Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Remarkable Truce of a Century Ago

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?  It sounds like a holiday fantasy.  But the truth is that human kindness is always waiting to break out, making “peace on earth, goodwill to all” much more than a feel-good slogan or season’s greeting.

History proved it a hundred years ago, when a week before Christmas at Armentieres,  German soldiers slipped a chocolate cake behind enemy lines and invited the Brits to attend a soiree—ceasing all hostilities.  By nightfall of December 23, Christmas Trees were appearing along the German lines, with placards proposing “You No Fight–We No Fight.”  Soon the Belgians and the French were getting into the spirit.  Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment remembered  a beautiful, snowy moonlit Christmas Eve when a commotion stirred in the German trenches. “And then they sang ‘Silent Night’–‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it.”

Others would try to forget it.  The powers-that-be wanted to pretend the Christmas Truce never happened.   In the French press, censorship was complete.  The English military’s official history of the war minimized the occurrence, and the Tägliche Rundschau for New Year’s Day of 1915 reminded its readers that “War is no sport.”  The idea that ordinary foot soldiers might simply put down their guns and refuse to kill was subversive, to say the least.  And so the truce was treated with disdain by those in authority, leaving gaps in our historical knowledge.  But what seems clear is that something remarkable happened.

 “What a sight--” recalled one of the soldiers with the Seaforth Highlanders, “–little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!  Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”  That irony wasn’t lost on Sir Kingsley Wood, a major in the British infantry who later went to Parliament.  During a debate in the House of Commons in 1930, he not only recalled fraternizing with the enemy but declared that “if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

But of course, wars must go on, and when peace once again threatened to upset the grand strategy, the generals were ready.  The following December, the British command ordered a slow, unrelenting artillery barrage during every daylight hour in the days leading up to Christmas, with trench raids by night. 
But what if they gave a war and nobody came?  What if a century ago the generals had been unable contain the spread of camaraderie across the battle lines?  Not only would the First World War have ended amicably, but there might have been no Nazi Germany and no Third Reich.  For Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the German army in 1914.  He was serving as a field messenger in Flanders that December.  Others in his unit crossed the no-man’s-land to share Christmas with the British, but Herr Hitler refused.  “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he raged.  “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?”  Perhaps the future dictator would have remained a corporal, or gone back to painting picture postcards for a living.

The Christmas Truce was ultimately short lived, a few days respite in a grueling war.  But the notable thing is not that the peace was brief, but that it happened at all.  Though the Truce didn’t change the world, it touched millions of lives while pointing toward what’s best and truest in human nature: not the desire for vengeance or annihilation but the simple urge to lay down arms and live in peace.


Progresives Unite said...

I wonder how many of those soldiers - on both sides - who participated in The Christmas Truce were dead or severely disabled from wounds received within even just the next six months.

I am sure that you are aware of the worldwide Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-1920. A majority of experts today agree that while the flu did not start in "The Trenches", that it quickly spread there (where there were extremely poor and crowded living conditions which created a very beneficial environment for the flu and it's spread). With the ending of the war very shortly afterwards, tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of infected soldiers then returned around the world, carrying the flu virus with them. Think about it. Britain not only had allied Commonwealth countries involved extensively in the war, but also many colonial troops from their still large empire. France likewise employed a great many colonial troops. And then there was the insertion of a couple million American troops into the war. The Spanish Flu Epidemic went on to kill more people in two years that the total killed during the war, on both sides and counting civilian deaths as well as military personnel. I position that the vast majority of Spanish Flu deaths should be listed under casually counts of "The Great War", as otherwise it likely (IMO) that this would have remained and died out as strictly a regional epidemic.

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