On Christmas Eve of 1914, a remarkable event took place in the trenches where the Germans faced the British and the French. There was a spontaneous cease-fire, as the troops on both sides laid down their weapons and observed the birth of the savior in whose name they were killing each other. The irony of this gesture is made clear in the opening scenes of "Joyeux Noel," in which schoolchildren of the three nations sing with angelic fervor, each in their own language, about the necessity of wiping the enemy from the face of the earth.
The Christmas Eve truce actually happened, although not on quite the scale director Christian Carion suggests in his film, which was nominated for the foreign film Oscar this year. He is accurate, however, in depicting the aftermath: Officers and troops were punished for fraternizing with the enemy in wartime. A priest who celebrated mass in No Man's Land is savagely criticized by his bishop, who believes the patriotic task of the clergy is to urge the troops into battle and reconcile them to death.
The trench warfare of World War I was a species of hell unlike the agonies of any other war, before or after. The enemies were dug in within earshot of each other, and troops were periodically ordered over the top so that most of them could be mowed down by machinegun fire. They were being ordered to stand up, run forward and be shot to death. And they did it. An additional novelty was the introduction of poison gas.
Artillery bombardments blew up the trenches so often that when they were dug out again, pieces of ordinance, bits of uniforms, shattered wooden supports and human bones interlaced the new walls. A generation lost its leaders. European history might have been different if so many of the best and brightest had not been annihilated. Those who survived were the second team. Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, is the best book I have read about the experience.