Stretching out a hand of peace in the midst of war – a real Christmas message
This year there can only be one Christmas story to retell. Ever since I first learnt about the Great War there was something very special about the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The story of how, in the midst of one of the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts in human history, the combatants on both sides decided, of their own accord, to put down their arms and make common cause in celebrating Christmas with the enemy. This year, as part of the marking of the hundredth anniversary of the war there have been special commemorations of this event with a particular focus on the celebrated football match(es) between British and German troops in the middle of No Man’s Land.
This story has undoubtedly been elaborated in both fact and fiction. However, it was a real event or more truthfully set of events as this was not a single movement but rather a series of individual negotiations between the opposing troops often no more than 50 yards apart from each other.
The static nature of the war and the close proximity of the two armies made conversations between soldiers easy. The story goes that in certain parts of the line the momentum for the Truce came from the fact that German traditions for Christmas focused on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day and that the combination of Christmas trees placed on the trenches and Christmas singing encouraged British troops to suggest a meeting in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day.
While truces were not organised in every part of the line and in some places they extended only to the collection and burial of the dead from each side, it is estimated that, all in all, as many 100,000 British and German soldiers took part in the truce. In some places the cessation of hostilities lasted to the New Year.
Truces and fraternisation in war have a long history. Homer records a number of truces in the Trojan War mainly for the purposes of collecting and burying the dead of each side. On a bigger scale warring Greek states in the classical period would cease hostilities during shared religious festivals such as the original Olympic Games when organised sport (as it does today) would, in a variation of Clausewitz’s famous dictum, “be the continuation of war by other means”.
There was, however, a special character to it in the First World War which goes well beyond the Christmas Truce. The static and defensive nature of the conflict created on both sides an incentive towards mutual self-preservation. Many accounts indicate how, in quiet sections of the line, both sides would develop or negotiate a ritual approach to the pursuit of battle designed to minimise the casualties on both sides and reduce the risk of retaliatory action. The morning barrage would be come at a time expected by both sides and directed at parts of the line known to each army. There would be no sniping during mealtimes. There are stories of permission for sunbathing on the first day of spring and for the collection of fruit from surviving trees in No Man’s Land.
These were the actions of those soldiers operating at the front. Informal “live and let live” agreements could easily be disrupted by changes in troops or by the orders and interventions of army commands. They are an exception not an alternative to the barbaric horror of trench warfare.
Behind the Christmas Truce and other examples of fraternisation in World War I there is an element of genuine identification with the lot of their fellow soldiers on the opposing side. Front line troops could, at time, genuinely see more in common in their shared experience with the enemy than they could with their own staff officers or, in particular, with those back at home who in the words of Robert Graves appeared to talk “a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.” Not for the first or last time in human history personal contact could restore an element of empathy with “others” lost in the mass hysteria generated by the media.
This is the most significant thing to remember as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the truce. Our sense of community and group identification is one of the most striking qualities of the human species. It brings many benefits but it is also has dangers when we are tempted to judge “others” against crude stereotypes and forget the basic humanity which unites us all.
Finally there is a particular resonance of this event at Christmas time. Like aspects of the Christmas story itself it involves the actions of ordinary men who for a time can challenge the normal course of events and the authority of powers and potentates. It resonates with a message of “peace on earth good will to all men” brought into particular relief by the surrounding horrific character of the Great War. It is the magic of Christmas to suggest that in the depth of suffering new hope is possible. There is much which the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 can inspire us with in 2014.