It may sound like a cliché, but going forward, it is vitally important that you understand the following: the world was a very different place in 1914. All of Africa, save Ethiopia, was owned by colonial powers, Russia was still a monarchy, the United States was in the middle of an invasion of Mexico in an attempt to capture General Pancho Villa, the Panama Canal had only just opened, both China and India’s populations combined were still well below one billion, and the Cubs winning the World Series was still a viable option. In less geopolitical and more domestic terms, women still did not have the right to vote, the US was in the middle of the nadir of race relations (see my post on James Garfield for more details), the most popular and affordable car in the country, at a price of $440, was the Ford Model T, average life expectancy for a man was only 52 years (expectancy for a woman was hardly better, at 56.8 years), and movies were silent (which, if you’ve seen Fifty Shades of Grey, you might wish they still were). There were no cell phones, no internet, televisions, or personal computers, which shouldn’t surprise you, but what may is that there were also no radios, band-aids, insulin, penicillin, or even bubble gum. To someone from the 21st century, 1914 may as well be a different world.
Attitudes towards war were completely different, as well. War was still considered to be a gentlemanly pursuit, and as such, there were rules to how one should conduct oneself in war. That shouldn’t sound silly; we have rules today, as well (the Geneva Convention immediately springs to mind), but the rules of 100 years ago were what we would consider to be generous, even bordering on naïve at times. The Hague II (1899), in particular, set down a number of laws, including (but certainly not limited to) the prohibition of the use of poison or poisoned weapons, of killing or wounding an enemy soldier who has surrendered, of declaring that no quarter will be given (in slightly more contemporary language, “no mercy”; in even more contemporary language, you won’t sic Jack Bauer on them), of attacking towns/buildings that are not defended, and of pillaging in general. In addition, military hospital ships, as well as the crew (medical or religious) were said to be inviolate from capture, and shipwrecked persons were automatically considered to be prisoners of war. According to Hague XIII (1907) belligerents were to leave neutral ships alone and not engage in any actions that would violate that neutrality.1 The rules go on and on, but the basic gist, at least as people of the time understood it, is this: if you followed the rules, you’d probably be okay. Maybe you’d wind up as a prisoner of war, sure, but you’d be treated humanely and, above all, you’d survive.
People had great confidence that the rules would protect them, much as they had great confidence in their technology (for a famous example, see the RMS Titanic). There was a sense at the turn of the 20th century that human achievement had reached a great pinnacle, that with our growing technology, we could attain any heights, and even that we had evolved beyond the need for war (or enough lifeboats).
Which is sadder, that they were so naïve about human nature as to believe that they had progressed to a point where the evils of the world could never again trouble them, only to see their achievements crashing down around them? Or that we, a century later, have learned all too well that those who wish harm upon us will happily ignore the rules? I really don’t know.
Young men going off to war 100 years ago looked upon the whole undertaking as a great adventure. They expected glory and a quick victory. “Pal Battalions,” common early on, were British battalions comprised entirely of young men who’d signed up with all of their friends, or all of the other men from their village with the promise that they would serve together (of course, when these battalions were inevitably eviscerated together, as well, the impact on the village from which they had come was incalculable; the term “Lost Generation” in Britain originally had a much more literal meaning than it did here in America). One young British man enthused about getting the chance to kill a few Germans with the full expectation that he’d make it home in time for Christmas. Another wrote in a poem, “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England…” Similar attitudes prevailed among young German men.
At first, those optimistic attitudes held firm, resulting in the famed Christmas Truce of 1914. The Christmas Truce was a series of unofficial truces all up and down the Western Front. German and British soldiers stopped fighting. They came together across No Man’s Land, singing Christmas carols together, playing football (soccer, not gridiron football) together, even exchanging food and gifts with each other. These truces lasted for differing periods of time in different locations, but in some spots, they lasted until after New Year’s. One soldier, Second Lieutenant Dougan Chater, wrote in a letter to his mother,
“About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”
Another soldier recalled, “We talked… One of them said, ‘We don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill us. So why shoot?’”2
The Christmas Truce has been the subject of a great deal of fascination, I believe not least because this was the last time in history that such an event could take place. Some men tried to make the same thing happen again the following year, but with very limited success, and by Christmas 1916, no one was in the mood for any sort of truce. It was not just the passing time and unpleasant living conditions wearing on the men that made it impossible – though that certainly didn’t help. World War I was, in many ways, a 19th century war that was being fought with 20th century technology, and attitudes were beginning to catch up with the weaponry.
It is an examination of this changing weaponry and how it altered warfare that we’ll be discussing in next week’s post.
1 If you find historical rules of war and engagement to be as interesting as I do, you can read typed transcriptions of the primary source documents at The Avalon Project.
2 Both Christmas Truce quotes cited from Spartacus Educational.