I'm going to re-tell a relatively little-known (at least on this side of the Atlantic) bit of history that I read about back in my college days, and that I was reminded of early this morning when I happened to catch part of a show about it on the History Channel. It's been stuck in my head all day.
Please note that I'm not going for precise historical accuracy here, so I may get a detail or two wrong. I beg your indulgence.
World War I got its start in the summer of 1914 when a Bosnian Serb shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Of course, the assassination wasn't really what caused the war -- Europe was a bomb waiting to go off and the assassination just lit the fuse. If you're interested in reading a brief but pretty decent overview of the events that led up to WWI, check out Wikipedia.
In a nutshell this is how it all went down: First, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia appealed to Russia, which mobilized its military support. Then Germany, an ally of Austro-Hungary, jumped in and declared war first on Russia, and then on Russia's ally France. Soon afterward, Germany invaded Belgium, which event drew England into the conflict. All of this happened in July and August 1914. Eventually, the United States and Italy entered the war on the side of Russia and England, and the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined with Germany and Austro-Hungary.
The war was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914. All of the leaders of the warring nations said so. Of course, it didn't happen that way, and as Christmas of 1914 approached, English and German forces were arrayed in trenches on opposite sides of a no-man's land along the Western Front. It was a miserable winter and probably as many soldiers died of things like hypothermia and frostbite as died in armed conflict.
So, Christmas approached and the men in the trenches were trying to come to grips with the realization that not only was the war not going to be over by the holiday, but it wasn't going to be over anytime soon. Morale on both sides was as low as it could have possibly been.
On the night of Christmas Eve 1914, in an area of the Western Front near Ypres, Belgium, a group of homesick German solders began decorating trees with candles in the German tradition, and singing carols. They were heard on the other side of the no-man's land by the British, who began singing their own carols. After that, the soldiers on both sides began shouting greetings back and forth.
What ensued was a completely spontaneous armistice. Following is a passage from a letter written that Christmas by an unknown British soldier to his family:
This will be the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don't think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us—wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went to over to their lines. I think theyve all come back bar one from 'E' Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc. it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between look out duties, which are two hours in every six.
First thing this morning it was very foggy. So we stood to arms a little longer than usual. A few of us that were lucky could go to Holy Communion early this morning. It was celebrated in a ruined farm about 500 yds behind us. I unfortunately couldn't go. There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as to day we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. We had breakfast about 8.0 which went down alright especially some cocoa we made. We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B. G's Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We've had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.
About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench. How we did sing. 'O come all ye faithful. And While shepherds watched their flocks by night' were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later.
Dinner is over! and well we enjoyed it. Our dinner party started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won't fire tomorrow if we don't so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday—perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.
We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two—it all seems so strange.
It must have seemed strange indeed. Both sides had been told that their enemy were monsters. What they found out that day was that their enemy was just like they were -- cold, tired, homesick, and very, very scared.
The truce spread along the trenches until hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers were meeting in the no-man's land, to talk to other soldiers, to help each other bury their dead (one soldier wrote of British and Germans together burying two dead French soldiers and then reciting the 23rd Psalm together over the grave), and even to play a game of soccer (the Germans reportedly won, 3-2, and one German soldier wrote of the match that he and his fellow German soldiers were highly entertained by some of their opponents from a Scottish regiment who wore kilts with nothing on underneath them.). Small gifts were exchanged -- things like cigars and chocolate. Some of the men ate their Christmas meal together.
The truce lasted all of Christmas Day in some areas, and in others lasted a bit longer. One soldier, a Captain Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusilliers, wrote of how hostilities resumed in his section of the front:
At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.
The Christmas Truce was pretty much a one-off. There were a few other spontaneous and short-lived truces during the course of WWI, but in December of 1915, the heads of the various armed forces issued orders making it very clear to the troops that any kind of "fraternization" with "the enemy" would be met with severe consequences. The Germans went so far as to issue an order stating that any soldier who approached enemy lines without an express order from his commanders would be shot on the spot as a deserter.
And so the Great War went on for four more years, until the late fall of 1918. There were a few other spontaneous and very short-lived truces over the course of the war, most notably a brief truce on the Eastern Front on Easter 1916. But other than these few incidents, the spontaneous efforts of the rank and file soldiers in the trenches to bring about an end to the carnage was pretty thoroughly stifled, and by the time the Armistice was declared, some 20 million people, both military and civilian, had died.
So, like I said -- this has been stuck in my head all day. I keep thinking about how much courage it must have taken these men -- rank and file soldiers, not officers, and pretty much acting against orders to boot -- to face their fear and reach out, not to the enemy, but to their fellow human beings, recognizing that, in their cold and hunger and homesickness and discouragement, they had far more in common than otherwise. I keep wondering what might have happened had the commanders of the opposing military forces not intervened to order the resumption of hostilities and to try to prevent such human contact between "enemies" from happening again. I wonder if something like that could ever happen again, in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, or in Palestine and Israel, or in Darfur, or anywhere else where conflict rages.
Wouldn't it be nice to think such a thing could still be possible?