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Trench Truces-Before and Beyond Christmas 1914

By danielifearn - Posted on 29 December 2011

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is only the most widely known impromptu truce. But anecdotal accounts abound of other truces, trades and temporary accommodations.

This from Walter Lord's account of the sinking of the light cruiser USS Helena contained in Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons.


Soon more planes arrived-but this time they were Zeros. Watching them approach, Major Kelly recalled the recent Bismarck Sea affair, where Allied aircraft strafed the Japanese life rafts after sinking their transports. This was no gentleman's war, and he steeled himself for the worst.



But the Zeros didn't shoot. The nearest pilot simply pulled back his canopy and looked at them closely. Circling, the planes made a second run, and again held their fire. As they circled for a third run, they got off a few short bursts, and Kelly felt sure that this time would be "it". As they roared by, practically touching the water, the lead pilot grinned, waved, waggled his wings…and then they were gone.


The Zero pilots could have machine gunned the survivors, but didn't. Perhaps they thought "Why waste ammunition?" But, then why wave and waggle?

These types of stories can be found in all types of war books from personal diaries and unit diaries to general histories and treatises on grand strategy, and in all times and places. They are quite common even in fictional accounts of warfare. The truth of it is that plenty of pacific communication goes on between belligerents in times of war. However, we seem to be conditioned not to see what is actually going on. It appears that in the dialectic that is War and Peace; war trumps peace, despite the massively overwhelming evidence that peace, or at least non-belligerence, is the predominate fact of existence in both Peacetime and Wartime.

I suggest reading Tony Ashworth's Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System by Macmillan Press and first published in 1980 for a comprehensive account of non-belligerence in the trenches of the Great War. The headings of the first chapter indicate where the book is going. The Elementary Forms of Live and Let Live: Christmas Truces, Fraternisation and Inertia. The Problems of Communication. Ashworth systematizes and correlates information about what he calls the “Live and Let Live System” in a way that is rarely, if not uniquely done. Though the text seems dry and technical, you simply must take a book that explains the bureaucratization of trench warfare and illuminates the rewards for compliance and punishments for deviance between antagonists seriously. I suggest the peaceable would be more successful in opposing wars if they understood the mechanics of live and let live during war better.

I have not encountered any other book that so perfectly jives with my own experiences of war. I simply can not get the idea of British "Trench Cows" out of my mind.

There are five recorded cases of trench cows, each in different divisions-the 5th, 18th, 30th, 48th and 51st-and on different sectors near the Somme. Usually, each cow had its own dug-out and was grazed at night; during a relief the outgoing battalion handed over cow together with official trench stores, to the incoming battalion. One private soldier of the 30th division was a full-time but unofficial cowman for two months.

Just how can one keep a trench cow from mooing? It's an obvious invitation to a mortaring. Since the cows were not mortared or machine gunned or otherwise blown up or gunned down, the Germans must have been cooperating in some way that allowed the Tommy to have milk with his tea in his trench undisturbed. For all I know the Germans were allowed to share in this bit of trench domesticity. Perhaps milk for a bit of tiffin was left in no man's land for a German patrol to "find".

Ashworth’s book is important because it focuses on the mechanisms of communication among combatants; and correctly identifies how even a firefight or barrage tells something about the intentions of the other camp.  Ashworth's book does not focus on one overly mythologized incident in 1914 France, and it doesn't romanticize warfare.   It is just Ashworth's hardheaded, unemotional, nuts-n-bolts prose that helps prove his point.

It's hard to believe a bullet can be a peace symbol, but if you read Ashworth's book, you'll see that it is so. So hard to believe indeed, people seem purposely to miss the obvious fact of just how much peace is going down during war.

Daniel I. Fearn
Former Sergeant of Marine Infantry

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