Soldiers Against War The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

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The Christmas
Truce, which occurred primarily between the British and German soldiers
along the Western Front in December 1914, is an event the official
histories of the "Great War" leave out, and the Orwellian
historians hide from the public. Stanley Weintraub has broken through
this barrier of silence and written a moving account of this significant
event by compiling letters sent home from the front, as well as
diaries of the soldiers involved. His book is entitled Silent
Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
. The
book contains many pictures of the actual events showing the opposing
forces mixing and celebrating together that first Christmas of the
war. This remarkable story begins to unfold, according to Weintraub,
on the morning of December 19, 1914:

"Lieutenant
Geoffrey Heinekey, new to the 2nd Queen's Westminster
Rifles, wrote to his mother, u2018A most extraordinary thing happened.
. . Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to
take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately
got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also.
The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and
talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted
the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say
they seemed extraordinarily fine men . . . . It seemed too ironical
for words. There, the night before we had been having a terrific
battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes
and they smoking ours." (p. 5)

Weintraub reports
that the French and Belgians reacted differently to the war and
with more emotion than the British in the beginning. The war was
occurring on their land and "The French had lived in an atmosphere
of revanche since 1870, when Alsace and Lorraine were seized
by the Prussians" in a war declared by the French. (p. 4).
The British and German soldiers, however, saw little meaning in
the war as to them, and, after all, the British King and the German
Kaiser were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Why should the Germans
and British be at war, or hating each other, because a royal couple
from Austria were killed by an assassin while they were visiting
in Bosnia? However, since August when the war started, hundreds
of thousands of soldiers had been killed, wounded or missing by
December 1914 (p. xvi).

It is estimated
that over eighty thousand young Germans had gone to England before
the war to be employed in such jobs as waiters, cooks, and cab drivers
and many spoke English very well. It appears that the Germans were
the instigators of this move towards a truce. So much interchange
had occurred across the lines by the time that Christmas Eve approached
that Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker issued a directive
forbidding fraternization:

"For
it discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys offensive
spirit in all ranks . . . . Friendly intercourse with the enemy,
unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts,
however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely
prohibited." (p. 6–7).

Later strict
orders were issued that any fraternization would result in a court-martial.
Most of the seasoned German soldiers had been sent to the Russian
front while the youthful and somewhat untrained Germans, who were
recruited first, or quickly volunteered, were sent to the Western
Front at the beginning of the war. Likewise, in England young men
rushed to join in the war for the personal glory they thought they
might achieve and many were afraid the war might end before they
could get to the front. They had no idea this war would become one
of attrition and conscription or that it would set the trend for
the whole 20th century, the bloodiest in history which
became known as the War and Welfare Century.

As night fell
on Christmas Eve the British soldiers noticed the Germans putting
up small Christmas trees along with candles at the top of their
trenches and many began to shout in English "We no shoot if
you no shoot."(p. 25). The firing stopped along the many miles
of the trenches and the British began to notice that the Germans
were coming out of the trenches toward the British who responded
by coming out to meet them. They mixed and mingled in No Man's Land
and soon began to exchange chocolates for cigars and various newspaper
accounts of the war which contained the propaganda from their respective
homelands. Many of the officers on each side attempted to prevent
the event from occurring but the soldiers ignored the risk of a
court-martial or of being shot.

Some of the
meetings reported in diaries were between Anglo-Saxons and German
Saxons and the Germans joked that they should join together and
fight the Prussians. The massive amount of fraternization, or maybe
just the Christmas spirit, deterred the officers from taking action
and many of them began to go out into No Man's Land and exchange
Christmas greetings with their opposing officers. Each side helped
bury their dead and remove the wounded so that by Christmas morning
there was a large open area about as wide as the size of two football
fields separating the opposing trenches. The soldiers emerged again
on Christmas morning and began singing Christmas carols, especially
"Silent Night." They recited the 23rd Psalm
together and played soccer and football. Again, Christmas gifts
were exchanged and meals were prepared openly and attended by the
opposing forces. Weintraub quotes one soldier's observation of the
event: "Never . . . was I so keenly aware of the insanity of
war." (p. 33).

The first official
British history of the war came out in 1926 which indicated that
the Christmas Truce was a very insignificant matter with only a
few people involved. However, Weintraub states:

"During
a House of Commons debate on March 31, 1930, Sir H. Kinglsey Wood,
a Cabinet Minister during the next war, and a Major u2018In the front
trenches' at Christmas 1914, recalled that he u2018took part in what
was well known at the time as a truce. We went over in front of
the trenches and shook hands with many of our German enemies.
A great number of people [now] think we did something that was
degrading.' Refusing to presume that, he went on, u2018The fact is
that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have
held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves
there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight
the truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it
was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that
made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another
again.' He blamed the resumption of the war on u2018the grip of the
political system which was bad, and I and others who were there
at the time determined there and then never to rest . . . Until
we had seen whether we could change it.' But they could not."
(p. 169–70)

 

 
German
and British soldiers fraternize – Christmas 1914

 
 

Beginning with
the French Revolution, one of the main ideas coming out of the 19th
century, which became dominant at the beginning of the 20th
century, was nationalism with unrestrained democracy. In contrast,
the ideas which led to the American Revolution were those of a federation
of sovereign states joined together under the Constitution which
severely limited and separated the powers of the national or central
government in order to protect individual liberty. National democracy
was restrained by a Bill of Rights. These ideas came into direct
conflict with the beginning of the American War Between the States
out of which nationalism emerged victorious. A principal idea of
nationalism was that the individual owed a duty of self-sacrifice
to "The Greater Good" of his nation and that the noblest
act a person could do was to give their life for their country during
a war, which would, in turn, bring him immortal fame.

Two soldiers,
one British and one German, both experienced the horrors of the
trench warfare in the Great War and both wrote moving accounts which
challenged the idea of the glory of a sacrifice of the individual
to the nation in an unnecessary or unjust war. The British soldier,
Wilfred Owen, wrote a famous poem before he was killed in the trenches
seven days before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
He tells of the horror of the gas warfare which killed many in the
trenches and ends with the following lines:

If in
some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues — My friend, you
would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro
patria mori. (The Latin phrase is translated roughly as "It
is sweet and honorable to die for one's country," a line
from the Roman poet Horace used to produce patriotic zeal for
ancient Roman wars.)

The German
soldier was Erich M. Remarque who wrote one of the best anti-war
novels of all time, entitled All
Quiet On The Western Front
, which was later made into an
American movie that won the Academy Awards in 1929 as the "Best
Movie" of the year. He also attacked the idea of the nobility
of dying for your country in a war and he describes the suffering
in the trenches:

"We
see men living with their skulls blown open; We see soldiers run
with their two feet cut off; They stagger on their splintered
stumps into the next shell-hole; A lance corporal crawls a mile
and half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; Another
goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge
his intestines; We see men without mouths, without jaws, without
faces; We find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his
teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death."

Thomas Hardy's
poem "The Man He Killed," was published in 1902 and was
inspired by the Boer War, but it captures the spirit of the Christmas
Truce in 1914:

Had he
and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged
as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot
him dead because — Because he was my foe,

Just so:
my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

He thought
he'd u2018list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I — Was out of work — had sold his traps
— No other reason why.

Yes, quaint
and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

The last chapter
of Weintraub's book is entitled "What If — ?" This is
counterfactual history at its best and he sets out what he believes
the rest of the 20th century would have been like if
the soldiers had been able to cause the Christmas Truce of 1914
to stop the war at that point. Like many other historians, he believes
that with an early end of the war in December of 1914, there probably
would have been no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Lenin, and
no Stalin. Furthermore, there would have been no vicious peace imposed
on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, and therefore, no Hitler, no
Nazism and no World War II. With the early truce there would have
been no entry of America into the European War and America might
have had a chance to remain, or return, to being a Republic rather
than moving toward World War II, the "Cold" War (Korea
and Vietnam), and our present status as the world bully.

Weintraub
states that:

" .
. . Franklin D. Roosevelt, only an obscure assistant secretary
of the navy — of a fleet going nowhere militarily — would have
returned to a boring law practice, and never have been the losing
but attractive vice presidential candidate in 1920, a role earned
by his war visibility. Wilson, who would not be campaigning for
reelection in 1916 on a platform that he kept America out of war,
would have lost (he only won narrowly) to a powerful new Republican
president, Charles Evans Hughes . . . . " (p. 167).

He also suggests
another result of the early peace would have been: "Germany
in peace rather than war would have become the dominant nation
in Europe, possibly in the world, competitor to a more slowly
awakening America, and to an increasingly ambitious and militant
Japan. No Wilsonian League of Nations would have emerged . . .
Yet, a relatively benign, German-led, Commonwealth of Europe might
have developed decades earlier than the European Community under
leaders not destroyed in the war or its aftermath" (p. 167).

Many leaders
of the British Empire saw the new nationalistic Germany (since 1870–71)
as a threat to their world trade, especially with Germany's new
navy. The idea that economics played a major role in bringing on
the war was confirmed by President Woodrow Wilson after the war
in a speech wherein he gave his assessment of the real cause of
the war. He was campaigning in St. Louis, Missouri in September
of 1919 trying to get the U.S. Senate to approve the Versailles
Treaty and he stated:

"Why,
my fellow-citizens, is there [anyone] here who does not know that
the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial
rivalry?. . . This war, in its inception, was a commercial and
industrial war. It was not a political war."

The great economist,
Ludwig von Mises, advocated a separation of the economy from the
government as one important solution to war so that business interests
could not get government assistance in foreign or domestic markets:

Durable peace
is only possible under perfect capitalism, hitherto never and
nowhere completely tried or achieved. In such a Jeffersonian world
of unhampered market economy the scope of government activities
is limited to the protection of the lives, health, and property
of individuals against violence or fraudulent aggression . . .

All the oratory
of the advocates of government omnipotence cannot annul the fact
that there is but one system that makes for durable peace: A free
market economy. Government control leads to economic nationalism
and thus results in conflict.

[Omnipotent
Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
, pp.
284 and 286]

Weintraub alludes
to a play by William Douglas Home entitled A Christmas Truce
wherein he has characters representing British and German soldiers
who just finished a soccer game in No Man's Land on Christmas day
and engaged in a conversation which very well could represent the
feelings of the soldiers on that day. The German lieutenant concedes
the impossibility of the war ending as the soccer game had just
done, with no bad consequences — "Because the Kaiser and the
generals and the politicians in my country order us that we fight."

"So
do ours," agrees Andrew Wilson (the British soldier)

"Then
what can we do?"

"The
answer's u2018nothing.' But if we do nothing . . . . like we're doing
now, and go on doing it, there'll be nothing they can do but send
us home."

"Or
shoot us." (p. 110)

The Great War
killed over ten million soldiers and Weintraub states, "Following
the final Armistice came an imposed peace in 1919 that created new
instabilities ensuring another war," (p. 174). This next war
killed more than fifty million people, over half of which were civilians.
Weintraub writes:

"To
many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate
the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the
apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that
the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments
and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A
candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly
and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story."
(p. xvi).

He
concludes his remarkable book with the following:

"A celebration
of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation
of the absurdities of war. A very minor Scottish poet of Great
War vintage, Frederick Niven, may have got it right in his u2018A
Carol from Flanders,' which closed,

O ye
who read this truthful rime

From
Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day. (p. 175)

December
1, 2005

John
V. Denson [send him
mail
] is the editor of two books, The
Costs of War
and Reassessing
the Presidency
. In the latter work, he has chapters
especially relevant for today, on how Lincoln and FDR lied us into
war.

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