December 2014 marked the centenary of the Christmas Truce on the Western front in World War I. Stanley Weintraub in his Silent Night; The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (Plume, 2002, paper) describes the set of conditions which led to the truce. Initiated by troops from the German region of Saxony, the cessation of combat spread along the Western front from the North Sea through Belgium and France to neutral Switzerland. The Truce quickly caught the fancy of English and Scottish soldiers. French and Belgium troops joined in, though their participation was less enthusiastic since any truce would prolong the German army’s occupation of their homelands.
The Truce was immediately condemned by the commanding officers of both armies. However, most officers thought it best to allow the truce to happen, but to control its contagiousness and duration.
The idea of a Christmas Truce had been the subject of a resolution in the U.S. Senate, and a proposal by the recently elected Pope Benedict XV. Throughout the history of European warfare, there had been temporary armistices to carry off the wounded and bury the dead. But they had been negotiated by governments and military commands. Weintraub points out that this spontaneous truce seemed more akin to the populist politics of the street prior to the war, and like it a threat to the European power structures.
The Christmas Truce worked in part because it had a religious legitimatization. It celebrated the “night of their dear savior’s birth,” to quote a popular French Christmas carol. There was much exchanging of souvenirs and the sharing of special food which the respective home fronts had sent to their sons and husbands on this first Christmas in the trenches. There were spontaneous games of football (soccer). Both sides exchanged the brass buttons that festooned their uniforms, a German tradition. The Germans found trees to decorate and sang beautifully. The British plum pudding was less admired by both sides.
Many of the Germans had worked in England, knew English, and had some command of the British sense of humor. There was much good-natured insulting that went on. Lots of beer, courtesy of abandoned Belgium farm houses, fueled the jocularity.
There was talk about extending the Truce through Boxing Day, December 26. Traditionally in Britain, you spent most of Christmas Day at some religious service. On the 26th householders and employers rewarded their servants and tradesmen with a Christmas box, perhaps containing a gold sovereign, certainly some tasty food. For Brits, December 26 was almost as important as Christmas itself. Germans celebrated December 26th as St. Stephen’s Day, a kind of second Christmas but involving secular activities. The army command on both sides, however, worried about keeping the spontaneous truce from becoming a mutiny and put their foot down about continuing it for another day.
Early in the War, there was relatively little suppressing of news from the front. Soldiers wrote home about their experiences, including the Christmas Truce. And their homefolk, proud as peacocks, had the letters printed in the local papers. It was clear from these accounts that much of the Truce was spent in “housekeeping;” repairing the trenches, mending the barbed wire that marked the location of no man’s land and generally making the field of battle more defensible.
The end of the Truce was also spontaneous. Rain on the 26th spoiled the fun. Also, new units of troops rotated into the trenches and they were strangers to any kind of goodwill toward the enemy. They took the opportunity to fire on those troops still observing the Truce.
Weintraub engages in a “What if ….?” exercise. Certainly an extension of the Truce might have dampened the bloodshed that would follow. The newspapers in the belligerent countries might have used the Truce to ignite a public pacifism in the New Year. A prolonged Truce along the western front might have stalled the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, the disintegration of the Austrian Empire, and the American intervention in 1917 with all their various ramifications. There might not have been an Adolf Hitler or a Benito Mussolini appealing to veteran resentments in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The Truce could be considered a variation of the live-and-let-live that often occurs in warfare though more commonly toward the end of a war. Growing up in the 1950s, I worked part-time on an Iowa farm owned by a German-American. Adolf had a limp which he told me was the result of a confrontation with an American soldier in the last days of the War. He believed that the American had deliberately shot at his leg rather than his chest, a kind of self-declared truce.