The legendary “Christmas Truce” was 100 years ago, obviously, this morning.
The event was commemorated by an ad by a British supermarket chain last month:
It was an ad that received some criticism – and some articulate defense.
It was also not nearly as rare as one might have thought.
As the war ground from its grisly summer – the Battle of the Frontier, Mons, the Marne and First Ypres – and the front lines stabilized, the war shifted from a war of mobility slowly ground down into the positional, stalemated war of attrition that we associate with the war today. Troops started by digging foxholes for cover, when the war of movement stalled out. Then troops connected their foxholes with their neighbors. These trenches quickly connected squads, then platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, field armies, and finally the entire front, from the Belgian town of Niewport on the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border.
And they were famously miserable places, especially in rain-sodden Flanders. Stories emerged of trenches becoming completely flooded near Ypres in 1914, and the rival British and German troops reaching a tacit agreement not to shoot at each other as they climbed out of their holes and dried off and waited for the water to recede.
And as the war dried out but froze over in the winter of 1914, soldiers of both sides – homesick, exhausted, and tired of the war – started staging little mini-truces.
The first one was on December 11, 1914; two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment made tentative contact with German soldiers of the 181st Regiment of the 19th Saxon Corps.
A letter to the editor described the December 11 incident:
Amusing trench incident. “Tommy” [slang for any British soldier, much like the much-later “GI”, only much more prevalent as slang] and “Fritz” exchange presents. One of the oddities of the war in the Western battlefields at all events (says the Daily Chronicle) is the close proximity of the opposing forces in the trenches, thus giving opportunities for conversation. But the record must surely be made by an incident described in a letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, to relatives at Wood Green, Norwich. He writes:- As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:- From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer). “Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer). “GOOD MORNING FRITZ.” From German trenches: “Good morning.” From our trench: “How are you?” “All right.” “Come over here, Fritz.” “No. If I come I get shot.” “No you won’t. Come on.” “No fear.” “Come and get some fags, Fritz.” “No. You come half way and I meet you.” “All right.” One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fitz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange. It was good to see the Germans standing on top of their trenches and the English also, with caps waving in the air, all cheering. About 18 of our men went half way and met about the same number of Germans. This lasted about half an hour when each side returned to their trenches to shoot at each other again. What I have written is the truth but don’t think we got chums as two of our fellows were killed the same night, and I don’t know how many (sic) of them.
As many as 100,000 troops may have participated in spontaneous truces between various opposing units on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Historians disagree on the details – some claim that while soccer games broke out, they were mostly among troops on the same side. Others point to 3-4 Brit-vs.-German matches along the trench line, altogether.
Fraternization was, of course, not part of the plan for those whose job it was to try to bring the war to an end by conquering the enemy. Measures were taken to prevent further such truces; higher command rotated troops among different trench areas, to prevent units becoming too familiar with one another. They scheduled artillery bombardments for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to make fraternizing dangerous. And over the course of the war, the go-along-to-get-along attitude of the first winter was replaced by a lot of survivors’ emnnity.
Ian Tuttle, writing in National Review, responded to criticism of the video above – and touches on a much deeper point:
“If only it were all so simple!” wrote the great Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
[Guardian columnist and ad critic Iain] Fogg wishes “to retain those [soldiers’] deaths with respect and a degree of reverence.” But to try to do that by denying to the Great War all beauty — especially the beauty of gratuitous, unjustifiable human compassion — would strip those honored dead of the very reason they deserve respect and reverence: because they were human, because the line dividing good and evil cut through their hearts, too. And while it occasioned much carnage and misery, it also spurred acts of compassion, generosity, and more, which generated beauty even in the midst of desolation. Why would one seek to bury that fact?
America today is divided by trenches much less violent than the ones that divided Europe 100 years ago.
And so whatever side you’re on, Merry Christmas. Or Fröhliche Weinachten.