The 100th Anniversary of World War I

Will that horrible and senseless war be exploited for political gain, or for peace?

by Hank Van den Berg
UNL Professor of Economics

Early November of this year, President François Hollande of France laid a wreath at the flame of the Unknown Soldier next to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to honor French soldiers who died in World War I. With this event, Hollande officially initiated what will be five years of commemorative events for the 100th anniversary of World War I.

There was some criticism of the early launch of the four years of celebrations. After all, World War I did not begin until 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914—a month after the June 28 assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia—by Serb terrorists. A maze of treaties and alliances brought Germany into the war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s side, at which point France, Britain and Russia felt obligated to honor their alliance agreements and come to the support of Serbia. One hundred years ago, in 1913, there was no sign of impending war, however. Yet, a year early, Socialist President Hollande has launched the 100th anniversary of World War I—an action that is all the more ironic in that the founder of the modern socialist party in France, Jean Jaurès, was an ardent anti-militarist who was assassinated because of his efforts to avert war between France and Germany.

Some in the French media suggested that Hollande was trying to overcome his very low approval rating (in the low teens in some polls) by appealing to patriotism and the glory of past wars. Hollande’s shallow attempt to rally the French may be a miscalculation on his part, however, because there is little sentiment in France for glorifying what has come to be seen as a bitter and deadly war that created more problems than it solved. The obvious sign of France’s disinterest in World War I is the fact that there are so few historical World War I sites maintained in France. There could be many, since the entire war was mostly fought on French territory. Interestingly, Holland was booed after the commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe—something the French very seldom do at such events.

Part of the unpopularity of World War I is that historians still grapple with its cause. Was it pure nationalism? A clash of empires with no more room to expand? Or, was it the economic rivalry between Germany, France and Britain that turned an assassination into a world war? In 1914, Germany was exporting a great variety of manufactures, while British industry was losing its edge in global markets and France found itself behind Germany in terms of industrialization. Ironically, today France is losing industrial employment at a rapid pace and its economy is mired in recession, while Germany is still a major industrial force and leading global exporter. Could Hollande be trying to use World War I to again rally political support and diminish Germany’s economic advantage?

The French media, which is still relatively healthy compared to the American media, has begun to run articles, op-eds and historical accounts of World War I. One of those articles in Le Monde caught my eye because it reminded us that, despite attempts by some to glorify World War I, it was not a hugely popular war 99 years ago.

Noël 1914

By Christmas of 1914, the war was settling into a virtual stalemate, with the Western front stretching from the North Sea in Belgium to the French-Swiss border in Alsace. The death toll had been much, much higher than anyone had imagined, and the youthful soldiers were exhausted and bogged down in cold, wet trenches. They were subject to occasional artillery barrages, and they lived in fear of instructions from their commanders to enter ‘no-man’s land,’ at great danger of death, in order to push the opposing trenches back a few hundred meters.

It is well known that on December 25, near the Belgian town of Ypres, French and British troops found themselves listening to German troops singing “Stille Nacht” across no man’s land. Those who dared to look over the edge of their trenches saw several Christmas trees along the German trench off in the distance. Then, suddenly, they saw German soldiers climbing out of their trenches, with a white flag, walking, unarmed, towards the middle of the no man’s land. Then they heard calls, in broken French, for the French and British troops to come out to meet them. The French and British could have shot the Germans, but instead, they too climbed out of their trenches, unarmed, and walked towards the middle of the no man’s zone. They quickly broke out in smiles and, soon, laughter. They exchanged simple gifts, liquor, chocolate, whatever they had with them, and they talked. At this specific location near Ypres, the Germans counted among their troops a professional opera singer, who quickly captured everyone’s attention. He was applauded so enthusiastically that he had to sing over and over until everyone from both camps was satiated with Christmas music. Eventually, the troops returned to their trenches, resigned to the continuation of the war.

Apparently similar events occurred elsewhere along the lines, and they continued into January. The commanders on both sides were desperate to stop these “fraternizations,” and they tried to squelch all news of them. Photos and accounts escaped back home, however. British newspapers, such as the Daily Mirror of London, ran pictures and stories on the various spontaneous “fraternizations” during Christmas 1914 and subsequent weeks. The German press also ran articles. The photo to the left shows a meeting between British and German troops in early January 1915. No one was executed for participating, largely because so many troops—some say thousands—took part. But, some of the rebellious troops were sent home, and commanders started shelling the no man’s land when such meetings took place. The fraternizations soon stopped.

Joyeux Noël

Christian Carion, the French director of the 2005 film on the Christmas event in Ypres, Joyeux Noël, notes in a November 10, 2013 op-ed in Le Monde that no French newspapers had reported the events. He was intrigued by this silence in the French press, which led to his doing the film. After his film came out, he was challenged by French critics to provide proof that the events occurred. His film was based on rather meager evidence that he was able to extract from uncooperative French military archivists. After the film, however, he found more cooperation, and the added information has shown that not only did the event in Ypres definitely occur as he had reenacted it in his film, but there had been many and frequent fraternizations up and down the lines.

Carion even found files from the French secret service that showed that that agency had sent informants to investigate the fraternizations in order to “try to understand why such events had taken place.” The reports filed by the secret service were a treasure trove of information, as they were very thorough and precise. Included in the information was a copy of a note passed by Germans to the French line, advising the French soldiers that there would be a Colonel inspecting the German lines and that the German soldiers would be commanded to fire on the French lines about 14:00 hours: “Better keep your heads down at that time.” The note continued: “But this should not get in the way of our meeting planned for 17:00.” The note was signed: “Affectionately, your German comrades.”

Monument to Fraternization

Carion also found an emotional letter by a soldier named Louis Barthas, a corporal in the French army. He was stationed in a trench near Arras, in Northern France, and wrote home after the fraternizations around Christmas, 1914: “The common suffering brings hearts closer, reduces the hatred, nurtures sympathy between different people, even enemies. Those who deny that do not understand human psychology. French and Germans look at each other, and they see that they are the same people.” Barthas then goes on in his letter to write: “Perhaps one day in this corner of Artois (the province where Arras is located) they will raise a monument to commemorate this example of fraternity among men who face the horror of war and are obligated to kill against their will.”

Carion has begun a campaign to construct just such a monument. He hopes the first stone can be placed on Christmas Day, 2014. Now that would be a worthy commemoration for President Hollande and the rest of the world’s leaders who are tempted to use the vague memories of that senseless slaughter for their political advantage.

Other references to the Christmas “fraternizations”:

The video for the song “Pipes of Peace” by Paul McCartney depicts a fictionalized version of the Christmas Truce. The song was released in 1983.

John McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches” from his 1984 album “Winter Solstice” presents a composite account of attested events of the truce from the perspective of a fictitious English soldier. (Mike Harding’s song “Christmas 1914” from his 1989 album “Plutonium Alley” and Garth Brooks’ song “Belleau Wood” from his 1997 album “Sevens” contain similar depictions of the truce.)

The truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers. The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, was screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

In 2011, the British Premier Football League established the “Christmas Truce Tournament” in 2011—a football tournament for youth players from England, Belgium, France and Germany. The tournament will be played annually until at least 2014, the centennial anniversary of the original Christmas truce.

Silent Night, an opera based on Joyeux Noël, received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012.

The 1960’s hit “Snoopy’s Christmas” by The Royal Guardsmen, which is still a holiday favorite on some American radio ‘oldies’ stations and on many radio stations in New Zealand, depicts Snoopy and the Red Baron, Snoopy’s in-universe archenemy, taking part in the Christmas Truce of 1914 somewhere behind the Rhine in German territory. The song depicts the Baron—who was a German war hero—as being the one to initiate the friendly contact once the pair had landed. The two part ways amicably, knowing they are destined to meet in combat again eventually.

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