Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Holy Shit, The Christmas Truce!

Christmas Truce Memorial
World War I was a massive, bloody, world-changing conflict that completely devastated Europe. It had been several decades since a general war was fought between major powers. Most recent conflicts had been invasions by well-armed imperialists against native tribes, unorganized and severely under-equipped. The natives would charge at machine guns with spears and swords to find themselves easily cut down before they had a chance to strike a single blow. Europeans got overconfident with their constant victories.

When the Great War erupted, they suddenly found themselves fighting other Europeans who used the same defensive tactics. For the first time, the imperialist troops were finding themselves charging into machine gun fire and being cut down so rapidly they couldn't make any progress. Neither side had thought seriously about how to undermine defensive machine gun tactics, so the war quickly devolved into a nearly eternal stalemate.
Way to carve up the countryside, guys.

By the end of 1914, trench warfare was firmly established. Two sides would constantly stare at each other over a distance as short as a few dozen yards, taking pot shots and occasionally going over the top in a vain assault that, even when successful, would just leave them staring down the subsequent chunk of No-Man's Land. Bitter at seeing their lives so callously thrown away, many soldiers started resenting their commanding officers and sympathizing with the grunts on the other side. They became less zealous in their marksmanship and adopted a "Live and Let Live" philosophy.
Christmas Truce
"Sorry about all that 'shooting at you' stuff..."

That philosophy peaked in popularity around Christmastime. On Christmas Eve in 1914, German soldiers in Belgium started decorating their trenches with candles and loudly singing Christmas carols. British soldiers across the way noticed and started singing their own carols. Before long, the two sides were shouting Christmas greetings to one another. Finally, one or two brave soldiers went over the top - not to charge, but to say hello. Others followed, and the two opposing sides of the bloodiest war Europe had ever seen started exchanging gifts, recovering their dead together, sharing drinks, and playing games.
No Man's Land
Not exactly a Winter Wonderland, but it'll do.

In some places, the unofficial truce lasted through the night and bombardments continued the next day. In others, it lasted all the way through the New Year. The following years made similar truces difficult. High Command (as well as some key historical figures) strongly disapproved of such fraternization. They ramped up dehumanizing propaganda to discourage it. That and the bitter losses both sides suffered at the hands of attrition and chemical warfare were enough to stamp out a lot of the good will the soldiers of both sides felt for one another.

Dehumanizing Propaganda
Would you kiss that under the mistletoe?
Still, in some places the tradition lived on. There was at least one region of the front that had an open exchange of gifts and friendship in 1916. From that point on, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve just to piss people off enough to keep them from being friendly. Soldiers were rotated more frequently as well, so they couldn't become familiar with the enemy. Because heaven forbid humanity should overcome the government's thirst for blood.
Anti-Christmas General
"Bah! Humbug!"
The Great War caused more devastation than anyone could have guessed. It was part one of the deadliest and most bitter conflict in history. And yet, in the midst of it, the people at the bottom rung realized that they were all just soldiers trying to survive. In the middle of a terrible war, they all came together to celebrate life.

Holy shit.

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