What if they gave a war and nobody came?
This was a favorite slogan during Vietnam protests. The idea is wonderful. “They” have declared war, as “they” do for whatever reasons “they” declare war, but this time no one comes to the party. No soldiers, no war. It made a kind of cosmic comic sense; it still does.
The amazing thing is that it once happened: Christmas Eve, 1914.
When I first heard the story, I assumed it was apocryphal, a wish that people had for peace in the carnage of World War I.
|The Christmas Truce|
For a generation, World War I was known simply as the Great War. Before that it had been known by different hard-to-resist propaganda slogans: the War to End All Wars and the War to Save the World for Democracy. Like most wars it was a failure: probably 7 million combat deaths, another 3 million military deaths from disease, accidents, malnourishment and maltreatment in POW camps; perhaps 6 to 10 million civilian deaths, perhaps more. Twenty million deaths in a war that was the prelude to another World War in 25 years, when two or three times as many would be killed. Twenty million deaths in a world with a total population of less than 2,000 million (2 billion). Perhaps one or one-and-a-half percent of the world killed. Shall we note there were probably 20 million non-lethal casualties of one sort or another.
But the Christmas Truce was not apocryphal. It was real, a spontaneous gesture reaching across no-man’s land on Christmas eve, 1914.
The War had begun just months before. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarejevo occurred at the end of June, and that set in motion the dominos of mutual defense alliances. Of course it could have been stopped, but no one was willing to stop it. Young men rallied to the cause — whichever cause they rallied to — as a way to test their manhood. The recruiters, including the press for both sides, said it would be over by Christmas, but it was just beginning.