LIVE AND LET LIVE
In the classic Undertones of War Edmund Blunden, a seasoned and decorated infantry officer viewed the war experience as 'almost a perfect picture of the small events which made up the siege warfare of France and Flanders' .
Blunden referred the to, 'the observance of the "live and let live" principle, as one of the soundest elements in the trench war'. Later he notes that the rule was 'unfortunately . . . not invariably observed'. The phrase 'live and let live' was not coined by Blunden, but appeared during the war at least as early as summer 1915 in the dispatches of Ian Hay, and thereafter in material written in the course of the inter-war period and after World War Two. Other described these ‘small events’ in different ways. 'One felt that the recent occupants of the sector had erred in the direction of a laissez-faire policy', wrote Siegfried Sassoon; similarly, another infantry officer remarked on the 'principle of laissez-faire' . Other phrases include: 'rest and let rest'; 'let sleeping dogs lie'; 'mutual obligation element'; 'tacit truces'; 'mutual understanding'; or more laboriously, 'characteristic trench warfare, sort of take the thick with the thin, compromise, and be mighty glad to be alive'.
Live and let live was a truce where enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time: the British let the Germans live provided the Germans let them live in return. Essentially, the term live and let live denoted a process of reciprocal exchange among antagonists, where each diminished the other's risk of death, discomfort and injury by a deliberate restriction of aggressive activity, but only on condition that the other requited the restraint. The 'profound difference' between the quiet sector and the active sector was, therefore, the exchange of peace, according to the rules of live and let live on the former, and the exchange of aggression according to the rules of kill or be killed - the high command policy for normal trench war - upon the latter. The quietness of a sector did not signify either a social void or vacuum between enemies but the replacement of one form of exchange with the enemy by another, which trench fighters found more consistent with their needs.
Truces were usually tacit, but always unofficial and illicit. The agreement between antagonists was unspoken and expressed in certain actions - or non-actions - which were meaningful to front fighters but not always to others. Truces were illegal at all times for they were neither created nor legitimated by authority but explicitly forbidden. The unofficial policy of live and let live was the antithesis of the official kill or be killed.
The size of truces varied considerably. The smallest truce involved only two adversaries, chatting, perhaps, after a chance meeting in no-man's-land, like that described in his diary by an officer of the 24th division:
Visited the sentry posts at -7 a.m. and at the bottom of the largest crater I found Pte Bates who was rather undersized and comical looking. . . fraternising with a German. . . The following was their conversation. Bates: 'What rank are you in your army?' 'I am a corporal', indicating stripes on his collar. 'What rank are you?'- 'Oh', replied Bates, 'I am Company Sergt. Major'
On the other hand a truce could implicate hundreds of soldiers: infantrymen, gunners, trench-mortar crews and so forth, and extend along several thousand yards of the front line. Such large scale truces often surprised new troops on their first trench tour, whose expectations of trench war contrasted with its reality. 'Probably the most outstanding impression gained was the prevailing quietude', remarked an officer of the 41st division. 'It was difficult to believe that there was a war on and that this was really the front line'.
The duration of a truce varied from a few minutes, as with small groups of fraternising trench fighters, to several days, weeks or even months in rare cases where large' numbers and areas were involved.
The western front was interspersed with active and quiet or peacetime sectors. Often, a sector was active or not, according to the attitude of the units in place; one sector was quiet because soldiers were disposed to live and let live, and another was active because soldiers wanted to fight. Since units circulated freely among sectors, a peacetime sector might very well become a small-scale battlefield, and conversely.
Yet exceptions existed. Trench fighters knew of some sectors which were always active, such as the notorious Ypres Salient - Wipers to the troops; and others which were usually cushy, for instance Ploegsteert - Plugstreet to the soldiers. And for most of the war, little activity occurred in the French sector between Nancy and the Swiss border.
There are many reasons for these differences - too many to explore here.
For this wider picture see: Trench Warfare 1914-1918 - the live and let live system. Tony Ashworth.