The First World War (1914-1918) was marked not only by emergence of new types of weapon, but also by display of humanity and religious tolerance. Fraternization was a form of peacefulness between soldiers of belligerent states during World War I. It is a form of belligerent states soldiers’ protests against war, which was manifested simply as a passive inactivity, where both sides refrain from engaging in combat.
Fraternization was a regular feature in quiet front-line sectors of the Western Front. Major religious holidays, Christmas and Easter, served as the basis for truces.
The Christmas Truce on the Western Front
In 1914 on the eve of Christmas along the Western Front, a scattered series of small-scale ceasefires happened. The inspirational leader of the Christmas Truce was the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XV. On 7 December he proposed an official ‘Truce of God’ in which all hostilities would cease over the Christmas period. The authorities rejected the idea.
But soldiers, settled into the routine of life in the trenches, accepted the Pope’s call as a guide for action.
German soldiers were the initiators. On Christmas Eve, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches. The British responded by singing Christmas carols.
Soon thereafter, the bravest soldiers left their trenches, meeting in the middle to shake hands, exchanged greetings and gifts. They organized a football match between troops from the opposing armies.
During the Christmas Truce soldiers also buried the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.
Fraternisation along the British and German front line was a regular feature, while relations between French and German units were generally tenser. The probable reason was that Germany had occupied French territory and French soldiers were angrier than the British. It was psychologically difficult for them to come into contact with the occupant.
The truce was not observed during subsequent years. The high commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again. Many soldiers enjoyed the war. For the British soldiers there was meat every day – a rare luxury back home – cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of more than 4,000 calories.
Unfortunately, after the Christmas Truce hostilities weren’t ceased on the Western Front. There were gas attacks and many human losses during the battle of Verdun. The war resulted in an estimated 700,000 casualties in Britain, 1,300,000 – in France and 2,000,000 – in Germany.
Easter fraternization on the Eastern Front
On the Eastern Front fraternization between soldiers from the opposing armies was widespread and had broad political consequences.
The first fraternization on the Eastern Front was registered before the Easter in April 1915. As described in documents, soldiers exchanged food, cigarettes and alcohol drinks. It should be noted that alcohol drinks were prohibited in the Russian army. That’s why Russian soldiers gladly exchanged food for snaps. At first Russian command didn’t pay much attention to that fact.
There was a new massive wave of fraternizations on Easter Sunday 1916. Dozens of regiments participated in fraternization. But not all officers endorsed these actions. For example, general P.D. Radko-Dmitriev, the commander of the 12h Army, after the Easter ordered to shoot at the fraternizing soldiers.
It must be noted that since that time fraternization was used as a war ruse. Under the guise of truce soldiers were invited to the enemy’s trenches where they were captured. The first reported case occurred on Easter Day 1916, when German soldiers captured one hundred and thirty Russian infantrymen. After that case general A.A. Brysilov, Commander-in-Chief of the armies of South-West front, in his order № 643 of April 18, 1916 focused especially on the fact that fraternization is a gross violation of military discipline and highlighted the enemy’s treacherous attacks.
But there were no instructions on how the soldiers should best respond in such situations, so fraternization continued. There was another Easter truce in 1917. Over one hundred regiments participated in fraternization. It became systematic. The fall of autocracy has contributed to it. After the February Revolution military discipline was undermined and belief in the necessity to end war dominated. Slogan “Down with the war!” became very popular among Russian soldiers.
Having assessed the situation, German and Austro-Hungarian command recommended officers and soldiers who served on the Eastern front, to spread propaganda of pacifist ideas among Russian soldiers. Often peace talks were conducted by well-trained agitators from among German officers. They criticized the provisional Government and its actions. And soldiers, who were mostly illiterate peasants, believed that antimilitary propaganda. Fraternization between German and Russian soldiers ceased after the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed.
Nowadays the Christmas Truce is considered as a symbolic moment of peace and humaneness. Thus, to honour the Christmas Truce of 1999 a monument was erected. A football match became an important episode of fraternity. In December 2014 UEFA President Michel Platini inaugurated a monument commemorating the 100th anniversary of the World War One Christmas truce in Belgium. “We are gathered here as one to mark that moment of brotherhood and friendship which reassures us of our shared humanity. I find it particularly moving to imagine those young men 100 years ago finding a common language in football to express their shared brotherhood”, Mr Platini said.
But Easter truces had little social and political effect.
These examples of peacefulness give us hope that a threat of war is yielding to friendship and respect.