On the evening of December 24th a century ago, peace broke out in the most unlikely of places. In the blasted, putrid trenches of Belgium and France, soldiers fighting on the Western Front put aside their arms in what became known as the Christmas Truce. Although World War I was then only a few months old, there had already been a million combat deaths. Many soldiers were weary of the futility and horrific costs of the war, and thousands of them spontaneously stopped trying to kill each other.
The drama began on Christmas Eve, as German soldiers lit up their Tannenbaums (Christmas trees), put them on top of their trenches in view of the Allied troops, and began to sing carols. From there, full scale fraternization became widespread. Troops put down their weapons, climbed out of the trenches and met in no-mans-land to pray and sing and exchange greetings and gifts. The cease fire continued into Christmas Day during which the dead were buried, toasts were exchanged and soccer games played.
The break in hostilities was actually a mutiny, not a truce. It was initiated by the soldiers themselves against express orders from military commanders. In fact, the political and military leaders on both sides were horrified when the shooting stopped, and did everything they could to force a rapid resumption of hostilities. Dire threats of severe punishment were issued, and the news was suppressed. But in spite of this, it took weeks for the fighting to resume in some areas. Lance Corporal Adolph Hitler, serving with the Bavarian Army, did not think much of the cease fire either.
The Christmas Truce is often portrayed as a singular event, and it is true that in the later years of the war there were few holiday cease-fires. But as the war ground on in its destructive stupidity, very large mutinies took place. In the East, the Russian army disintegrated, the soldiers voted with their feet, and went home to make revolution. There were also large-scale mutinies among German and French troops, weary of being fodder for cannons. Much of Europe, not just Russia, teetered on the brink of revolution.
In fact, military mutinies have been common throughout history. During the Napoleonic Wars entire British naval fleets rebelled over brutal treatment and sympathy with French republican ideals. Warships commanded by mutineers blockaded the port of London.
The United States armed forces have at times also rebelled, for a variety of reasons. During the Mexican American War of 1946 to 1948 an entire battalion of Irish immigrants went over to the Mexican side; and in the Civil War fraternization was widespread.
But it was during the Vietnam War that resistance from inside the US military was most consequential. By 1971 the U.S. military was nearly unable to function due to active dissent among all branches of the armed forces. Aircraft carriers could not put to sea, airmen declined to fly, and ground units did not engage. Disgruntled troops had as much or more to do with ending the war than the anti-war movement.
Upon reflection, it is incredible that crucial facts about our military adventures, such as GI resistance during the Vietnam War, are almost entirely absent from the news and history as it is taught. The topic is deemed inappropriate for young minds in our high schools and most universities, and has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. One cannot but wonder how free our free society actually is.
The citizens of the world can hope for another spontaneous truce from the trenches. Perhaps one day we can realize the dream of President Eisenhower, who observed, "I think people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it."
Fitting words in a season of hope.
Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace and writes for "Peacevoice."