Monday, November 30, 2009

The Christmas Truce

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the story of the 'Christmas Truce' in Ypres, Belgium during World War I.  Here's part of the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

The truce began on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of YpresBelgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.
The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the "No Man's Land" where small gifts were exchanged — whiskyjamcigarschocolate, and the like. The soldiers exchanged gifts, sometimes addresses, and drank together. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects.
The truce spread to other areas of the lines, and there are many stories of football matches between the opposing forces.
In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but in some areas, it continued until New Year's Day.
If you don't trust Wikipedia, you can check the Snopes entry for confirmation that it's a true story.  The Wikipedia entry also lists some other truces that occurred around the same time.

I'm reminded of an old Herbert Hoover quote, "Older men declare war.  But it is the youth who must fight and die."  A leader's power base rests solely on his or her followers devotion.  If you really think about it, wars are actually battles between leaders, yet the followers are the ones who do the dirty work.  Oftentimes, the followers are convinced they are fighting for a noble cause, other times they fight because their leader has promised them new land and wealth, and, of course, some fight to protect what they already have.  I'm not saying that the followers of one maniacal leader are any less of a threat because they are followers, I'm just saying that without a leader to guide them, the followers probably wouldn't even know who the enemy is...if there was an enemy at all!

I think the Christmas truce displays a good example of what I mean.  Many of the British and German troops fighting each other in Belgium in 1914 were probably scared teens just out of school and young fathers who'd have rather been at home with their wives and kids.  I imagine for many of them, fighting a bloody war was one of the last things they'd have want to been doing on Christmas eve...or any other time for that matter.  I guess you could say the Spirit of the season came over them, and the two opposing sides ceased fire and celebrated together.  I think these men realized that they weren't really enemies.  The King and the Kaiser may have been enemies, but the soldiers on the field realized they didn't really have a beef with each other.  The Germans were doing what the Kaiser wanted them to do, and the British were doing what the British government wanted them to do.

Once the commanders found out that their soldiers weren't fighting anymore, they ordered them to begin fighting again.  But if you think about it, if all the soldiers continued to refuse to fight, the war would have been over.  If they had refused to fight in the first place, then World War I would have pretty much been limited to a bar fight among cousins from a dysfunctional family (Kaiser Wilhem, King George, and Tsar Nicholas were cousins).  Looking back, I think the German and British soldiers would have been better off arresting their leaders and putting them in prison.  They would have probably prevented the continued bloodshed and heartaches the people of the time were faced with.

But I suppose most people are just inclined to be followers.  And it seems that throughout history, even when there is a coup, there is always someone else there to step in and lead the followers.  History thus far suggests that an unfortunate consequence of that is war.

I'm also reminded of what George Orwell said about his inspiration to write his novel Animal Farm:
"I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat."

Ah...if only all the followers realized they didn't need to fight their leader's battles.  Then their leaders would be nothing but eccentric loners.

I think that Colonel Parker from M*A*S*H may have been on to something when he said, "Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him."  I imagine that might help prevent some needless deaths.

Nevertheless, my rantings on followers fighting the battles of the leaders aside, the Christmas truce is an awesome story and displays the Spirit of the season magnificently well.  If only all people would continue in that spirit year round!


  1. Insightful post. If O really goes thru with this afghanistan buildup, he has lost me for good. No one has ever conquered that country. & we won't either. We've become occupiers.

  2. You might be interested in a new book "Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting" by Jim Murphy. It's replete with first hand accounts and photos of this amazing act of defiance which, by the way, in some places on the front lasted until Easter.

    Murphy provides some fascinating context for the leadup to war as well as this truce including the fact that the Kaiser and Churchill confided that this was a war that could have been stopped before it started. Instead millions a rush to war....

    Tragic and also inspiring.