill me with thoughts of empathy, camaraderie and trust that must have been in the minds of those that fought. A hundred years on, what are the lessons from these War stories we can take, and their place in our business thinking, behaviours and actions in 2015?

Empathy Our capacity for empathy is built into our psyche as a means of coping with emotional situations. The anthropologist Franz Boas referred to this as the ‘psychic unity’ of humanity, and it’s important that this is set into our personal and collective moral compasses in our business culture, as an important prism through which we see the world.

The religious context of ‘goodwill to all men’ during the Christmas Truce must be acknowledged too, perhaps just as important was the soldiers’ ability to find commonality through culture, including song. For troops in opposing, enemy trenches, hearing singing from the other side must have made them seem more human – whilst fighting resumed by the morning of December 26 in most locales along the Front, in some places the truce lasted until New Year’s Day, soldiers were reluctant to fire on the men with whom they had just fraternized, as they were no longer amorphous enemies, but personalities with faces, emotions and backgrounds.

The Christmas Day truce showed empathy and benevolence for the enemy, which we don’t often see. However, this has a clear place in any business, in terms of respecting your competition – recall the actions of Andrew Flintoff to Brett Lee in the Second Ashes victory in 2005, showing compassion for his opponent at a moment of high adrenalin victory.

It isn’t about crushing competitors, rather it’s about your leadership based on strategy and confidence in your vision, which puts you in a superior position to your competitor by outwitting and outsmarting them. I would thus suggest that having a degree of empathy for your business rivals is ethically and morally the right mindset to have, determination to win is a natural instinct, but not at any cost.

Camaraderie In business as in the military, teams have a well-honed sense of camaraderie that helps team members read one another’s signals, move as one, and watch each other’s backs. This sense of commitment and connection is an essential component of effective teams. The more people value their relationships with one another, the better they will perform for one another and thus for the organisation. We can only imagine the camaraderie that existed in The Accrington Pals, a collaborative and collegiate culture that got things done, working as one.

Camaraderie is about creating a common sense of purpose and the mindset that we have a common goal and shared destiny. In short, camaraderie promotes a group loyalty that results in a shared commitment to and discipline toward even difficult work. The opposite would be employees coming to work, acting like lifeless robots and talking to each other only if they need to borrow a stapler.

However, whilst there are some negative aspects to consider, including groupthink and negative cliques, the benefits of shaping a culture to cultivate and build collaboration and unity are such that all businesses can benefit from genuine camaraderie between its people.

Trust We all have some level of trust that the people we pass on the street are not out to harm us (though that may not be true in every instance). In the context of the Christmas Truce, it is much more difficult to achieve that critical threshold of trust for individuals or groups who have been recently shooting at each other. The question is how that cycle of distrust can be conquered.

At some point, one side must make a leap of faith to trust, with no assurance that it will be rewarded. The officers during the Christmas Truce obviously took a huge risk by acting upon a moment of inspiration and leaving the safety of their trenches, but it paid off.

Trust in business is an essential ingredient for an organisation to function, a vital element in the emotional contract between leaders and their co-workers, and between colleagues. Without trust, an organisation is morally bankrupt, as the lack of internal trust eventually manifests itself in customer relationships.

So at the end of the 100th anniversary year of the start of the First World War and looking into 2015, we are minded by the Christmas Day truce and games of football, and the devastation suffered by the Pals battalions. The stories show the soldiers worked together, creating an atmosphere and culture of organic collaboration, underpinned by empathy, peer camaraderie and trust.

Each in their own way offers insights in terms of how humanity and emotional engagement pervade even the most abhorrent environment. If you replicate the qualities and culture in your business, they will effectively leverage collective talents into strategies that will elevate your business performance beyond your competition. Looking back to 1914, who would have thought that ‘tunics for goalposts’ and ‘Pals’ would resonate with legacies for business 100 years later?

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