As the Western front became mired deeper in deeper in the stalemate of trench warfare, the speed of events slowed down. As I blog my way through some of the major events of World War I (hopefully, on the 100th anniversary of each event), I realize that I may find a gap in major events, or find myself covering events that just seem a tad mundane or redundant.
Redundancy, as a matter of fact, represents the reason why I chose not to blog about the Battle of Givenchy (December 22, 1914). The battle was essentially a demonstration in the futility of trench warfare: each side attacked, each side only succeeded in capturing the first few lines of their enemies’ trenches. Surely the battle stands as significant to many, but it failed to attracted my interest for a blog post.
So what about the (perhaps) most famous event of World War I? The Christmas Truce? So much has been written about it that I feel a tad over-awed by an attempt to cover the same.
So with gaps between some events and other events being over-explained, I turn to the WWI memoirs of the men who suffered through the war’s front lines: David King, an American in the French foreign legion; the German Georg Bucher; the Frenchman Louis Barthas; . . . I also hope to settle upon a British war memoir also. I will speak more about these folks in later posts. But for now, allow me to introduce an excerpt from Barthas’ text.
As you may already know, the Christmas Truce was an event in WWI when, on December 25, 1914, up and down the lines between Entente and Allied forces on the Western Front, an informal truce was called between soldiers of both sides, allowing them at least to care for the wounded and dead in no-mans land, but in many places fraternization occurred also. Though this may seem odd to us, we would do well to remember that WWI was not necessarily a popular war in the eyes of the soldiers. Most of them were forcibly drafted into service, and many of them felt themselves a part of a socialist brotherhood also. So when we read about the Christmas Truce, in the light of the apparent meaninglessness of the war, we get a sense that the soldiers, too, felt that the war was meaningless, and that they would have preferred a peace with their supposed enemies. What did they care for the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian duke, Franz Ferdinand? What did they care for aggressive diplomacies and alliances? (My course paper this last semester examined a number of these issues. Click here if you’d like to view/download it)
The Christmas Truce, then, highlights the lack of support which the war had among the common troops, though, again, we would do well to remember that the truce was neither official nor ubiquitous: setting themselves against the men: officers and military leaders came down hard upon leaders of the truce, and far fewer truces occurred during the Christmases of 1915 and 1916 (interestingly, this could also be seen as indicative of the antipathy between officers and men); and for various reasons, some areas of the front never experienced a truce at all, or at least they did not fraternize with the enemy.
Such was the experience of Louis Barthas. Being a leader of his community, and helping to organize a fraternization with the Germans who opposed them during a scenario in 1916, it seems clear that had Barthas known of the possibility of an informal truce during Christmas of 1914, he might have taken part. Nevertheless, he spent that Christmas in much more misery:
“The following night was the holy night of Christmas Eve. As soon as night fell, we were huddled in our holes, enjoying the thought of sleeping until dawn, when at about 9 o’clock a harsh voice passed the order to get out of our holes and to hoist our packs with all speed.
In fact, something unusual happened up at the front line. You could hear songs, clamors, numerous flares were set off on both sides, but no firing at all.
Two hours later, the alert was called off. We had no explanation of what had happened until the next day. I yield the pen to someone who can speak with more authority than I can, our captain [Leon Hudelle], who tells about this curious tale in a book. [Here Barthas included a newspaper clipping in his notebooks, which has since been lost]
On Christmas Day, without any respect for the holiness of the day, they put us to work digging a big shelter where the whole squad was supposed to make itself happy. Useless work, at least for us, for that very evening we had to go up to the front line, after just forty-eight hours of “rest”- and what rest!
There were five more days and five more nights of vigil and hard labor, without rest, without sleep, paddling around in the mud, bending under a rainstorm or shivering when the bise of the North froze the ground solid.”
~Louis Barthas, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, trans. by Edward M. Strauss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 51.