This article was originally posted on Bristol Radical History Group’s website in December 2012.
The above film ‘Balls to War: a Sports Report from 1170 A.D. to the Present’ was submitted to BRHG by the poet and activist Heathcote Williams whose poetry has featured in several of our events over the last couple of years. This is definitely worth a watch especially for the amazing photographs concerning the fraternisation between British and German front-line troops on Christmas Day 1914. Now we all know about this story, well, I was certainly ‘educated’ about it at school. How German troops sang ‘Silent Night’ and the Tommies responded, then the crossing of the lines into ‘No Man’s Land’ and a game of football. It is now an iconic part of the popular history of WWI.
One thing that always confused me as I got older was why this potentially subversive act was even known about, let alone had become iconic. One completely taboo area in most nation-states history is mutiny in its armed forces (unless it led to a ‘succesful’ revolution of course where the history becomes available, e.g. Russia in 1917). BRHG have covered several of these hidden histories (for example the massive wave of mutiny, desertion and refusal in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam war, which certainly helped bring it to an end…see Sir! No Sir!) precisely because they aren’t known. And of course BRHG ask the more fundamental question; ‘Why don’t we know about them?’. However, the fraternisation in December 1914 bucks the trend, as it is widely known and taught in our schools. So why is this the case?
The first point to make is that we don’t actually know the full story and it is far more subversive than we imagine. Firstly, the initial fraternisation involved about 100,000 troops on both sides, not just a couple of football teams! It spread spontaneously like wildfire along whole sections of the western front and despite protestations from commanders it could not be stopped. It did not last one ‘holy’ day as is presented in the story, but in some areas of the front well into February 1915. The events were also successfully repeated in 1915 at Easter, in November and again despite explicit attempts to stop them at Christmas. British, French and German troops were involved in all these incidents.
For about a week, after the Christmas Day truce of 1914, the British Military and Government desperately tried to suppress news of the event. However, by the literal ‘weight’ of word of mouth and letters home from soldiers, the news leaked out. The authorities could not smother such an amazing story and it effectively went ‘viral’ amongst first the troops and then the public. It appeared in the press in the U.S. first and then it was widely publicised in the British media, with the first photographs appearing on 8th January 1915.
So this is why we know about the ‘Christmas Truce’, people talked en masse and the authorities eventually had no choice but to acknowledge it. However, in the great British tradition of propaganda, from Afghanistan to Dunkirk (and Hillsborough), if a story is ‘unfortunately’ out because it has been witnessed by tens of thousands, then it has to be sanitised, distorted or downgraded to remove its unpaplatable message. In the case of the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914 it is minimalised, shortened and turned into a particular ‘miracle’ related to Christian morality. It was an extraordinary aberration, a moment of ‘happy madness’ which restores our ‘faith’ in humanity or some other religious bollocks. So we end up with a peculiar but interesting incident which gives us a sniff of subversion but no more, amongst the bloody slaughter of WWI.
Of course, refusals to fight, desertion and massive armed mutinies led to the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the French, German and to some extent British Forces in 1917-18. I would argue that the degree to which the actions of the mutinous and revolutionary working class in Europe in this period stopped WWI, saving millions of lives, is massively underestimated and under-researched by historians. But this is no surprise; no nation-state is going to propagate the idea that ‘revolutionary defeatism’, mutiny and ‘turning your guns on your own officers’ is either the best way to stop war-machines or a good Christmas message! This is our and your job.
If you want to read more about the hidden histories of mutiny in WWI then check these excellent sources out:
- Solidarity’s excellent pamphlet on mutinies in the British armed forces towards the end of World War I
- The Wilhelmshaven Revolt – A Chapter of the Revolutionary Movement in the German Navy, 1918-1919
- The French Black Sea Fleet
- And Bulgaria
RB 29th Dec 2012