Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

Pope Benedict XV

Pope Benedict XV and the Christmas Truce.

Pope Benedict was elected on the 3rd September, 1914, a month after the Great War hostilities had begun. On the 1st November, 1914 he issued an encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, appealing for peace. He described the situation:


The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven? Yet, while with numberless troops the furious battle is engaged, the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress.


This description is important. The militarists want to win wars; this describes the defeat that war truly is. He reiterates from Christian teaching that the Kingdom of Peace is founded on brotherly love with a sense of the bodily unity of humankind in creation and in relation to Christ, and then he looks at the jealousies, rage and self-love which were driving events. The position of the Catholic Church was of principled neutrality, or non-war, but that was not just neutrality in the sense of not favouring either side, but in the deeper sense of seeing both sides as being able to address their issues of injustice without fighting and resorting to weapons. Benedict deeply opposed war, because the Christian faith did.

In early December, 1914 after the horrors of the First Battle of Ypres had taken place, he called for a truce at Christmas, asking that the nations "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption". The Generals were a bit worried. General Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien sent out a warning:

"It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a "live and let live" theory of life...officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises...the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy...such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks...the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit... friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited"[i]

So, you see how dangerous a “live and let live” theory of life can be. However, the truce took place, reflected in about thirty brigades on both sides, especially between the Germans and British. Ordinary soldiers at the front sang carols, had services, fraternized, and the famous football match, which Germany is supposed to have won 3-2, took place. Germans talked English and the English offered to sing in poor German - nothing changes. Addresses were exchanged. Suddenly, everybody liked it. After all, it was much more pleasant than being killed or cowering in sodden trenches and the enemy were also pleasant, fearful, young men. Then word of the peaceful Christmas parties travelled back to headquarters and the generals became agitated. If the soldiers shook hands and went home the War was over. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien looked to punish those who were too friendly, got the guns started again, and soon everybody could carry on happily fighting and dying for four more years.


[i] http://www.1914-1918.net/truce.htm