- - Tuesday, November 10, 2015

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE: MYTH, MEMORY AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR

By Terri Blom Crocker

University Press of Kentucky, $40, 300 pages

“History has a double role: to destroy the illusions of the past and to create out of the debris a more extended, a more rational, a more detached sense of human destiny,” the British historian Lady Elizabeth Longford wrote in her biography of the Duke of Wellington.

Terri Blom Crocker certainly heeded Lady Longworth’s advice in debunking a late-blooming but persistent mythology concerning some faux history about the World War I: a mass revolt against further fighting by soldiers on both sides, starting with an informal “truce” at Christmas 1914.



As Ms. Crocker relates, she was working on a paper about the war when she “stumbled across the story of the Christmas truce.” At first, she believed “many of the standard fictions about it, including the myth that the newspapers had censored the event.” She reviewed British newspapers from the period and found that the brief cease-fire had been extensively reported. “I discovered that everything I knew about the truce was wildly inaccurate.”

So how and why did the myth take such a firm hold on the public imagination decades after the fact? Ms. Crocker points an accusing finger at latter-day pacifists who used the 1914-18 conflict to support their thesis that all wars were needless, and especially Vietnam. The view remains prevalent among many current British “historians,” to her dismay.

Ms. Crocker describes the left-leaning historian A.J.P. Taylor as the “main myth-maker of the First World War.” Among his conspicuous activities was his role as a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which essentially advocated a turn-the-other-cheek policy toward the Soviet Union during the frostiest years of the Cold War.

In a popular “history” of World War I, Taylor pushed the notion of “a-war-without-a-cause.” In response, Ms. Crocker gives him a smart whack across the shins. She writes, “the Germans had a definite aim in promulgating the war: Their goal was to dominate central and west Europe, both economically and militarily.” Britain and France had a choice: either fight or capitulate. The matter meant leaving Belgium, northern France and parts of central and eastern Europe under German domination.

Nonetheless, writings by Taylor and other historians spawned popularized versions of the myth such as the highly successful musical play (later a movie) titled “Oh What A Lovely War!” The general theme was that the fighting persisted because of numbskull leadership by politicians and generals; that had the decision been up to the men in the trenches, the war would cease. (A strong sub-theme in such presentations was the Vietnam War, which meant that the movie drew admiring leftist audiences when it reached the United States.)

The core of the “Christmas truce” contained a grain of truth. British and German soldiers spontaneously decided to stop shooting during a brief Christmas interlude, leaving their trenches to exchange greetings and share food, cigarettes and drink.

Did the press ignore this and other temporary armistices? Ms. Crocker found that newspapers such as the Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Manchester Guardian quoted letters from soldiers under headlines such as “Christmas Truce/Mingling With the Enemy,” and “A Christmas Truce at the Front/Enemies at Football.”

Another such truce, at Christmas 1915, resulted in court martial proceedings against two officers for “conduct to the prejudice of good order.” A military jury took 10 minutes to acquit one officer. The other officer was convicted and received a reprimand. But the sentence was promptly quashed by Gen. Walter Haig, the British commander in chief. (That the officer was later promoted to the rank of brigadier general demonstrates that the “episode did nothing to impede his career.”

Another part of the myth is that the mass media did not report on the horrid conditions caused by trench warfare. Here again, Ms. Crocker lets the record speak the truth. She cites the distinguished author John Buchan, who wrote an ongoing history of the war for the Times of London, which was published in monthly serial form. Buchan detailed “the misery of standing for hours up to the waist in icy water, of having every pore of the skin impregnated with mud, of finding the walls of a trench dissolving in slimy torrents, while rifles jammed, clothes rotted and feet were frost-bitten.”

To be sure, journalists did not have total and free access to the battlefield. John Mosier, in his 2013 book “Verdun,” writes that secrecy was a “deliberate policy” of both sides. As Mr. Mosier observed, “There would be no independent journalists or interested civilians poking around the battlefields and drawing their own conclusions.” (The professional military learned a bitter media lesson during the American Civil War, when free-roaming journalists from both the North and the South frequently revealed strategic plans in advance of battles.)

Terri Blom Crocker’s book is a powerful and convincing corrective to misinformation that the professional left has adopted for its own nefarious reasons. I hope we hear more from this young historian in the future.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books, including “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (McGraw Hill).

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