The Christmas Truce

25 December 2014


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

A Spontaneous Truce on Christmas Day 1914

In a summer war that was supposed to be over in a month or two, the fact that the war had persisted and even grown in scale over the intervening months meant that this was not the war that was expected, it was something entirely different. And it was. It was the first global industrialized war. Entire societies were mobilized for warfare; costs in lives and materiel spiraled far beyond anything anticipated. And the war drug on. The war had not stopped in the fall for harvest, as wars did during agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The war had not stopped when the weather turned bad. And the war had not stopped when winter began. There were to be no winter’s quarters, only continued fighting.

Perhaps the most familiar images of the First World are those of trench warfare. The machine gun increased lethality while barbed wire slowed troop movements, leading to slaughter and stagnation on an unprecedented scale — an industrial scale. Even before machines guns, rifled small arms were beginning to make frontal assaults suicidal, as in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. No longer could soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and wait to fire until they saw the whites of their enemy’s eyes. The contest of the battlefield would be settled long before ranks had closed at such a proximity. Instead, soldiers dug in, and only peeked above their trenches at the enemy, also dug in and peering from their trenches.

Many popular English idioms date from the trench warfare of the First World War, and we use them without thinking twice about their origins: in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land, and so on. Between the trenches was no man’s land, an area cratered by continuous shelling, and strung with barbed wire to prevent surprise trench raids. When the weather turned bad, the churned up soil of no man’s land turned into mud.

By Christmas 1914 the war had been stalemated for four months. The violence and misery had settled into a routine. The violence became so routine, in fact, that there are stories of soldiers on both sides warning the other side when then would begin firing. It is in this context that the Christmas truce (Weihnachtsfrieden in German, Trêve de Noël in French) occurred.

Here is part of an account of the Christmas truce by Frank Richards:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours’ rest – it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit — and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.

Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

A longer account of the same can be found at Christmas in the Trenches, 1914.

What stands out about the spontaneous Christmas Day truce of 1914 is the humanity of the individual soldier. The conditions of the war had been inhumane one a scale not previously experienced in wartime. And yet soldiers were not so brutalized by the brutal war they had endured up to that time that they could not recognize the common humanity of fellow soldiers on the other side of the trenches, i.e., the humanity of their enemy. Common humanity is typically among the first casualties of war.

There was anger at the Christmas Truce at the highest levels of military leadership on both sides, where it was styled “fraternization with the enemy.” The generals knew very well that it would be all the more difficult to work their troops up into a homicidal fury if those troops identified more with the soldiers on the other side than with their officers and leaders. They need not have been concerned. The feeling of shared humanity among the soldiers at the front was not sufficient to bridge the gap between the warring powers, though it did provide relief for a day.

While the leadership was dismayed by the fraternization, there were others for whom it would not have been a surprise. Jean Jaurès, like Einstein and Russell, was among the few Europeans not moved by the August Madness. The French socialist leader had predicted that the next great war would mean that the working classes would slaughter each other on the battlefields of Europe, and this is exactly what happened. Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914, as the war was breaking out in earnest, shot to death at a café in Paris, Le Croissant, by a young French nationalist angered by Jaurès’ pacifism.

Jaurès’ pacificism and international socialism died with him, but the essential solidarity of the soldiering masses was revealed in the Christmas Truce as in few other episodes in the war. Idealists — perhaps we should call them utopians — like Einstein, Russell, and Jaurès imagined that this solidarity might demonstrate the futility of the war to the working classes, who would do the greater part of the fighting and the dying, but that time had not yet arrived. Popular expressions of the futility of the war did not fully come to a head until the French mutinies in the spring of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the fall of 1917.

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1914 Christmas Truce

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1914 to 2014

. . . . .

A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Christmas Truce

. . . . .

twentieth century war collage

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

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