A brief seasonal post to comment on Snopes’ enthusiastic take on the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Such a truce did actually happen, but I feel the Snopes article might give the reader the impression, by omission and by implication, that it was a)universal across the trenches, and b) an effort by working class soldiers to actually stop the war from progressing, only to be bullied into continuing the war by the officer class and harshly punished afterward.
The Long, Long Trail has an excellent balanced summary of what actually happened at Christmas 1914. The background is important here. By Christmas 1914, offensive action by both sides was stagnant, and fighting men were coming to terms with the idea that they would be there for the long haul, and that the war certainly wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”. They longed for a break from the boredom, the adverse living conditions, the threat of death and disease, and the tension and stress of the sporadic fighting. At this stage in the war, the memory of home and Christmas would have been quite fresh, and the arrival of parcels from home, including the official “Princess Mary boxes” of chocolate, nuts and cigarettes, fostered a festive mood. Though the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’ had taken place, the levels of resentment and hatred for ‘the Hun’ amongst the British troops had yet to peak. The Germans were in much the same boat, and as the lines of the front were so close together, it was not difficult to communicate a desire for cease-fire. This is exactly what happened at many points along the front. Curiosity too played a part, cease-fires being an opportunity to learn something of the enemy, his equipment, tactics, and psychology. In any case, the following year, similar behaviour (at least one incident did occur) was actively discouraged by British and no doubt German command.
Many of the actual meetings began as practical opportunities to bury the accumulated dead, with the spiritual/psychological bonus/trigger of it being a time of a shared religious occasion. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial. Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy. After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.
Though these truces were indeed spontaneous and strictly unofficial, this was no overt protest against authority or the validity of the war. A number of officers did take part or at least observe, even if they were obliged to report what was happening to commanders. Whilst threats of courts martial were made to prevent a recurrence, no significant punishments were actually meted out. Comments about the theoretical moral significance of the cease-fires came from officers as well as men;
“These incidents seem to suggest that, except in the temper of battle or some great grievance, educated men have no desire to kill one another; and that, were it not for aggressive National Policies, or the fear of them by others, war between civilised peoples would seldom take place”.
-Captain Jack, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 13th Jan 1915
But neither this officer nor his men were thinking to try to end the war by their actions. Even some of the senior ‘brass hats’ did not entirely disapprove, as long as efforts to actually win the war were resumed afterward. Some Germans did tell individual Brits that though they could not visit them again, they would “remain (their) comrades” and if they were forced to fire, they would aim high. This by no means reflects a consensus among the troops, as evidenced by the next four years of bitter fighting! Officers did not generally seek to stop the fraternisation; they passed reports up the command chain instead. No doubt some of them did not approve, but neither did some of the men, as letters
show. Interestingly, a young Adolf Hitler is supposed to have commented that;
‘..such a thing should not happen in wartime…Have you no German sense of honor left at all?’
Certainly not everyone felt like taking part, nor did they all have the opportunity to do so. Some soldiers sent to parley with the enemy ended up as prisoners. The truce(s) were also very much a British/German thing, reflecting the great effort put into averting Britain’s entry into the war, Germany being somewhat kindred, and no direct threat to British sovereignty. The mood of the French and Belgian troops would have been much less buoyant, fighting as they were in their own occupied and war-torn countries. Cease-fires were a result of young men with national but not personal scores to settle, coming from equally diverse backgrounds with plenty in common culturally. They could have been friends under different circumstances. Many had family in Germany, and some German soldiers had lived or even been brought up in Britain. It seems strange to us that sworn enemies having reconciled so easily in this way, could so easily go back to killing each other. It’s a paradox, but it’s not unusual as far as the experience of fighting men goes.
This was not a unique reaction to nor a rejection of the new form of ‘total’ war. Similar incidents of “peace breaking out” are said to have taken place in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Revolutionary war, the Crimean War, and even the Second World War (see Gilbert’s ‘Stalk and Kill’, 1997). In all the theme is similiar, bored battle-fatigued combatants in close proximity start larking about with each other. Gilbert’s stories involve one side holding up a target for the opposing side to shoot at and then cheering or deriding them depending on the marksmanship. They usually seem to be in a spirit of camaraderie, albeit with the enemy. It always ends the same way – back to the business of war the next day. The Civil War story is interesting in that during an unofficial truce one side accidentally fired a round. As the two sides picked up their arms to resume fighting, the offending party sent the man over the trench who had fired the shot and made him parade back and forth carrying a heavy beam for two hours. This appeased the offended party who did not fire at the man but applauded their efforts.
Some have drawn parallels with medieval “truces of God” which allowed combatants to observe sacred feasts whilst on campaign. But there’s also a psycho/sociological angle, that many of us in the civilian world just don’t get. You don’t have to hate your enemy or want to kill him individually, to have no hesitation to kill him in battle. It’s the warrior’s paradox; something peculiar to fighting men and women that people find increasingly difficult to understand. Patriotic ideals aside (though there was no shortage of these during the War), it’s about doing what you’ve been trained to do, no hard feelings (at least at this stage of the war). Richard Dawkins has speculated that one of his theories may apply here, wherein two competing groups will work together for mutual benefit; in this case, getting a break from the fear and tension of war. Participants would have known that it couldn’t last, so took advantage of the opportunity to blow off steam.
I would conclude by saying that though ‘the truce’ happened, it wasn’t really the universal realisation of the futility of war that many think. No more than 50% of the Western Front took part, and many protested the fraternisation, both officers and men. The great human cost of the war as it developed, and the subsequent reaction against imperialism and economic/territorial war between states, has led us to reimagine the various separate incidents of fraternisation as a single organised legendary event. So much so, that people receiving a version of the story in their email inboxes in recent years have questioned its veracity, hence the Snopes verdict. However the phenomenon has been altered by time and hindsight, there’s no doubt that the men of both sides appreciated the chance for a brief return to normality and civilisation, and looked forward to the return of real peace to Europe.