Do you know why they call the youths that came of age during World War I the “Lost Generation?”
It is not, as most claim, because those that lived through the war had been turned cynical and bitter from the wanton destruction and brutality of the war; it’s because barely anyone survived at all. In the Battle of the Somme alone, 1.1 million French, British, and German soldiers were killed.
They are called the lost generation because they were, quite literally, lost.
Millions were killed, and for what? Because a fading empire refused to forgive the actions of one bitter and angry Serbian teenager. World War I is perhaps the greatest example of man’s heartlessness. And yet, in the midst of this horror, I feel as if the human race also proved its humanity.
101 years ago this month, the din of rifle and artillery fire that had been dominating Europe’s soundscape since August went quiet. On Christmas Eve 1914 all across the Western Front, German and British soldiers were laying down their arms.
Now, a cease fire on a largely Christian continent on one of the most revered holidays of the year is hardly remarkable, but there is so much more to this Christmas truce, as it would go on to be known, than the cessation of hostilities.
On that Christmas Eve, soldiers from both Germany and England made their way into no man’s land — the aptly named space between either side’s fortifications where the terrible toll of the war could be seen in the countless marred and maimed bodies that littered the landscape.
And what did they do when they met there? Did they stare at each other with mutual contempt, exhibiting the understandable hatred one might have for a foe who had killed so many of his own? Did they avoid eye-contact all together and simply use the cease fire as an opportunity to bury their dead unmolested?
No, they met in that God-forsaken stretch of death determined to celebrate Christmas as if the war they were fighting didn’t exist at all.
Much to the chagrin of British and German officers, these soldiers began fraternizing in the middle of nowhere. These supposed enemies shared rations and stories, cigarettes and photographs. They even organized football games and sang Christmas carols together.
And when Christmas came to a close and it was time for the killing to recommence, these soldiers found themselves incapable of performing the very thing that made them soldiers. They were firing over the heads of their targets, unable to end the lives of their new friends.
The story of the Christmas Truce is all very nice, but what does it really mean in the grand scheme of things? It didn’t end the war, and some of World War I’s greatest atrocities — Verdun, Somme, Gallipoli — were still yet to come. This is an isolated moment of joy in an otherwise abhorrent sequence of events.
The reason I’m so enamored with it is because it reveals so much about war itself. The greatest weapon in waging any war is not an automatic rifle, a fighter jet, or even a nuclear warhead; it is conditioning. Specifically, it is convincing soldiers that the person at the other end of their rifle is not a person at all. I mean, It’s hard to kill a human, but it’s satisfying to slay a monster.
That spectacular day over 100 years ago proves just how impotent war is without this dehumanizing element. It proclaims our humanity. It proves our dedication to “king and country” comes second to our dedication to each other.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays.
Featured image courtesy: wikipedia.org