They lived in similar squalor, shared the same God, and celebrated the same holidays. It was December 24, 1914, Christmas Eve, and – though they spoke different languages and had ruthlessly killed one another for over four months – the British and German soldiers in the opposing trench lines had much in common.
The ruling families, the leaders of the prominent monarchies of Germany, Russia, and England were literally blood relatives. Indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was Queen Victoria’s grandson and regularly visited the British Isles throughout his youth. Given the commonalities of the mostly working-class soldiers in the opposing trenches, perhaps, then, it should come as little surprise that some British an German enlisted men spontaneously, and unofficially, called a truce that Christmas, and, in their own way, celebrated the birth of Christ – their shared savior – together, if only for a moment. How beautiful it was…
These days, the war described is known as World War I, but, since the boys on the frontline couldn’t then imagine another maelstrom so terrible would follow, it was known, at the time, simply as the Great War. Warfare of such dimensions had never unfolded before. The scale of the bloodshed had been unthinkable even a Christmas before – about a million men had been killed since August – yet by then stalemate reigned as both sides settled into trench lines that stretched from Belgium to Switzerland. A peculiar, ultimately absurd, form of hyper-nationalism had recently infected Europe, and, when combined with a worldwide competition for colonies, caused this arguably existential war. So prevalent, in fact, was the jingoistic patriotism of the era that even the socialists of each nation initially, and widely, supported the march to war.
Those were dark times. To simplify the military analyses of the war, the tactics (mass formation infantry attacks) had yet to catch up with the more lethal technology (machine guns, poison gas, and airplanes) of the day. The senseless delusion of nationalism ought to have died a bloody death – metaphorically riddled with bullets whilst stuck in endless strands of barbed wire – commensurate with the murder of so many millions of naive troopers. It didn’t, unfortunately, and across the globe today – even in normally circumspect Western Europe – insular nationalism is again on the rise. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsinaro, Modi, Orban…they’re all symptoms of the resurgence of this worldwide disease. Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well last time around.
Still, I digress – back to the Christmas truce. Though some have described the widespread phenomenon as somewhat apocryphal, some version of the following certainly did occur. Up and down the lines that first Christmas Eve of the Great War, German soldiers sang well-known holiday songs, such as "Silent Night." Though the language of the verses differed on either side of the trenches, the melodies and content were widely known. British troops joined in the rather solemn caroling, as did some brass bands, along both sides of the lines.
At dawn on Christmas Day, Germans and Britons – up and down the firing line – emerged from their trenches and ventured into the deadly "No Man’s Land" between the armies. Some brought Christmas trees along; others exchanged cigarettes and snacks with their normative enemies. None brought weapons. During the brief, beautiful, gesture of peace, many soldiers also took the opportunity to identify, retrieve, and bury the bodies of comrades stranded between the trench lines. In one sector, at least, the opposing troops played an ad hoc game of soccer – another shared cultural pastime. As one participant, German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, remembered: "How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time."
The undeniable beauty, the event’s last gasp of wartime chivalry, aside, it was never to be repeated – not on the four following Christmases of that war, nor in the interminable global warfare that has since followed. Senior officers on both sides, rightfully, had been terrified by the 1914 display of class and species solidarity, and brutally quashed such cross-trench harmony in years to come, with threats of disciplinary action. So it goes…
Nonetheless, as today’s forever wars rage – decades longer than the first Great War of old – the time for spontaneous truce between the grassroots ranks of all sides couldn’t be more essential. I know, I know, contemporary wars are geographically diffuse, rage far from the European continent, and are waged between belligerents that practice different religions. On the surface, at least, these caveats seem sensible. But are they? What if Americans and Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Somalians, et. al., have more in common – even now – than most assume?
Bear with me now: it ain’t as much of a stretch as it may seem. First off, contrary to popular belief, Christians and Muslims worship the same god, if with a different flavor of tradition. Figures such as Abraham, King David, Jesus, and, especially Mary, figure prominently in the Koran. Islam, as such, though often distorted – as it was (and is) in certain bellicose strands of Christianity – is best seen as an extension, or addition, to the Judeo-Christian tradition, rather than a unique religion. Furthermore, the grunts on either side of America’s "terror wars" still share extraordinary commonalities.
Both are often drawn to military service by the limited economic opportunities in their respective societies. The soldiers who served under me typically joined as a means to a fiscal end – paying off college debt, learning a trade, or seeking healthcare and housing security. The foot soldiers in the Taliban buried IEDs and laid in wait to ambush my troops, as often as not, for a steady paycheck, a sense of dignity and purpose in a circumscribed Third World job market. American and Taliban grunts, for example, share more than they diverge. Both wage wars not of their own making; neither possess a clear path to victory; neither count many prospects in civilian life. Both believe the purported birth of Jesus to be a profound matter. The same can be said of the antagonists across America’s wars today. Let them all lay down their arms, for a moment, and celebrate in solidarity this Christmas. If only…
Alas, nationalism, particularly in its more pugnacious form, is again on the rise – from Brazil to Bengal. Yet, logically, it should be extinct. That it isn’t, and shows no signs of dissipation, might just presage the extinction of us, the human race! Truly existential threats pervade this world – climate change and potential nuclear warfare for starters – and even cursory historical analysis demonstrates that democracies, or republics, cannot weather indefinite warfare. America’s Army Chief of Staff during World War II, George Marshall, began his career as a young lieutenant engaged in an indecisive, endless war in the Philippines. The experience stuck. Decades later, Marshall, one of this nation’s most effective and humble military leaders, opined that "a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War." What, one wonders, would the former general, secretary of defense, and secretary of state, think of an American war that’s well into it’s 19th year?
As the should-be-bombshell Afghanistan Papers – long since buried by the impeachment charade dominating Capitol Hill and the media – definitively demonstrated, today’s generals and admirals can’t be counted on, neither for competence nor character. No, the movement for peace must come from the grassroots, from the under-privileged and under-served combatants on both sides of the contemporary fighting lines.
Truth is, as a troop commander in Kandahar in 2011-12, I had (crazy as it may sound) more in common with my counterpart in the local Taliban than with my star-fixated colonels and generals in the U.S. Army. At least my Taliban mirror also faced the daily prospect of death and undoubtedly knew the pain of burying young men under his command. I only wish that one of us, both of us, had had the courage to lay down our guns, take that exceedingly alluring risk, and met halfway between my outpost and his village, defied our respective commanders, and shared a Christmas moment.
Maybe it is fantasy; as is my hope that other belligerents will attempt this remarkable 1914-inspired protest tonight and tomorrow. Still, dreams, as they say, are what makes life tolerable…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen