Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Piping the Peace

Tonight, one century ago, across the battlefields of war-ravaged Europe, tens and likely hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their weapons and crossed the desolation of "no man's land" to greet their enemies as friends and celebrate together what has become known as the Christmas Truce. Over half the British sector of the western front was involved in this Yuletide fraternisation as were huge segments of the French and, of course, their German counterparts. On the eastern front, less marked but similar reconciliation occurred between Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers as the poor bloody infantry ignored the threats of their superiors in an act of defiant international solidarity.

British and German troops celebrate together at Christmas 1914
Well known are the games of football that were reputedly played (there is no photographic evidence, but there were professional footballers in the trenches of both sides and many reports of informal games). Gifts were exchanged, photographs of sweethearts, wives and families displayed, hymns were sung, music played and meals taken together - many Germans in particular could speak English (then as now not so the other way round). In the Belgian sector, German soldiers, who had occupied nearly all of Belgium, agreed to take letters for their opponents and post them to their families behind the lines.

The High Commands of France, Britain and Germany, safely far behind the dangers of the Front and living in extremely comfortable conditions, had been anxious for some time about what might happen in this, the first Christmas of the war. Nearly five months on from the heady August days when leaders on all sides had promised that victory and it would all be over by Christmas, the troops had experienced weeks of shell-shock and near static warfare. Equipped for summer campaigns, many lacked the boots and clothing required to survive in the open winter air, never mind the shells and bullets of their enemies. Friends, neighbours and relatives had been lost, especially demoralising for regiments that were often formed from the men of the same village and even street. The enthusiasm which had greeted the war among some, though far from all, of the heavily propagandised civilian populations had already begun to dissipate as casualties mounted in this, the first large industrial-scale war. Indeed, the recovery and burial of the dead was a key part of the truce, with men helping each other inter and commemorate their dead.

A British High Command note from General Horace Smith-Dorien, dated 5 December 1914, is particularly telling about the generals' concerns about their soldiers' temperament: “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…officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy…such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks…the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit… friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited."

Live & let Live - Generals frowned on truces to retrieve the fallen.
The truth of the matter is that the Christmas truce, sanitised in the years since as a touching gesture of reconciliation by troops from three Christian nations on the eve of Christ's birth, was far from the one-off incident that many rightwing historians portray it as being (indeed, a few seem to like to imagine it didn't actually happen at all). Rather, it was the latest of a string of incidents that marked discontent and dissent among the ordinary soldiers stuck in muddy trenches facing a dreadful attrition which often made death a preferable option.

From as early as the start of November, when the initial moves and counter-moves of the armies had become bogged down in trench warfare with millions of men facing each other in some places just a few yards apart, the "live and let live" nostrum first manifested itself in unspoken agreements to respect mealtimes, while by December half hour ceasefires would be called to allow joint retrieval of the dead. During these, soldiers began to speak to each other, exchange newspapers and in some areas even visit each others' trenches. The Christmas truce, possibly kicked off by the quaint and typically out of touch decision of the German Imperial Government to send thousands of Christmas trees to decorate their trenches, in many areas lasted well beyond Christmas, with messages and joint singing reported on New Years' Day 1915.

The news of the truce was suppressed by all Governments - but the Scottish and American press broke the story a few days later and soon the German and English papers followed, most of them commenting positively and lamenting the fact that the slaughter was about to begin again. (In France, by contrast, the Christmas truce was officially kept secret for some years). But this did nothing to slacken the resolve of the High Commands - all of them reissued instruction banning all forms of fraternisation and threatening punishment of those who disobeyed.

Perhaps because of its widespread nature, there is relatively little evidence of retribution against soldiers who took part in the Christmas truce, although the film Joyeux Noel shows British officers being removed from duty and a chaplain defrocked, while the Kaiser's son personally oversees the transportation of a German unit to the Eastern Front. However, future episodes were not treated so lightly - and Christmas 1915 saw only a very partial repetition of the ceasefire. The Church was employed to ensure that British troops in particular could find no commonality with the Germans, as Brigadier General Crozier described in 1915:
"Blood lust is taught for the purpose of war, in bayonet fighting itself and by doping their minds with all propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women, the "official murder" of Nurse Cavell, all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is necessary for victory. The process of "seeing red" which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the make-up of even the meek and mild .. . The Christian churches are the finest "blood lust" creators which we have, and of them we must make full use. (The British soldier) is a kindly fellow ... it is necessary to corrode his mentality"

Yet, as fraternisation died away with the ever more overpowering destructive nature of the war, discontent turned inward. Agitation grew against among troops on all sides. Mutinies broke out - in April 1917, two months after the Russian army refused to support the Czar against the political revolutionaries in Petrograd, a battalion of French soldiers refused to go over the top at the battle of the Aisne, which had cost over a quarter of a million French lives. Four ring-leaders were shot and many others imprisoned, but within a short time the mutiny spread to 68 divisions - half of the French army refused to go into battle and many talked of marching on Paris to overthrow the Government. In June, Russians units lent to their allies on the western front joined with French troops to set up a soviet council which issued a "Declaration of Soldiers' Rights".

The revolt was eventually contained with the court-martial of 3,500 troops, and 550 condemned to death (49 were actually executed). As Dave Sherry observes in "Empire and Revolution", "This was limited punishment given the scale of the mutiny. Clearly it had terrified the French generals and the ruling class."

Next mutiny spread to British, Australian and New Zealander troops following Field Marshall Haig's decision to throw them into a series of bloody and unsuccessful battles in Flanders in appalling weather. In September 1917, 100,000 troops revolted in the base at Etaples, burning down the Military Police buildings and locking up their officers. As with the French, the British High Command responded with some limited concessions and execution of the leaders, suppressing the revolt after five days - and keeping it secret for decades. More mutinies were to follow through 1918 both at the front and back in England, with mass groups of troops refusing orders and walking out of barracks in Folkestone, Dover and Shoreham. Canadian troops rebelled as well over two days at Arras. (The 15,000 strong West Indian Volunteer force continued to obey orders until after the ceasefire when they were denied the pay rise given to British conscripts and detailed to clean toilets for white soldiers - at this point, after already enduring several years of racist treatment, they too rebelled.)

Among all sides, desertion grew the longer the war endured. As the volunteers of 1914 fell under the shells and bullets, they could only be replaced by forced conscription. By autumn 1918, as many as two million Germans had either deserted or avoided the draft, with 25,000 fleeing to Switzerland where many associated with Russian Bolshevik exiles.

As 2014 closes, with the British Government's David Cameron and Michael Gove attempting to "celebrate" the conflict of 1914 to 1918, it is worth reflecting that this was no popular war. Although  unsurprisingly titled "The Great War for Civilisation" by the victors, this was not the battle against Nazism or totalitarianism of 1939 to 1945. It was fought essentially in the interests of elite ruling classes and at the behest of their capitalist leaders - arms manufacturers and merchants, engineering firms, oil companies. All of them were seeking to expand their profits and, in an early manifestation of the neoliberal ethos, they happily incorporated state power to their cause so that, to paraphrase Clauswitz, war became economics by other means.

Many of these rulers, with some notable exceptions, had anticipated a quick war and a few even believed their own propaganda about over by Christmas. But, writing nearly 30 years earlier, Karl Marx's colleague and friend Friedrich Engels had anticipated things very differently and, as it turned out, highly accurately:
"(There will be) a world war of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done.
The devastation of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three of four years and spread over the whole continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation of both armies and of the mass of the people, produced by acute distress; chaos in our trade, industry, commerce and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states to such an extent that crowns will roll of the pavements and there will be no one to pick them up; absolute impossibility of seeing how it will all end...
This is the prospect when the system of mutual outbidding in armaments, taken to its final extreme at last bears its inevitable fruits. This my lords, princes and statesmen is where in your wisdom you have brought old Europe." ("Empire and Revolution", D.Sherry, p,12)

Little wonder then that the war came to an end first in the east with the Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917 and then in the west with the German Revolution of October 1918. History has often viewed both as isolated if powerful events, but in fact all Europe was ablaze by the final Armistice on 11 November 1918. Ten million soldiers and ten million civilians were dead; and a flu pandemic originating among in the squalid conditions of the trenches was to take between another twenty and forty million lives over the next two years.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more, shattered into at least six different entities. Soviet Republics were declared in Bavaria and Hungary. Italy endured the Bienno Rossa, two years of social upheaval which eventually birthed the fascist Blackshirts and brought Mussolini to power. The Ottoman Empire had also collapsed and Greece and Turkey faced each other in a new conflict that would lead to massive and brutal transfers of populations between Europe and Asia Minor.

In Britain, the Government invested huge military efforts and resources to subvert the new Communist regime in Moscow and for several years was spooked by the prospect of revolution - furiously sending tanks to Glasgow in 1919 to suppress protesters after the Battle of George Square. With angry, demobilised conscripts demanding the Government make its' promises of a "land fit for heroes" a reality and even the police going on strike, King George V persuaded the the Prime Minister to withdraw an offer of refuge to the deposed Russian Czar, fearing his cousin's presence would precipitate a similar royal cataclysm in the UK.

The Christmas Truce was a remarkable event. And now, more than ever, as capitalist companies seek to profit from its memory, it is all the more important that we remember the context in which it occurred and where, in time, it led. It was the first of a number of rebellions that eventually saw several million combatants ignore the commands of their leaders and instead make common cause with their fellow soldiers across the lines. It was an act of humanity and compassion for sure; but it was also one of the most powerful statements of defiance against authority by oppressed people in all of the last century. Let us never forget them.


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