Friday, December 26, 2014

Combat over the 1914 Christmas Truce.

In 1914, as is now well known, British and German troops in many locations along No Man's Land stopped fighting and held an informal truce.  The lines were crossed, hats and gifts exchanged, and in some places football matches held.  News of the event was suppressed by all the combatants, but the operation of the American free press broke the story on December 31, 1914 and it was quickly followed up by English newspapers.  Suppressing the story in England, and in Germany, was impossible due to letters being written home anyway. The truce was better received in the free press than in others, and the story was criticized in Germany and pretty much fully suppressed in France, on whose territory the war was being fought in the west.  Still, the story broke and was very well known early in 1915.

 German soldiers behind the lines, 1914.

Less well known is that the event repeated to a small degree in 1915, but it was small, as the command structure was alive to the possibility of such events and acted to discourage them.  Indeed, an attempt by a German unit to hold one on Easter 1915 was not successful.

The entire Christmas Truce story became a historical footnote after the war and many people who had an understanding of World War One in the years that followed didn't really know of it, or if they did, not in any detail.  The bloody years of 1915 through 1918 drowned it out, as did the series of wars that followed the immediate aftermath of the Great War.  World War Two, which didn't feature many truces, likewise operated to make it seem like an ancient historical footnote, little studied for many years.  But, then starting within recent decades, people started looking at it again.   Quite a few people began writing about it.  In 2005 Joyeaux Noel, a French film, was released about the event. A popular song was also released a few years back. And this year British chocolate manufacturer Sainsbury made it the theme of a television advertisement, with the proceeds of the sales this year also having a charitable purpose.

Well, now the inevitable has happened.  There's been a reaction, with the reaction even including the assertion that the 1914 Christmas Truce "is a myth".  Some places historians, largely in the UK, are complaining about the attention given to the truce and its meaning, particularly this year where we are on the 100th anniversary of the event, and advertising campaign has featured it, and the British and German armies have chosen to honor the event with a couple of football matches between their troops.

It certainly isn't a myth.  It may be misunderstood, although if it is, it isn't much.  That it occurred and was widespread is a demonstrable historical fact, including the fact that in certain areas of the Front it took a few days for the killing to resume.  

So what's up?

Well, the ownership of history is what's up.

It may seem odd to people who don't write history, or study history, but history, like any academic field, becomes the territory of the people who work in it professionally, and often they really don't like it when a story becomes popular with average people, or even non professional serious historians.  History becomes their turf, and they protect it, often preferring that only other professionals discuss it  This tends to be very much the case with academic historians, who really dislike, in some instances, non academic historians and popular histories.  Indeed, non academic authors of popular histories sometimes note that they receive a real cold shoulder from academics if a book becomes popular, even while some academic historians write books of such narrow interest in such a dry fashion that only dedicated academics can stand to read them.

But this same phenomenon can pass on to the non academic historians as well, if the area of their interests is intense to them, but also one of public interest.  Some non academics become so heavily invested in an area of intense interest that they guard it as their own private turf and don't like popular interest in an aspect of it, even if that interest is fairly accurate.  So that we'd have this happen on this topic, isn't surprising.

The English are heavily invested, historically, in World War One.  The Great War lives on with the British in a way that it doesn't with any other nation anywhere, even nations that had men bleed and die with profusion in the war.  World War Two is the big war for most European nations that fought in it, and most of those nations fought in World War One as well.  But for the British, the Great War remains a topic of intense present interest.

Unfortunately with that, the British themselves have become heavily invested in a mythologized version of the war, or competing ones.  And what we're not seeing to an extent is a turf war between the heavily invested and the average citizen over World War One.

If you listen to average British historians, amateur and professional, discuss the Great War, what you'll hear is a version of the war in which the British effort loomed large, and American effort barely existed, the Russians hardly show up, and even the French seem to have a surprisingly minor role.  The British did indeed fight a very hard war, but now it almost seems as if the British believe they fought the war to a muddy unsatisfactory stalemate by themselves.

They certainly did not, and they didn't always view the war that way.  For one thing, in spite of the gloom about the war that set in during the 1950s amongst the British, after World War One they regarded it a fought well fought, and a war that was one.  They pall of gloom that started surrounding their view really says more about World War Two than it does World War One, and even the popularity of despondent trench poetry, such as that by Wilfred Owens, is a post World War Two, not post World War One, phenomenon.   To the current crop of British historians of all types, the Great War has taken on the atmosphere of a great romantic tragedy.  It's nearly a type of doomed love story, and its appeal exists to many in the same way that fans of Swedish movies love them, as the tragically doomed lives of the protagonist are swept towards an inevitable romantic destruction, carried by events beyond their control.

And that's not too surprising, really.

After World War One the British remained a world power, and the "pink" on the globe expanded, as the British Empire expanded. Sure, the seeds of the dissolution of the Empire were there, and the departure of Ireland form the United Kingdom was a certain sign of times to come, but truth be known, the British came out of the Great War stronger than they went in it. Indeed, in spite of the popular myth to the contrary, even early in World War Two British industrial might was so significant that British industrial production exceeded that of Germany's.  The entire "nation alone on the edge of defeat" view that the British took in 1940 was really exaggerated, and partially the product of British propaganda aimed at a sympathetic United States, although they certainly were in a tough spot at the time.

But during World War Two the economy of the UK was wrecked, the Imperial era came to an end with the results of the war, and the nation had to readjust to a new status in Europe and the world.  The United States, which had been sort of an odd cousin of the UK, was clearly the world's most dominant free country, and it had little admiration for Empire.  Soviet Russia loomed up in the East, a new power which had been feared for decades but now had a freakish global reach.  The US worried about France and worked to rebuild German industry.  A thing like that goes hard, and creates a new introspective focus.  And with that focus came on the British view that they bleed uniquely in World War One, which was somehow a greater tragedy that World War Two.  The great romance omitted the Americans and Russians, and almost did the French, and placed the tragic, in their new view, British effort in the sun as the central event of the bloody 20th Century.

A Christmas Truce doesn't really fit into that view very well,  But neither does the fact that the French fought at least as hard as the British, and that Russia suffered an irreparable tragedy whose aftermath lives on today.  Nor does the fact that but for the United States, the Germans probably would have won the war in 1918.  Nor even does the fact that the British, like other armies, generally rotated their troops back off the front lines every few days, rather than the endless days in the trenches so often portrayed.

None of this is to belittle the massive, and valiant, British (and Canadian, and Australian, and New Zealand, etc) effort in World War One.  The British effort really was great, and indeed, their officer corps was much, much better than British historians will credit today.  But it is to criticize those having a bit of a fit over a group of men in their twenties and thirties, in 1914, who saw their own lives as their own, and who were happy to return to the Christian roots of their societies for a day.  People who are having a fit over that, need to get over it. And the average British citizen, or American, or Canadian, or German, is actually more in tune with those men in 1914 than those critics would allow.

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