Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Christmas Truce 1914: All quiet on the Western Front?

   One of my favourite Yuletide war stories is the unofficial truce on the Western front in 1914.

   Sure, it's a clichéd story today and everybody uses it as the feel good wartime Christmas story but so what, I'm sipping eggnog by a roaring log fire in a Swiss chateaux overlooking the holiday lights of an alpine ski resort. Actually, I'm telling you outrageous lies. I'm really knocking back cheap CVS pharmacy vodka next to a crusty electric heater in Los Angeles suburbia overlooking my douchebag neighbor's dog shit stained lawn. But that's why I love military history. You get to realize how worse off you could be. You could be in the trenches on the Western Front but for a simple accident of chronology. If you were born male in Britain, Germany, France or Russia in the years 1885-95 it was pretty much guaranteed you'd wind up spending a Christmas knee deep in mud, rats and lice while waiting for your turn to play dodgeball with machine gun bullets.

  That's why there's something really heart warming about a football match in No Man's Land.

   It was Christmas 1914 in a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914. The soldiers on the field had no real beef with each other. This whole war was triggered because some rich guy the average infantry man had never heard of ate a bullet in Sarajevo. And no mustard gas had melted off anyone's skin yet and the meat stacking operations of the Somme or Passchendaele hadn't even happened. There was still room in 1914 for an outbreak of human camaraderie, spontaneously between men who realized, in a shared holiday season, that they were all human, ordinary joes, flung into the wrong place and time as enemies and destined to be mere pawns chewed up in the global games of fat cat financiers, politicians, generals and old aristocracies.

   Some things in history never change right?

   It's hard to imagine Christmas in the trenches in 1914. It's not the type of war that happens anymore.  Siege warfare in open mud. WWI came at an interesting period where, for the first time in military history, there was no battlefield mobility. Cavalry were obsolete and armored maneuver warfare hadn't arrived yet. Modern small arms were pretty much perfected though. The British Lee Enfield and German Mauser rifles were both accurate up to 600 meters in the hands of a good shooter. That the Enfield was in use all the way up to 1957 was testimony to the effectiveness of those simple bolt action rifle designs. Of course, trench warfare was also the stage where the machine gun finally came into its own. The British water cooled Maxim gun could spit out a flesh ripping 600 rounds per minute. Artillery too had developed to the point of precision accuracy, timed fuses, multiple shell trajectories, howitzers, air bursts, rolling barrages, all of that steel rain was pretty much perfected by this time.

   This made for the worst kind of stalemate in military history.

   Hell, you can go all the way back to Themistocles and a general would still have multiple unit types at his disposal; heavy infantry, ranged units and cavalry, giving a commander at least three unique elements to play around with when trying to defeat the enemy. But in 1914, you lost that fast moving cavalry unit (the first tanks would not come until Delville Wood in 1916) so all you had as a commander to play war with on your carnage planning desk was artillery and sad meat sacks called men.

   1914 was still early in the war. The British army was composed, at this stage, of elite non conscripted men. Real soldiers. Volunteers. (They hadn't all been wiped out yet). The German Schlieffen Plan had been attempted through Belgium and had failed spectacularly at the last minute. Yet it was still a 'fair war' at this stage. Even with the trenches being laid all the way to the Channel, the barbed wire, the artillery strikes, it was still a war all soldiers could 'relate to' on some 'working class' level. With 'workers of the world unite' brewing in the East, there was a definite sense amongst the officer corps on both sides that they could lose control of their forces ideologically if fraternization were ever allowed to occur.

   And then Christmas Eve 1914 rolled up.

   And the war was still on like the newspapers had said it wouldn't be. I think this was the point where the average soldier on both sides realized they'd been duped. The situation in the trenches was taking on a permanency in winter that was starting to look like a really shitty long term deal for a soldier who was far from home with no personal grievance against the 'enemy'; except the one manufactured by hysterical propagandist newspaper headlines.

   And then it happened...

   The Germans in the trenches along the Western Front in Flanders received an influx of mini Christmas trees in wartime care packages from home (German supply lines being shorter than British ones). They lit their trees with candles and began singing traditional Christmas hymns (Tannenbaum) from the trenches on the other side of No Man's Land.

   The British were confused.

   Let's not get all fuzzy nostalgic here. The British had lost 94 men that day to German snipers all along the front. The Germans had lost similar numbers. This wasn't some outbreak of peace and love '60s style. This was a spontaneous Christmas celebration by the enemy in a trench across the way.

   But the British got curious. Like any enemy would.
   They popped their heads up over trench parapets to watch the lighted spectacle the Germans were putting on. Suddenly, signs began to appear from the opposing trenches in broken English.

   "You no fight, we no fight! Tommy!"

    That must have been a weird moment as the sun came up on the frost hardened mud of Christmas Day Flanders. The first man stood up and offered himself up to the snipers. But nobody fired. He was not shot. More men stood up, testing life itself at the hands of an easy bullet, for Christmas' sake. And then they began to march, from both sides, toward each other.

   I'm getting misty now. Someone has begun chopping onions in my immediate vicinity. It's Christmas right?

   Both sides met in the middle of no man's land

   Smokes were swapped. Hands were shaken. Alcohol was shared. Helmets were sampled. A game of football was played on shell pocked land where, the story goes, the Germans won 3-2. This fabled match is recorded as hearsay in regimental histories, something that was witnessed but never actually recorded by the players. God, I hope it happened. I would like it to have happened in the same way that I would like that some Jewish baby born two thousand years ago can make me survive my own death. Both stories are equally unlikely but it doesn't spoil Christmas by wanting to believe in them.

  The generals on both sides had a shit fit of course. How could it happen? How could ordinary men be friends with each other in the absence of state sponsored propaganda? It was never to happen again. The war got increasingly ugly and left everybody with scars. People wondered where had all the 'good' wars gone?

   To No Man's Land?

   Just the way the politicians, generals and old aristocracies always intended.

    Merry Christmas to you all.