Friday, December 25, 2009

The "Christmas Truce" and a Murder that Turned into a World War

Thank God, the wishing and saying of “God bless” and “take care” are over. Empty, facile, unoriginal, insincere, it seems. But we say these words all the time. Do we care? Some do but some don’t. A few thoughts in this time of forced jollity and superficial caring, where we depend on messages on Facebook or on the mobile phone to make our day, not live conversations with friends and relatives. I called up all my siblings, with whom I am on good terms: a brother and sisters. No, they didn’t call. The onus is on me I guess. I am a little upset about that. I believing forgiveness and forgive a lot to a lot of people. But there are a few hurts that cannot be forgiven.

Read this on Ratna Rajaiah’s blog “Choti Mooh”. It’s the story of “Christmas Truce” when around 1,00,000 British and German soldiers fighting the First World War came together in the battlefield to sing hymns and celebrate Christmas as well as they could. This was the war that escalated into a big battle of nations because one trivial event led to another and then another. Led me to research the First World War a bit and, serendipitously, I found a lot of information online.

The spark that ignited the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo in Serbia on 28 June 1914. Here’s a film footage of Ferdinand’s arrival in Sarajevo. Austro-Hungary asked Serbia for an explanation.

Then started a chain of bizarre events that led to an even macabre massacre of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, which is documents in the website

  • Austria-Hungary, unsatisfied with Serbia's response to her ultimatum declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914.

  • Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, announced mobilisation of its vast army in her defence, a slow process that would take around six weeks to complete.

  • Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilisation as an act of war against Austria-Hungary, and after scant warning declared war on Russia on 1 August.

  • France, bound by treaty to Russia, found itself at war against Germany and, by extension, on Austria-Hungary following a German declaration on 3 August.  Germany was swift in invading neutral Belgium so as to reach Paris by the shortest possible route.

  • Britain, allied to France by a more loosely worded treaty which placed a "moral obligation" upon her to defend France, declared war against Germany on 4 August.  Her reason for entering the conflict lay in another direction: she was obligated to defend neutral Belgium by the terms of a 75-year old treaty.  With Germany's invasion of Belgium on 4 August, and the Belgian King's appeal to Britain for assistance, Britain committed herself to Belgium's defence later that day.  Like France, she was by extension also at war with Austria-Hungary.

  • “With Britain's entry into the war, her colonies and dominions abroad variously offered military and financial assistance, and included Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa.

  • “United States President Woodrow Wilson declared a U.S. policy of absolute neutrality, an official stance that would last until 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - which seriously threatened America's commercial shipping (which was in any event almost entirely directed towards the Allies led by Britain and France) - forced the U.S. to finally enter the war on 6 April 1917.

  • Japan, honouring a military agreement with Britain, declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914.  Two days later Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Japan.

  • Italy, although allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary, was able to avoid entering the fray by citing a clause enabling it to evade its obligations to both.  In short, Italy was committed to defend Germany and Austria-Hungary only in the event of a 'defensive' war; arguing that their actions were 'offensive' she declared instead a policy of neutrality.  The following year, in May 1915, she finally joined the conflict by siding with the Allies against her two former allies.”

Before anybody knew it, it became a global war, and hundreds of thousands got killed, for no apparent fault of theirs. But the spirit of “Christmas Truce” in the trenches of France made heart-melting reading. Thanks Ratna. If only people decide what they want politically, and whether they want to get killed in a foreign country, or celebrate the spirit of love, which is the theme of Christmas. I wish; I wish.


ms said...

john, see the film, "no man's land", set in croatia-serbia. shows that while all military planning and strategies are carried out by old men, it is the young who are actually at the battlefront. sometimes these "pawns" are more compassionate and humane, torn with moral dilemmas. why wars are declared, lives sacrificed, who knows? the cause of the first world war has always baffled me. had history as a subject all my academic life. after the second world war, historical events are not historic anymore. just dates and mishaps, nothing of human significance. leaders and heroes are now replaced by autocrats, terrorists and corrupt politicians. what is the modern history of the world? regional and racist skirmishes. gone are the days of grand battles for idealistic causes. no more battle of Troy, 1857 mutiny. no honourable mentions of memorable actions on battlefields. only a compilation of innocents blown up by self-centred hooligans or nations run over by ambitious dictators. c'est la vie!

Shastri JC Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shastri JC Philip said...

I always wondered about the origin of WWI and WWII. Thanks for this summary of WWI. Can we now have WWII also?

Shastri Philip