Meeting In The Middle, A Christmas Truce

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It was Christmas in the trenches where the frosts so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.

For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
had been crumbled and were gone forever more.

My name is Francis Tolliver.  In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned its lessons well.

That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,
and on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
-John McCutcheon in “Christmas In The Trenches.”

Katie Aguilera

On a frozen Christmas Day in 1914, after nearly five months of devastating fighting, soldiers on opposite sides of the “no-man’s land” that separated the Allies from the German forces came together to celebrate the holiday.  They did so in a spontaneous, collective desire to find some form of humanity, something not easy to do in the trenches of World War I.

Soldiers who had been told that they were enemies came together to help each other bury the dead who had been left to lie in the bomb craters where they fell, sometimes for days and weeks.  They exchanged tobacco, souvenirs, treats, alcohol, and more importantly, the gift of peace for a brief moment.

It’s not really known how it started, or how many soldiers partook in the unplanned Christmas truce of 1914.  Some stories suggest these gatherings between the trenches resulted from the soldiers taking turns singing carols to each other, some simply from soldiers calling out that they wouldn’t shoot if the opposing forces wouldn’t.

However it began, there are a variety of accounts, from several different areas along the front lines, of soldiers taking a break from war for the day.  Against the wishes of those in charge, those directing the killing and dying from afar, who saw such behavior as treasonous fraternizing with the enemy.

Reports of the Christmas truce had a brief appearance in newspapers in America and England, and a few scattered pieces in other newspapers around the world.  But right from the start, France wouldn’t allow the story in their papers.  Germany kept reports under wraps as well.  Soon, the reports faded from the media throughout the world, and the story of the 1914 truce became a topic that was avoided for decades.

It was a dangerous story, one that war-mongering politicians and big military industrial corporations who rely on the willingness of the common man to fight their wars have a powerful interest in suppressing.  Naina Bajekal wrote in her essay titled Silent Night:  The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914:

…for many at the time, the story of the Christmas truce was not an example of chivalry in the depths of war, but rather a tale of subversion:  when men on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors.

and,

The commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien believed this proximity posed the greatest danger to the morale of soldiers and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any ‘friendly intercourse with the enemy.’  In a memo issued on Dec. 5, he warned that:  ‘troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a live and let live theory of life.’

Of course.  Because it isn’t so easy to attack those you get to know.  If your enemy becomes a fellow human, with families and goals of their own, they are much harder to turn into a target.  And creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality is critical to maintaining a successful military, as well as keeping the rest of us at home supportive of the wars.  The tales of the Christmas truce were tucked safely away from public view.

According to David Brown in a Washington Post article, Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness, Maurice Floquet, a WWI veteran who was 111 at the time of the interview, said:

Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?

And Murdoch M. Wood, a British WWI soldier, is quoted as saying,

I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.

In other words, he believed that after the Christmas truce, the soldiers would have packed up and gone home, if their leaders had not required them to return to battle.  Imagine if the soldiers had.

Imagine if the common man, the citizens of this world, like the soldiers in 1914, laid down arms and emerged from trenches, crossing that no-man’s land of our leaders’ divisive intentions to shake hands.  To help each other bury our dead, to exchange tokens of compassion and peace.  Imagine if we simply turned our back on ‘their’ wars, returned to our homes, and worked towards our own prosperity.

That is my Christmas wish.  That we all accept, and admit to ourselves, that everyone in the world is a human being with families and goals of our own, beliefs of our own, lifestyles of our own.  Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t, but that is what makes humanity.  I wish we would stop letting corrupt politicians and greedy military industrial corporations convince us that other humans are targets, that they are our enemies because of our differences.  I wish we would adopt that ‘live and let live theory of life.’

Peace, and happy Holidays

 

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A History Lesson (Part Two) The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Katie Aguilera

In the early hours of July 28, 1914, the man who was then first in line to take the throne of Austria, along with his wife, left Philipovic army camp of Bosnia in a line of automobiles, on a drive that would end with death, and start a cascade of events that led to world war.  An initial attempt at killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand that morning by throwing a bomb at his car failed, but later that day, the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were fatally shot in their car in front of Moritz Schiller’s food store on Franz Joseph Street in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  It was an assassination that would trigger global conflict, four years of unprecedented death and destruction.

I think that most Americans, like me, were taught very little about World War I in school.  Just a quick, passing overview, the gist of which was something about Germany attempting to take over the world, lots of men dying in trenches, and Americans swooping in at the last minute to save the day, to save the world.  And there was a little something about some duke or something who was killed.  But there was never any explanation, there was no understanding of just how the assassination of one man and his wife could launch the entire world into such a bloody, devastating war.

World War I, known mostly as the Great War before World War II, began a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then invaded.  There had been increasing tensions between these countries, and surrounding countries, for decades.  Several treaties and agreements had been struck, creating a divisive and increasingly hostile atmosphere throughout Europe and Russia.  Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Italy had formed a Triple Alliance, agreeing to militarily support each other in the event that either of the three was attacked by any other powerful nation.  The Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland answered with an agreement of their own, the Triple Entente.  The dominoes were lined up in place, just waiting for the proper catalyst.

When Ferdinand’s car came to a stop outside the store where Gavrilo Princip had just stopped in to buy a sandwich after his fellow assassin, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, had attempted to kill the archduke with a bomb, Princip reacted quickly, and fired two shots.  He hit both the Archduke, and his wife Sophia, who sat next to him in the open car.  Both died shortly thereafter.  This gave Austria-Hungary the excuse it wanted to issue an ultimatum with several demands to Serbia, an ultimatum that was not expected to be agreed upon.  When Serbia agreed to all the demands except for one allowing Austria-Hungary’s participation in an internal investigation into the Archduke’s assassination, the dominoes fell and war was declared.  The countries of the world lined up and took their places in the battle, based on the alliances previously formed.

Over 70 million military personnel were mobilized during the Great War.  More than 9 million combatants were killed, and at least 7 million civilians died as well.  It was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the world.  So, just who was this man, Gavrilo Princip, who fired those two shots in Sarajevo that set the world aflame?  What led him to do it?

Gavrilo Princip was born on July 25, 1894 to Serbian parents whose family had been in Bosnia for centuries, according to Wikipedia.  His father was a farmer who earned additional income by transporting mail through the mountains between Bosnia and the Dalmatia region of Croatia.  Gavrilo was a good student, and at the age of 13 he moved to Sarajevo to be enrolled in school there.  In 1911, Gavrilo joined an organization known as Young Bosnia that wanted Bosnia freed from Austria-Hungary’s control and united with Serbia.  In 1912, Gavrilo was expelled from school after involvement in a demonstration against the Austro-Hungarian authorities.  He traveled to Belgrade, Serbia and volunteered to join the guerrilla groups under the leadership of Major Vojin Tankosic that were fighting the Turks.  He was rejected because he was small, and he returned to Sarajevo, humiliated, but traveled back and forth to Belgrade and eventually he met one of the founders of the Serbian Chetnik Organization, Zivojin Rafajlovic, who had him sent to Vranje where the Chetnik training center was located.  There Gavrilo trained to fight and use weapons.  This made him a good candidate for the assassination plot against Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Major Vojin Tankosic, who had rejected Gavrilo for his small size and would later admit to supplying the weapons used in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was a member of an organization known as Union or Death, commonly referred to as the Black Hand.  This group formed on May 9, 1911, and by 1914, when Gavrilo Princip would cross paths with them, they had several hundred members, possibly thousands.  Their goal was to bring about the creation of a Greater Serbia, in any way necessary, including the use of guerrilla fighters and saboteurs, and terrorism.  Many Black Hand members were also leaders in government positions, and as a result, the Black Hand had influence over government appointment and policy.  Even Crown Prince Alexander was a supporter.  The Black Hand decided to kill Archduke Ferdinand after learning of his planned visit to Sarajevo, and Gavrilo was recruited for the job, along with two other Young Bosnian members, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez.

The assassins were trained, and a short time before Ferdinand’s scheduled visit, they traveled back to Sarajevo with the help of Serbian military personnel, and were joined by four more men.  They were supplied with bombs and army pistols from Serbian arsenals.  It seems apparent that they had plenty of support from authorities, and the Black Hand’s activities were not very secret to the Serbian government, given its large number of government and army members.  Eventually, Prime Minister Pasic learned of the plan, and in hopes of avoiding conflict with Austria-Hungary by keeping the involvement of the Black Hand secret, a rather lack-luster attempt was made to stop the assassins with a recall order.  The essay, The Assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand: Trigger For War says this:

This ‘recall’ appears to make Apis (Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic) look like a loose cannon, and the young assassins as independent zealots. In fact, the ‘recall’ took place a full two weeks before the Archduke’s visit. The assassins idled around in Sarajevo for a month. Nothing more was done to stop them. The extensive network of contacts that smuggled them into Sarajevo, fed and housed them, was not utilized to stop them. This calls into question the Black Hand’s and the Serbian government’s desire that the plot truly be cancelled.

Pasic then decided to warn the Austrians.  Like the recall order, this was basically an effort to cover himself and the Serbian government, giving them a measure of deniability.  But it was a very vague and empty warning.  Jovan Jovanovic, the Serbian Minister in Vienna, simply said to Dr. Leon von Bilinski, the Austrian Minister of Finance, that Ferdinand should not go to Sarajevo because, “some young Serb might put a live rather than a blank cartridge in his gun and fire it.”  The implied warning was missed or ignored, and no further warnings were given.

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were murdered in Sarajevo, and the event was used to trigger the armed conflict that had been brewing for some time, that had in fact already been occurring in some areas.  It was just the excuse that was needed.  And it was delivered to the leaders of these countries through the hands of a young, idealistic man who believed he was fighting for his people, and was willing to die for that effort.

It can be easy, looking back, to speculate that the Black Hand, the Young Bosnia group, any of these secret societies, may have been manipulated and used in order to create desired events, to create the necessary trigger.  After all, this has occurred repeatedly throughout history.  There are enough examples to keep me busy writing history lessons for some time.  But, speculation aside, it is known that members of the Serbian military, and government knew of the assassination plan, and in fact, assisted in various ways to ensure that at least one of the seven assassins would succeed.  And for me, that is the most important lesson to be learned from this piece of history.

 

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