The story of the Christmas truce is a myth but a benign one. That was the theme of the talk given by John Elder, former Head of History at Loretto, to an audience in the School’s theatre that included students from Germany and Belgium.
John said that, in the UK, more people know about the Christmas truce than about the assassination in Sarajevo that set in motion the train of events leading to World War One. It is a widely held belief, no doubt influenced by items of popular culture such as Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ video, that the truce represented the rejection of war. This view, according to John Elder, simplifies a more complex reality. The truce did not significantly change the soldiers’ view of Germany and the war. What it did change, though, was the attitude to individual Germans who most troops found to be decent people who shared their conditions, concerns and interests, and, like them, wished the war to be over.
John Elder placed the truce in an historical context. Truces for practical purposes, most notably collecting the wounded and burying the dead, were part of established military practice and had been witnessed in previous conflicts. During World War One some truces had taken place before Christmas Day, 1914 and many more were to happen during the rest of the war. However, none was on the scale of the Christmas truce of 1914.
One cannot talk about the Christmas truce without reference to football. Football was played at various points but it was not a regular organised game more the sort of semi-organised chaos that takes place in school playgrounds. It has been widely reported that Germany won 3-2 but John Elder argued that the result is not important. The important point is that two belligerents came together; it was the human spirt that was the victor.
The Christmas truce has achieved the status of a myth. In the eyes of many it represented a time when soldiers rejected war and expressed the desire to live in peace with their opponents. Myths take liberty with the truth and the reality was more complex. However, John Elder argued that the most powerful myths are those that capture the essential spirit of the event and the myth of the Christmas truce does this. Some myths that emerge from historical events can have damaging consequences. In this context John Elder referred to that of the ‘dolchstoss’ – the view that Germany had not been defeated in the war but stabbed in the back by socialists, communists and Jews. This myth took root in Germany after the war and had damaging consequences for political life in the Weimar Republic. John Elder contended that the myth of the Christmas truce, by contrast, is benign. War, he said, is not glorious but glorious things happened in war and the Christmas truce is such an event. Accordingly, the Christmas truce is to be remembered and celebrated. On the 25 December 1914 amid all the horrors, carnage and destruction the spirit of humanity shone through for a few magnificent hours and showed that an alternative and better world was possible.