The hundredth anniversary of the Great War has brought about ample press coverage of the epic struggle that determined the course of European and Western civilization over the last century. As a historian by background who has written quite a bit on the Great War, it’s always nice to see the media cover things that otherwise have been long forgotten outside the ranks of historians and buffs.
However, what the media chooses to cover about 1914-1918 adheres to a sort of group-think that I have elsewhere termed The Narrative: trenches, lions led by donkeys, the horror, a nearly exclusive focus on the Western Front (plus one-offs like Gallipoli that include English-speaking troops) — and did I mention the horror?
For all the emphasis since the 1960’s in the English-speaking world’s popular culture on “the horror” of 1914-1918 — as shorthand, this may be termed the Oh! What a Lovely War approach — there has long been a sub-genre focusing on the Christmas truce. Now, at the centenary of that event, which has generated its own cottage industry, with several books, the media has gone in whole-hog. There are countless press stories on the alleged events of Christmas 1914, despite there being considerable doubt about what actually transpired.
A lack of much evidence notwithstanding, it seems clear that at several places on the Western Front, which in the weeks leading up to Christmas had settled into static warfare, a far cry from the mobile bloodbath of August through November, British and German troops, violating orders against fraternization with the enemy, met in no-man’s land and exchanged drinks, some food, and may have even played a bit of football. It’s obvious why officers would omit such revelry from unit diaries, since this was a clear violation of standing orders.
That said, while some fraternization did occur between British and German troops on December 25, 1914, evidence for it is highly anecdotal. Moreover, the French were in no mood to drink and be merry with the Germans, who were occupying a good chunk of French soil, not to mention that in the five months leading up to Christmas, 300,000 French soldiers died trying to keep even more of their country from falling into German hands. Fraternization incidents between French and Germans were very much the exception that first war Christmas.
Despite this, European footballers have commemorated the Christmas Truce in their own way, while the British and German military have even held a centenary football match to celebrate the much-mythologized event. The Christmas Truce has always been a particularly British affectation, the football match being an indication of the fair-play and good-sporting values of the British generation that waged — and, as few seem to remember, won — the Great War. In a similar fashion, the 36th (Ulster) Division went “over the top” on the first day of the great Somme offensive, July 1, 1916, led by a football kicked out by a lead battalion, only to be mowed down, counting among the 57,000 British troops who fell dead or wounded that terrible day.
The Christmas Truce idea is beloved by many, beyond football fans, for its hint that, beneath the horror, British and Germans were just ordinary men cast into the maelstrom of unprecedented bloodshed. From there it’s easy to reach notions that, but for nasty generals, all might have ended with “average men” coming together to end the madness. In the background, a very furry John and Yoko are encouraging “Hair Peace, Bed Peace.” The appeal of this, a hundred years on, when Britain and Germany are together in the European Union, is humane and understandable. However, we must not get carried away by the power of pleasant myth-making.
Not only was such amity on Christmas Day 1914 the exception, there was a lot of unpleasantness too. While across the Western Front most units took it easy and laid low, having no desire to kill the enemy or be killed that day, the one-off incidents of fraternization should not be taken as normal. By the end of 1914, attitudes had hardened to the point that lots of average soldiers seethed with hatred for the enemy, while virtually all of them understood that the only way to get home, other than in a box, was through victory. It is significant that there were really no fraternizations on Christmas after 1914 on the Western Front, or anywhere.
We ought not overstate things. The Great War was not the next war, which saw truly unimaginable horrors perpetrated against soldiers and civilians alike. That said, the 1914-1918 maelstrom was plenty brutal enough. In the trenches, snipers taking out enemy soldiers who popped their heads up, unwisely, to take a peek was considered less than sporting by some in 1914, but all sides did it. Moreover, while prisoners were generally taken, particularly if they were in large numbers — whole companies or even battalions of soldiers giving themselves up, as sometimes happened — it was an unspoken rule that soldiers who resisted too long or too hard had given up any right to quarter. When a rifle company spent a couple hours taking an enemy machine gun position, losing half of its hundred men in the process, the defenders would be killed in the end, perhaps finished off with bayonets, and everybody at the front understood this.
There is scant evidence for Christmas Truce events beyond a few isolated incidents on the Western Front. On the far larger Eastern Front, it seems to have hardly happened at all. Hatred of the enemy ran deeper in the East than in the West, where atrocities were more commonplace. There were incidents of Christmas fraternization — chatting and trading booze and food (and doubtless sharing stories about women) — at Przemyśl, a fortress deep behind Russian lines where over 120,000 Austro-Hungarian troops were trapped. There, both sides were exhausted and morale was low, and along the static siege lines the enemies called it off for a bit as officers averted eyes.
Yet that was very much the exception. A bit to the south of Przemyśl, in the frozen Carpathians, where a million Austro-Hungarian troops were vying for control of vital mountain passes against a million Russians, taking enormous losses in the process, there was no Christmas truce. In fact, in many places the Russians intentionally shelled Austro-Hungarian positions on December 25th to disrupt any seasonal revelry. A couple weeks later, for Orthodox Christmas (which falls in early January), Austro-Hungarian gunners returned the favor, shelling enemy positions “to disturb their Christmas as they disturbed ours,” as one unit diary of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army noted. No love was lost there.
It is all well and good to note that, at least in the early phases of the Great War, some soldiers were still willing to let their humanity show on Christmas. Yet this obscures the reality that, already by late 1914, all belligerents were stuck in a war that was supposed to have ended soon, according to optimists across Europe, but inconveniently had not, leaving the armies jammed in a conflict that generals and politicians could see no easy way out of. Therefore the slaughter continued for four more years, destroying European civilization and unleashing the nightmares of Bolshevism and Fascism — which would, a generation later, lead to an even bloodier war.
Reading the diaries of Great War soldiers, as I have done for decades, you realize that, despite the claims of Lennon or Lenin, quite a few soldiers actually enjoyed the war and wanted to defeat an enemy they increasingly hated. This was by far the most exciting thing to ever happen in the lives of millions of average working men, nearly all of whom in all the armies felt their cause was just. Despite his low chances of surviving the war without death or injury, the average frontline soldier of the Great War was, as we might say today, in it to win it. Having seen countless comrades fall, victory was the only acceptable outcome, even by late 1914. That soldiers of all the armies kept fighting in the horrible trenches, often with a vigor that post-moderns find incomprehensible and more than a little distressing, says something about the human animal that needs discussion.
But for now: Merry Christmas 2014!