Christmas Truce 1914

On Christmas in 1914, soldiers fighting War War I initiated a truce themselves.

It is a sad fact of our times that we now must search for phrases to describe the countless military conflicts in which U.S. troops are engaged. In 2019, with increasing frequency, the term of art became “forever wars.” That is a reference to the endless conflicts that entangle U.S. troops and U.S. policymakers in far-flung corners of the world.

In 2019, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, was one of the first members of Congress to sign on to an “End the Forever Wars” pledge circulated by the veteran-led grassroots progressive organization Common Defense.

“The United States has been in a state of continuous, global, open-ended military conflict since 2001,” the pledge declares. “Over 2.5 million troops have fought in this ‘Forever War’ in over a dozen countries — including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Niger, Somalia, and Thailand. I pledge to the people of the United States of America, and to our military community in particular, that I will (1) fight to reclaim Congress’s constitutional authority to conduct oversight of U.S. foreign policy and independently debate whether to authorize each new use of military force, and (2) act to bring the Forever War to a responsible and expedient conclusion."

Pocan, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has long argued that the United States needs a new set of priorities that dials down military spending while addressing domestic needs. Noting that the Pentagon’s budget has risen by $131 billion since Donald Trump became president, he complained this month, “At the same time that this administration has cut food stamps, Medicaid and reproductive health services from everyday Americans, this president wants to add more than a hundred billion dollars to continue endless and unauthorized wars, ban transgender troops, keep Guantanamo Bay open, allow the unchecked contamination of water supplies with polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and establish a Space Force.”

The movement to end the forever wars is growing. Pocan is among 16 members of the House and Senate who have signed onto the Common Defense pledge, including three who are seeking the presidency: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Common Defense deserves high marks for mounting its “End the Forever Wars” campaign, and for reminding us that soldiers and veterans have a history of taking a chance on peace.

A battlefield memorial in Frelinghien, France, recalls a moment — more than a century ago — when the yearning for peace overwhelmed the demand for war.

The memorial recalls a soccer match played on Christmas Day 1914 between men from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 134th Saxon Infantry Regiment. The Saxons won, 2-1.

Then the two teams partook of plum pudding proffered by the Welshmen and a barrel of beer rolled onto the field by the Saxons.

The participants were soldiers in the service of the British king and German kaiser who, only hours before, had been battling one another.

They were participants in an event that was almost lost to history: the Christmas truce of 1914.

The British and German governments denied that the truce even took place. War historians neglected it. But those who participated remembered.

The last to recall the truce was Alfred Anderson, who died in 2005 at age 109. Younger generations turned to Anderson, who in 1914 was an 18-year-old soldier with the British Army, for confirmation of what came to be known as “a short peace in a terrible war.”

That peace, initiated by the soldiers themselves, serves as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary — or so unstoppable — as politicians would have us believe.

So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected.

But Anderson’s long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of history.

Anderson recalled that on Dec. 25, 1914: “There was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry.”

The calls of “Merry Christmas” from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Alles schlaft, einsam wacht.”

The Brits responded by singing “Silent Night” in English. Then, from the opposite trenches climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, “Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot.”

Thus began the Christmas truce. Soldiers of both armies — more than a million in all — climbed from the trenches to exchange cigarettes and military badges. To play soccer, they used the helmets as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Western Front, the truce lasted into January 1915.

Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew.

So it has ever been with wars. Politicians maintain them long after they should have ended.

But in this holiday season, as Christians mark the birth of the Prince of Peace, we might pause to recognize the wisdom of soldiers like Alfred Anderson, who celebrated “a short peace in a terrible war,” and ask if it might yet be possible to put the forever wars behind us.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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