A hundred years ago, the world was halfway through World War I, a stalemated struggle in which the German and Allied armies constructed a matched pair of trench lines from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea coast of Belgium. These trenches were without flanks, with the results of battle to be decided by carnage and attrition.
The troops quickly realized they were in a no-win situation and—at the small-unit level (platoons or companies), in certain local sections, or among privates and non-commissioned officers—spontaneously resorted to non-aggressive, even co-operative behavior that became known as “live and let live.”
For example, when soldiers noticed that the occupants in opposing trenches were engaged in mealtime activities, they would sometimes refrain from disturbing them—”common courtesy,” they said. Sometimes soldiers from the opposing side would even share in meals.
Once a stone was lobbed over from a German trench with the following note attached: “We’re going to send over a 40-pounder. We don’t want to do this, but we’ve been ordered to. It will come this evening, and we’ll blow a whistle first so you’ll have time to take cover.”
In 1914, there was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the front around Christmas. In the week leading up to the holiday, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. Soldiers played football matches with one another. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, and several meetings ended in carol-singing.
In his book Trench Warfare 1914–1918: The Live and Let Live System, author Tony Ashworth used diaries, letters, and testimonies of former soldiers to research this phenomenon. He discovered that “live and let live” was widely known about at the time, and was common at specific times and places—but almost never with elite troops who took themselves seriously. It was often to be found when a unit had been withdrawn from battle and was sent to a rest sector.
The Higher Commands, Division, Corps, and Army Commanders and their staffs were aware of this practice, and would try to extinguish it. They sometimes analyzed casualty statistics to detect it.
Bogus reports of daring raids were submitted, but some commanders like Brigadier General Frank Percy Crosier didn’t believe them. He demanded that proof of the raids—samples of enemy barbed wire—be submitted with such reports.
So his enterprising soldiers collected a coil of German barbed wire in no man’s land, and snippets from this coil were submitted. The “old man” never knew.
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