A Truce for Christmas
November 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. Within two months of its beginning, it had devolved into the stalemate we know as trench warfare. The opposing forces established a line along the Western Front extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border that would not fundamentally change for the next four years. The armies settled into a perpetual clash under the most barbaric and miserable conditions: soggy, frozen trenches, constant bombardment, suicidal attacks against massed machine guns, and hordes of rats consuming the corpses; by Christmas there were over a million casualties. In this essay, I write about the massive and completely unnecessary sacrifice of thousands of young men on the very last day of the war.
During those four years, because of the close proximity of the opposing trenches (in some case, as little as 80 yards) and the extreme danger of being shot if they peeked over the parapets, many men reported never seeing the sky except by looking straight up. They rarely saw enemy soldiers, except in their rifle sights.
But that same proximity allowed for something else, something unpredictable and extraordinary: unofficial, spontaneous cessations of hostility.
On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops in the region of Ypres, Belgium decorated the areas around their trenches. They placed candles and Christmas trees on the parapets and celebrated the holiday with singing. The British responded by singing carols of their own. Soon, the two sides were shouting Christmas greetings to each other. The word went out all along the Front.
On Christmas Day, men on both sides – perhaps 100,000 of them – disobeyed their generals, rose out of their frozen trenches and met their opponents face to face in No Man's Land, where they exchanged small gifts such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as pictures of loved ones, buttons and hats. The artillery fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell for the dead to be buried. Joint religious services were held. Football games occurred, giving one of the most enduring images of the truce, which lasted until New Years in some sectors.
Was the Christmas Truce unique? There had been other truces, but none so universally subscribed to, and there would be few others. These men chose to emphasize their common humanity and common suffering, rather than their hatred. And this is how we choose to remember them, because, for a few days, they created a model for us all to emulate. In a time when the world was descending into a time in which the fathers were literally sacrificing their children to the war gods, these men briefly acknowledged the humanity of the Other. It has been called the last moment of the nineteenth century.
Generals on both sides were horrified at this display and feared that it might happen again. In some cases they removed or punished the units that had participated. They made sure that the war would go on, and for four years an average of seven to ten thousand young men would die every single day. But there was one day when common people ignored the hatred and the will to destroy.
You can see actual photos of the truce. Here is a 2004 interview with one of the last known participants. Here are two videos about the truce. It has been a rich source of inspiration for artists and musicians. Here is John McCutcheon performing Christmas in the Trenches. The truce occurs in several movies, including the excellent 2005 fictional drama Joyeux Noël. For more in-depth reading, see Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub.
There are also many accounts of soldiers refusing to fire on their enemies, even without truces. Of 112 French divisions on the Western Front, 68 experienced mutinies. Fifty men were killed by firing squads for refusing to fight any longer. Three of those executions became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Glory, in which a pompous general castigates his unwilling soldiers and lectures them “patriotism.” Another officer (played by Kirk Douglas) defends his men and enrages the general by quoting Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
There have been many significant truces throughout history when opposing sides agreed that the rituals of tending to the suffering and the dead had higher priority than those of the War God. One curious and isolated event happened in World War Two. Indeed, the percentages of front-line American infantrymen in that war who never fired their weapons was so high that, afterwards, the military instituted large-scale, mandatory operant conditioning programs deliberately intended to raise those percentages. By the time of the Viet Nam War, firing rates rose significantly. Even so, I have read about informal agreements between American enlisted men and their Vietnamese opponents in which each side agreed not to fire upon each other unless provoked. Ed Tick describes one instance of such spontaneous respect in War and the Soul.
In 1992, after some ten to twenty thousand young people had been killed in gang violence, the Los Angeles Bloods and Crips called a truce that would last for over ten years and resulted in a major decline in violence. Gangs in Honduras and El Salvador, sick of their own carnage, copied it. This video was made on the 20th anniversary. You can see some images from that truce here.
Despite all the political, economic, social and even religious pressure to turn young men into unfeeling automatons and killers, there is something very deep in us that insists on commonality with the Other. I would call this an archetypal aspect of the soul. Greek myth recognizes this. Truce scenes occur in the Iliad that reflect the very long tradition of halting all fighting every four years for the Olympic games.
It is customary to wish each other “Peace on Earth” at this time of year, yet a glance at the news always threatens to drop us into despair. Well, how about calling a truce at least? And who better to suggest it with than the warring voices in your own head? A truce is not necessarily time-bound; it can always be extended, from one moment to the next. While you are at it, consider the military metaphors we all tend to use in our daily speech.
For these holidays, I wish you this kind of truce. If world violence is ever to end, it will happen when enough individuals determine to call a truce with it in their own souls and no longer need to inflict it upon others or watch others harming each other on electronic media.
For even a short time, may we realize, as John McCutcheon sings, “…that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”