Word War I Christmas truce, and peace today

This music video is called Christmas in the Trenches – written and performed by John McCutcheon.

On Christmas Day 1914 all sides in World War I laid down their weapons and made peace by playing a game of soccer.

Here come the lyrics of the song Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon:

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht,” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone coming towards us!” the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

By Symon Hill in Britain:

Celebrating common humanity over nationalism

Friday 19th December 2014

Symon Hill takes a long look at the Christmas truce of 1914 and how fraternisation is the best way to avoid military conflict

Shortly after Christmas 1914 an order was issued by John French, the general in charge of the British troops on the Western Front. He had heard of the informal truce that had broken out along the front on Christmas Day and ordered that such events must never be repeated. Just under a year later, ahead of the following Christmas, soldiers were told that they would be charged with disobeying orders if there was another truce.

The Christmas truce of 1914 varied along the front. The frequently mentioned football matches may have happened in only a few places. More commonly, soldiers met in no-man’s-land, chatting, shaking hands and swapping food.

After the war, John French conveniently forgot that he had issued orders against truces. He instead spoke of the Christmas truce of 1914 as an example of soldierly chivalry. He absurdly claimed that “soldiers should have no politics” — as if sending thousands to their deaths was somehow an apolitical act.

Pro-war politicians and commentators today also tend to talk positively about the Christmas truce, as if it were an innocuous fluffy event that we can all celebrate.

William Windsor, Duke of Cambridge, is one of the judges of a children’s competition to design a Christmas truce memorial. Super-wealthy Premiership football clubs are funding events to celebrate the footballing side of the truce.

I suspect the government, the Premiership and the Windsor family would take a rather different view if British soldiers had chatted and exchanged food — and even played football — with enemy soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands.

It’s much easier to celebrate a controversial event a century after it’s happened — especially if you persistently ignore the reality that it was a rebellion against war.

Of course, the left and the anti-war movement can fall for the trick of romanticising the Christmas truce just as much as the militarists.

As the anti-war historian Adam Hochschild points out, this was not a case of working-class soldiers suddenly rejecting war. Officers up to the rank of colonel participated in the truce. Most of the soldiers obediently went back to fighting the next day.

Nonetheless, the spontaneous truce must have undermined the propaganda of each side’s government, which sought to portray the soldiers on the other side as inhuman fiends.

When people meet their enemies and discover how much they have in common, they become a threat to those who want them to fight each other.

This became apparent later in the war. After the fall of the tsar, Russian soldiers engaged in truces with Germans and Austrians that lasted longer and were more explicit in their politics. Pictures survive of Russian and German soldiers literally dancing together in no-man’s-land.

The same principle holds true today. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was talking up war with Iran in 2012, a group of anti-war Israelis set up a Facebook page called Israel Loves Iran. They told the Iranians: “We love you. We will never bomb your country.” They told the Israeli government they were “not ready to die in your war.”

Iranians responded with a similar Facebook page called “Iran Loves Israel.” One of the first people to post on it told the Israeli people: “I don’t hate you. I don’t even know you.”

Thus people in “enemy” countries see that they have more in common with each other than with their own rulers.

The question we should all be asking is the question asked by Keir Hardie, the socialist and pacifist MP, when he heard about the Christmas truce a century ago.

“Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other?” he asked. “They have no quarrel … the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades.”

There has been much criticism of Sainsbury’s this year for using the story of the truce in their Christmas advertisement. I had expected to be annoyed or angered by the advert, so was surprised when I first viewed it.

Of course, the advert exists to make sales for an unethical corporation. It also raises funds for the Royal British Legion who, while they do work to support British victims of war, continue to promote militarism and a pro-war view of history.

The advert was not made to draw attention to the futility of war. Nonetheless, this is to some extent what it does. After they have shared food and played games, the soldiers depicted in the advert return to their trenches and continue firing at each other. Some of the people who have watched the advert must be asking themselves why.

The Christmas truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event. It was not explicit disobedience, as the orders against such truces had not been issued at that point. It was, nevertheless, a rejection of the propaganda that demonised the enemy. It was not a mutiny as such, but a sort of informal rebellion, celebrating common humanity over the demands of militarism and nationalism.

No wonder the generals on both sides were worried. If they had kept on “fraternising,” these soldiers might have brought the war to an end.

So let’s ask everyone the obvious question that most of the celebrations will ignore: If it’s acceptable to play football with someone on Christmas Day, why is it OK to shoot them on Boxing Day?

A play about the ceasefire between British and German troops at Christmas in 1914 doesn’t entirely convince, says GORDON PARSONS: here.

How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers: here.

World War I and animals, exhibition

Dog with gas mask during World War I

During World War I, millions of civilians died; though the percentage of civilians in total human deaths then was lower then it would become in later wars.

Millions of soldiers died; most of them conscripts, not volunteers.

And many millions of animals died; not one of them a volunteer. Marianne Lubrecht, exhibition organiser of the natural history museum in Maastricht, interviewed this morning on Dutch radio, estimated that ten million horses alone were killed in the war.

She told about an exhibition right now in her museum about the role of animals during the first world war. The military massively used animals. They tried to limit deaths a bit by providing some dogs (see photo at the top of this blog post) and horses with gas masks. However, that did not help much.

Other animals had not been enlisted by the military, but still played a role in the war. In and near the trenches, dead soldiers were often not buried; or, if they had been buried, incoming artillery grenades brought the dead bodies back to the surface. This attracted many rats feeding on the dead soldiers.

The Maastricht museum exhibition organiser also told about the role of wolves on the eastern front. There, wolves fed on dead soldiers, and sometimes attacked wounded soldiers. The enemy armies of the German and Russian empires decided to stop shooting at one another for one day; and to kill wolves instead. So, the Christmas truce of 2014 of Allied and German soldiers stopping to kill each other at least for Christmas was not the only ceasefire during World War I. Though the eastern front one was not because of peaceful motives, and decided by the top brass, not by the rank and file.

The exhibition attracts many visitors. Ms Lubrecht said she was trying to extend it beyond its originally planned final day of 4 January 2015; if museums from Belgium and elsewhere which had loaned items to Maastricht would agree with that.