Christmas Truce of 1914, a series of spontaneous cease-fires along the Western Front where soldiers on opposing sides sang songs and played football. These brief expressions of camaraderie and goodwill stood in marked contrast to the carnage of the preceding months and the next four years. The British firm Sainsbury’s in cooperation with the Royal British Legion has recreated this famous moment in a short video.
Scholars are revisiting why the “Great War” occurred and lasted much longer than expected. For example, Stephen Walt’s “It’s Not the Guns of August – It’s the Trenches of October” examines the “July Crisis” that sparked the war, and lists strategic factors that prolonged the fighting: neither the Triple Alliance, nor the Triple Entente could deliver a decisive blow; both sides were industrial powers with large populations and diverse economies; their war aims increased over time; their politicians defended “sunk costs” by promising to deliver success as the fighting continued; censorship and propaganda convinced citizens that victory was just around the corner; and military establishments proved difficult for civilian governments to control, proclaiming there was “no substitute for victory.”
British historian B.H. Lidell Hart’s 1932 book The British Way in Warfare also investigated why the war lasted longer than expected from an strategic-operational vantage point that Americans marking the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War will find insightful. His third chapter, “The Sign Post That Was Missed,” notes that European military planners built their doctrines on the Prussian campaigns against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. They favored “the prompt application of superior force in a direct manner with little trace of guile.” In particular, the French assessed that moral superiority (elan) of their troops would overcome any inferiority in numbers. Hart judged that they were saved from their folly by German General von Moltke’s tinkering with and clumsy execution of the Schlieffen Plan. He made the German left flank too strong for the French to drive back and the right flank too weak to encircle Paris in a timely fashion. The result was the First Battle of the Marne and a long war.
Hart asked “What might have been the effect, and the difference, if military thought in pre-1914 Europe had been nourished on a comprehensive study of 1861-65 instead of on 1866-71? He argued that the Union operations in the West, far from the cockpit of the war in the mid-Atlantic, were more decisive in securing the North’s victory. Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and Grant’s victory at Vicksburg split the Confederacy in half. The Union’s strategic sequel, the opening of the Chattanooga gateway to Georgia, the granary of the South, made defeat “hardly avoidable” and led to Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. Hart then concluded that the collapse of the Confederate army was “due to the emptiness of its stomach reacting on its morale and (to) bad news from home.”
He speculated that had European military planners studied the American Civil War, they might have realized that “a quick decision in such a conflict of nations was but a bare possibility, which could only be fulfilled by adopting a truly subtle strategy to lure the opponent into a trap . . . On a higher plane an adequate study of the American Civil War would also have warned the General Staffs of Europe to expect and prepare for a long war, even though they hoped for a short war.” If so, the Christmas Truce might have been a Christmas Peace.
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William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013).