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Meeting in the mud

19 December 2014

PERHAPS the most surprising aspect of the Christmas truce in 1914 was how widespread it was. It was in the interests of the military to ignore it: those officers who witnessed friendly contact with the enemy played it down or omitted to report it, knowing the penalties of fraternisation. The impression was given in contemporary accounts, therefore, that the truce occurred only in isolated pockets. In fact, whole stretches of the front line fell silent, with the collusion of officers up to the rank of colonel. Each section was left to make its own peace in its own way. Several failed to do so, and the artillery batteries, too distant to catch the mood, continued to be a threat to those meeting in no man's land. But, over time, through private letters and diaries, historians have come to appreciate the extent of the truce.

The Germans, and in particular Roman Catholics from Saxony answering the Pope's call, were the prime instigators. Encouraged by deliveries from home, many of them mounted Christmas trees on the parapet of their trenches on Christmas Eve, to the accompaniment of carols. The exchange of Christmas rations, the chasing of a hare, and the playing of football have achieved almost mythical status (different accounts of different games all give the same score-line: 3-2 to the Germans), but the commonest activity was the burial of corpses left exposed in the mud between the lines. The indiscriminate nature of death was strong enough to bring together even the men who had caused it.

There has been much speculation about the forces that brought about the truce in 1914. Many were contradictory. Chief was the shared experience of fear, discomfort and, under military discipline, a feeling of victimhood. In those early months of the war, however, military discipline had not taken complete hold, and soldiers were able to converse with men who, a few hours before, had been attempting to kill them. Ignorance had encouraged ordinary soldiers to form a prejudiced view of their opposite numbers; but the fraternisation was also enabled by ignorance of the greater causes, among them German brutality and ambition, for which the war was being fought. An awareness of these was perhaps the reason that the Church Times opposed a truce (see below).

Historians routinely underplay the faith factor, and it is true that bartering and souvenir-hunting were the predominant activities on that Christmas Day. But underlying everything was the incongruity of fighting on the day set aside to mark the arrival of the Prince of Peace as an innocent infant - a shared belief in both armies. A truce by its nature does not resolve anything; yet the act of ceasing to fight can bring about a profound realisation about the futility of war. The tragedy of 1914 was that, because it was an initiative of the powerless, it was not recognised for what it was by those who determined events: an opportunity to follow Christ's call to peace and reconciliation.

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