I first posted a version of this diary on Christmas Eve last year. Even in the midst of unprecedented carnage in World War I, soldiers on both sides found within themselves a modicum of human decency and desire for peace. In this most brutal of wars which raged on for four long years, there was a cessation of hostilities - even if for only one day. Any time, anywhere, when the cycle of violence is broken, that, in itself, is worthy of remembrance.
Wars suppress the natural urge of men to behave in a manner that has no bearing to and can even remotely be construed as civilized behavior.
Combat does terrible things to human beings and transforms the best of them into killing machines. The low-key and gentle man who may have been a country farmer in a previous life turns into a savage, thirsty for blood. The unassuming and quiet factory worker who was primarily concerned with making machine parts emerges as an efficient killer. The seemingly peace-loving gardener who lovingly took care of nature's wonders is worried about one and only one thing - kill or be killed.
Prolonged conflicts severely restrict and narrow one's options on the field of battle. Through all the brutality, soldiers are preoccupied with the ultimate goal: survival. And at the war's end, a longing to be reunited with their loved ones and to carry on with their mundane, unexciting, and ordinary lives.
Sketch credit: Wet Canvas.
"Theirs Not to Reason Why, Theirs But to Do and Die"
The lie and the harsh reality of total war is simply this: older men send younger men into battle to die while invoking honor, duty, and country. How should soldiers behave when placed as cannon fodder in an impossible situation?
I wrote in this 2007 diary - "Shared National Sacrifice" and 'The War' Tonight on PBS
Grand strategies, geopolitical objectives, and tactical battle plans are for politicians and generals. In a democratic society, soldiers don't make the decision to engage in war; political leaders, some with perverted personal agendas, do.
The "Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom" Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote about the futility of war and directed his criticism at the British military high command. His classic poem is about a disastrous suicidal charge made by British soldiers in the Crimean War
Was there a man dismay'd?
Cannon to right of them,
When can their glory fade?
The Crimean War took place between 1853-1856, with Tsarist Russia fighting an Allied force consisting of soldiers from the British, French, and Ottoman Empires. The Allies were also joined by a force from the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war resulted as imperial powers jockeyed for territorial influence following the decline of the Ottomans. Sketch credit: Utne Reader.
World War I was largely not a war of movement with huge armies facing each other in trenches for months at a time with little or no strategic progress or tactical gain. Often, these prolonged confrontations would take place under harsh conditions
Following the outbreak of war in June 1914, the British and German armies dug in across France and Belgium and faced each other in a long series of trenches that extended for hundreds of kilometres across the countryside.
In a totally new type of defensive warfare, the soldiers lived in hellish conditions in these trenches, exposed to the weather, constant shelling, and small arms fire. Occasional attacks ordered by the various high commands required the men to climb up out of the trenches and advance over the ground between, usually strewn with barbed wire entanglements, where hundreds would be slaughtered in "no-man’s land" by the waiting machine guns of the enemy. In day-to-day trench life it was courting death to raise one’s head above the trench parapet – waiting expert snipers dotted about the countryside in concealed positions could snuff out a mans life with a head shot from 300 metres away.
It was in these diabolical circumstances that Christmas Day 1914 approached and both armies were reconciled into having to experience thoroughly miserable conditions for their Yuletide. But it was not to be.
The Christmas Truce of 1914
Even as their lives are on the line, some battle-weary soldiers don't lose the capacity to act as, well, human beings. Amidst the utter senselessness of World War I was a shining moment that brought a momentary end to the killing and savage display of man's inhumanity towards man.
It happened on the night of December 24, 1914
Although there was no official truce, about 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German Troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Flanders in modern-day Belgium.
The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas Carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across the 'No Man's Land' where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held... In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others...
On Christmas Day, after a night of carol singing, a private with the Welsh Fusiliers recalled that feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. A football was produced from somewhere – though none could recall from where. "It wasn't a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don't know how long it lasted, probably half an hour."
A wonderful moment of hope and peace in that awful conflict that was then the costliest in human history.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men.
The above video includes scenes from the 1969 British film - Oh! What a Lovely War. Read more about the truce in this article - The Christmas Truce: When the Guns Fell Silent. Sketch credit: Guardian (UK).
The War Must Go On
The Christmas truce did not last as high commands on all sides of the conflict disapproved of the unnecessary fraternization between the troops and several steps were taken to avoid a repeat in the years to come.
World War I would be fought for almost four more bloody years
For a brief period in 1914, the guns of war fell silent and the slaughter stopped. It was a remarkable moment in the history of modern warfare.
The high brass on both sides quickly determined that they could not let the situation develop. In the national interest, the war had to go on. Peace has always been more difficult to make than war, but it was materialising. Under threat of court martial, troops on both sides were ordered to separate and restart hostilities. Reluctantly, they drifted apart. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s order to II Corps from his cushy rear-area headquarters read: "On no account is intercourse to be allowed between opposing troops. To finish this war quickly we must keep up the fighting spirit."
But some units were too contaminated by Christmas to be reliable, and it took a few days to bring in replacements. Both commands ordered rolling artillery barrages to disrupt the stillness and to motivate responses.
In most sectors where the shooting had stopped, signals (in some cases, flares) set by their officers called men back to their trenches or confirmed the imminent close of the truce. Private Percy Jones of the Westminster Brigade wrote in his diary: "We parted with much hand-shaking and goodwill." Rifleman George Eade of the 3rd London Rifles said a German soldier told him: "Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country. I fight for mine. Good luck."
"The Deserter" was an anti-war editorial cartoon by Canadian-American cartoonist Boardman Robinson and depicts a pacifistic Jesus being shot by European soldiers from five countries on both sides of the war. Cartoon credit: Wikipedia.