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.

At Vimy Ridge

The above is one in a series of pictures a Royal Canadian cameraman took during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. The photo is regarded as one of the greatest war photos — although its origins are obscure. Some note that it was taken during “pre-battle” training behind the lines. This is not unusual. Because of the primitive photographic equipment available in the field, most photos purporting to portray actual ‘combat action’ during World War I in fact showed troops during pre-war training exercises. Some however note that the soldier going over the top was making a gesture expressing his contempt for the Germans by putting his thumb to his nose. (There is a website refuting this here).

No matter what the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 was considered as a pivotal moment for Canada as a nation; four Canadian Army units fought together as one for the first time. Three thousand five hundred and ninety eight Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, and four Victoria Crosses were awarded. Indeed, the Canadians captured a strategic area, but it was a minor victory for the losing Allies that spring, and had a negligible effect. The Globe and Mail noted that “if French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it.”

Yet, the victory at Vimy become inseparable from the Canadian identity. When there were rumors that the Vimy memorial had been destroyed by Germans during the WWII, the Canadians were whipped fury and hatred so much so that Adolf Hitler’s advisers thought it was necessary for the Nazi leader to be photographed in Vimy at the monument to demonstrate that it was still intact.

Hitler in 1914

The above photo showed Adolf Hitler in the huge crowd which heard the announcement of the First World War outside Field Marshals’ Hall, Munich on 2 August 1914. After the Nazis came to power, Hitler mentioned being outside the hall when the war was declared. A German photographer went back and looked through his photos and found the above picture.

At the outbreak of war, 25-year old Adolf Hitler was an aimless drifter and failed artist in Munich and had previously failed army entry tests because he was too weak to carry weapons. Yet, during the wartime, Germany needed soldiers and Hitler was able to enlist in the Bavarian army; although he was not considered for further promotion because of ‘a lack of leadership qualities’, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, an honour rarely given to a lance corporal (which showed that he did not lack courage). The Great War ended for Hitler inside a hospital where he was being treated for temporary blindness caused by chlorine gas. There he heard the news of German surrender, deeply incredulous; he came to believe, like many other nationalists, that the army, “undefeated in the field,” had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian leaders and Marxists back home.

Hitler returned to Munich after a short failed stint as a borderguard and joined a nationalist group German Workers’ Party (DAP), which was formed by extremists and anti-Semites as a counterforce to Bolshevism. He rose quickly through its ranks and in July 1921, he took over its leadership renaming it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The rest as they say is history.

Signing the Armistice

On November 8th 1918, the German delegation crossed the frontlines to negotiate an armistice to end the First World War. Instead of directly driving them to where the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch was waiting, the French gave them a 10-hour tour of the ruined countryside. The talk took three days and the terms from the United States included the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This was agreed and Wilhem abdicated on Novemeber 10th while Germany slowly descended into riots and unrest.

Foch appeared only twice in the three days of negotiations: on the first day, to ask the German delegation what they wanted, and on the last day, to see to the signatures. The armistice was formally signed in Foch’s carriage on 11 November. Above is the only picture of the signing ceremony. The armistice initially ran for 30 days but was regularly renewed until the formal peace treaty was signed at Versailles the following year. Before the Treaty of Verseilles, the Allies kept their armies ready to begin hostilities back again within 48 hours.

In 1940, Hitler exacted revenge by forcing the French to sign an armistice in the same railway carriage. The Nazis destroyed the building housing it, the Clairiere de l’Armistice and took the carriage to Berlin. With the Allied advance into Germany, the carriage was removed to Ohrdruf, where it was destroyed.

More information about armistice, see here.

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.

Blaise Diagne

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In 1922, West African and French dignitaries place flowers on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris. The Senegalese statesman Blaise Diagne stands at the center with hat in hand. Photo by Roger Viollet for Getty Images.

The first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, Blaise Diagne transformed Senegalese and French colonial politics and helped prepare the way for development of democracy in Senegal. The Four Communes of Senegal had a unique status in which they were given the right to have a deputy to the French Parliament. (Senegal was the only colony north of South Africa where ordinary Africans had the right to vote). Those elected were usually from the mulatto elite, called the metis, but in the first years of the twentieth century, educated Africans, organized in a group called the Young Senegalese, wanted a more important role in government.

Blaise Diagne, son of a cook, was adopted by a leading metis family. In 1914, he won the election and served in the Parliament. In 1915, as a leading recruiter for the French army during World War I, when thousands of black West Africans fought on the Western Front, he was able to put forward a law that allowed originaires, the resident of the Senegal to serve in the better-paid regular army rather than with the colonial troops. The next year, he persuaded the Chamber of Deputies to pass a law recognizing originaires as French citizens. After the war, his influence waned–with swing to the right in French elections. In 1923 Diagne forged an alliance with his former enemies, the commercial houses based in Bordeaux. He remained a deputy until his death in 1934.