“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Jan 3, 2022
Christmas 2021 marked the 107th anniversary of the Christmas Truce during World War I. On Christmas Day in 1914, soldiers on both sides of battle lines, British and French on one side and Germans on the other, who had been shooting at and killing each other for five months until that day, came out of the trenches, chatted, exchanged gifts, helped each other to bury their dead, and played soccer.
Soldiers did this at many places along the war front in Western Europe, and without prior agreement. The truce often began on Christmas Eve and continued on Christmas Day. Some of the officers, especially lower-ranked ones, joined the fraternization.
Soldiers vividly described the Christmas truce in their letters home. Within a week or so, some British newspapers were publishing excerpts from the soldiers’ letters, despite censorship, along with photos of British and German soldiers mingling.
“On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football. It was surprising to see the German soldiers—some appeared old, others were boys, and others wore glasses.... A number of our fellows have got addresses from the Germans and are going to try and meet one another after the war,” wrote a certain Private Farnden.
Rifleman C.H. Brazier felt the same way: “Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back, I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows.... All through the night we sang carols to them, and they sang to us, and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ.”
In some places, the truce and fraternization lasted several days beyond Christmas. Private Alfred Smith wrote: “We were able to bury our dead, some of whom had been lying there for six weeks or more. We are still on speaking terms with them, so that we have not fired a shot at them up to now (Dec. 29), neither have they.”
The following year, soldiers were set to repeat the Christmas truce. A German soldier, Richard Schirrmann, wrote in December 1915: “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Pumpernickel, biscuits, and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.”
But on all sides, the chiefs—the generals, that is, who usually did not even go near the trenches, let alone fight the war—were prepared to crack down this time. As early as 29 December 1914, a general order of the German high command had already warned German troops that, “Every approach to the enemy ... will be punished as treason.” Allied commanders ordered artillery barrages throughout Christmas Day to prevent any communication between opposing trenches, let alone fraternization. Soldiers who wanted to stop shooting on Christmas were punished. A British officer, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialed for agreeing to a short truce to bury the dead—even though such agreements to bury the dead were quite common on front lines throughout the year.
In the end the generals had their way, and the utter carnage and barbarism raged on—in a war where workers-turned-soldiers were used as cannon-fodder by their bosses, who were fighting over the division of the world amongst themselves.
In the Battle of Verdun alone, nearly 1 MILLION French and German soldiers were killed between February and December 1916. In another of the deadliest battles, the Allied (British and French) offensive on German lines at Somme from July to November 1916 resulted in more than 1.1 MILLION dead on all sides. In trench warfare, which produced stalemates without either side being able to make an advance, thousands upon thousands of soldiers died not only from gunfire, shelling and poison gas, but often simply because of the horrible living conditions in the trenches—where the cold, wet weather facilitated the spread of all kinds of diseases and infections, including the Spanish flu.
Today, more than a century and many wars later, the generals, and big capitalists for whom the generals run wars, still have their way—and so many parts of the world are engulfed in war.
And today, as in 1914, what provides hope for a peaceful future for all humanity is the natural solidarity that exists among working people of all countries, which the Christmas Truce of 1914 so plainly demonstrates.