Along the western front of World War I lie miles of cemeteries for British, Scottish, Belgian, French and other soldiers killed in the war. In a lone, out-of-the way plot in this land of teenage war dead, a large cross and a dozen small ones honor the Christmas Truce of 1914 spontaneously celebrated by soldiers, and even some officers, on both sides of the war.
By five months into the merciless war, they were living in freezing trenches with corpses and rats that fed on the dead; facing each other through rows of barbed wire; and exposed to artillery shells, machine guns and, later, poison gas.
The tale of the 1914 Christmas Truce survived through the letters and photos of soldiers who, in many locations along 600 miles of trenches in Belgium and France, suspended war and shared Christmas, like brothers, with their enemy.
One story tells of a young German soldier singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) on Christmas Eve and, from nearby trenches, other soldiers joined in their own tongues. What followed was the most unique of nights in the history of war: Soldiers on both sides lay down their weapons, crossed over barbed wire and shell holes and greeted each other with their Christmas gifts of food, beer, champagne and schnapps.
Together they buried corpses of the fallen that lay in the narrow no-man’s land between them, played soccer with tin cans and straw-filled sandbags for balls, sang carols, took photos and exchanged mementoes and addresses.
Fraternizing like this is treasonous because it undermines war morale and the indoctrinated will to kill. And thus, military authorities anticipated and suppressed a Christmas truce with “the enemy” the following year.
Erich Maria Remarque enlisted at 19 in the World War I German Army. Quickly he saw that a sense of ideal and almost romance of war, instilled by the state’s propaganda campaign, turned high school boys like him into willing recruits for slaughter. Some 10 years after the war’s end, he published his first (and what some consider the greatest) anti-war novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Remarque’s 19-year-old central character acutely observes the corrupt dynamics of war: “I see how peoples are set against each other … foolishly, innocently, obediently slaying each other … While they (the careerist politicians and the media war boosters) continue to talk and write, we saw the wounded and dying … The wrong people do the fighting.”
In perhaps the most incisive moment of this novel, a young German soldier gazes upon a young French soldier he has killed and ponders their common humanity. “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony.”
This war to end all wars did the opposite: It sowed the seeds of future ones. The model of industrial warfare — bombing cities, employing chemical poisons and a punitive peace treaty, with the winners dividing up the empires of the losers — all but guaranteed that future conflicts would be settled by military force, not skilled diplomacy and politics.
George Ball, who served in the State Department under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, observed that no one in those administrations was assigned to study a diplomatic solution to end the Vietnam War. In 1963 and again in 1967, President Charles de Gaulle of France offered to mediate a truce, but the United States was determined to win militarily, lest a defeat or stalemate be perceived by the world as weakness and, thus, embolden Communism.
Millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans lost their lives senselessly to preserve the U.S. image in the world, an image ultimately tarnished by the extreme brutality of our war on a small country of peasants.
The seeds of our most recent military intervention into Iraq and Syria, with aerial bombing and now some 3,000 soldiers on the ground to defeat the lawless and sadistic ISIS, were sown during the recent Iraq War.
This 8-year war, built on a base of deceit and lies, left Iraq a failed state and a bitterly divided country in which up to one million of 24 million people died, millions left as war refugees and women’s equality was set back decades. A breeding ground, in other words, for terrorism.
The youthful soldiers’ truce on Christmas 1914 was but a moment of sanity in the adult men’s insane war fought for empire and reckless power. May their inspired act be — 100 years of war later — a beacon for diplomacy and political solutions. As John Milton wrote, “For what can war but endless war still breed.”
Pat Hynes, a former professor of environmental health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. Frances Crowe of Northampton has worked for seven decades against war and militarism.
First appeared in print: Gazette, 12/23/2014