23

From what I understand, the rank and file didn't really want to be there after the fighting got started (this could be incorrect). During the Christmas Truce, both sides stopped fighting and interacted.

Were there any policies in place to handle the case where a majority of the non-officer soldiers mutually decided to stop fighting each other?

  • 12
    Yes. Courts martial for mutiny under military law. See the 1914 Manual of military law – sempaiscuba Oct 24 at 19:28
  • 5
    The question is more about what would happen if a large enough proportion of the soldiers refused to fight to prevent the commanders from retaining control of their men. I think that's not really clear, so I'll edit – Michael Stachowsky Oct 24 at 19:44
  • 5
    @MichaelStachowsky: The war was basically ended by a mutiny on the German side that was large enough to succeed. – Michael Borgwardt Oct 25 at 11:21
  • 1
    About your first sentence: Most sane soldiers would not "want" to be in battle, and I'd imagine that conviction of the righteousness of their cause would have worn away pretty quickly. More would be convinced of the necessity of fighting the invaders or of protecting their country by invading others. With time, that usually devolves into staying and fighting for their buddies and small unit, enforced further by death penalties for desertion. About the Christmas truce, I've never heard of more than a few dozen soldiers interacting, compared to millions in the line or neear the front at the time – Amorphous Blob Oct 25 at 17:12
  • 4
    You might want to watch Paths Of Glory - a very good film, fictional of course, but probably not far off the mark. – davidbak Oct 25 at 19:47
55

Your question is essentially "How would a large scale mutiny be handled by a Western Allied power in World War One?" - to which we have the ready answer of the French response to the 1917 French Army Mutinies:

The mutinies and associated disruptions involved, to various degrees, nearly half of the French infantry divisions stationed on the Western Front. The term "mutiny" does not accurately describe events: soldiers remained in trenches and were willing to defend but rejected attack orders. The new commander, General Philippe Pétain, restored morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest for exhausted units, home leave, and moderate discipline. He held 3,400 courts martial; 554 mutineers were sentenced to death but only 26 were actually executed.

There were mass courts martial of ring leaders; numerous death sentences awarded by those courts; but in the end leniency to most of the ring leaders for the sake of overall morale.


Note the context - in time and space - of the mutiny: May 2, 1917, one week after the French attack as part of the Second Battle of Aisne by General Nivelle ended with failure of all its objectives and just three weeks after the successful Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. In that latter battle the Canadians lost less than 3600 men over four days of fighting (April 9-12, 1917) while taking all objectives; fewer men over the four days of successful fighting than the failed French attempt the previous June incurred every single day for nearly 30 days.

As with the vast majority of large-scale morale failures, the responsibility is, at root, the fault of commanding officers. When General Nivelle promised his men, before Second Aisne, a war ending victory if they would go over the top just one more time, he implied also "We have learnt how to do this right, and are doing it right this time." The combination of French abject failure and Canadian stunning victory, simultaneous in time and barely 60 miles apart, was the epitome of French high command incapability.

  • 3
    This answer is almost like poetry, and so sad. – AllInOne Oct 24 at 21:55
  • 6
    "How would a large scale mutiny be handled by a Western Allied power in World War One?" I can't locate Allied (or even major) in the question. – Vladimir F Oct 25 at 6:29
15

Question: During the WW1 Christmas Truce, what would have happened if the soldiers refused to continue fighting?

enter image description here German and British soldiers stand together on the battlefield near Ploegsteert, Belgium, during the Christmas Truce. (Imperial War Museum/AP)

enter image description here Photograph of soldiers playing football in no man's land during the Christmas truce.

Background:
In 1914 in the weeks leading up to Christmas, 5 months into the war, wide spread truces broke out among the French English and German soldiers with numerous soldiers walking into no man's land and exchanging food items and gifts. There were even joint burial services and multiple reports of troops meeting in no mans land to play football matches. Reportedly 100,000 men took part in the unofficial truce along the western front.

Answer:
The soldiers did refuse to fight. The Christmas truce was entirely driven by soldiers at the front and not a general cease fire. Such cease fire were not uncommon in the early years of WWI. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was just the largest case of such "insubordination" in the lines. The leadership of both armies did take action in 1914. Specifically in the unofficial "Christmas Truce", The Units involved in the fraternization on both sides of the conflict were rotated off the front lines and replaced with new units and were not returned to the same positions afterwards. British General did consider issuing court martials but decided against it as bad for morale.

Christmas Truce
In the days following Christmas, violence returned to the Western Front, although the truce persisted until after New Year’s Day in some areas. While the truce could not have succeeded without the endorsement of junior officers on both sides, British and German generals quickly took steps to prevent any further episodes of fraternization between their men. Still, there were no courts-martial or punishments linked to the events of the Christmas Truce; senior commanders likely recognized the disastrous effect that such a move would have on morale in the trenches. Attempts to revive the truce on Christmas Day 1915 were quashed, and there were no subsequent widespread cease-fires on the Western Front until the armistice of November 1918.

  • 6
    Or in other words: If 100'000 people on the front do it, they can stop the war at least locally. If 1000 people do it, they are executed or at the very least imprisoned and threatended with execution. – Nobody Oct 25 at 16:20
11

The existing answers may give the wrong impression that mutinies are resolved by talking to the soldiers in a nice way. Actually, that would be far from the general truth.

The rebels from Rumburk were surrounded by other army units and attacked. Most were captured and imprisoned, some sent to the front (the rebellion happened in the rear), and at least 10 executed.

The rebels in Kotor were surrounded by other warships and threatened to be torpedoed. Some leaders escaped by a plane. Several were killed by ship gunfire. The court-martials continued to the end of the war and only four were executed by then.

  • 4
    You aren't wrong; however, punitive action was unrealistic in the Christmas Truce of 1914 because so many soldiers and junior officers were involved. You don't incarcerate or shoot 100,000 of your own troops. By Christmas 1915 and 1916 the "Live and Let Live" attitude of the early war was much less prevalent as the brutality of the war imposed it's own reality on the troops. Still during Christmas of 1914 with the war only 5 months old, and the most brutal battles still ahead of them; senior officers had to be a bit more creative in keeping control of their troops. – JMS Oct 25 at 13:00
  • 4
    @JMS I do not read the question as a specific one around about one particular event. – Vladimir F Oct 25 at 13:10
  • 1
    You are correct sir. – JMS Oct 25 at 14:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.