Thursday, December 25, 2014

Anniversary: The Christmas Truce

This is, as noted before, the 100-year anniversary of the first year of World War I.

History is made of competing forces.  Between the Great Man and the Social Movements lie all the conflicts of both.  By 1914, these forces had congealed on the European continent through a combination of set nations - France, Germany, Russia, the UK, Italy, Austria-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Empire - and a burgeoning psycho-social ideology of Nationalism fighting over pride and global power.

It had been 100 years in the making by then.  In the aftermath of the Napoleonic empire and swath of republicanism, Europe suffered through a period of nation-building border wars - the Greek independence war, Italian reunification, Prussian unification of a greater Germany - that concluded with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71.

What had been viewed at the time as a likely win for France - larger armies, better organized - turned into a full rout in Prussia's favor in a war that barely lasted a year.  France was abjectly humiliated as a result (this is where the meme of France being terrible in wars started), Germany rose up to disrupt the standard balance of power - once it was England vs. France, no longer - in Western Europe, and the Victorian Era switched from being a period of scientific advancements to one big mechanized military arms race.

The problem was that the Victorian (and later Edwardian) Era became this period of an idealized, improved social condition.  Things like personal honor, stiff upper lip, gentlemanly codes became more fetishized.  A lot of it had to do with the literature of the time.  Some of it with the changes in economic and social fortunes creating a middle class striving for cultural norms of its own, to where the upper classes indulged in sharing the more romantic elements of their lifestyles.

By the time the fighting in World War I actually started, nearly everyone went into it with these grand notions of honor and soldiering.  That it was all parade marches and sacrificial charges into waiting hordes of bayonets and swords.  Nobody really thought about the improved rifles and automatic guns, or the advancements in artillery fire and targeting, or the armored tanks that were new to the battlefield, or the effectiveness of barbed wire and hand grenades and poison gasses.

By the end of the calendar year of 1914, Western Europe's battlefields were basically two extended mud trenches and two massive armies - Germany in one trench, UK and France in the other - staring at each other across a cold no-mans-land.  The Germans were the ones who made the efforts to decorate their trenches for the holidays, and via the honored soldiers' code of "Live and Let Live" (under which both sides agree to temporary cease-fires to recover wounded or personal belongings), the Germans sent messages to their British and French counterparts about holding a truce - THE Truce - during Christmas Day.

There aren't a lot of documents about it, mostly from a good number of diary entries and remembrances of those who were there that day, so a lot of the Christmas Truce has fallen into legend.  Above all the legend of a football (soccer to us Yanks) game being played between the two armies.  There's no evidence it happened, but the story is that Germany won 3-2.  It'd have been tied but that damn ref called Blackadder offsides.

Whatever history there is of this - the legends still tell us - the generals were not amused their soldiers weren't killing each other.  When the areas where the Truce were continuing on after Christmas had passed, the chain of command ordered artillery barrages and switched out the divisions stationed there with fresh troops to ensure the fighting started up again.  By 1915, the generals planned ahead and made sure they had artillery barrages scheduled for Christmas to prevent the troops from making another try at a truce.  By 1916, they didn't bother: the bloodshed between both sides - and the use of chemical gas weapons - ensured the troops were in no mood for cease-fires.

Looking back on the Christmas Truce, it reminds us that the war was fought by men looking not for glory - that madness was left to the generals - but because it was expected of them.  Where the soldiers in the trenches had more in common with each other than the officers in their headquarters five miles back.  The Truce was part of an era of that Victorian/Edwardian mindset of honor between soldiers regardless of which flag they fought for.

It was an era that was dead in the trenches by 1918.

And yet, we remember.  We remember the Truce as a good thing, a moment in human history at the edge of a terrible war where there was still hope and the potential of friendship past the hardship.  As a nice little Christmas candle shining in the darkness of the 20th Century.

Merry Christmas to ye, fallen soldiers of that and all other wars, before and after.  The Truce remains to us as a memory of what we all can achieve some day.

A chance of playing an honest game of football and not get shot at for it.

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