Thursday, December 26, 2013

Truce in the trenches

Speaking of soldiers and Christmastime...

I was thinking about the now-iconic "Christmas Truce" of 1914 on the way in to work today.

You know that story, right? German and British soldiers spontaneously stop fighting Christmas Eve, 1914, sing carols, meet in No Man's Land the next day and hang out, swap trinkets, kick a soccer ball around?
"The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man's land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914. Today, 90 years after it occurred, the event is seen as a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One - a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians."
What got me thinking about this, though, was how the actual circumstances actually point out how unusual and peculiar the human conditions have to be to allow people to "create a peace".

Here's a little map that shows what we think was the rough extent of the largest area observing the truce. This sector of the Western Front was largely held by a mixture of English, Scots, and Irish units on the one side and Saxonian units of the German Army on the other.

The British soldiers were still at this point largely long-service professionals. Fighting was their business and while like any other sort of fighting the autumn battles of 1914 had surely engendered some hard feelings towards their German enemies I suspect the the feelings hadn't quite hardened into real bone-deep hatred. And the whole trench warfare business was also still new and I also suspect the the troopers hadn't gotten a good taste for the endless misery it would entail.

Saxons are apparently considered the softhearted slobs of Germany; "easygoing" is the term I've read. These guys probably weren't quite the hard men you'd have found from East Prussia or Pomerania, and the opportunity to have a day off and a kickabout probably seemed like a great idea to them.

So the two sides took the holiday off, and hung out, maybe played a little game or two. I have no doubt that some of the cannier sorts used the day to go out scrounging food, or firewood, or other material things to make their lives a little easier. That's a sort of Christmas tradition, too, when you think of it.

So it is a sort of wonderful story.

But being human we love the wonderful story and tend to forget that for most of the guys most everywhere else nothing of the sort happened that day.

Outside a couple of places where Germans and Frenchmen took a break from killing each other almost all the French sectors kept on fighting. The old hatreds were just too deep.

A small section of the Belgian lines is said to have held a truce, and a portion of the Austro-Russian front as well.

But for most of the soldiers across the face of Europe the Holy Night was just another day at war.

Hey, I love a wonderful story, too. They help us imagine how wonderful we can be when we work at it.

But sometimes the stories help us kid ourselves about how wonderful we usually are.

And that's not always so damn wonderful.


Anonymous said...

Best Christmas carol ever -- Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon:

Best to all,


FDChief said...

Lovely song; thanks, JP. Hope you are enjoying a peaceful and blessed season.