A lasting memory I have of secondary school history lessons is the description of the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. With subsequent study and a few pointers in the right direction from a friend of mine who’s a budding WWI historian I realised that my teacher had embellished the story somewhat. As, I suppose, history teachers in an all-male school are likely to do when dealing with a class of rowdy teenagers who are only pacified by talk of war.
This event has been romanticised and mythologised for 95 years. In spite of the debris the story has gathered with retelling the facts are inspirational. While retrenching for the new year push British and German soldiers on the front-line reduced their attacks until eventually a temporary truce was declared. What’s even more surprising is that the truce was preceded by gifts from either side including a chocolate cake which some German soldiers slipped into the British trenches. This was accompanied by a note suggesting a temporary ceasefire so the German troops “could celebrate their captain’s birthday”. The 1914 truce was repeated in 1915. The “Boy’s Own” story of the spontaneous football game between both sides is often recounted by football historians as demonstrating the power of sport to bring people together. I suppose somebody somewhere is busy writing a thesis about how the event shows how chocolate cake is a vital ingredient in building a lasting peace. I’m kidding but there’s no doubt that the event has proved culturally significant with experts, historians and clergy all suggesting differing and overlapping messages that we can take from the moments of kindness and sanity amidst one of mankind’s worst atrocities.
For me the most poignant aspect of the 2 Christmas day armistices was the opposition of many in the high command on British, French and German sides to the ceasefire and the orders to resume fighting or risk disciplinary action. In many respects, the spontaneous truces were based on a deepening sense of shared struggle between the opposing soldiers and their mutual distrust and disillusionment with their leaders who were safely ensconced in luxury around 30 miles behind the front line. Yeats put it extremely well in his 1919 poem – “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
War and conflict are a constant in human history. Yet people fundamentally want peace. They want the dissipation of war, to go home to their loved ones and rebuild their lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, we don’t need war. That war is similar to an auto-immune disease where the body is tricked into attacking itself.
I’m sure some will disagree but in any war-like conflict I believe you can reduce the initiation of conflict to a policy decision, always accompanied by “heroic” rhetoric and justification. War is so abhorrent that it demands justification whether it’s by Kissinger’s or Obama’s. There’s nobody (especially not Nobel peace prize winners) who don’t comfort themselves with a “just war”. War is initiated by leaders at the cost of their followers. There is no just war, only a just defense of freedom.
For me, the best argument for pacifism and neutrality comes from a surprising but insightful source.
Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. – Herman Goering (convicted war criminal)
Ring any bells? You can verify this as part of the actual transcript taken during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. See more here.
A detailed and eye-witness account of the armistice is available at the First World War Multimedia Archives.
While those reading this post are probably sitting at home in surroundings which are luxurious and, hopefully, peaceful there are many who will spend this Christmas in warzones fearing attack. Soldier or civilian, the gift they really want is peace. They trust their leaders to be just and wise. These are the gifts our leaders need most this Christmas time.