Christmas Truce

During the First World War, drafts created the armies that were drawn from remarkably similar societies for the first time in modern warfare. Along the Western Front, on both sides there were industrial workers and farm laborers. On both sides there were aristocratic senior officers and middle-class junior officers. For Catholics, Protestants and Jews fighting for separate armies, they sometimes identified more with their religious brethren on the opposing side than with their fellow soldiers.

The soldiers, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and Italians were equally irreverent about what they were supposedly fighting for. Over the longer period of trench warfare, a kind of ‘live and let live’ attitude developed in certain relatively quiet sectors of the line; war was reduced to a series of rituals, as with the Greeks and Trojans. English pacifist Vera Brittain noted about a Scottish and a Saxon regiment that had agreed not to aim at each other when they fired. They made a lot of noise and an outsider would have thought the men were fighting hard, but in practice no one was hit. Robert Graves — in his pivotal memoir of the Great War, Goodbye to All That — recollected about letters arriving from the Germans, rolled up in old mortar shells: “Your little dog has run over to us, and we are keeping it safe here.” Newspapers were fired back and forth in the same fashion. Louis Barthas spent some time in a sector where the Germans and the French fired only six mortar rounds a day, ‘out of courtesy’.

Nothing symbolized this easygoing attitudes more than the informal Christmas truce of 1914, when opposing soldiers in many sectors joined together to sing carols, and exchange Christmas greetings and gifts. Soccer games were played in no man’s land with makeshift balls. Of course, there were some who refused to participate in the truce; among those was a German field messenger named Adolf Hitler, who grumbled, ““Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”

At Diksmuide, Belgium, the Belgian and German soldiers famously celebrated Christmas Eve together in 1914, drinking schapps together. One year later, ad hoc ceasefires took place again, this time in northern France. No man’s land was suddenly transformed into ‘a country fair’ as lively bartering began for schnapps, cigarettes, coffee, uniform buttons and other trinkets. More worryingly for their superiors, the soldiers sang the Internationale.

Yet socialist hopes that soldiers would ultimately repudiate their national loyalties for the sake of international brotherhood were proven to be futile. Christmas Truce was almost the last hurrah of a bygone era; as the war went on, mutual hatred grew, expunging the common origins and predicament of the combatants. War, too, has lost its mystique; soon, only fools would celebrate it or enter it with excited patriotic fervor. After August 1914, when thousands of red-trousered Frenchmen and white-gloved officers in full dress and plumes were decimated by German machine guns, France eschewed her pride and switched to neutral-colored service uniforms — the last world power to do so. Soon, there will be no more sabres and Sam Browne belts, no more centuries-old habits of chivalry, no more leaving civilians out of war.

The Armistice

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“On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, an armistice was signed, ending “The War to End All Wars”. With the military morale in its ebb and revolution brewing at home, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated two days before on 9 November. The German government had decided to negotiate an armistice with the Allies starting 7th November, when the German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg exchanged a series of telegrams with the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch.

In the forest of Compiègne, In the railcar given to Foch for military use by the manufacturer, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the armistice was signed. The photograph was taken after reaching an agreement. The diplomatic situation was terse: The German signatory, Matthias Erzberger made a short speech, protesting the harshness of the terms, and concluded by saying that “a nation of seventy millions can suffer, but it cannot die”. Foch then refused to shake Erzberger’s hand and said, “Très bien“.)

Although it was signed at 5 am, the terms of the agreement didn’t come into effect until six hours later at 11 am. The hour was chosen by Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, First Sea Lord and Britain’s official delegate to oversee the Armistice. He was explicitly ordered by his Prime Minister David Lloyd George to delay the terms until 3 pm to coincide with parliment sitting so that PM could get the credit of announcing it officially to the house on the hour. Weymss thought the delay would cause unnecessary killing and decided that the eleventh hour would add to the poignancy of the date. Lloyd George was furious. Erzberger, too, was not kindly received back–he was assassinated later by a right-wing extremist group, Organisation Consul for signing the Armistice. Foch on the other hand was elected to the Académie des Sciences on the very day of the Armistice [and ten days later, to the Académie française].

In the above picture, front row from left to right: Rear-Admiral George P.W. Hope, Wemyss’s deputy; General Maxime Weygrand, Foch’s righthand man and one who read out the armistice conditions; Wemyss; Foch and Royal Navy captain JPR Marriott, attache to two admirals. On the train, clockwise from top right: Interpreter Laperche, Captain le Mierry, Commander Riedinger, and General Desticker, Foch’s ADC. The German delegation was notably absent. The photo was taken at 7:30 am as Foch was about to return to Paris with the signed documents in his briefcase.

Although Germany had insisted that it would only enter into negotiations on the understanding that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s so-called ‘Fourteen Points’ would form the basis for a settlement, the armistice terms were nevertheless punitive. The Allies agreed to an armistice only on the basis that Germany effectively disarm herself; the cause preventing the latter from renewing hostilities backfired spectacularly: her ignominious “reparations” agreement sowed the seeds for the rise of a nationalist movement and subsequently the Second World War.