When the Guns Fall Silent
Oxford, OUP, 2013, 153p
The events of Christmas Day in 1914 is the stuff of legends. It is written about, adapted for television, and heralded as one of the great symbols of humanity.
When the Guns Fall Silent is another account of this day. When veteran Jack takes his grandson to see the graves in France, he finds the grave of one of his friends has been recently visited. Upon the memorial sits a picture of a group of young men on Christmas Day in 1914, Brits and Germans together on that unique day. Jack sees a face he recognises, and visions of the war return to him.
This novel recounts how Jack ended up on the front line, even though he was too young to be there. When war breaks out and young men join the army, Jack and his friend Harry are recruited to the Portsmouth FC first team. Part of their commitment involves training with the military reserves, and the boys soon find themselves beaten down and remoulded into soldiers. Taking pride in their new-found heroism, they sign up and are shipped to France, where the horrors of war are like nothing they could have imagined.
Then, on Christmas Day, a German soldier plants a Christmas tree, and soon the two sides have agreed a temporary ceasefire. It is almost unimaginable that they can go back to killing one another the next day.
The trenches have become such a vivid image in the minds of the public that Riordan does not need to waste time describing the grime and horror, but instead can concentrate on the development of Jack and his German comrades. He also fills the book with facts about the war - little snippets of information about the suffrage movement and war propaganda disguised as fictional elements of the story.
When the Guns Fall Silent is a touching, beautifully written story; perfectly timed for republication this year.