The Christmas Truce

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Note: The recent killing of Qassem Suleimani in an unauthorized illegal drone strike makes it more important that we stop the madness and embrace a path that will lead us to peace.

Christmas 2019

What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike, and said some other method must be found of settling this dispute? – Winston Churchill

Living in what is quite likely the most warlike country in the modern world (and quite possibly all of history), it is sometimes difficult to keep hope alive. The latest defense spending bill, which easily passed through a Democratic controlled house, totals 738 billion dollars. This includes 40 billion dollars to establish the world’s first “space force.” This is almost equal to the amount South Korea spent on their entire military in 2018. The US defense budget will amount to over 1/3 of the total military spending in the world. The bulk of this money simply goes to making the military industrial complex richer and more powerful. It is not being used for defense.

Military Budget

Military Spending

Both parties in the US have made it clear that they are parties of war and in complete support of the military industrial complex. In spite of this bleak reality, there is some hope that sanity will prevail among the people and they will elect a leader in 2020 who is not beholden to the military complex. At the present time, Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders aka “The Bern” is rising in the polls and holds a strong second place to former Vice President Biden. He is the only candidate who is both viable in the polls and running on a peace platform. When it comes to foreign policy, he offers a refreshing approach to the endless war policy that has reigned over the last two decades and most of the history of this country.

Bernie on Foreign Policy

While the future has not yet been determined and the US continues with their endless bombing campaigns (just recently stepped up with the drone strike assassination in Iraq), we can find a modicum of hope in the past. One hundred and five years ago, on December 25, 1914, roughly 100,000 soldiers on the western front in the war that is now known as World War I, ceased combat in a non officially sanctioned truce. Today this event is known as the Christmas Truce and it was an almost truly unprecedented event in military history.

As described in one newspaper, “Thoughtlessly I raised my head, too. Other men did the same. We saw hundreds of German heads appearing. Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days befrore there had been only rifle barrels.” Thu, Mar 25, 1915 – Page 7, Fort Wayne Daily News (Fort Wayne, Allen, Indiana)How One Christmas Truce Spontaneously Similar events were happening all along the western front. A Belgian soldier described what occurred, “At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenche; on which was written “Happy Christmas,” and then, leaving their trenches, unarmed, they advanced towards us singing and shouting “Comrades!” No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half-frozen Yser, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars, and we threw them some chocolate….the whole day passed without any fighting.” Sat, Jan 2, 1915 – Page 3, The Times (London, Greater London, England) Christmas Truce A Belgian Point of View

For one day, and in some cases longer, fighting ceased through a mutual unspoken agreement and both sides celebrated Christmas together. This was extraordinary considering that for days and weeks before they had been shooting at each other. In December of 1914, the war was yet young, but it had settled down into the fairly static trench warfare that would define it for years to come. Many of the bloodiest battles of the war still lay in the future, but the 5 months leading up to the Christmas truce had not been without large amounts of bloodshed. On August 14, 1914, 27,000 French soldiers died in a 24 hour period during the battle of the frontiers. Bloodiest Day in French History The First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 resulted in nearly 500,000 combined casualties. Many of the soldiers involved in the war had left home thinking that the war would be over by Christmas. Yet when Christmas arrived, it was far from over and would continue until November 11, 1918. Nevertheless, for that one day, these men, who had been enemies, stopped fighting and began fraternizing, exchanging gifts, and even in a few locations playing football (soccer) with each other.

While truces and breaks in the fighting to bury the dead were not that uncommon at this point in the war, fraternization on a wide scale all along the front was a singular occurrence. Perhaps the idea had been seeded when the Pope had attempted to arrange an official truce for Christmas during the weeks before. But this attempt to broker an agreed upon ceasefire had failed as the Allied leadership did not believe it was to their advantage. Pope Benedict XV at least deserves a mention for attempting to bring this truce about, his was a lonely voice for peace among the outcries for continued slaughter and bloodshed.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was the most famous and large scale event of its kind, but it was not the first time this had happened in war. During the American Civil War, just following the Battle of Fredericksburg, a similar event occurred between Union and Confederate soldiers. A Confederate soldier, Tally Simpson, described it in a letter to his sister, “Papers were exchanged, and several of our men bought pipes, gloves, &c from the privates who rowed the boat across. They had plenty of liquor and laughed, drank, and conversed with our men as if they had been friends from boyhood. “ Tally Simpson Letter On the other side of the war, John R. Paxton would later recall it in this manner, “Then they put parched corn, tobacco, ripe persimmons, into the boats and sent them back to us. And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, ate persimmons, which if they weren’t very filling at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner. And so the day passed. We shouted, “Merry Christmas, Johnny.” They shouted, “Same to you, Yank.” And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening. “ Christmas on the Rappahannock

During the Civil War, both sides spoke the same language so it was easier to arrange an exchange of gifts and a truce. During the 1914 truce, in many cases the soldiers simply had to trust that the other side would not open fire when they left the safety of their trenches. This was a huge leap of faith – leaving the safety of the trenches and exposing themselves to the potential of enemy fire. This spontaneous cessation of hostilities during the Christmas truce goes against generally accepted principles of war. As the famous Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz noted, “If two parties have armed themselves for strife, then a feeling of animosity must have moved them to it; as long now as they continue armed, that is do not come to terms of peace, this feeling must exist; and it can only be brought to a standstill by either side by one single motive alone, which is, that he waits for a more favourable moment for action. “ Clausewitz Yet this truce was not brought about by the political or military leadership but rather through the actions of the men of both sides. This goes to show the power of the collective in war. There was nothing the leadership of either side could do to prevent the truce because the soldiers collectively decided to make peace with each other for Christmas.

Unfortunately the Christmas truce did not have a happy ending. The war would continue and 3 more Christmases would pass before it ended. There were a few attempts at a reprise of the truce on Christmas of 1915, but the leadership were more prepared for it and by and large prevented a large scale reoccurence of the 1914 truce. They were not altogether successful though – one such Christmas truce of 1915 can be read about here By 1916, the loss of life in the war had further increased and the war had become increasingly brutal in the attempts to break the stalemate on the Western Front and there were no attempts at a Christmas truce (that I could find) The truces of 1914 (and 1915) were to be singular events in the war and in history.

The Christmas truce shows us that even in the midst of one of the worst events in human history, there was still a moment of morality and compassion that was shared. While this event was fleeting, it still shines as a beacon of hope for humanity. In the present time, we face a choice between continuing the never ending wars and uniting together for peace to fight the greatest crisis the human race has ever faced – climate change. If we continue war, it is all but certain that the human race will be facing an extinction level event. The course that we are currently on is leading to this crisis. It is not too late for humanity to come together and remember that peace is not a dream, it is possible and in fact necessary for survival.

Further reading

Fraternization

Conspiring with the Enemy and Cooperating in Warfare

The Christmas Truce

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