The Christmas Truce & the Power of Private Custom
Written by Will Porter.
Amidst some of the grizzliest martial combat of the 20th century, in the weeks surrounding Christmas of 1914 a series of informal, unofficial ceasefires deescalated combat along much of the Western Front during the First World War. Today known collectively as the “Christmas Truce,” this series of spontaneous détentes embodies a triumph of humanity in a time of extreme brutality and prejudice fostered by the policies of war-making governments.
On the Western Front, soldiers vacated their trenches and dugouts to meet in “no-man’s-land,” after German troops began singing Christmas carols to the English soldiers positioned across the battlefield. Due to the close proximity of the trench lines, the most common method of initiating a ceasefire was simply for one side to shout over to the other. This occurred on the Eastern Front as well, which led to similar friendly meetings between Austrian and Russian troops. French and Belgian soldiers participated as well.
While the fighting didn’t completely stop in all sectors, soldiers in many areas met to exchange seasonal greetings, alcohol, tobacco, food, newspapers, and souvenirs. Men drank liquor, smoked cigars, and had conversations. Joint burial ceremonies were held, as well as—according to some historians—a few loosely organized football matches!
Minor ceasefires during World War 1 weren’t totally uncommon—especially in quieter sectors of the Western Front—with a few taking place between German and English troops as early as November 1914. Some of them involved merely a short break in the shooting to allow each side to remove their dead and wounded from the battlefield, or agreements to hold fire while men slept. The Christmas Truce, while not the only informal armistice in the conflict, was nonetheless the biggest and most widespread of any WW1 ceasefire, and probably the first to entail actual meetings and fraternization between combatants.
In early December 1914, one EHW Hulse of the Scots Guard wrote of his plans to organize a Christmas concert and celebration, which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song and harmony.” Diary and journal entries of soldiers on both sides show similar desires to stop fighting.
A number of peace initiatives were also pushed forward around the same time, including the “Open Christmas Letter,” signed by 101 English suffragettes, and Pope Benedict XV’s plea for an official cessation of hostilities. Neither met much success, but they demonstrate the sentiment of “live and let live,” growing among the citizens and soldiery of the warring states.
The good feelings were not universal, however. Senior and junior officers challenged the ceasefires on the ground, and military leaders subsequently organized special raids and attacks designed to foster the appropriate “offensive spirit” in their men. Eventually, official bans on “fraternization with the enemy” were implemented, and while truces and ceasefires still occurred infrequently throughout 1915, they were almost unheard of by 1916. This may also be due to the great intensification of the conflict during battles like the ones in Somme—with its 1 million causalities—and Verdun, as well as the increased use of weaponized poison gas. Regardless, the major ceasefire of 1914 was not organized from the top-down, but by the average soldier.
Sir H Kingsley Wood—a major during the war and a participant in the Truce—in a speech to the English House of Commons said “…if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” Had the situation not been in “…the grip of the political system,” Wood, and certainly many others, believe with conviction that the war could have stopped then and there.
In the end, around 100,000 soldiers took part in the Christmas Truce. In some areas it lasted only through Christmas night, others up to New Year’s Day, and still others for entire weeks before and after the holiday. A British Private, Frederick Heath, aptly described the event as “the war’s most amazing paradox,” a moment of mercy and benevolence during a period of unprecedented barbarity in human history.
The greatest lesson imparted by the 1914 Christmas Truce is perhaps its affirmation of the power of private custom over that of political authority. The ties of blood, culture, and religion, even in the worst of all scenarios, can triumph over the perennial will to dominate; the libido dominandi that is rooted to the core of all state institutions.
The spontaneous actions and relationships forged among men in private society, their beliefs, values, and customs, can be all that is required to face down the superficial edifice of state power. Political power is ever-fleeting; it must be continually maintained by artificial, unnatural means. Wars cannot possibly withstand the genuine humanity and compassion of the people who fight them, proving the necessity of war propaganda and the dehumanization of the enemy on both sides.
Indeed, note in this context the oft-quoted admission of Nazi political and military leader Hermann Goering, who, during the Nuremburg Trials of WW2, said:
Naturally, the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy.
Heed the warning, and recall it when it counts. When Empire sets out on the war path, banging its drums, remember the events of World War 1’s first Christmas. Civil resistance, as the Truce illustrated, may take potent form as a simple willingness to peacefully co-exist with one’s neighbor. Fundamentally, without the assent of the populace it rules, the power of the militarized state will dissolve and fade into history, like memories in senility.
See also When Is It OK to Shoot a General?
If you enjoyed Will’s writing, you can find him at his blog, The Market Radical