Conflicts between people are often the outcome of forces over which they have no control. The Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I is an example of how conflict left to be resolved by people instead of government could make the world a more peaceful place.
Wars are political failures between governments. Soldiers who do their duty to fight in war are following orders.
During the First Battle of Ypres in Belgium in December 1914, there was a lull in the fighting along trenched positions where French and British soldiers faced German soldiers. As the high commands of the armies strategized their next moves, a quiet came over “no-man’s land” between the soldiers in the week leading up to Christmas.
German troops, who normally would have kept their positions hidden, lighted Christmas candles and sang carols. The French and British soldiers facing them saw the lights and heard the music. They began singing their own carols.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, soldiers from both sides ventured into no-man’s land and shared each other’s company in broad daylight.
These incidents are widely reported in compilations of various articles, anecdotes and books listed on Wikipedia, the main source for this column, and in countless other sources.
No-man’s land was the area between each army’s forward position, which was covered by murderous machine-gun positions, barbed wire, overlooked by snipers and zeroed in by artillery.
In some places along the frontline during Christmas of 1914, no shots were fired and the German, French and British soldiers mingled. Soldiers took time to tend to the wounded and dead who were left in no-man’s land. They swapped prisoners who had been captured.
The soldiers exchanged tobacco, alcohol, food and buttons from one-another’s clothing. In some places, soccer games between the soldiers were played.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred as engineered by the soldiers themselves.
As Christmas Day came to an end, one of the last things some of the soldiers did was sing carols together. Then they went back to their trenches, no man’s land once again became a deadly place and the war resumed.
World War I was about redrawing the map of Europe due to differences between governments and the royal families of the regions involved. It was far different than the reasons for the conflict in Europe leading up to World War II, which involved genocide, ethnic and religious oppression and some of the greatest evil the world has seen.
When high commands during World War I learned of the details of the Christmas Truce of 1914, they were aghast. What right did soldiers have to make peace with their enemies? How could these soldiers find kindness in their hearts for those they were ordered to oppose?
British Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote a letter published in newspapers in January 1915. He talked to German soldiers who were “bored with the war.”
“In fact, one of them wanted to know what on Earth we were doing here fighting them,” according to the letter.
Early in the war, the soldiers who fought in it had peaceful feelings toward their fellow man. The British felt more comradeship with the Germans than the French did, which is understandable as the Germans had invaded Belgium and France. Still, in the days of November 1914, French and German soldiers allowed for periods to recover the wounded and dead. Soldiers exchanged newspapers. Belgian soldiers asked Germans to deliver letters to their families behind enemy lines.
In the book “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” written by Max Hastings and William Collins, French 10th Army Commander Victor d’Urbal is quoted as saying the peace between frontline soldiers was an unfortunate consequence caused when men “become familiar with their neighbors opposite.”
When peace is thought of as an “unfortunate consequence,” there’s a significant division of thought between those who plan wars and those who have to fight them.
To end this, the high commands on both sides ordered soldiers not to fraternize with the enemy. Artillery barrages were scheduled on subsequent Christmases. In the period after the Christmas Truce, governments allowed the deployment of poison gas on the front lines. Future battles led to incredible human losses. These turns were so devastating that any good feelings which previously existed between soldiers five months into a war evaporated as the war raged on for almost another four years.
Still, in Christmas of 1915, there was another short-lived truce in the mountains of the Vosges, where French and German soldiers made peace and exchanged gifts as had happened in 1914. Richard Schirrmann, a German soldier and teacher, wrote about the truce and considered what could lead to peace. He wondered if bitter feelings could be dissolved if “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.”
After the war, Schirrmann founded the German Youth Hostel Association. The association, which was reformed after World War II, still exists and has grown to more than 500 locations in Germany. These hostels are places in which young travelers of different countries can stay and share accommodations as they travel in Europe.
The spirt of the season had much to do with the Christmas Truce of 1914, but many conflicts can be resolved if those involved are thoughtful enough to consider the reasons behind the conflict. Some battles must be fought, some can be escaped through understanding, compromise, respect for the rights of others and the kindness that exists in all of us.
— Matt Johnson is publisher of the Monroe Times. His column is published Wednesdays.