The centenary of the First World War’s beginning is also the anniversary of the semi-famous 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front, in which, in a few sectors of the over 100 mile front between the Germans and the allied British, French, and Belgian troops, an informal truce allowed the two sides to gather together in the no man’s land between the lines to celebrate the holiday by exchanging items, conversing, and playing football. Such demonstrations of camaraderie were picked up on in the press and in histories as signs of the goodness of men overcoming the horror of war. Military discipline felt otherwise: the British High Command was deeply disaffected and prevented deny any further recurrences by artillery barrages and redeploying participating units to different areas to avoid fraternization.
The Christmas truce has inspired books, songs, movies, and, most recently, a Sainsbury’s advert. The image reinforced a sort of proverbial chestnut that resonates deeply in liberal Europe after the horror of the World Wars, namely that soldiers on both sides had no real intention of hurting each other, and that it was all, in the end, some sort of ghastly mistake. Of course, as I personally hold true, the First World War was a calamitous tragedy, as large wars usually are, for the average European citizen. Yet, the focus on the truce over other aspects of the war (and painting it as some glint of real humanity among artificial war madness) assumes that something rather impersonal or conspiratorial drove the First World War’s murderous killing, something that had nothing to do with the soldiers themselves. They didn’t want the war, and it was the big bad High Command that ultimately ruined the innate nobility of man.
For a later generation of historians, notably AJP Taylor, writing in the fifties and sixties, the Great War was driven by overzealous politicians and ludicrously out-moded generals who planned out a war that was scheduled, in Taylor’s words, “by timetables” of mobilization which precluded rationality from stopping it. Too wound up in continental commitment, Britain chucked itself into a European War to satisfy a noble, but flawed, role as the protector of Belgium’s neutrality. From Taylor and, in America, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, came the notion, all too resonant in the Cold War, that disaster loomed due to the power of modern weapons and the interlocking series of alliances and military commitments, which, as in 1914, could drive the world to unprecedented disaster. The singular tone of the historians was how immeasurably stupid the whole thing was, at least in the sense that cooler heads sunk under militant policies and war hysteria.
Alongside this came the folk revival and the consciousness, particular of the Left, to the exploitation of the common people (particularly from Northern England and Scotland) as cannon fodder in the horrifying mass assaults. In a generation reacting to Vietnam and Cold War-era politics, it seemed to represent the worst of capitalism and imperialism. Reading deeply from Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the British (and American) public saw soldiers as the “Lions led by Donkeys”, in which brave working-class Britons were deluded into joining up and then pitched into terrible slaughters by ignorant General Officers, all of the upper classes, while the first wave of serious censorship prevented normal Britons from knowing what was going on and from protesting the war. The result was the characterizations of General Melchett, the songs of British folk singers like June Tabor, Coope, Boyes and Simpson, and Jona Lewie, and the glorious satirical musical Oh What a Lovely War!
Within all this came the Christmas truce, which seemed to sum up all that the Left truly felt: deep down, all peoples have little to fight over save when they are manipulated by authoritarianism and misplaced convictions stemming from propaganda. Innate virtue (in a Soviet sense, resting more perfectly with the proletarian Newcastle Collier or the Bavarian peasant) ultimately showed unity (class-based or otherwise) in the face of the authoritarianism of Kaiser or King.
In a Christian liberal or democrat sense, the truce demonstrated the ability of two sides to gather together in peace and goodwill towards men, reminding us of the unity of Christ’s message. In an older and more religious generation, this interpretation proved the more vital. It told of something which gave miraculous hope in the middle of total and near apocalyptic catastrophe, something which affirmed that while Tommy killed, he really didn’t want to. He just wanted to go home for Christmas, just like Fritz.
Yet, the idea that the Christmas truce somehow acquits the First World War of some essential human malice is, in my opinion, rather misplaced. In the first place, the truce was mainly observed between British and German troops, whereas the French and Belgians, who were defending or seeking to reclaim their home territory, were not as inclined to join hands with the occupiers and despoilers of their lands. Fierce battles raged elsewhere along the Front on Christmas day, mostly in French sectors. Though, admittedly, French troops did hold a few informal truces with the Germans, it was not to the same extent. The Anglo-German nature of the truce is often forgotten, something which might provoke uncomfortable specificity to the grand statement of humanity.
There was supposedly a surplus of innocence in 1914, but even though Tommy had not had much time to learn to hate Jerry, 1914 also saw a rather brutal German advance through Belgium and battles that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of men as casualties. As 1915 drew on and as Lord Kitchener recruited Britain’s popular army to replace the ranks of the shattered professional army, the German atrocities in Belgium (notably the execution of Edith Cavell) became part of the new British soldier’s consciousness. Ypres and Loos bled out a lot of the good will which touched the trenches on Christmas day, 1914, as did Zeppelin attacks on British cities.
Likewise, the killing did continue, and, despite the image of trench warfare as nothing but large impersonal assaults into enemy machine gun nests or constant artillery barrage, much of the killing in the war was personal and done at close range with rifle, grenade, and entrenching shovel. Trench raids and minor assaults to take strategic positions continued when the large pushes ended. Skirmishing and attrition were vital to exploiting local successes, and the rather impersonal horror of the gas and the shells did nothing to diminish the fury and intensity of British and German night raids or their willingness to gun down exposed individuals between the lines. A recent expose claimed the Truce ended in one sector because of a German sniper. Unlike a Lovely War it wasn’t “those English bastards” at HQ dropping shells on their own troops, but deliberate and targeted fire which ruined the truce.
The soldiers in the trenches likewise held conceptions of Christian and national duty to do their portion of the work for national defense, literally in the French and Belgian case, and for the vindication of their national cause. Whatever sympathy they might have had with Jerry or Tommy did not keep most soldiers from considering it their moral imperative to beat him, and to kill as many of him as necessary to end the war. Soldiers may have shown occasional mercies or had regrets (or, in the rare case, been vocal objectors), but they fought on in brutal conditions and the survivors generally felt proud to have done their bit, or else felt betrayed by the failure of their cause. High Command’s precautions against humanity showing its resilient face were not much needed by 1916. Despite occasional fraternization, both sides continued to fight each other, with great slaughter, over the soil of France. Britain never seriously considered leaving the war, and public sentiment, even with the high casualties, was accepting of the costs. Lives were ruined, whole villages decimated, and a generation severely reduced it is true, but it was in a much later generation that the consciousness of the public turned against the war’s advocates.
Clausewitz wrote of war as a trinity of three elements: the rationality of political actors who define the war’s ends, the skill and capability of strategists and generals, and the power, blood, and fury of the people who do the actual fighting. Organized violence is effected by the three in tandem. While I do not wish to denigrate the Christmas truce, it needs to be recognized that the human element fought the First World War, and that involved human malice as well as human kindness.
Today as we pine for the Christmas truce as being a relic of a better world, it is naive to think that it was somehow absent of time and space. While one need not agree that the First World War was fought for noble causes, it is also not necessary to believe the Truce proves anything other than a temporary halt in hostilities between otherwise-willing combatants. That it coincided with Christmas is not that surprising given the shared religion and observance of the men involved. Though delightfully spontaneous, it proved tragically short lived. Cognitive dissonance aside, most fought on for duty and loyalty to each other against their former truce-mates. The Christmas soldiers fought on.