It was brazen and insulting that Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message dwelt on the truces in the trenches during World War I. Her predecessors and their ilk sent millions of people to their death despite the truces, which the royals and their henchmen were eager to stop.
It was also misleading. She was talking about one case, which could be made to seem unique. But contrary to the impression created by the Queen, there were many truces organised by rank and file soldiers. They were endemic for a time. The authorities hated any hint of workers acting for peace, and tried to stop them.
Historian Tony Ashworth, in his book Trench Warfare, quotes a British officer touring the trenches in France, who reported that he was “astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own lines. Our own men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the principle of ‘live and let live’.”
How was this possible despite fierce repression from officers on both sides? After a few months, military tactics in 1914 shifted from highly mobile actions to trench warfare. Non-aggression deals happened almost as quickly; by Christmas they were widespread. But these were stamped out easily. Orders were issued that the soldiers “were in France to fight and not to fraternise with the enemy”, several soldiers were court-martialled and whole battalions were punished.
So the soldiers moved to new tactics. These were built on the principle of shoot-over-their heads. Activists on both sides noted when their counterparts would do during certain things such as pause for meals. Formally or informally, the troops negotiated when and where firing took place. The other side was tipped off, but one’s own officers were kept in the dark. To them it all just looked like aggressive military action.
A British officer reported what he saw when facing a Saxon unit of the German army: “We heard a lot of shouting and went out to negotiate. We found our men and the Germans standing on their respective parapets. Suddenly a salvo arrived but did no damage. Naturally both sides got down and our men started swearing at the Germans, when all at once a brave German got on his parapet and shouted out: ‘We are very sorry about that; we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault. It is that damned Prussian artillery.’”
This exercise in mass solidarity was ended by new military tactics that the rank and file couldn’t easily manipulate. But that wasn’t the end of the story. These experiences must have been in many soldiers’ living memory when the unrest began that led to revolutions in Germany and Russia in 1917-18.