By now we’ve all heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914, whether because we are cultured and learned citizens, or because we saw Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial a couple years ago. And because we are all cultured and enjoy edifying ourselves, we know the general events that started and continued the truce. (In case you partied so thoroughly you forgot, the reason was that both sides wanted to celebrate Christmas, and they were sick of the trenches. Solid reasons.) But no one talks about the best part of the truce – the beer.
This is how one polite, occasionally poorly grammared soldier described it:
The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill [the British Company Commander] if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assure him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.
… The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff. […]
During the whole of Boxing Day [December 26] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.
We all already know the magical communal powers of beer. You just can’t help but liven up a party by a factor of 10 by rolling out the kegs, and the sense of community can’t help but increase in direct correlation to the amount drunk.
But there is something that can connect people even more, and that is bad beer.
The enemy who agrees that my beer enemy is bad at making beer is my friend.You know it’s true. Beer is great, but people prefer some kinds over others, they want something different depending on what they’re eating, they’re not in the mood for one or another, so there’s still a bit of separation in a room full of people drinking beer. But when everyone, everyone, agrees that the only beer available is rotten, then there is a new sense of community. Everyone agrees that it’s awful, so it becomes a shared interest. But obviously everyone’s going to drink it anyway, and everyone sympathizes with everyone because everyone understands. It’s a pity party in the best sense.
The truce of 1914 was a Christmas party, literally on the front lines of a war. You’re not going to not drink the beer. That doesn’t turn bad beer into good beer, but there is a feeling of camaraderie as everyone suffers through the beer together, trying to celebrate as much as they can.
Naturally, this camaraderie extends to the ones who have been drinking the nasty stuff for a while now and the ones who gave it to you, i.e. the Germans across the mud. It even sparks another day full of conversation and not bullets. The two armies had been shooting and shelling each other for five months from water-logged trenches in a country neither were from, watching their companions die of disease as well as battle wounds, fighting the “war to end all wars.” Yet they called the whole war off for a day to celebrate together in no-man’s land with something they mutually enjoy, the effects of which carried over to the next day. The shared beer brings the two sides together even more, adding another element to turn the individual festivities into a shared experience.
That’s how connective beer is. Especially when it’s weak. And made by a people neither you nor your enemy likes. After all, the enemy who agrees that my beer enemy is bad at making beer is my friend.
But why the Brits nicknamed their commander “Buffalo Bill” I will never know.
A version of this first appeared at Catholic Beer Club.