Something nice for Valentine’s day I think…

It is so often said that war is natural part of human behaviour that many people just accept it. Conflict or disagreement certainly might be, but full-on war is a different matter.

Most people know about the 1914 Christmas Truce in WW1 when the British and German soldiers played football and exchanged gifts (note for some American readers – WW1 started in 1914, not 1917 and WW2 started in 1939, not 1941).

This is usually presented as a one-off – a freak occurrence, but that simply isn’t true. It also happened in 1915 with the Germans and the French and in 1916 there was a truce on the Eastern front.

When I was at school and computers were in their 64k stage we were given a programme to play around with in one history lesson. Extremely basic though it was, the idea was that you were the British General deciding what tactics you could use to defeat the Germans in World War 1 given the tactics and equipment of the time.

The trick was that although it was possible to win the game, it wasn’t possible to do it without a bloodbath on both sides. I think it in its own way, it was meant to be a little anti-war statement.

However, the game didn’t give you the option of simply not attacking and not attacking was the way that many people survived in World War One.

In the earlier stages of the war informal truces sprung up all over the place. Both sides would aim artillery far and wide, this was understood as an offering of peace and reciprocated. In many places it then became a kind of game. Snipers would aim to miss but in a showing-off ‘look what I can hit’ way. This was partly to pass the time and partly to warn that if the truce was broken then there was a capability of reprisal. Contrary to popular belief the conflict was very low-intensity in many places at different times. There are many eyewitness accounts of the soldiers apologising to each other for firing too near.


This changed of course when the officers – the ones far removed from the front line that is – heard about it. They were appalled by this sort of behaviour and devised new tactics like surprise raids and so on which destroyed the fragile trust that opposing soldiers had built up.

After the war of course it was the generals that had insisted on the continuation of mass random slaughter that were awarded medals and had statues of each other erected. Of the officers in the field who insisted on pressing on, well, many of them were shot in the back by their own side as they advanced toward the opposing army.

In many societies around the world in pre-industrial times the object of war was not the genocide of the opposing group but rather the humiliation. From some of the Native Americans to societies in Africa, actual fatalities were very unusual. Some sources even describe what is essentially a high-intensity game of tag (involving a smack with a stick). In other places a tit-for-tat, one of yours for one of ours kind of conflict often persisted over a long time but without an eruption into absolute warfare.

It may be that there is a part of our genetics that leads us toward conflict but it is certainly not the cause of the mass slaughters that have happened through history. Rome wanted to conquer, other groups wanted to live and let live. Genghis Khan would wipe out thousands, other groups at the time didn’t.

It is demonstrably untrue that the Romans and other groups throughout history that have and are conducting mass slaughter and conquest on the genocidal scale are genetically diverse enough from those living next to them to have a different set of genetic imperatives, so it must be societal conditions that lead to this kind of behaviour. And as we all know, societal conditions can change.

Why mention all this today?

Today is an anniversary. Not valentines day, but the anniversary of an atrocity carried out by British and American forces in World War 2 – the bombing of Dresden which occurred on the night of the 13th/14th February 1945 when the war was nearing its end. Dresden was not regarded as a strategically important city, which is why it hadn’t been bombed up until then. Russian troops were also closing in on the city.

The BBC, in their ‘On This Day‘ section are showing the report from 1945 and there is a little section which says..

The Dresden raid caused a public outcry. Even Winston Churchill, who had urged Bomber Command to attack east German cities, tried to dissociate himself from it.

However, they miss an important part out. They say that explosives and ‘incendiary bombs’ were dropped, which is true. What they don’t say is phosphorus was dropped – a chemical weapon. Eyewitnesses reported that the temperature was so hot in some places that in the wreckage of homes were found puddles of metal that had once been pots and pans.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote brilliantly about this in his book Slaughterhouse 5. He was a prisoner of war in Germany at the time.

Oh, and the BBC neglected to mention for a long time that white phosphorus was used recently in Fallujah. This was despite the fact many people were giving them evidence and urging them to. Even when they did mention it it was very brief.


  1. I cannot remember where I read the statistics, but the amount of ammunition needed to kill an enemy has gone down through the years – early soldiers would not aim at the enemy but usually above them. I do agree that killing is not in our nature – that is why propaganda is nonstop demonizing the enemy.

  2. Wonderful! The saying, “what if they decided to throw a war and nobody showed up” comes to mind.

    I have a book called “among the dead cities” that deals with allied bombings of civilians. I have yet to read it, but it looks interesting.

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