How British Leaders Ruined the 20th Century: 5 January

Two great myths shattered in front of me as I read the Church Times before Christmas.[i]

Myth One:    The Christmas truce of 1914 was only day-long, a spontaneous idyllic but impossibly unrealistic moment in contrast to the real world of warring nations.

Myth Two:     The British have reason to be proud about decently fighting and winning two 20th Century world wars into which they were dragged by other more violent nations.

The Christmas truce of 1914 lasted, in some places, for weeks. One British soldier swapped a tin of bully beef for a German soldier’s spiked helmet. The German soldier then explained that he was on parade next day and would give it to his new mate afterwards, which he did. ‘In some cases … troops contrived to shoot over the heads of their opposite, or simply managed not to engage in warfare at all for considerable lengths of time. Major Buchanan-Dunlop, in a letter to his wife on 3 February 1915, mentions that the fighting where he was based had only just resumed. Captain F. E. Packe, in a letter on 19 March 1915, mentions an “absurdly quiet” time in a spot they had relieved where a truce had taken place.’

Each time the fighting resumed, the British started firing. Sgt George Ashurst, 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled chatting with his ‘oppos’ until British artillery started shelling German lines, endangering him and his mates.

The Christmas truce was not entirely a spontaneous outbreak, but part of a serious effort to return to negotiation instead of fighting. Pope Benedict XV, and others, had asked the warring nations to agree to a truce. The Germans and Austrians had agreed. The British, and presumably the French and Russians, had refused. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had issued an order explicitly prohibiting Christmas ceasefires. He, and other Generals, knew that ceasefires were a distinct possibility, which they needed to countermand.

The German soldiers who put up Christmas trees for their enemy to see and shouted Christmas greetings and sang Silent Night for their enemies to hear, and were the first to step into no-man’s land, were South German, Bavarian, Catholics. (One German soldier told his new British friend that they were being replaced by North German, Prussian, Protestants, and asked the Brits to give the Prussians hell, because they hated the Prussians too.) It is probable that the German Catholic soldiers’ initiative was an attempt to support the serious diplomatic initiative of the Papacy, most likely with support, or at least acquiescence, by the local German officers and maybe by some of their High Command. One British subaltern drank champagne at the local German HQ, well behind the trenches before returning safely to his own lines.

The Christmas truce was a ‘real world’ initiative. This was a serious opportunity for the nations to negotiate for a while, always able to return to fighting should they consider it necessary. There was a serious, even if slim, opportunity for a negotiated German withdrawal from Belgium. If the Germans were not willing to make compromises, they would not have agreed to the Pope’s initiative. The Crowned Heads of Europe, so interrelated, could have come into their own as natural mediators. The First World War could have finished in December 1914. It could have been all over at Christmas, in the real world.

No Battles of the Somme and the Marne. No Gallipoli. No Russian Revolution. The Communist Bolsheviks took advantage of a Russian population desperate to end the war which the new democratic government was committed to continue. No Stalin. No Hitler. No Second War. It is generally agreed that the humiliation of the ending of the First World War and the punitive demand for Germany to make reparations created the conditions for Hitler to grow Nazism. No Holocaust…

The 20th Century could and should have been hugely different, a Century of evolution towards widening democracy and negotiation of disputes. It would not have been perfect. There may well have been wars, battles, as the old Empires learnt slowly to allow smaller and newer nations to grow strong. But it is unlikely that there would have been slaughter on the scale seen in the First and Second World Wars, in the Soviet forced collectivisation, in the Holocaust.

The German leaders in 1914 were willing to at least talk about the possibility of resolving the dispute by negotiation. The British leaders in 1914 were unwilling. They insisted on fighting. They deliberately re-started the war after Christmas 1914. Far from being the 20th Century’s reluctant, decent, warriors, the British were the original violent militarists, creating the conditions for other aggressive militarists. British leaders ruined the 20th Century for everyone.

[i] Church Times 19/26 Dec 2014 The day the war stood still by Andii Bowsher and Nick Megoran with material from Silent Night: The remarkable Christmas truce of 1914 by Stanley Weintraub

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2 Responses to “How British Leaders Ruined the 20th Century: 5 January”

  1. Philip Tyers Says:

    Thank you for these insights, Roger.
    Now, how do we follow this through?

    • rogerharper Says:

      Thanks Philip,

      I’m writing to a couple of Peace Studies academics for their expert views. It would be good also to write to Andii B for more info about the papal initiative. Would you like to do that, or shall I?

      I’m also interested in what happened at Christmas 1915. Was there another papal initiative? Were there official measures to make sure there was no repeat of the truce? I think both would have been likely. If there is evidence of this sort of thing, it would be good to publicise it for next Christmas.


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