In my years of teaching, I always included the Robbers Cave Experiment by Sherif and Sherif, a famous couple of social psychologist researchers who came on faculty during my years as an undergraduate at OU. (In the early ’50s, his Middle Eastern appearance stood out.) Young boys who were friends were selected to attend a summer camp near Wilburton where they were split apart into teams that engaged in zero-sum competition that led to former friends feeling hostility toward each other.
I always wondered why in the heat of their play battles some of those boys didn’t stop and question what had happened to them and opt out of the contrived situation causing them such hostility toward those who should otherwise be their friends.
Ordinarily I don’t include extensive quotations in my articles, but when I read this account in my reading about WWI, I felt it was worthy of inclusion.
“It was cold enough in December 1914 in France that the mud had frozen hard, making it easier to walk about. Christmas day, a spontaneous truce occurred in different places on the Western Front. Soldiers put their heads above the trenches and called out ‘Merry Christmas’ across the barbed wire in their enemy’s language. They crawled out to greet each other, met in no man’s land, shook hands, exchanged souvenirs, smoked and drank together, and played soccer.”
Many soldiers wrote home about it in wonder, including the following excerpts from a letter by Capt. E.W. Hulse, a graduate of Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, to his Mother.*
“Just returned to billets again after the most extraordinary Christmas in the trenches you could possibly imagine. Words fail me completely in trying to describe it, but here goes.
We stood to arms as usual at 6:30 a.m. on the 25th and I noticed that by 8 a.m. there was no shooting at all. At 8:30 a.m. I was looking out and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us; I told two of my men to go and meet them UNARMED [as the Germans were]. We were 350-400 yards apart at this point. I and one of our ensigns went out and met them. They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce…”
“We then entered on a long discussion on every sort of thing…I asked them what orders they had from their officers as to coming over to us, and they said NONE, they had just come over out of goodwill. They protested that they had no feeling of enmity towards us at all, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey. They said that unless directly ordered, they were not going to shoot again until we did. We parted after an exchange of English cigarettes and German cigars.”
Page 2 of 2 - “At 10 a.m. I saw to my amazement a crowd of about 150 British and Germans at the half-way point [in no man’s land] , but six or seven such crowds, all the way down our lines. Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc…. A German NCO with the Iron Cross started his fellows off on some marching tune. When they had done I set the note for “The Boys of Bonnie Scotland.” And so we went on singing everything [German and British]. If I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn that it was faked…..”
It was a perfect day, everything white, and the silence seemed extraordinary after the usual din. From all sides birds seemed to arrive, and we hardly ever see a bird. Later in the day I fed about 50 sparrows outside my dug-out which shows how complete the silence and quiet was. It is the first time, day or night, that we have heard no guns, or rifle-firing, since I left Havre. During the afternoon another meeting took place, and at 4:30 p.m. we agreed to keep in our respective trenches and told them the truce was ended…”
Three weeks later Captain Hulse was killed, aged 25. It was the only unofficial truce of the war. By the following Christmas orders had been given to both sides prohibiting any repeat of it.
“These were young men who obeyed orders, who wanted to be heroic, who felt no enmity toward those on whom they inflicted mortal violence. They killed in response to a higher command. Christmas was a day to go beyond military orders to the idea of peace and goodwill to all men.
Corporal Adolph Hitler entered combat as a runner in the First Battle of Ypres Oct. 23, 1914, and remained in that position and at that grade throughout the war. Only 600 of his unit’s 3,500 men survived that battle. Back near Ypres in Oct. 14,1918, he was blinded by a British gas attack and taken to a hospital in Poland where he was convalescing when the war ended Nov. 11.
Corporal Hitler always disapproved of the Christmas truce. He felt that there should be no question of something like that during war. For him, there was no higher law than martial law.* He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for extraordinary bravery in WWI—an unusual honor for a corporal. As Chancellor of the Third Reich, he wore that medal throughout WWII—his war. **
• Souhami, Diana, ‘Edith Cavell,’ London: Quercus Pub.,2010, Ch.27.
• Bullock, Alan, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” NY: Harper & Brothers, 46.