Probably most of us have heard about the informal truces that broke out along the front during the trench warfare of World War I. The story is extraordinary in one respect, and yet utterly normal in another. Here they were, young men huddled in miserable trenches, the “enemy” in the same circumstance just 50 yards away. Shelling from one side would be returned promptly by the other. There was no gain, and yet men might die. The stalemate continued day after day, week after week. What would sane people do?
At these remote outposts, far from the high commands, rituals of cooperation emerged. The sides would shell at the same time each day, and to the same exact spots, so that the other could stay out of the way. If there was a mistake – the artillerymen far behind the lines couldn’t always be trusted – a soldier at the front would shout out an apology. “These people evidently did not know there was a war on,” one British officer reported with indignation and astonishment. “Both sides apparently believed in the policy of ‘live and let live.’”