Playing the Christmas Truce

by , December 25, 2014

It’s strange how often football comes up in stories about World War I. Blood-poet Jessie Pope famously and obscenely compared the conflict to a game. And to many, the most memorable part about the Truce of Christmas,1914 was the football match played between British and German soldiers.

For the centennial of this famous and cozy lesson in – arguably futile – goodwill towards men, historians are now debating the prominence of that famous football match. It may have happened on a smaller scale than popular portrayal suggests. Fine.

One wonders why the sport part has such a hold in the public imagination. Perhaps because it’s so metaphorically on the nose. A football game is the way that nationalism should look if it looks like anything at all. It is a friendly competition, like the Olympics in a world without politics. It is not the young being sacrificed for the old’s squabbles.

For all the novelty of the Truce as a moment in history, it makes sense that these men stopped fighting. After four months of war – war that was not "over by Christmas" 1914, or ‘15, ‘16, or ‘17 – some soldiers were already starting to wonder what they were fighting for. Turns out it wasn’t much like the boy’s adventure stories at all, more like mud, misery, and what was turning into months fighting over feet of earth. That’s where the Truce came in.

Pope Benedict XV had suggested stopping the madness for Christmas. The war leaders ignored this. But the trenches were in many places already close enough for shouts and conversations to be exchanged between enemies.

Then, on Christmas Eve, carols started it. The Germans often made the first physical overtures. They were crazy about Christmas, and they had the upper hand in the war so far. They could afford to be magnanimous. The British loved the holiday, too, however. They tended to be all right with stopping, at the very least to bury the dead with some words over them. The French were less keen on participating, but they did as well. All in all, an estimated 100,000 soldiers took part in a cessation of hostilities. This was no fluke of a dozen men risking being shot. This was a dangerous habit. This was a subversive failure to hate.

This week, CNN and The New York Times and other outlets have focused on the football game bit being overhyped, which is fine. Historical accuracy is important. But the Truce is more dreamy and sentimental to most people. To puncture the not-quite-myth of the football is to, as these outlets suggest, downplay the importance of the event. If there wasn’t football, what was there? Just a failed attempt at peace, no?

If you’re only about great men and great wars, perhaps it was futile. But black history doesn’t become irrelevant or futile because every slave didn’t rise up and free themselves to a stirring movie score. If you care for humanity, you should acknowledge the lives lived under and in spite of wars and states. And the lives of the men who risked theirs for a break from war.

The Truce didn’t change anything. It couldn’t stop the Somme, or poison gas, or the first bomb attacks on civilian cities. All the dry, sensible historians explaining the wholesale slaughter that followed are important for facts. They just don’t tell the whole story.

Historian Stanley Weintraub writes in his Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce about incidents including a British soldier finding his old Saxon barber, and getting a cut from him during the Truce. Buttons, hats, and other souvenirs exchanged hands. Hands were shaken; carols sung, with the serious "Stille Nacht " on the German side, and sometimes more bawdy tunes coming from the British.

Weintraub, for his part, seems to buy the contemporary accounts of football games. But he is no sentimentalist sans context. He writes about places where the Truce didn’t take, because of distrust, or it quickly collapsed because of sniper or officers unwilling to tolerate a break.

It wasn’t like the movies. It didn’t stop the war. It was tentative and nervous, and it eventually "failed."The Truce ended before it began for one regiment when a sniper killed a British soldier. For the serious holdouts, for the most bitter regiments, court martials were suggested for any soldiers particularly unwilling to begin the slaughter again. Yet, in many places the Truce lasted into Boxing Day, and even into New Year’s. Sometimes the peace was broken by hostilities, or never really began. Other times soldiers warned each other they’d be shooting high for a time, and to get back to their trenches and stay low. These warnings, or these regretful goodbyes with mention of how they must begin to fight again really did have the feel of a gentleman’s game in many ways, but not in the warped way of Jessie Pope poetry. It was a game because it was stupid, and because rules were important, and winning at all costs – at least on Christmas, 1914 – wasn’t yet necessary. It was a game because the men who truced managed to remember the artificiality of the whole situation

Whether the Truce ever had a chance of ending things is impossible to know. Weintraub devotes his final chapter to musing on what could have been: the war ends, no draconian measures on Germany, no perfect window for the second World War. Perhaps no Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany comes to be at all. Perhaps these flights of futile fancy are what provoked the handful of one star reviews of Silent Night on Amazon.com, at least one of which that says the book is peacenik propaganda.

There’s no way to prove what the Truce would have been. It couldn’t be allowed to continue was the point. Thousands of people thought, for a day or for a week, that maybe this war thing wasn’t worth it after all. It sure as hell wasn’t like the Jessie Pope poems. (The poetry that told the real story of the war would come later, from the pens of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.)

There is so little that comes out of war that is a good lesson. The Truce is that. That might be why its popularity as a story – especially in Britain – is surprising. Finally we’ve come around to the fact that the First World War was a debacle. And it feels easy now to look at the Truce and understand how it could have happened. These men shared the same religion, and the same holiday. We could never just decide not to fight these days. It’s different now.

But the past isn’t the past because it’s easy. It’s only easy because it’s already done. Every single man who participated in the Truce was putting their trust in "the enemy." In a few cases, that trust was tragically violated. Mostly it was not.

And the reward for risking your life on Christmas wasn’t much. Maybe it was a football game. It was fodder for incredulous letters to send home. It was a new audience for Christmas and music hall songs. It was a chance to exchange trinkets, and to remember what so many soldiers hadn’t really forgotten – that the other man was just the same as they were. He was just as miserable, he missed home just as much, and he, too, was beginning to see that this war might have been a colossal, horrifying mistake.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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