The Christmas Truce – The Failed Opportunity.
The Triumphalism of War.
The States of Europe had gone to War in August with an outburst of patriotism, egged on by the arms companies. Weapons win wars and most countries believed they had the best. They, and most of their Generals, expected they would have victory and the soldiers would be home by Christmas. Most of the young soldiers were looking for a short, patriotic, heroic war. Delirious crowds celebrated the declaration of war in Trafalgar Square (Image 1) and those who spoke against it were jeered and pelted. Armies and navies gathered to fight in their millions.
Pope Benedict XV becomes the Enemy of War.
But others saw it differently. Pope Benedict XV (image 2) had been appointed Pope shortly after the start of the War. He called it, “the suicide of civilised Europe”, an accurate prophecy given the way Fascism dominated between the Wars. In Ad Beatissimi Apostolatorum on the 1st November 1914 he pointed out the horrors of the War.
“Certainly those days would seem to have come upon us of which Christ Our Lord foretold: "You shall hear of wars and rumours of wars - for nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Matt. xxiv, 6, 7). On every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men. 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.”
And he refocussed on the teaching of Christ about love:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from Heaven for the very purpose of restoring amongst men the Kingdom of Peace, which the envy of the devil had destroyed, and it was His will that it should rest on no other foundation than that of brotherly love.”
He warned of the racism that was abroad fuelling hate, but the encyclical and his attempts to end the War failed. We should reflect that the neutrality of the Catholic Church throughout the War did not just mean that it was neither on one side nor the other, but that war should not be waged. Some Catholic influenced countries, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland were neutral partly because of this Catholic position. This historic stance has been largely ignored, but it is an important political option. The United States also held it in 1914. Benedict XV was spurned by the fighting politicians who did not want any other message than their own one of victory, patriotism and the rightness of their war to be heard.
The Christmas Truce.
Both sides were optimistic when they met. The Germans attacked fast because they knew they would be attacked from both sides - from France and from Russia - and they had to win in Flanders to then turn their forces to the East. The Schlieffen Plan went into action. They ignored Belgian neutrality and after bitter fighting the First Battle of Ypres ground towards a deadlock in November 1914 with some 400,000 killed on either side. The atmosphere changed from the triumphalism and promise of victory by the militarists to a deep pessimism. The war was a vast killing machine. As November came the rain increased and the battlefield began to become a quagmire of boot-burying mud. (Image 3) Trenches, of course, were where water gathered, and soldiers spent days and nights with wet feet in the cold. The vegetation died back and was destroyed creating wastelands of mud, bodies, trenches and military metal.
Pope Benedict XV on 7th December, 1914 suggested a Christmas truce. He asked that the guns may fall silent at least on the night when the angels sang. The warring states refused an official ceasefire, and wanted to quash any idea that the fighting could stop, but some 100,000 ordinary troops on their own initiative stopped firing, tentatively came out of their trenches, sang some carols and exchanged presents. Fags and pipe tobacco were exchanged. (image 4) And on earth peace and goodwill to all men was suddenly a possibility. The Christmas Truce came to pass. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, is the German carol signifying the holy time when Christ, the Prince of Peace came to be with us and as Silent Night it became also a British carol as they came out of the trenches, learned and sang it. A German played “God save the king” on a mouth organ, and of course in a few places they kicked a ball about (image 5) . For a while they were brothers, free from hate. Addresses were exchanged. Suddenly, everybody liked it. (image 6) After all, it was much more pleasant than being killed or cowering in sodden trenches. The Huns were pleasant, fearful, young men and Tommies could smile too. Both sides could love their enemies.
Then word of the peaceful Christmas parties travelled back to headquarters and the generals became agitated. The situation was dangerous. If the soldiers shook hands and went home the War was over. A Nil-Nil draw would actually be a Win, because fifteen million soldiers would not die and twenty million not be wounded.
Ending the Christmas truce.
The military top brass took action to make sure that the guns started firing again and the truce did not carry on. 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.”
You have to read that again. He was worried about a live and let live theory of life. Hitler apparently was against the truce, as well, as were the German Generals. So they ordered the guns to start up again. The militarist agenda triumphed . The guns started and soldiers were back in their trenches fighting the “enemy”. Someone would win the War, but everybody would lose it And in the next four years another fifteen million combatants would die, even more would be wounded, permanently injured or mentally scarred for life and another fifty million weakened by famine and war would die in the flu pandemic of 1918-9. Without much damage to any country the Great War could have ended at Christmas 1914 with the recognition that it was a mistake and had killed perhaps a million people. The warning in the Great War, as in all wars, of Jesus’ words: “Those who take the sword perish by the sword” was ignored, and tens of millions more did perish and were injured.