San Diego Soliloquies

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Christmas Truce

On this day, 90 years ago, British and German forces stopped fighting long enough to at least play a little football (soccer), exchange rations, tobacco and chocolate, and sing Christmas Carols.

Scholars debate what started it. The most likely scenarios were that German soldiers put up their government-issued christmas trees and sang Christmas carols. Since both these customs had been imported from German into Great Britain (remember, the Windsors came to the UK from Germany. Queen Victoria grew up speaking German and was the Kaiser's grandmother) the English troops knew all the words, in English. Parties that were gathering the dead or scouting in no-man's land reported what they heard, and more men came out of the trenches, to meet up among the shellholes and rotting corpses left from three months of fighting.

The troops met each other, pictures taken, gifts exchanged. Once the corpses were cleared, some soccer games broke out, the only one score was recorded (3-2 Germans). Since all this started informally, it is difficult to figure out when it ended. On some sections of the trenches the fighting started again the next day, in other areas the truce lasted into January.

Commanders were horrified. In the areas where truce remained they rotated in new companies, untainted by the truce. In other areas they started massive artillery barrages to remind the enemy of just how fierce war could be. There is also no record of any truce breaking out in trenches where the French and Germans faced each other.

Most modern scholars emphasize the common cultures when they try to explain how men in freezing, muddy trenches, eating moldy rations and bitten by rats, lice and other pests could possibly see the humanity in fellow sufferers. And don't worry about peace breaking out nowadays either. According to Stanley Weintraub in an interview with the National Review:

    I can't imagine such massive concentrations of troops again in a future war, nor can I imagine such collisions of similar cultures. Sadly, I can envision future conflicts with such culturally different opponents as Islamic forces. To see a common humanity in likely future opponents seems unlikely.

Especially when you consider the Geneva Convention (created in response to the horror of European War) as "quaint".


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