Wars have been fought for stupid and futile reasons, and World War I epitomizes war at its most stupidly futile. The conflict had been preceded by four decades of diplomatic disagreements and minor clashes between individual European nations that centered on colonialism and territorial disputes. At the heart of the decades of conflict were the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary’s competition with Serbia and Russia for territory and political power. In 1914, an Austrian archduke was assassinated by a Serb, and Eastern Europe was in a crisis that should have remained an Eastern European problem. But it didn’t: All of Europe and the U.S. were eventually pulled into the conflict because of a complex of treaties and alliances that were supposed to maintain the peace, but ultimately required that each nation takes sides. A regional conflict became "The Great War," and as history shows, its most enduring accomplishment was that it laid the groundwork for another World War just twenty-two years later.
Sometimes common people recognize the unjust and pointless nature of a war that our leaders have brought us into. Occasionally we stand up and protest our nation’s involvement. Usually though most will enthusiastically or begrudgingly due our duty, sacrifice ourselves, our own humanity, and the humanity of our enemies on behalf of our nation’s interests.
But once in a while warriors will rise above their military duty and patriotic allegiance. It happened throughout "The Great War" - the so-called “War to End all Wars" - as men, motivated by the common bonds of faith and their belief in the message of the Christmas story disobeyed their superiors, and put down their weapons.
John McCutcheon's song "Christmas in the Trenches" is a fictionalized account of an actual historic event that took place on Christmas Eve, 1914.
In France, 1914, the horrors of World War I trench warfare were interrupted when a spontaneous truce broke out. A German soldier made the first move. He wanted to have a concert for Christmas and so on Christmas Eve two German infantrymen delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a temporary cease-fire. The British soldiers accepted the proposal and sent back some tobacco as their present to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the line.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
The enlisted men were soon shouting to their enemy counterparts, and the shouting soon turned to singing. Many officers objected and attempted to prevent their men from joining in, but soon enemy soldiers were making their way out of the trenches and meeting up in the middle of the barb-wire strewn battle field.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men
Frank Richards, a British soldier recalled that after the enlisted men met up in the battlefield the officers on both sides eventually followed them out:
“We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn't the only one that was fed up with it…….The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches…….Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did.”
The high command on both sides had immediately issued orders to stop the fraternizing. Some officers obeyed, many didn’t. In some areas the truce ended on Christmas Day, in others the following day, and along some sections of the line it lasted into January as officers on both sides refrained from being the first to order that shots be fired.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
The army commanders were not the only people chagrined by the behavior of the soldiers. When the insecure French heard about the truce they were angered; and not without reason. It was their land that was being occupied by the Germans, and their confiscated beer and wine that was being shared by the two non-Catholic armies. The Protestant Brits and Germans had also found some additional common ground: Along with their shared religious faiths trumping nationality, they all agreed that the French wine was excellent, but the beer horrible. Their shared humanity had overcome their divisive politics.
"Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore
Following the initial Christmas cease fire, the British Army prevented its soldiers from taking part in future truces. The Protestant Germans and Orthodox Russians however continued to wage peace on Christmas until the final surrender. But the “War to End all Wars” was really just the beginning of a new kind of military conflict; an industrial endeavor in which the archaic concept of chivalry becomes buried beneath the new and grander technologies of death and destruction. Thereafter only two aspects of warfare would remain unchanged:
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we are all the same.
“Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon first appeared on his 1984 Rounder Select album "Winter Solstice." It has been reissued on subsequent McCutcheon anthologies and collections.
Sources: Frank Richards’ Old Soldiers Never Die (1933); John Keegan’s The First World War (1999); Peter Simkin’s World War I, the Western Front (1991); Michael Foreman's War Game (2002).