“Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War,” wrote Stanley Weintraub in his 2001 book Silent Night: “Burly Cossacks, sent by the Czar to bolster the Western Front, were seen embarking from British railway stations for Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia from their boots. In France, during the British retreat from Mons, angels appeared—to cover the withdrawal. And the third was that, to the dismay of the generals, along the front lines late in December of 1914, opponents in the West laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in a spontaneous gesture of peace on earth and good will toward men. Only one of the myths—the last—was true.”
Indeed, miraculously, members of the Allied and German infantries agreed on Christmas Eve, 1914, that the incessant shells and machine-gun fire would cease the next morning, so that instead of the usual anonymous attrition, songs could be sung, gifts and letters could be exchanged, beer and cigars could be enjoyed, and some soccer could be played in what is now known as the Christmas Day Truce.
All along the lines, No Man’s Land went from being a muddy, cratered hell-scape to being a muddy, cratered meeting place where both “Tommy” and “Fritz” could fraternize, share pleasantries, and, of course, kick the soccer ball around. The spot believed to be the first place where Saxons and Anglo-Saxons (who were actually mostly Celtic) shook hands is commemorated by a Christmas Truce memorial, which was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on November 11th, 2008. On the day of the unveiling, at the spot where their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to drink, be merry, and play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. (The Germans won, 2–1, presumably on a controversial decision by the ref.)
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As the Armistice bells rang throughout Shropshire, news of Wilfred Owen’s death, which had happened on the 4th of November, finally reached his parents via letter. He had been shot and killed outside of the village of Ors, the letter explained; today there is a monument to Owen standing among other monuments on the battlefield, which lies between Le Cateau and Landrecies in northern France. Before he died, not only had Owen proven himself as a soldier but had also done so as a poet, writing some of the most eloquent yet scathing indictments of the Great War ever penned.
Many of his works, such as “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” carried as their central theme the sheer futility of war: the madness of a situation where people could shake hands in the evening and blow each other up in the morning—all for the profit of an absconded and insulated few. War sounds lovely (the aforementioned poem’s Latin ending is taken from Horace’s Odes, meaning how sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland), that is, until one actually has to grab a rifle and dig in.
I often wonder what Owen might have thought about the Truce had he participated first-hand. The impromptu soccer matches that erupted during the cease-fire might have struck him as having particular importance. He surely would have noted that the soldiers were able to compete in a nationalistic venue without impaling or disintegrating one another (imagine).
Owen spent his Christmas that year in a small village near Bordeaux, France. He was 21 at the time, working as a tutor. He wrote later about his visit to a mass with a French family the night before: “All mixed up with candles, incense, acolytes, chasuble and such like. If I didn’t bow, I certainly scraped, for there was an unholy draught.” Little did he know that only 500 miles away, on the Western Front, British and German soldiers had set down their bayonets and let the shells go quiet, opting instead for carols, dancing, and exchanging gifts near an ad hoc Christmas tree, fashioned from a battered parapet in No Man’s Land.
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The episode demonstrates rather plainly that for the common soldier, the mud, the fleas, the poison gas, and the machine-gun fire was not worth it; not only did the infantrymen generally harbor little hate toward their opponents, but they knew all too well that they would not be sharing the spoils even in victory.
Their role as bullet fodder is not unique to this war, but is of course true in all of them, as the Confederate deserter Inman relates in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain: “At wide intervals in the valley stood big houses with white columns. They were ringed around with scattered hovels so that the valley land seemed cut up into fiefdoms. Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”
The best part about the Christmas Day Truce is that it was initiated by soldiers through direct insubordination. Most officers on both sides adamantly opposed any such fraternizing, since, as Stanley Weintraub explained, “Any slackening in the action during Christmas week might undermine whatever sacrificial spirit there was among troops who lacked ideological fervor.”
The fact that common people who were taught to hate each other could instead play a friendly game of football shows just how hollow the Hawkish glory-of-war ethos really is. If only for a brief moment in a long war, the comradery of the soldiers breached the barricade thrown down before them by the ruling elites. This interruption of business as usual begs the question: What if, instead of using cavalry and tanks, this conflict could have been settled with a football, two goals, and a few post-game pints? Or better yet: What if, instead of fighting each other over table scraps, the poor conscripts had turned on their masters, imprisoned them, and got on with the hand shaking?