Revolution in the trenches

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All along the frontlines ordinary soldiers agreed unofficial truces known as 'live and let live'.

The chances of a soldier being killed in “the war to end wars” were very high, ranging from one in three for Serbians and one in four among Scottish, Turkish and Rumanian soldiers. Bulgarians suffered one in five fatalities, the French one in six and it was about the same among the Germans. The lowest loss rate was among the Americans, one in 40. In all 10 million men died, 15 million were injured and 9 million became prisoners of war. Most men of suitable age had no choice whether to take the risks of war or not. The vast majority were conscripts — volunteers, it is generally agreed, were lied to in order to procure their enlistment. Those who refused to go to war were a tiny minority, to be jeered at, attacked and imprisoned.

Within five months there were three and a half million casualties. From the first rush to the colours on the Western Front by the inexperienced British volunteers — the socalled “pals battalions” of local men who enlisted together — almost none returned. The French estimated their early losses at 500,000 killed. On the Eastern Front, the Austrians lost 845,000, the Russians 1,000,000 and the Turks 75,000. Casualties in every army comprised the injured, the imprisoned and the missing, as well as the dead.

By January 1915 the ranks of all the combatants and their munitions were so depleted that there was only one alternative for the generals. They abandoned the early war of movement and resorted to a war of attrition or extended trench warfare while reserve armies were trained as replacements. The military stalemate lasted for almost four years. It stretched for 400 miles through France and Belgium and over greater distances in Tsarist Russia.

Given the enormity of the casualties, the war might have been seen by most soldiers as an inescapable juggernaut of death. But as the trenches became almost a fixed feature of the war, soldiers on all sides began to choose to face it with a different attitude — to live and to avoid killing in order not to be killed. They began the practice that became known as “Live and let live”. The best known examples were those at the Christmas truce in 1914, but in-depth studies have shown and many memoirs have recorded that troops on both sides came to more and more frequent “‘live and let live” arrangements. The generals called it fraternisation and forbade it. Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin wrote that it was the instinctive response of oppressed people, tired, exhausted and losing confidence in capitalist promises. These arrangements were not motivated by clear-cut political ideas. The will to survive and to respect the enemy soldiers’ wish to do the same replaced ruling class exhortations to “Kill the Hun” or “Destroy the English”.

It was the beginning of a gradual change of attitude among the frontline soldiers, that in the end came to predominate. It finally brought the war to an end in waves of draft dodging, desertions and voluntary surrenders, initially by the Russians, French and Italians in 1917, and from March to October 1918, by the Germans, Bulgarians and Austria-Hungarians. Germany’s defeat was presented by military historians as a hard fought struggle to the bitter end. In reality voluntary surrenders, desertions and mutinies foiled the generals’ plans. The revolutions that followed this mass disobedience brought down three European empires and the Ottoman Empire of the Turks. The “endemic live and let live” truces started the process of troops abandoning the war.

The nearest example in more recent times was the resistance of American troops during the Vietnam War that contributed to the defeat of the US in 1975. At the beginning of the First World War it was the excessively high casualty rates in the big battles that accelerated the practice. In prolonged trench warfare troops developed ways of limiting casualties on both sides. By tacit agreement they organised some open and some covert semi-ritualised avoidance procedures. A sniper would punch holes in walls and not in people’s heads. The lone soldier or the group of gunners would deliberately aim high or time the morning barrage so precisely that their targets could be well out of the way. If the response from the enemy mirrored these practices a day of “live and let live” could be expected, and this would go on for weeks and months, with cunning variations to foil the officers. The senior officers detested it. But many junior officers, often from different class backgrounds than those higher up the chain of command, began to accept it and lived to record it in their memoirs.

Tony Ashworth in his famous study of trench warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, described it in detail. It could be broken by sporadic exchanges of lethal fire, triggered sometimes by motives of revenge, after such events as the sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, by a German submarine in May 1915, or the shelling of Scarborough. However, any return to the slaughter would be reciprocated, leading later to a resumption of the practice. Even when ordered to raid the enemy trenches, men would find ways of avoiding mutual killing, for example by producing captured items like barbed wire that had previously been taken as proof of an encounter that had not taken place. However, it was almost impossible to maintain live and let live in the huge, long drawn out battles prepared with disastrous consequences by bureaucratic staff officers in some remote general headquarters.

During the first fortnight of the battle of the Somme in 1916, some 26,500 soldiers were killed each day. When it ended in November, 1.2 million casualties had been inflicted for an advance by the British of two miles over less than a tenth of the front line. Similar killing rates and losses were suffered at Verdun, Ypres, Kosovo, Lodz and on the River Isonzo in Italy. Live and let live was almost impossible in these battles.

Draft dodging By 1916 draft dodging began to take its place. In many cases this was facilitated by the shortages of skilled men needed for work in the munitions factories despite the recruitment of millions of women into war work. These men could dodge the war and they organised go-slows in the factories to extend their deferred status. Germany’s top general Ludendorff complained of “drückeberger”, shirkers at home who drained his army of replacements after the huge losses brought on by his own generalship. In France and Germany shirking became widespread. Workers in and out of uniform began to realise that, where the war had been like an uncontrollable juggernaut, it was now something they could take steps to avoid. Lenin argued that live and let live and draft dodging should not simply continue as the only possible way for individual soldiers to survive through to the peace, but that revolutionaries should set themselves the task of turning fraternisation and the will to survive into politically conscious movements to transfer power into the hands of the revolutionary proletariat.

Desertion took place on a massive scale in the Russian, Austrian and Italian armies. Around 400,000 Italian soldiers “walked home” from the battle of Caporetto in the autumn of 1917. When it was taken up by the French after the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the Western powers looked to the US for replacements but it was only in the very last months of the war that these arrived at the front. Due to the influenza pandemic, those US troops who were fit and trained to fight amounted to very small numbers. Half of the 100,000 US fatalities died of flu. In April 1917 when the Americans joined the war almost half the French army overstayed home leave, deserted or mutinied, often singing the Internationale in protest at the war’s continuation. Subsequently general Petain kept the mutineers out of any major battles for almost a year and regained their loyalty by meeting many of their demands for longer leave and better food. With the help of the French Social Democrats he was able to deflect the drive to revolution.

The same was not the case when the German soldiers and sailors decided to desert en masse and to surrender without a fight. No German general succeeded in driving them back into the trenches. A minority of suicidal machine gunners did not quit their posts and British troops died by the thousand after being ordered to walk in open ranks to attack their strong points. Hidden revolt As Lenin pointed out, it took a decade for an abundant supply of “adult ‘cannon-fodder’ to grow up”. The increased rate of “butchery” in the First World War shortened the time left to the generals. Gas warfare became general, and mechanised heavy guns, tanks, machine guns and fighter planes were produced in millions, raising the rate of slaughter fivefold, to the levels of those of 1914-15. In the final year German and Austrian generals went onto the offensive and the war of movement returned. Initially Ludendorff’s spring 1918 offensive was a success, driving the British and French back by up to 40 miles. It then petered out, in his own words “for want of 200,000 deserters” who Ludendorff claimed had failed to turn up to consolidate the ground gained in the attack. Many advancing troops had chosen instead to get drunk on the ample wine stocks they had captured.

Subsequent attacks by the Germans failed due to the drastically depleted ranks of their divisions. Draft dodging in Germany had become so common in 1917 that enrolment fell from 1.4 million to 0.6 million, a figure that reduced reserves for all the German armies and the size of its divisions at the front to the point where offensive battles were no longer possible. This marked the end of Ludendorff’s war plans. Many of the German relief divisions, having served in Russia in the run up to the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, when fraternisation with the Russians had become common, sounded like Bolsheviks according to one top commander. Ten percent of the replacements jumped off the trains as they were transferred to the Western Front. Others had been sent to the front as punishment for going on strike in the munition factories. “Stay at home,” they shouted to the men they were replacing. The “hidden army strike” removed over a million troops from Germany’s field armies sent to defend its borders after the failure of the spring offensive.

‘Black day’
Up to mid-summer 1918 surrendering while still on the offensive had not been an option for the German troops. Suddenly in August, when the French and British went on the counter-offensive, seven divisions of the German army gave up within hours of the start of the battle, walking into allied prison camps or going sick. Ludendorff called it the “Black Day for Germany”. His defeat was the fault of the deserters he said, together with the flu, the fog and the lack of potatoes. The hidden revolt became more open. Officers would give a soldier leave and tell him not to return to the front. There were 1.37 million deserters in 1918.

In August tens of thousands rushed forward into captivity with their hands up, often with their officers still in charge. On 3 September, elite guards’ regiments surrendered on mass, clapping and cheering as their ranks marched into the French prisoner of war compounds. A third-of-a-million German front line soldiers deserted between July and November 1918.

The hidden army revolt lacked any political organisation, though social democrats were the most likely to join it. More drastic measures than calls for a negotiated peace were adopted. Desertion was taken up on a scale that amounted to defeatism, undertaken frequently by troops from the minority groups oppressed by the imperial regimes of Germany and Austria, such as Czechs, Poles and Alsatians. Desertions took place during battles. Significant numbers went over to the enemy, giving away battle plans. Some 150,000 surrendered to the British.

In the final months of the war one in every two in the reserves failed to report for duty. Ludendorff himself became a deserter in late October and fled to Sweden. Some army generals and those commanding the navy and the air force called for national unity in one last ditch battle. They even considered bombing the trains that the deserters-turned-mutineers had commandeered to take them home. The Kaiser, Emperor Wilhelm II, supported the generals’ call for a desperate last stand. He and those preparing to attack their own workers and soldiers were over-ruled by the lower ranks of generals for fear of provoking a civil war in Germany. Without the support of his generals, the Kaiser abandoned his post.

In November 1918 sailors at Kiel naval port joined the mutiny and took over the town and the German Revolution had begun. The working class, in and out of uniform, were quitting the war and the war leaders were forced to call for an armistice. It was a year after mass desertions had begun and the Russian Revolution had brought the war in Eastern Europe to an end. Allied generals had not planned to end the war until July 1919, by which time a fully mobilised US army would be ready for a final onslaught.

French, German, Austrian and Russian soldiers had deserted and mutinied to end the war. The question remains, why did not the British? There may be a very simple practical explanation. Troops in the other armies could take off their uniforms, get into civvies and walk off home or go into hiding. It was more difficult to do the same when you had to take a cross-channel ferry to desert or hide in a foreign country without knowing the language. War historians quote the high British casualty rates in the last months to deny any organised surrender by the German troops. Others, such as Niall Ferguson, admit that mass surrenders took place on the battlefield, like throwing in the towel in the boxing ring to end the fighting. So contrary is this to received opinion that many historians find it hard to explain why this happened. One deserting soldier wrote a poem giving his reasons:

It’s all a Swindle:
The War is for the Wealthy,
The Middle Class must give way.
The People provide the corpses.

After the Armistice desertions and mutinies spread to the British and empire troops who were demanding immediate demobilisation, preventing Lloyd George from sending troops to occupy all of Germany. “Germany”, he said, “was like a cholera area infected with the virus of Bolshevism. It would be most undesirable to march British miners into Westphalia if Westphalia was controlled by a Bolshevist organisation.” Such was the greatest fear of the French, British and American ruling class in 1918. Their war had ended not in outright victory. It had transformed Europe, east and west, into a cauldron of revolution.

Today’s ruling class wants to commemorate a British victory. David Cameron and Michael Gove will not want us to be reminded of the desertions, mutinies and revolutions that brought the war to an end. Their main aim in commemorating the war is to keep alive the spirit of militarism. How the soldiers rebelled against it in 1914-18 will not be on the school curriculum.