How the top brass undermined WWI soldiers' attempts to 'live and let live'

By Barry Healy

December 24, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Australians have begun the grim journey through the centenary of World War I. Our newspapers have special articles and multi-page wrap arounds commemorating every significant date. This is driven by a multi-million dollar government fund designed to whip up militarisation in contemporary Australia by obscuring the truth about WWI.

Part of the truth is that in Christmas 1914, just months after the war began, millions of soldiers ceased fighting and fraternised across the trenches. In some areas, this lasted for a week.

In Trench Warfare (Pan 2004), Tony Ashworth says this was like “the sudden surfacing of the whole of an iceberg”. It made visible what was invisible for most of the war ― and anathema to today’s warmongers: most soldiers did not want to fight and many tried to find ways of letting each other live.

The Christmas truce came after the war's first four, brutal months. People were told that the war would be over by Christmas. The reality was horribly different.

Between August and December 1914, three-and-a-half million men were killed or wounded.

On August 7, three days after the start of the war, the French army tried a quick advance. Over the succeeding three weeks, they suffered 300,000 casualties. There were 27,000 killed in one day.

In 1916, during the first two weeks of the Battle of the Somme, about 26,500 soldiers were killed each day. When it ended, there were 1.2 million casualties. But the British were able to advance two miles, so it was declared a “victory”.

In Britain, army units were recruited in local areas. These were known as “pals’ battalions”. They marched to war and were totally slaughtered. The men of entire districts were exterminated as one.

Ashworth’s history is based on extensive interviews with surviving British WWI veterans, careful research of regimental histories and soldiers’ letters and diaries.

What he exposes is the fact that soldiers, where they could get away with it, found ways of communicating across the trench lines and that they would not shoot to kill if their adversary would do the same. This was the “live and let live” system.

Many German soldiers had worked in London hotels before the war and so language barriers were easily broken, with news shouted out across the lines. Music played a big part. On one front, the Germans yodelled for the British, who returned the favour by singing “It's a Long Way To Tipperary”, a favourite tune for British solders.

One British soldier remembered a German violinist who played selections from operas in the evenings. “We always gave him a clap and shouted for an encore,” he said.

One thing that bound both sets of combatants together was their hatred of their own higher commands. This was even true among frontline officers. One regimental officer said: “When one is in the front line, one cannot help having a fairly deep sympathy for the wretched fellow in the other front line. And the hatred that you both have towards these generals breeds a common sympathy that is irresistible.”

The high commands, as they became aware of the “live and let live” system, took action to end it.

When it was noticed, for example, that casualty figures were unusually low in a sector, bombardments were ordered to shatter the peace. Or, more usually, night raids were called for.

Night raids were stealth attacks where soldiers would sneak across to the opposite trench and bayonet as many people as possible before withdrawing. Bayoneting is a hideous method of killing, in which the attackers have to turn themselves into completely desensitised monsters ― it was highly prized by the generals.

The intention of the commanders was to drive their troops to become savage in the same way that a psychopath may deliberately mistreat a pet dog. There are suburbs, streets and parks named after these generals all over this country.

Soldiers hated the night raids and found ways around them. The commanders wanted units to provide sections of German barbed wire as proof that they had been across “no man’s land”. So, canny soldiers collected lengths of wire and cut off bits to send up the chain of command, while not leaving their trench.

Night patrols of no man’s land were also ordered to ensure soldiers never felt secure. However, Ashworth records instances where opposing patrols met enemies and simply marched by each other without hostility.

Ashworth’s history, while invaluable, is limited to British sources. It has little about, for example, the 1916 near-collapse of the French army when nearly half the army were late returning from leave, deserted or mutinied.

He also does not touch on the Russian front. The 1917 Russian Revolution, fuelled by oposition to the conflict, ended the war on the eastern front and raised the flag of revolution across Europe.

Ashworth is no socialist, his world view is that of bourgeois “game theory”. The conflict’s politics, therefore, escape him.

In the final months of the war, half of all German reserves failed to report for duty. Deserting German soldiers commandeered trains to take them home. The Kaiser and his upper officers considered bombing them, but the lower officers refused to do it.

Finally, in November 1918 German sailors in Hamburg mutinied and established a soviet in the city. The Kaiser fled the country and the war was over.

After the November 11, 1918 armistice, desertions and mutinies spread to the British soldiers who wanted to go home immediately. That stopped then-prime minister David Lloyd George from sending troops to occupy Germany.

Lloyd George said: “Germany was like a cholera area infected with the virus of Bolshevism.”

WWI ended because millions of workers pressed into uniform refused to fight any longer. Between now and 2018, the corporate media will tell us that glorious battles were fought and stalwart Diggers won great victories. Those will be falsehoods.

We must remember and honour those brave people who were lied to and manipulated by cynical imperialists and sent to the madness of WWI.

The memorial we must build them is an anti-war movement that says that never again will we allow working-class people to be sent to the slaughter in the service of their enemies at home.

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From GLW issue 1036