The Live and Let Live System
At the outset of this study, we must distinguish between problems of the origins of truces and problems of their persistence through time. Concerning origins, we want to know when and where tacit understandings first occurred, and also how they happened during battle, where each antagonist was ostensibly intent upon killing the other. Exactly when and where the first truce emerged can never be known; but the view that truces appeared for the first and last time during the Christmas of 1914 is incorrect. The Christmas truces were neither the first nor last instances of live and let live; for some truces occurred before the Christmas truce, and others for the duration of the war. A more correct view is that several forms of truce occurred throughout the trench war, and that truces briefly yet vividly emerged in the form of overt fraternisation on a widespread scale during the 1914 Christmas. The event can be likened to the sudden surfacing of the whole of an iceberg, visible to all including non-combatants, which for most of the war remained largely submerged, invisible to all save the participants. But how and when did truces first happen? Which activities were first involved?
Some evidence suggests that the first understandings were associated with meals, the times and conditions of which were common to each side. Both British and German rations were brought up to their respective trenches at about the same time each evening, and a British N.C.O. noticed this practice as well as its effect on truce formation as early as the first week of November 1914—which is around the beginning of trench war. The N.C.O. whose unit had been engaged in trench war for some days, observed that:
The quartermaster used to bring the rations up … each night after dark; they were laid
out and parties used to come from the front line to fetch them. I suppose the enemy
were occupied in the same way; so things were quiet at that hour for a couple of nights,
and the ration parties became careless because of it, and laughed and talked on their way
back to their companies.
Probably the N.C.O.'s supposition that British and German ration parties were not only doing the same thing, but were aware of it, was correct. Concerning the growth of the process where each antagonist made assumptions about the other's behaviour, and then acted on these assumptions, it seems quite possible that men who are forced