In recent weeks, as the Western Front has settled into a stalemate of exhausted armies conducting a protracted siege, incidents of vocal interaction have been on the rise. Everyone is learning how to live in close proximity to other people who are trying to murder them.
Sometimes the men on opposite sides of no man’s land engage in competitive singing, or shout insults and invective at one another. Where the front lines are close enough, men on either side can hear one another talking, or smell them cooking breakfast, or tell when their mail arrives. Where the lines are further apart than a rifle-shot, men can observe one another moving around outside of the trenches. As each side constantly watches the other for a tactical advantage, human curiosity naturally accompanies hostile intent — and vice-versa.
In a memorandum today, II Corps commander General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien (see above) instructs his subordinate division commanders to avoid letting this period of relative quiet become a morale-killing slide into fraternization.
Although the Corps Commander is of the opinion that the resumption of the offensive must ever be borne in mind […] it must be realized that there may be an extended period of antecedent waiting. It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of the troops exists. Experience of this, and every other war proves undoutedly 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. Understandings — amounting almost to unofficial armistices — grow up between our troops and the enemy, with a view to making life easier, until the sole object of war becomes obscured, and officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises.
Although he does not specify which wars he is referring to, Smith-Dorrien is almost certainly thinking of the American Civil War. During periods of relatively static entrenchment, union sentries famously traded newspapers, food, and comfort items in exchange for confederate tobacco. During the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia, men on either side of the Rappahannock River even carved small sailboats to float their wares across the water to one another. Smith-Dorrien is only being realistic:
The attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy. So long as they know that no general advance is intended, they fail to see the object in undertaking small enterprises of no permanent utility, certain to result in some loss of life, and likely to provoke reprisals. Such an attitude is, however, most dangerous, for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.
The Corps Commander, therefore, directs Divisional Commanders to impress on all subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power. Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. ‘we won’t fire if you don’t etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.
Never political, but popular with his men and officers, Smith-Dorrien has an easy manner and one finger on the pulse of his unit. Among senior British generals of 1914, he is almost unique in this aspect.
For pacifists, Gen. Smith-Dorrien’s memo is a sign of weakness in the ‘war machine’ — evidence that, given the opportunity, soldiers will naturally find solidarity with each other over their commanders, causing peace to break out worldwide if only everyone in uniform would just stop obeying their generals today, hold hands, and sing ‘Kumbaya’ together. This lovely sentiment is closely related to the Marxist conception of history as an eternal clash between economic classes, with nations and empires recast as merely so many reactionary bourgeois constructions that compete with one another by mutually dividing and oppressing the proletariat.
This notion may be popular, but it is just wishful thinking. Local truces to bury the dead are not a prelude to armistice; digging graves for butchered comrades has never encouraged peaceful attitudes in the vast majority of warriors. Even the unofficial Christmas Eve truces of 1914 are local, uneven, and take place under the watchful eye of marksmen on both sides. Everyone keeps their enemy from approaching their own trenches too closely, and perhaps glimpsing details that can be used to kill them later.
Fraternization is therefore not a sign of peace breaking out, but evidence that humans at war are curious about their enemies. Far from building trust, patterns of fraternization provide dangerous opportunities for mischief. Smith-Dorrien’s concern is as much for the welfare of his individual troops as the motivation of his entire command, and although he does not speak directly to this point in his memo, he is surely aware of the very real danger that Germans will abuse any ‘arrangement’ with treachery.
Over the course of the Great War, the German high command does in fact encourage fraternization episodes on the Eastern Front to break the much larger Russian Army’s will to continue fighting. Prior to offensives, crates of liquor arrive at the front; these are gifted to the Russian peasant-soldiers during seemingly-impromptu meetings in no man’s land, further separating the hungry, uncomfortable troops from their distant Tsar and his unfairly-enforced prohibition of vodka. It is but one brilliant application of psychological warfare operations (PSYOPS), an ancient art of war that is being reborn in this age of mass literacy and communications.
Fraternization thus plays a key role in the decidedly un-peaceful deaths of millions.
One of just five regular officers to survive the Zulu attack at Isandlwana, Smith-Dorrien has witnessed a besieged army destroyed when a single unit cracked under stress. His heroic actions along the ‘Fugitives Trail’ in 1879 were a preview of his leadership during the retreat from Mons in September, when he stood to fight around Le Cateau and checked the pursuing German Army at a cost in thousands of lives. During the so-called ‘race to the sea,’ Smith-Dorrien understood the necessity of holding a line and not being outflanked better than practically anyone else in the British Expeditionary Force. In his memo today, he demonstrates a strong appreciation for the wintertime lethargy of a half-destroyed army that, for the time being, fights mostly by sitting still.
But General Sir John French, BEF commander, dislikes Gen. Smith-Dorrien. The clash of these two personalities goes back years. Critical of his tactics, even at Le Cateau, French nevertheless adopts Smith-Dorrien’s ideas — as long they are suggested by other generals. In a classic test of wills, Smith-Dorrien has already offered his resignation to French, who refused it. As a steady flow of recruits arrive from Britain, the BEF is divided into two armies, with Smith-Dorrien put in charge of Second Army the day after Christmas. But when Smith-Dorrien requests permission to withdraw from the Ypres salient to a more defensible position in the wake of the first German gas attacks, French relieves him of command.