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 truces that had broken out along the front on Christmas Day. He ordered that such events must never be repeated. A year later, ahead of the following Christmas, soldiers were reminded 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 couple of places. More commonly, soldiers met in No Man’s Land, shook hands, chatted and swapped 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. 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. I think they would have taken a different view if British soldiers had chatted and exchanged food – and even played football – with enemy soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands.
The spontaneous truces of 100 years ago must surely 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.
The question we should all be asking is the question asked by the pacifist Labour MP Keir Hardie when he head 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.”
If it’s acceptable to play football with someone on Christmas Day, why is it OK to shoot him on Boxing Day?
There has been much criticism of Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement this year, which uses the story of the Christmas Truce to promote a supermarket. I had expected to be annoyed or angered by the advert, so was surprised when I first viewed it.
True, the advert exists to make sales for a corporation. It 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. Nonetheless, it was a rejection of the propaganda that demonised the enemy. If not a mutiny, it was at least an informal strike, celebrating common humanity over the demands of militarism and jingoism.
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. That’s why I’ll celebrate the Christmas Truce – because it was a rebellion against war.