WWI Centennial: Third Christmas at War

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 260th installment in the series.

DECEMBER 25, 1916: THIRD CHRISTMAS AT WAR

“The third war-time Christmas … No one talks about peace any more,” wrote Piete Kuhr, a German teenager living in East Prussia, in her diary entry on December 23, 1916. Kuhr gave voice to a bleak realization shared across Europe, as the wracked and bleeding continent limped to the end of one dismal year, and fearfully contemplated another promising to be even worse—although no one could predict just what it held in store.

A few months before, in September 1916, Alois Schnelldorfer, a Bavarian soldier, warned his parents: “I am certain that we have not gone through the worst yet; things will still get worse. Unfortunately, once war has started, it cannot easily be stopped … the war will not end any time soon. It is inevitable that we will have [another] Christmas at war.” On the other side of the battle lines, Hazur Singh, an Indian soldier serving with the British Army in France, prophesied in a letter to his mother dated November 30, 1916: “The war will not be finished for a very long time. It will certainly not be finished before 1918. My regiment will certainly not return.”

AN INSINCERE PEACE OFFER

These grim predictions were confirmed in mid-December 1916, when Germany made a public offer to begin peace negotiations with the Allies, only to have it dismissed out of hand. In fact, Germany had no real intention of following through: the bogus peace proposal was simply meant to sway public opinion at home and abroad, especially in neutral countries, by shifting the blame for continuing hostilities on to the Allies. In truth it was merely a preamble to a brutal new intensification of the German war effort.

The offer of unconditional peace negotiations, published on December 12, 1916, was intended in large part for domestic consumption in Germany. After the German Social Democratic Party broke into two factions over the issue of whether to vote the government more war credits in late 1915, the moderate wing (which continued voting credits for the war effort, in contrast to the radical wing led by Karl Liebknecht) demanded evidence that Germany’s leaders were actively working for peace as the price of their continued support.

While hoping to placate the moderate socialists, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was coming under mounting pressure from the new military high command, led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his quartermaster general (in fact a close advisor on strategy) Erich Ludendorff, to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, most recently halted following American diplomatic protests prompted by the sinking of the Sussex in March 1916. Encouraged by Admiral von Tirpitz, the creator of Germany’s prewar navy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that the growing fleet of German U-boats could bring Britain to its knees by cutting off access to weapons, food, fuel, and other supplies crucial to the war effort imported from overseas—especially the United States.

To achieve this, however, they demanded that German submarine commanders once again be allowed to sink any and all ships, including unarmed merchantmen carrying neutral flags, without warning. Of course this would once again put Germany on a collision course with the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations (a thinly veiled threat of war) over unrestricted submarine warfare.

The peace offer of December 1916 was Bethmann Hollweg’s last, vain attempt to square the circle. By publicly offering to begin peace negotiations with the Allies—which he knew they would almost certainly refuse—the chancellor hoped to cast the blame for the continuation of the war on the Allies in the eyes of the American public and other neutral nations. Then Germany could claim it had no choice but to resort to extreme measures, including unrestricted submarine warfare, to subdue the warmongers. In other words, the sinking of neutral vessels by German U-boats would really be the fault of the Allies, prompted by their rejection of the German olive branch.

Unfortunately for Germany nobody bought this version of events. The German offer to begin peace negotiations was “unconditional,” meaning that the Central Powers would continue to occupy Belgium, northern France, Poland, and most of the Balkans while the two sides discussed peace terms. As the German leadership well knew, this was a non-starter for the Allies, who stipulated that the Central Powers must withdraw to pre-war borders before peace negotiations could begin (this is to say nothing of conflicting demands by the Allies and Central Powers for reparations and indemnities, which only made a real negotiated peace more improbable).

Following the Allies’ swift rejection of the bogus peace offer, American President Woodrow Wilson made a far more serious offer to host peace negotiations in late December, but the Germans angrily dismissed this, calling for direct negotiations between the Central Powers and the Alliesshowing just how insincere their original offer had been. The stage was set for Germany’s ill-fated resumption of U-boat warfare, and with it, America’s entry into the First World War.

END OF THE SOMME AND VERDUN

The close of 1916 also brought the end of two of the bloodiest battles in history: Verdun and the Somme. Both battles had been intended to finish the war, or at least set in motion the events that would do so, but both fell tragically short of this goal. What they accomplished, rather, was simply death on a scale defying comprehension.

At Verdun, Germany’s fruitless attempt to deliver a knockout blow to France, the French suffered 337,231 casualties, including 162,308 dead and missing (with most of the missing also dead, blown out of existence). For their part the Germans counted 337,000 casualties, including 100,000 dead and missing.

The almost even number of casualties is testimony to the abject failure of the plan formulated by the former German chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to lure the French into a battle of attrition—a failure which finally led to his dismissal and replacement by Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg. Indeed, one of the first actions taken by Hindenburg and Ludendorff on assuming the high command in September 1916 was the canceling of the Verdun offensive. But they couldn’t prevent the French from launching their own bloody counter-attack, which pushed the Germans back close to their starting positions by December 18, considered the official end of the battle.

Verdun is forever paired with the Somme, the Allied “Big Push” intended to break through the German defensive line in northern France and reopen the war of movement, setting the stage for Germany’s final defeat. The original plan for a massive Anglo-French joint offensive was derailed by the German onslaught at Verdun, which forced the French to withdraw many of their troops to defend the symbolic fortress city. The British bravely carried on with the Somme offensive at the request of the French, desperate to take the pressure off Verdun, but multiple failures in planning and execution resulted in disaster.

After the opening horror of July 1, the Somme quickly devolved into another brutal slugging match in the mud, with tens of thousands of lives sacrificed for gains rarely exceeding a few kilometers at a time. Each subsequent “Big Push” at the Somme was an epic battle in its own right, burning the names of tiny villages into the memory of the British public forever, including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, Morval and Thiepval Ridge.

The combat debut of tanks at Flers-Courcelette raised British morale and spread terror in the German ranks, but failed to deliver a decisive blow, due to their small numbers and untested tactics.

By the time it ended on November 18, 1916, the Battle of the Somme had cost Britain 420,000 casualties (including many troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa; above, Australian troops enjoy Christmas dinner at the Somme), the French 200,000, and the Germans at least 434,000. Altogether over 300,000 soldiers from both sides died at the Somme. The combined death toll of Verdun and the Somme, approaching 600,000, is comparable to all four years of the American Civil War.

ANOTHER WINTER IN THE TRENCHES

The famous Christmas Truce of 1914, and limited local truces during Christmas 1915, apparently weren’t repeated in 1916, although once again there were reports of troops disobeying their officers by attempting to fraternize with the enemy. These isolated incidents suggest that there were still feelings of goodwill across the battle lines—but for the most part any signs of untoward good cheer were nipped in the bud, as this account of a short-lived truce around New Year’s Day from Francis Buckley, a British junior officer, demonstrates. After a few signs of Christmas camaraderie, according to Buckley:

"… on New Year's Day it went even further. A soldier of the 5th N.F., after signals from the Germans, went out into No Man's Land and had a drink with a party of them. After this a small party of the enemy approached our trenches without arms and with evidently friendly intentions. But they were warned off and not allowed to enter our trenches. This little affair, I believe, led to the soldier being court-martialled for holding intercourse with the enemy."

In fact informal ceasefire agreements—without actual fraternization—continued to be a regular feature of trench warfare throughout the year, especially in quiet sectors of the front. But these provided no relief from the basic misery of living in a muddy, flooded ditch. As luck would have it, the winter of 1916 was one of the coldest on record, and across Europe growing shortages of food and fuel were felt both on the home front and in the trenches.

In many places along the Western Front, ice alternated with mud according to the temperature. John Jackson, a British junior officer, wrote of an everyday occurrence on the Somme, where the inescapable mud wasn’t merely uncomfortable, but actually life-threatening:

"… our attention was drawn to two men in a trench we were passing. On examination we found they were both stuck hard and fast in the mud in which they had been standing up to their waists for some hours. They were members of a party who had been relieved about midnight, and now, they had given up hopes of being rescued alive. Their strength was done, and our efforts to haul them out were of no use, until we leaned over the edge of the trench and unbuckled their equipments, and loosened the greatcoats they wore… Just a little further on we found two more fast in the mud, and to these also we gave a helping hand…"

Elsewhere on the Western Front, Louis Barthas, a barrel-maker from southern France, recorded typical conditions as snow alternated with rain in one particularly brutal week of December 1916:

"During these five days the torrential rain and snow never let up. The walls of the trench were sagging; the precarious shelters which men had dug for themselves collapsed in certain places. The trenches filled with water. It’s useless to try to describe the sufferings of the men, without shelter, soaked, pierced with cold, badly fed—no pen could tell their tale. You had to have lived through these hours, these days, these nights, to know how interminable they were in times like these. Proceeding in nightly work details or to and from the front lines, men slipped and fell into shell holes filled with water and weren’t able to climb out; they drowned or froze to death, their hands grasping at the edges of the craters in a final effort to pull themselves out."

As always, the miserable weather and living conditions were compounded by the other non-human foe of the ordinary soldier—boredom. Henry Jones, a British officer serving in the supply services behind the line, wrote home on November 22, 1916: “It is just a sordid affair of mud, shell-holes, corpses, grime and filth. Even in billets the thing remains intensely dull and uninspiring. One just lives, eats, drinks, sleeps, and all apparently to no purpose. The monotony is excessive.”

Again and again, in letters home soldiers emphasized that it was impossible to fully describe their experiences at the front, frequently adding that their listeners should consider this a blessing. Thus Asim Ullah, an Indian soldier serving in France, wrote home on October 16, 1916:

May God keep your eyes from beholding the state of things here. There are heaps and heaps of dead bodies, the sight of which upsets me. The stench is so overwhelming that one can, with difficulty, endure it for ten or fifteen minutes … God does not show any pity for them in their awful trial. In fact, the state of affairs is such that, on beholding it, one’s power to describe it ebbs away.

Subjected to these indescribable conditions, many men found themselves fundamentally changed, and rarely for the better—another common theme of letters and diary entries. On hearing about a gruesome accident at home, Clifford Wells, a Canadian officer, wrote to a friend on November 5, 1916: “It must have been quite a shock to you when your street-car killed the auto driver. It would have been to me a year ago, but now bloody death is a familiar sight. I am a different man to the one who enlisted in Montreal fourteen months ago. No one can go through the day’s work out here and remain unchanged.”

Similarly, in Erich Maria Remarque’s famous memoir and novel All Quiet On the Western Front, the protagonist Paul finds himself an alien when he goes on leave back home in Germany:

"I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world."

Even non-combatants found themselves hardened by the catastrophe still unfolding, which rendered death commonplace, even trivial. On that note the Conde de Ballobar, the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, wrote in his diary on March 27, 1917: “Assuredly everything is evolving and changing in this world: Before, I wasn’t capable of seeing a mouse die, and now, I not only watch typhus victims dying but can hear all about it almost with indifference…”

RISE OF SUPERSTITION AND OCCULT BELIEFS

In this context it’s no surprise that many thoughtful individuals also found themselves questioning long-held religious beliefs. The British diarist Vera Brittain, now working as a nurse, wrote to her brother Edward in May 1916: “… I must admit that when, as I am doing at present, I have to deal with men who have only half a face left & the other side bashed in out of recognition, or part of their skull torn away, or both feet off, or an arm blown off at the shoulder, & all these done only a few days ago, it makes me begin to question the existence of a merciful God …”

Often the undermining of traditional religious beliefs created a spiritual vacuum, which (depending on the individual) might be filled by folk superstitions, or in some cases even occult beliefs. Thus Hanns Bachtold, a Swiss ethnologist, told an audience at the University of Frankfurt on October 30, 1916:

"As the war drags on, the opinions of small religious societies and pseudo-scientific circles are spreading more and more next to the religion represented by the Church … With these new religious communities, some very old ideas and practices that were thought to have been forgotten for a long time resurfaced, mainly caused by the concern about keeping oneself alive. These ideas had held peoples in previous centuries spellbound and were still lying dormant in our people … For these changes mirror exactly all the fear and the misery and the hope that the war has caused in the people’s inner lives …"

Bachtold noted the spread of folks superstitions including protective ointments, shooting spells, protective shirts, and chain letters. In the same vein R. Derby Holmes, an American volunteer serving with the British Army, observed:

"Soldiers are rather prone to superstitions. Relieved of all responsibility and with most of their thinking done for them, they revert surprisingly quick to a state of more or less savage mentality. Perhaps it would be better to call the state childlike. At any rate they accumulate a lot of fool superstitions and hang to them … Practically every soldier carries some kind of mascot or charm. A good many are crucifixes and religious tokens. Some are coins."

As Holmes’ description indicates, some of the good luck charms were standard religious talismans, widely accepted by Christian believers before the war—but soldiers were increasingly fascinated by ancient symbols associated with the strange occult beliefs circulating before the war (the legacy, in part, of European obscurantist societies concerned with alchemy or other forms of secret knowledge, as well as the spiritualist craze which spread to Europe from the United States and Britain in the nineteenth century).

Often enough occult beliefs went hand in hand with racist ideologies, which asserted the supremacy of white “Aryans” over other races, influenced by the bizarre cosmology fabricated by spiritualists like the Russian medium Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which included reincarnation, pre-human species of super beings and secret underground cities. Reflecting Blavatsky’s interest in ancient Hindu and Tibetan mysticism, one of the favorite symbols of these marginal but growing groups was the swastika, which stood for the fundamentally cyclical nature of the universe as it passed through multiple phases of cosmic history (the direction of the arms indicating whether the universe was in an ascending or descending stage of evolution).

Influenced by another proponent of occult racism, the Austrian theosophist Guido von List, some German soldiers wore swastika charms into battle, either as a protective amulet or a promise of reincarnation if they were killed. However the use of the swastika wasn’t limited to German soldiers, as it was widely considered an emblem of good luck in Europe and America and employed in personal charms, even when it wasn’t associated with occult beliefs.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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December 25, 2016 - 12:00am
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