History is filled with acts of barbarity, and modern history has more than its share.
One of the most barbaric battlefields was the Western Front in World War I, when the two sides were locked in an endless and brutal war of attrition, each side dug into a complex system of trenches, separated by the killing fields of ‘No Man’s Land,’ sometimes as little as 30 yards apart.
Every so often tens of thousands of men would go ‘over the top’ across No Man’s Land in an attempt—almost always futile—to gain a few yards of territory. This stalemate lasted for over three years and accounted for an estimated 13,000,000 military casualties—yes, that really is the right number of zeroes.
Wars have a way of disregarding holidays but the human spirit moves in mysterious ways. On Christmas Day, 1914, the soldiers on the two sides set aside their mutual slaughter and emerged from their trenches. Nothing was planned or agreed or approved: it just happened—the Christmas Truce. The two sides met and shook hands, exchanged gifts and drinks, sang carols and played soccer.
In his song ‘So this is Christmas,’ the late, great John Lennon (it was the 40th anniversary of his assassination earlier this month) wrote: ‘War is over, if you want it.’
Some, that Christmas Day in 1914, did not. Captain Robert Miles, of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, wrote of the enemy: “The beggars simply disregard all our warnings to get down from off their parapet, so things are at a deadlock. We can’t shoot them in cold blood…. I cannot see how we can get them to return to business.”
He need not have worried: the killing restarted soon enough. Happy Christmas, world!