The Forgotten Story of Christmas 1918Roundup
tags: World War I, Christmas, 1918
Mary Elisabeth Cox is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a junior research fellow at Oxford, a postdoctoral fellow at the British Academy and the author of “Hunger in War and Peace: Women and Children in Germany, 1914-1924.”
It’s a famous tale, and largely a true one: On Christmas 1914, five months into the First World War, groups of German and British troops along the Belgian and French border put down their weapons of war and held unofficial cease-fires. Men sang Christmas carols across the trenches on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day, some were brave enough to rise out of their trenches and walk into no man’s land to meet their enemies in person.
Photographs recall that day, as do concerned letters from higher-ups, instructing their men not to meet with the enemy. But the soldiers disobeyed orders; they shook hands, and shared cigarettes and other treats. (They may have even played soccer, though the evidence for such pop-up pitches is scant.) They also buried their dead together, taking care of the corpses trapped between the two lines that had been too dangerous to move during the fighting. The respite from bloodshed these soldiers chose was fleeting, and within days they had returned to their respective trenches and borders, and to fighting.
We recall that day in books, documentaries and films because, a century later, it still offers hope that even in our darkest hours, our common humanity overcomes our best efforts to destroy it. Hope prevails, goodness triumphs — even if just for a moment.
But there is another, less uplifting Christmas story from the Great War, one that undermines the sort of hopes that the 1914 tale elicits. This one took place four years later, just weeks after the Germans surrendered. By that point some 20 million soldiers and civilians on all sides had died from the fighting and its side effects, including rampant starvation in Germany brought on by the Allied blockade. The cruel but effective logic held that depriving civilians of food would make public support for the war collapse.