Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Live and Let Live System

[Editors note 1. This is an article I ran across a few years ago. It's very informative, but seems to me that it assume that uniform anti-war, defeat-the-high-command, and solidarity with fellow proletariat of the enemy predominated in the front lines throughout the war.]

The General Staff issued orders and directives to its soldiers at a prodigious rate. Rather than revealing that soldiers were not performing their duties, this demonstrates the desire of the authorities to control the soldiers' behavior. It must be remembered that Britain’s army in the Great War was composed largely of the working classes from the most hierarchical and deferential industrial society in the world... 

Scottish Soldiers, Typical of the British Troops in the Early War

The General Staff and the political powers, who acted to continue the war and command the soldiers, felt the soldier must be considered as an agent. Following this, it can be seen that some soldiers rejected the war outright: M. Ward wrote in December 1915, that he did "not want to see any more fighting or hear any more shells coming over." This rejection has been described by Tony Ashworth in his analysis of how soldiers were able to control and radically alter their situation, reducing the danger within their surroundings. This was accomplished through the "live and let live" policy, described by Edmund Blunden as one of the "soundest elements in trench war." Live and let live was defined as a truce in which enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time. R.J.T. Evans (LC) in a letter dated November 1915 illustrates this when he wrote that whilst in a trench German soldiers called out, "you no shoot, we no shoot." Relieving troops moving into the front line were able to take on the trench and possible truce, and acquaint themselves with the potential hazards in the area. This is illustrated by A.J. Abrahams’s memoir which described such a manoeuvre, when soldiers would enquire about the attitude in the area by asking, "any shit about?"

This exchange of ideas was also enabled by the architecture of the trenches. The transverse structure of the trenches, which was designed to prevent enfilading fire along the whole length of the trench, also acted to group men together along a line. Usually these positions were held by a small group of soldiers from the same section performing a tour of duty. This distribution allowed the soldiers, to some extent, to avoid surveillance by the commanding officer, which facilitated the live and let live principle, as well as encouraging the communication between men of attitudes, actions, and principles.

Some junior officers may have also connived in this policy of sociability and of keeping aggression to a minimum. Live and let live was therefore a refusal of the values and outlook dictated by the military hierarchy and it alleviated the violence and danger in the landscape, altering the "space of death" within it.

From: "Archaeology on the Battlefields: An Ethnography of the Western Front"
Published in Assemblage 11 (2011): 1-14 

French Troops Just Trying to Have a Meal During a Gas Alert

[Editor's note 2. For my two cents worth, I think it might have been more related to practical matters and involved tacit understandings rather than communications between the troops. For instance, if the other side was bombarding your ration parties as your dinner was being brought up and you were going hungry as a result, the opposition was damn well not going to get fed either.]


  1. Have you read "Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live And Let Live System"
    by Tony Ashworth

  2. I have read in numerous memoirs that live and let live also depended who was in the opposing trenches. Prussians were always war, war, while Saxons and Bavarians not so much. Live and let live also I believe came from the realization until someone came up with a better idea of checkmating the machinegun and wire, they were marooned in Middle Earth

  3. it all certainly all seems consistent with the human survival instinct.