Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The "Christmas Truce" of 1914

The "Christmas truce" of 1914 along the trenches of the "Western Front" has become the stuff of historical legend. It occurred rather early in the hostilities, before the war of attrition really set in, but the fraternization of enemies in the spirit of Christmas peace and goodwill has resonated over the years. The paradox of war and destruction on one hand, and camaraderie, humanity, and hope on the other speaks to deep-seated longings. We often wish that things might be otherwise, even for a brief period -- that universal considerations would outweigh the dictates of power, politics, economics or the dreary business of "getting on." We sympathize with the desolation of the soldiers -- far from home, cold, lonely, uncertain of whether this may prove to be their last Christmas, suddenly aware (as we all become after a great crisis, loss, or change has taken us unaware) of all the normal Christmases with our loved ones that we took for granted. We can imagine their hesitation and uncertainty at crossing the battle lines, not knowing if they were walking into a trap. We may sense their longing to fully trust the promises of friendship of their fellow human beings. It must have been the conundrum of daily life writ large -- the courage required to present ourselves as genuine and vulnerable to our fellow human beings with the hope that we will meet with genuine friendship in return, while simultaneously braving the possibility that we might not be.

Historically we know that the "Christmas truce" of 1914 was certainly a real, though not necessarily widespread, event. It occurred for periods of anything from 2 days to the entire period through New Year's Eve. Some areas experienced no let-up in the shelling, and soldiers were certainly killed on both sides on Christmas Day. There are historical rumors of an English-German football match having taken place in "no man's land," though the evidence for it is inconclusive. When and where such truces did take place depended to a great extent on the group dynamics, personalities, and courage of any given company of opposing troops at various points in the line.

The 1914 truce is thought to be more or less a one-off, not to be repeated as the war dragged on to 1918. The blame for this is most commonly placed at the feet of the officers and generals who were insistent that such a breakdown in army discipline and dangerous fraternization would not occur again. It is, however, uncertain as to how front-line enlisted men would have responded to the idea once the conflict had settled into interminable stalemate, and mutual bitterness allowed to fester. It should be remembered, after all, that many soldiers marched off to war in August 1914 with the assurance that it would "all be over by Christmas." Though it was not over, it was perhaps still possible at that early stage to regard the war as an extended schoolboy lark. In later years the spirit of goodwill was, most likely, in shorter supply in all ranks.

I became intrigued, once again, by the subject matter in an article in The Independent, featuring a letter by Private Frederick W. Heath that was first printed in The North Mail newspaper on 9 January 1915. The letter was excerpted from a website about the subject, subtitled "OPERATION PLUM PUDDINGS," (and book, Not a Shot was Fired) dedicated to publicizing some of the first-hand accounts of the Christmas truce. It also contains a good overview for those who have not previously read about the event.

**NB: A fellow historian has since informed the Idle Historian that despite the efforts by the higher command on both sides of no man's line to eliminate fraterniztion at subsequent
Christmases, very localized truces occurred throughout the war -- although they never rose to the level of the 1914 truce. Some regiments have been shown to have been involved in Christmas truces every year until 1917.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


James said...

One would like to believe that the best of man will out at times. So I always hoped that it was true for the most part. Happy Christmas to you and yours.

IdleHistorian said...

Yes, we certainly hope so!
A very merry Christmas to you in return.

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