“Here we were laughing and chatting to men who, only hours before, we were trying to kill!” These words from an astonished British soldier in World War One (WW1) sum up the incredible story of the 1914 Christmas truce.
The ruling class called WW1 “the war to end war”. People said it would be over by Christmas but it was becoming clear this was an imperialist bloodbath. Soldiers from all the countries involved were fed poisonous nationalist propaganda before becoming cannon fodder in what was then the bloodiest war in history. Ten million died and another ten million were wounded.
The attitude of many soldiers to this nightmare was complicated: “We hated (the enemy’s) guts when they killed any of our friends… But otherwise we joked about them and I think they joked about us, and we thought ‘poor so-and-sos, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.'”
And 100 years ago the death and drudgery, this horror without end, were forgotten for a while in the heroic Christmas truce. Singing between the trenches became commonplace, particularly as Christmas approached and soldiers started getting parcels from home.
Both sets of troops erected signs wishing the other side a merry Christmas. Then, seemingly from the German lines, soldiers started shouting out for a meeting between troops.
They met, exchanged gifts, and in the truce’s best-known image, played football in ‘no man’s land’. Truces were organised for a day, even for a week. Among other things, both sides needed to carry out the grim ritual of burying their dead.
More in common
The football matches were played with few rules. The players, despite being subjected to constant dehumanising propaganda, found they had more in common than separated them. Troops from France and Belgium joined with German and British troops.
This needed courage – over 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot during WW1 for ‘cowardice’ and the irate top ranks of all the combatants’ armies were considering such a response after the truce.
A British military directive warned that fraternisation between soldiers “discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.” They warned of new enemy attacks to little effect. But eventually officers managed to break the truce.
A sergeant from Lancashire says the British generals started giving orders to fire revolvers at the German troops during the truce: “That started the war again. We were cursing the generals to hell, saying you should be up in this mud. Never mind you giving orders in your big chateaux and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of bloody generals, we always did. We never liked them after that.”
Despite this opposition from the military tops, some troops refused to fire well into 1915. But a soldier described a military confrontation in January 1915: “The next morning the ground where we had been so chummy and where Germans had wished us a merry Christmas was now covered with their dead.”
The soldiers were dealing with officer classes and politicians whose consciousness began and ended with considerations of power, prestige, profit and territory.
They needed to attack not just the warmongers but their system. The soldiers came from the working class, and felt an instinctive internationalist understanding of workers from elsewhere who had experienced the same brutalities of capitalism as themselves.
The socialist movement worldwide adopted such an internationalist anti-war stance before 1914. But then the reformist leaderships of the powerful workers’ organisations jettisoned this position and backed ‘their own’ ruling class elites. Great Marxists such as Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and a handful more, kept the flame alive (see ‘100 years since the great slaughter’, the Socialist 820).
But the horrors of war ensured that capitalism was severely weakened. It broke at its weakest link. The crucial event to hasten the end of the war was the Russian revolution of November 1917.
The defeat of German, Austrian and Ottoman empires killed off kings and reactionary regimes throughout Europe as quickly as the soldiers led to their death in the war. It also led to the ultimately unsuccessful German revolution of 1918-1921. Revolutionary movements and mutinies threatened in the troops of Britain and France.
The strivings of rank and file soldiers over Christmas 1914 offered a beacon of light in the horrors of war. It needed the building of a revolutionary movement to reignite that beacon later that decade.