Two Sonnets (reading by Christopher Eccleston)

August 2nd, 2015

This is a syndicated post, originally from Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est.

[Read the original at Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est (2015-08-02)...]

Two Sonnets for Memorial Day

May 26th, 2015

This is a syndicated post, originally from Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est.

(To Jessie Pope,[1] etc.)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
Till on the haunting fires we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or in lime.—
Dim, through misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,
To children ardent for some distant glory
The old lie: DULCE ET DECORUM EST
PRO PATRIA MORI
.[2]

—Wilfred Owen (Oct. 1917).

The poet, Wilfred Owen began work on this poem in October 1917 while on leave in England. This is his best known poem. He never completed it for publication, because a year later he was dead. On November 4, 1918 he was killed on the front in a meaningless battle for the Sambre–Oise Canal seven days before the warring governments finalized the Armistice.

[Read the original at Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est (2015-05-26)...]

“The Wife of Flanders” (1917), by G.K. Chesteron

February 11th, 2010

The Wife of Flanders

Low and brown barns, thatched and repatched and tattered,
Where I had seven sons until to-day,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered….
This is not Paris. You have lost the way.

You, staring at your sword to find it brittle,
Surprised at the surprise that was your plan,
Who, shaking and breaking barriers not a little,
Find never more the death-door of Sedan—

Must I for more than carnage call you claimant,
Paying you a penny for each son you slay?
Man, the whole globe in gold were no repayment
For what you have lost. And how shall I repay?

What is the price of that red spark that caught me
From a kind farm that never had a name?
What is the price of that dead man they brought me?
For other dead men do not look the same.

How should I pay for one poor graven steeple
Whereon you shattered what you shall not know?
How should I pay you, miserable people?
How should I pay you everything you owe?

Unhappy, can I give you back your honour?
Though I forgave, would any man forget?
While all the great green land has trampled on her
The treason and terror of the night we met.

Not any more in vengeance or in pardon
An old wife bargains for a bean that’s hers. You have no word to break: no heart to harden.
Ride on and prosper. You have lost your spurs.

G.K. Chesteron (1917)

Howard Zinn, introduction to “Bomb after Bomb”

December 19th, 2007

This is an introductory essay that social critic and historian Howard Zinn wrote for Bomb after Bomb, by elin o’Hara slavick, a collection of cartographic drawings–based on military surveillance imagery, aerial photographs, battle plans, maps, and mass media sources–of American aerial bombing campaigns. Zinn’s essay was reprinted in the December 15–16, 2007 issue of CounterPunch. It was brought to our attention by Mark Brady at Liberty & Power.

Perhaps it is fitting that elin o’Hara slavick’s extraordinary evocation of bombings by the United States government be preceded by some words from a bombardier who flew bombing missions for the U.S. Air Corps in the second World War. At least one of her drawings is based on a bombing I participated in near the very end of the war–the destruction of the French seaside resort of Royan, on the Atlantic coast.

As I look at her drawings, I become painfully aware of how ignorant I was, when I dropped those bombs on France and on cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, of the effects of those bombings on human beings. Not because she shows us bloody corpses, amputated limbs, skin shredded by napalm. She does not do that. But her drawings, in ways that I cannot comprehend, compel me to envision such scenes.

I am stunned by the thought that we, the civilized nations, have bombed cities and countrysides and islands for a hundred years. Yet, here in the United States, which is responsible for most of that, the public, as was true of me, does not understand–I mean really understand–what bombs do to people. That failure of imagination, I believe, is critical to explaining why we still have wars, why we accept bombing as a common accompaniment to our foreign policies, without horror or disgust.

We in this country, unlike people in Europe or Japan or Africa or the Middle East, or the Caribbean, have not had the experience of being bombed. That is why, when the Twin Towers in New York exploded on September 11, there was such shock and disbelief. This turned quickly, under the impact of government propaganda, into a callous approval of bombing Afghanistan, and a failure to see that the corpses of Afghans were the counterparts of those in Manhattan.

We might think that at least those individuals in the U.S. Air Force who dropped bombs on civilian populations were aware of what terror they were inflicting, but as one of those I can testify that this is not so. Bombing from five miles high, I and my fellow crew members could not see what was happening on the ground. We could not hear screams or see blood, could not see torn bodies, crushed limbs. Is it any wonder we see fliers going out on mission after mission, apparently unmoved by thoughts of what they have wrought.

It was not until after the war, when I read John Hersey’s interviews with Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, who described what they had endured, that I became aware, in excruciating detail, of what my bombs had done. I then looked further. I learned of the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, in which perhaps a hundred thousand people died. I learned about the bombing of Dresden, and the creation of a firestorm which cost the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 residents of that city. I learned of the bombing of Hamburg and Frankfurt and other cities in Europe.

We know now that perhaps 600,000 civilians–men, women, and children-died in the bombings of Europe. And an equal number died in the bombings of Japan. What could possibly justify such carnage? Winning the war against Fascism? Yes, we won. But what did we win? Was it a new world? Had we done away with Fascism in the world, with racism, with militarism, with hunger and disease? Despite the noble words of the United Nations charter about ending the scourge of war — had we done away with war?

As horrifying as the loss of life was, the acceptance of justifications for the killing of innocent people continued after World War II. The United States bombed Korea, with at least a million civilian deaths, and then Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, with another million or two million lives taken. Communism was the justification. But what did those millions of victims know of communism or capitalism or any of the abstractions which cover up mass murder?

We have had enough experience, with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders, with the bombings carried out by the Allies, with the torture stories coming out of Iraq, to know that ordinary people with ordinary consciences will allow their instincts for decency to be overcome by the compulsion to obey authority. It is time therefore, to educate the coming generation in disobedience to authority, to help them understand that institutions like governments and corporations are cold to anything but self-interest, that the interests of powerful entities run counter to the interests of most people.

This clash of interest between governments and citizens is camouflaged by phrases that pretend that everyone in the nation has a common interest, and so wars are waged and bombs dropped for national security, national defense, and national interest.

Patriotism is defined as obedience to government, obscuring the difference between the government and the people. Thus, soldiers are led to believe that we are fighting for our country when in fact they are fighting for the government — an artificial entity different from the people of the country — and indeed are following policies dangerous to its own people.

My own reflections on my experiences as a bombardier, and my research on the wars of the United States have led me to certain conclusions about war and the dropping of bombs that accompany modern warfare.

One: The means of waging war (demolition bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, nuclear weapons, napalm) have become so horrendous in their effects on human beings that no political end– however laudable, the existence of no enemy — however vicious, can justify war.

Two: The horrors of the means are certain, the achievement of the ends always uncertain.

Three: When you bomb a country ruled by a tyrant, you kill the victims of the tyrant.

Four: War poisons the soul of everyone who engages in it, so that the most ordinary of people become capable of terrible acts.

Five: Since the ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths in war has risen sharply with each subsequent war of the past century (10% civilian deaths in World War I, 50% in World War II, 70% in Vietnam, 80-90% in Afghanistan and Iraq) and since a significant percentage of these civilians are children, then war is inevitably a war against children.

Six: We cannot claim that there is a moral distinction between a government which bombs and kills innocent people and a terrorist organization which does the same. The argument is made that deaths in the first case are accidental, while in the second case they are deliberate. However, it does not matter that the pilot dropping the bombs does not intend to kill innocent people — that he does so is inevitable, for it is the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate. Even if the bombing equipment is so sophisticated that the pilot can target a house, a vehicle, there is never certainty about who is in the house or who is in the vehicle.

Seven: War, and the bombing that accompanies war, are the ultimate terrorism, for governments can command means of destruction on a far greater scale than any terrorist group.

These considerations lead me to conclude that if we care about human life, about justice, about the equal right of all children to exist, we must, in defiance of whatever we are told by those in authority, pledge ourselves to oppose all wars.

If the drawings of elin o’Hara slavick and the words that accompany them cause us to think about war, perhaps in ways we never did before, they will have made a powerful contribution towards a peaceful world.

Howard Zinn

A Wobbly loves his flag

September 6th, 2007

I love my flag, I do, I do,
Which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.

I love my country, yes, I do,
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks;
I guess I won’t enlist.

Anonymous, Industrial Worker (April 14, 1917).

Disabled, by Wilfred Owen

September 4th, 2007

Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, –
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen (1917)

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda: Gallipoli and ANZAC Day

April 25th, 2007

April 25th is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, a memorial for the large contingent of Australian and New Zealander soldiers in the Battle of Gallipoli, which began with a disastrous landing by Allied soldiers on April 25th, 1915, and ended with the evacuation of troops in January 1916 after half a year of trench warfare with no progress and heavy tolls of dead and wounded soldiers. 11,000 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were killed in the battle and 24,000 were injured.

This is a recording of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, performed by the Irish punk band The Pogues in 1985 for their album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. The song was originally written and performed in 1972 by Eric Bogle, a Scottish-born Australian singer/songwriter.

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack,
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said son,
It’s time you stopped rambling; there’s work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As the ship pulled away from the quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he’d primed himself well.
He shower’d us with bullets, and he rained us with shell.
And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda,
When we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

And those that were left, well we tried to survive.
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive,
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head.
And when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda,
All around the green bush far and free
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded,
The maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered; they just stood and stared.
Then they turned all their faces away.

And so now every April, I sit on me porch,
And I watch the parades pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glories.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore.
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call.
But as year follows year, more old men disappear.
Someday no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Written and originally performed by Eric Bogle (1972)

Water Lilies: Claude Monet, 1917, by Peter Filkins

March 20th, 2007

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1917

Meanwhile he painted them–water lilies
floating on the surface of a pond
he’d constructed for the pleasure of the eye
and motifs to paint
at the century’s end,
the new one begun with multiple explosions
of red, of pink, white fleshy flowers
against the backdrop of a subsurface blue

with distances, the sky itself reflected
in the watery calm where a cloud adrift
would later be captured by his brush
in motion, each day in the studio
another one spent to the echo of guns
bombarding the trenches, pummeling the Some
erupting in billows of acrid black smoke

upon a horizon no longer present
but subsumed, erased, immersed as he was
in the flux of light on water, flowers
afloat on the air beneath a willow
and its weeping, our only perspective
in a lost world lost to bottomless translucency,
the eye that sees it, and the intractable sun.

Peter Filkins (2007)

Read the rest of this entry »

The Gift of Reading

December 25th, 2006

This is a syndicated post, originally from Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est.

Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s some holiday reading, as a gift from me to you. World War I may not seem like the best topic for the season, but, well, that’s what I’ve been working on lately.

  • At Dulce Et Decorum Est today, you can read a powerful review essay by Phil Shannon, on the Soldier’s Truce of Christmas, 1914 (which I first encountered a year ago, through Kevin Carson’s blog.)

    It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

    Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

    Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

    Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

  • Some time ago, I put up a copy of Randolph Bourne’s most famous essay, The State, online at the Fair Use Repository. Lots of people had already posted extracts from The State online in all kinds of different forums (usually under the title War is the Health of the State). But as far as I know the Fair Use edition is the only complete online transcription. (The others usually omit Part II, Bourne’s analysis of American politics and the party system.)

    In any case, the more topical news is that I’ve just added two more of Bourne’s essays on the war — essays which, unlike The State, were published within Bourne’s own lifetime. These both come from his time writing for Seven Arts: The War and the Intellectuals is from June, 1917, and A War Diary is from September, 1917. Unfortunately what was true of the Sensible Liberals and New Republic columnists of 1917 could just as easily have been written last week.

    The results of war on the intellectual class are already apparent. Their thought becomes little more than a description and justification of what is already going on. They turn upon any rash one who continues idly to speculate. Once the war is on, the conviction spreads that individual thought is helpless, that the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel. There is no good holding back. We are told to dry our unnoticed and ineffective tears and plunge into the great work. Not only is everyone forced into line, but the new certitude becomes idealized. It is a noble realism which opposes itself to futile obstruction and the cowardly refusal to face facts. This realistic boast is so loud and sonorous that one wonders whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not be sometimes a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? The pacifist is roundly scolded for refusing to face the facts, and for retiring into his own world of sentimental desire. But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or to criticise facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground. The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.

    Randolph Bourne, The War and the Intellectuals ¶ 12

    And:

    The penalty the realist pays for accepting war is to see disappear one by one the justifications for accepting it. He must either become a genuine Realpolitiker and brazen it through, or else he must feel sorry for his intuition and be regretful that he willed the war. But so easy is forgetting and so slow the change of events that he is more likely to ignore the collapse of his case. If he finds that his government is relinquishing the crucial moves of that strategy for which he was willing to use the technique of war, he is likely to move easily to the ground that it will all come out in the end the same anyway. He soon becomes satisfied with tacitly ratifying whatever happens, or at least straining to find the grain of unplausible hope that may be latent in the situation.

    But what then is there really to choose between the realist who accepts evil in order to manipulate it to a great end, but who somehow unaccountably finds events turn sour on him, and the Utopian pacifist who cannot stomach the evil and will have none of it? Both are helpless, both are coerced. The Utopian, however, knows that he is ineffective and that he is coerced, while the realist, evading disillusionment, moves in a twilight zone of half-hearted criticism and hoping for the best, where he does not become a tacit fatalist. The latter would be the manlier position, but then where would be his realistic philosophy of intelligence and choice? Professor Dewey has become impatient at the merely good and merely conscientious objectors to war who do not attach their conscience and intelligence to forces moving in another direction. But in wartime there are literally no valid forces moving in another direction. War determines its own end—victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end. All governments will act in this way, the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only liberal naïveté that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion, and because of the myriad hurts they knew war would do the promise of democracy at home. For once the babes and sucklings seem to have been wiser than the children of light.

    Randolph Bourne, A War Diary § 4

  • Third, I’ve also added a series of essays from 1915, which I discovered thanks to Carl Watner’s essay on nonviolent resistance in the most recent Journal of Libertarian Studies. The exchange began with Bertrand Russell’s The Ethics of War, which appeared in the January 1915 number of the International Journal of Ethics. Russell condemned the war and argued If the facts were understood, wars amongst civilized nations would case, owing to their inherent absurdity. (Meanwhile, in one of the more baffling parts of the essay, he did some utilitarian hand-waving to try to offer some rather despicable excuses for wars of colonization and the attendant ethnic cleansing. As usual, good anti-war instincts are betrayed by prejudice when utilitarian pseudo-calculations are allowed to intrude.) Ralph Barton Perry objected to Russell’s criticism, at least as applied to the ongoing war, in Non-Resistance and the Present War. Russell wrote two more articles. One of them a direct rejoinder to Perry, published as The War and Non-Resistance—A Rejoinder to Professor Perry in the IJE. The other, probably the best essay in the exchange, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, under the title War and Non-Resistance. Of particular note is Section II, in which Russell considers how Britain might be defended from a foreign invasion with no army and no navy, using only the methods of non-violent passive resistance. Although Russell doesn’t quite realize it, the answer he offers amounts, in the end, to doing away with the central State and its organized machinery. With no levers of centralized power to take hold of, the invaders would find themselves in possession of little if anything. Anyway, it’s well worth a read.

Read, and enjoy.

May your holidays be full of light and warmth, joy in fellowship, comfort, and peace.

[Read the original at Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est (2006-12-25)...]

In Heavenly Peace: The Christmas Truce, 1914

December 25th, 2006

I first read this review essay a year ago, when Kevin Carson posted it at Mutualist Blog.

The Soldiers’ Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)

It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in no-man’s land but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

Soon, however, few would care about higher authority as an unauthorised and illegal truce bubbled up from the ranks.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing Merry Christmas were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of you no shoot, we no shoot.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in no-man’s land with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. You would have thought you were dreaming, wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had struck, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens the will to kill, destroys the offensive spirit, saps ideological fervour and undermines the sacrificial spirit necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (Down with the war!) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (No more war! It’s what God wants!) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After mucking-in with British soldiers, a German private wrote that never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings. Now, we gathered, as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart the war that had strangely vanished. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of we can’t — they are good fellows, the officers replied Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in no-man’s land with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers’ organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany’s war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a two-day wonder, the Christmas truce evokes a stubborn humanity within us. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

reviewed by Phil Shannon (2002)
for Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002