In the annals of modern warfare, the Battle of Flanders during the First World War stands out as one of the most tragic examples of a stalemate. The battlefield was a long, linear series of trenches dug into wet mud and buttressed with fortifications. Thousands of French, British and German troops perished mounting assault after assault, often only to gain a few meters of ground and lose it within hours. Artillery barrages and machine gunfire raked the fields. Snipers picked off anyone careless enough to light a cigarette. The savagery was accentuated by the proximity of the warring sides, positioned merely meters from each other at some places. Tactics largely consisted of mounting an often ineffectual artillery barrage after which hundreds of troops would charge “over the top”, running straight into a hail of lead and steel and being cut down. Both sides pummelled each other mercilessly.

From 1914 to 1917, trench warfare claimed around two million lives. (To put that in context, the Indian Army today numbers roughly one million soldiers.) The viciousness was inflamed by both sides dehumanising the other. The falsehood of “German barbarians” melting the bodies of their victims to make soap was perpetuated among Allied soldiers; German schoolchildren were taught “Hymns of Hate” to indoctrinate them against their arch foe, England.

The war started in August 1914 and quickly intensified. As Christmas approached, there were attempts to broker a temporary ceasefire by the Vatican and the United States Senate. Hardliners on both sides, however, dismissed a ceasefire as being impossible, and even warned their troops against making any such attempt at the peril of court martial.

But on Christmas Eve, something miraculous happened. Soldiers from both sides all along the front line started singing Christmas carols. The rapprochement was spontaneous and happened at the level of the front line troops. That was not all. Soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached enemy fortifications, shouting at them not to fire. Despite being indoctrinated about their enemy’s “treachery”, both sides held fire and started meeting their adversaries half-way. They sang carols together, exchanged gifts and souvenirs. Availing the undeclared truce, they also buried bodies of their comrades strewn across the battlefield, collected their personal effects for their families and, in some cases, even returned memorabilia looted from the dead enemy.

This unstructured, unsanctioned fraternising with the bitter enemy in the midst of such a brutal conflict has astounded military historians and social scientists alike and become the subject of several studies. In Culture Code, Daniel Coyle argues that while Christmas, a common denominator for both sides, provided the catalyst for the ceasefire, it was the “physical interaction” between German and Allied soldiers that transformed hostility into bonhomie. They both saw the other side was suffering as much as they were. Their living conditions were equally horrific. They both felt the pain of losing comrades and were equally terrified of the war. They also learnt that their “enemy” was in fact as human as they were and not a monster that their respective countries’ propaganda machineries had painted them to be.

'Thousands of French, British and German troops perished mounting assault after assault, often only to gain a few meters of ground and lose it within hours, during the Battle of Flanders'.

Peace over war

Violent conflict is sheer hell. Only those who have been in combat zones understand the pain and devastation that war leaves in its wake. The potential of entire regions and generations is snuffed out. While physical wounds may heal, psychological scars rarely do, altering the very psyche of survivors. News reports, films or narratives can never convey the agony of conflict. And human suffering does not differentiate between combatants and civilians, religions or even which side of the border is “right”. The anguish of a family that has lost their son is the same, regardless of which side of the border they belong to.

It is thus quite right that the Indian government has called a ceasefire in Kashmir and with Pakistan. Yes, certain factions will violate it because their agenda is to continue attrition in perpetuity. Some terrorist groups may use the lull to recoup and refit. That is the risk of any ceasefire. But it offers an opportunity to those who have skin in the game – the common folk caught in the crossfire of a “war economy”, which is the bane, and often the reason, of every conflict. It is a breather for citizens who live through artillery shelling, terror attacks, curfews and other traumas of a disturbed area to consolidate their fragmented lives. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the futility of a never-ending conflict and realise that force is never a sustainable solution. Only a negotiated win-win settlement is.

The story of Flanders holds important lessons for India and Pakistan. The truce was easily broken by generals rotating troops and ordering raids on the other side, thus destroying the trust built by soldiers over hundreds of interactions. Clearly, it requires a lot more effort to build trust and peace than to destroy it.

The Allies did “win” the First World War, but their draconian terms of surrender sowed the seeds of the Second World War, which again cost several million lives, demonstrating that unless a settlement is satisfactory to both sides, conflict will erupt again with renewed ferocity.

Lastly, not everyone prefers peace to war. There was a German corporal in Flanders who protested vehemently against the rapprochement between the warring sides. He is said to have berated his comrades and questioned their sense of honour for fraternising with the Allied soldiers.

Two decades later, the world came to know him as Adolf Hitler.

The author is a former soldier. Views are personal.