Christmas, 1914. The First World War had started only months before on July 28, 1914. The proximate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by a teenage Serbian Nationalist. But the origins of the war had deeper roots.
Fourteen years before, Ferdinand chose to marry Sophie Chotek despite the opposition of his uncle, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, who refused to attend their wedding. Though not exactly a commoner, Sophie came from a family of obscure Czech nobles and not from a reigning or formerly reigning dynasty of Europe.
“His marriage notwithstanding, Ferdinand remained Franz Josef’s heir and inspector general of the army. In that capacity, he agreed to attend a series of June 1914 military exercises in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria-Hungary had just annexed these provinces a few years earlier against the wishes of neighboring Serbia, which likewise coveted them.” (NOTE 1)
Even after receiving multiple warnings to cancel the trip, and knowing danger awaited, the archduke traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Traveling in Sarajevo by motorcade, the Archduke escaped a bomb explosion and rather than immediately fleeing Sarajevo, he decided to continue on with planned events and, finally, again by motorcade, went to visit the people hospitalized from the previous day’s bomb explosion. Unfortunately, a wrong turn and ensuing confusion, brought his car within reach of 19 year old Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian army reject, who shot the Archduke and his wife. (NOTE 1)
That same day, July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Within days alliances between countries were activated and they declared war on each other. In August of 1914, Germany, Russia, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Japan had entered the war. In November, Russia, Serbia, the UK and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
In 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Germany. Bulgaria declares war on Serbia and in turn the UK, France, Russia and Italy declared war on Bulgaria. In 1916, Portugal and Romania entered the War. On April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany and a few days later, China declared war on Germany and on December 7, the US declared war on Austria-Hungary. (Note 2) Eventually, over 100 countries were involved in the war.
Shortly after the war started,
“Pope Benedict XV, who took office that September, had originally called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was officially rejected. Yet it seems the sheer misery of daily life in the cold, wet, dull trenches was enough to motivate troops to initiate the truce on their own …. To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread, or if, by some curious festive magic, it broke out simultaneously across the trenches. Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.”( NOTE 3)
“The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting truces. Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916. The war had become increasingly bitter after devastating human losses suffered during the battles of the Somme and Verdun and the use of poison gas.
“The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a mood of “live and let live,” (emphasis added) where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behaviour and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there were occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades; in others, there was a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation—even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable—and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.” (NOTE 4)
The estimated casualties of World War One are 40 million with half of those being deaths, 10 million civilians and 10 million military personnel.
Had the Christmas Truce prevailed and the mood or inclination of the troops to “live and let live” had been allowed to manifest, so much injury, death and destruction could have been avoided.
As I go about my work as a Veteran For Peace, I ask the question: “Are you for war?” So far no one has answered “yes” to that question. I also ask the question: “Are you for peace?” and everyone answers in the affirmative. Yet people and nations are at war. Something appears to be awry. In ourselves? In the leaders of nations? In the cultures and systems that have been created? Exactly what is awry still needs to be discovered, acknowledged and corrected.
It is good to review this history and other similar histories of war, to recognize the extreme folly of war and the death and destruction that ensues. We are all in this life together. We must try our best to avoid war by fully dedicating ourselves to the cause of peace, within ourselves, in our communities, and in the world.
Richard Czaplinski, President
Will Miller Green Mountain Veterans For Peace, Chapter 57