Tuesday, December 30, 2014

One Hundred Years Ago — Christmas Truce

By John Stratton

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.

Trench warfare, men stationed in dug-out trenches that eventually ran from the North Sea to Switzerland, trenches filled with mud and water, and men facing enemy trenches often less than a hundred yards away.

Along this front, the Western Front, British, French, and German soldiers had a spontaneous Christmas truce. They sang together, exchanged extra rations that had been sent to cheer them, played soccer, told stories, and did the things that people do when they meet. In some places the truce lasted for only a day; in others it lasted close to a week. It did not extend the full length of the front.

But for however far it reached and for however long it lasted, it was a moment when the people chose not to go to war. It was a moment when the soldiers ignored the propaganda that dehumanized the enemy and called for his destruction as a necessary part of preserving civilization. It was a moment when the generals had to find ways to coerce their troops to get back to fighting.

The soldiers who created the truce had no idea of the death and destruction that was to come, but for one night or perhaps one week, they did recognize the humanity of the people on the other side of No Man’s Land.

So, remembering the miracle of the Christmas Truce, I say Peace to you and yours. As we used to say in the 60s, “Peace is possible.” Peace is possible in this season and in every season.

What if they gave a war and no body came?


Contemporary letters about the truce can be found here and here and here (with a focus on the soccer games) and at many other sites – just Google “Christmas truce 1914 letters”.

Wikipedia has a nice article on the truce: “Christmas Truce.” The ACN library has a video produced by the History Chanel on the truce (ACN members may borrow the DVD). There are numerous books written about the truce, several songs have been written, and at least one movie has been made.

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