View Full Version : The Evolution of Cooperation and Trench Warfare in WWI

30 Oct 07,, 03:01
While this is an excerpt from an economics book that I am reading, it is a fascinating (at least to me) look at the semi-stability of trench warfare in WWI. For those who have had some econ, it is an example of an interated prisoner's dilemma. As time progressed, soldiers on both sides figured out how to "cooperate" in such a way that it was difficult for officers to determine that they were trying to avoid killing each other, such as firing artillery, but doing it at the same time and place everyday.

Amazon.com: The Evolution of Cooperation: Books: Robert Axelrod (http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Cooperation-Robert-Axelrod/dp/0465005640/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-0438121-3920159?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1193709606&sr=8-1)

Sometimes cooperation emerges where it is least expected. During World War I, the Western Front was the scene of horrible battles for a few yards of territory. But between these battles, and even during them at other places along the five-hundred-mile line in France and Belgium, the enemy soldiers often exercised considerable restraint. A British staff officer on a tour of the trenches remarked that he was

astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of "live and let live." (Dugdale 1932, p. 94)
This is not an isolated example. The live-and-let-live system was endemic in trench warfare. It flourished despite the best efforts of senior officers to stop it, despite the passions aroused by combat, despite the military logic of kill or be killed, and despite the ease with which the high command was able to repress any local efforts to arrange a direct truce.


Before looking further into the stability of the cooperation, it is interesting to see how cooperation got started in the first place. The first stage of the war, which began in August 1914, was highly mobile and very bloody. But as the lines stabilized, nonaggression between the troops emerged spontaneously in many places along the front. The earliest instances may have been associated with meals which were served at the same times on both sides of no-man's land. As early as November 1914, a noncommissioned officer whose unit had been in the trenches for some days, observed that

The quartermaster used to bring the rations up... each night after dark; they were laid out and parties used to come from the front line to fetch them. I suppose the enemy were occupied in the same way; so things were quiet at that hour for a couple of nights, and the ration parties became careless because of it, and laughed and talked on their way back to their companies. (The War the Infantry Knew 1938, p. 92)
By Christmas there was extensive fraternization, a practice which the headquarters frowned upon. In the following months, direct truces were occasionally arranged by shouts or by signals. An eyewitness noted that:

In one section the hour of 8 to 9 A.M. was regarded as consecrated to "private business," and certain places indicated by a flag were regarded as out of bounds by the snipers on both sides. (Morgan 1916, pp. 270-71)


So verbal agreements were effective in getting cooperation started on many occasions early in the war, but direct fraternization was easily suppressed. More effective in the long run were various methods which allowed the two sides to coordinate their actions without having to resort to words. A key factor was the realization that if one side would exercise a particular kind of restraint, then the other might reciprocate. Similarities in basic needs and activities let the soldiers appreciate that the other side would probably not be following a strategy of unconditional defection. For example, in the summer of 1915, a soldier saw that the enemy would be likely to reciprocate cooperation based on the desire for fresh rations.

It would be child's play to shell the road behind the enemy's trenches, crowded as it must be with ration wagons and water carts, into a bloodstained wilderness... but on the whole there is silence. After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, his remedy is simple: he will prevent you from drawing yours. (Hay 1916, pp. 224-25)
Once started, strategies based on reciprocity could spread in a variety of ways. A restraint undertaken in certain hours could be extended to longer hours. A particular kind of restraint could lead to attempting other kinds of restraint. And most importantly of all, the progress achieved in one small sector of the front could be imitated by the units in neighboring sectors.
Just as important as getting cooperation started were the conditions that allowed it to be sustainable. The strategies that could sustain mutual cooperation were the ones which were provocable. During the periods of mutual restraint, the enemy soldiers took pains to show each other that they could indeed retaliate if necessary. For example, German snipers showed their prowess to the British by aiming at spots on the walls of cottages and firing until they had cut a hole (The War the Infantry Knew 1938, p. 98). Likewise the artillery would often demonstrate with a few accurately aimed shots that they could do more damage if they wished. These demonstrations of retaliatory capabilities helped police the system by showing that restraint was not due to weakness, and that defection would be self defeating.

When a defection actually occurred, the retaliation was often more than would be called for by TIT FOR TAT. Two-for-one or three-for-one was a common response to an act that went beyond what was considered acceptable.

We go out at night in front of the trenches.... The German working parties are also out, so it is not considered etiquette to fire. The really nasty things are rifle grenades.... They can kill as many as eight or nine men if they do fall into a trench.... But we never use ours unless the Germans get particularly noisy, as on their system of retaliation three for every one of ours come back. (Greenwell 1972, pp. 16-17)


What finally destroyed the live-and-let-live system was the institution of a type of incessant aggression that the headquarters could monitor. This was the raid, a carefully prepared attack on enemy trenches which involved from ten to two hundred men. Raiders were ordered to kill or capture the enemy in his own trenches. If the raid was successful, prisoner would be taken; and if the raid was a failure, casualties would be proof of the attempt. There was no effective way to pretend that a raid had been undertaken when it had not. And there was no effective way to cooperate with the enemy in a raid because neither live soldiers nor dead bodies could be exchanged.
The live-and-let-live system could not cope with the disruption caused by the hundreds of small raids. After a raid neither side knew what to expect next. The side that had raided could expect retaliation but could not predict when, where, or how. The side that had been raided was also nervous, not knowing whether the raid was an isolated attack or the first of a series. Moreover, since raids could be ordered and monitored from headquarters, the magnitude of the retaliatory raid could also be controlled, preventing a dampening of the process. The battalions were forced to mount real attacks on the enemy, the retaliation was undampened, and the process echoed out of control.


The other addition to the theory suggested by the trench warfare case is the development of ritual. The rituals took the form of perfunctory use of small arms, and deliberately harmless use of artillery. For example, the Germans in one place conducted "their offensive operations with a tactful blend of constant firing and bad shooting, which while it satisfies the Prussians causes no serious inconvenience to Thomas Atkins" (Hay 1916, p. 206).

Even more striking was the predictable use of artillery which occurred in many sectors.

So regular were they [the Germans] in their choice of targets, times of shooting, and number of rounds fired, that, after being in the line one or two days, Colonel Jones had discovered their system, and knew to a minute where the next shell would fall. His calculations were very accurate, and he was able to take what seemed to uninitiated Staff Officers big risks, knowing that the shelling would stop before he reached the place being shelled. (Hills 1919, p. 96)
The other side did the same thing, as noted by a German soldier commenting on "the evening gun" fired by the British.

At seven it came - so regularly that you could sat your watch by it.... It always had the same objective, its range was accurate, it never varied laterally or went beyond or fell short of the mark.... There were even some inquisitive fellows who crawled out... a little before seven, in order to see it burst. (Kipper 1931, pp. 135-37)

These rituals of perfunctory and routine firing sent a double message. To the high command they conveyed aggression, but to the enemy they conveyed peace. The men pretended to be implementing an aggressive policy, but were not. Ashworth himself explains that these stylized acts were more than a way of avoiding retaliation.

In trench war, a structure of ritualised aggression was a ceremony where antagonists participated in regular, reciprocal discharges of missiles, that is, bombs, bullets and so forth, which symbolized and strengthened, at one and the same time, both sentiments of fellow-feelings, and beliefs that the enemy was a fellow sufferer. (Ashworth 1980, p. 144)
Thus these rituals helped strengthen the moral sanctions which reinforced the evolutionary basis of the live-and-let-live system.

The live-and-let-live system that emerged in the bitter trench warfare of World War I demonstrates that friendship is hardly necessary for cooperation based upon reciprocity to get started. Under suitable circumstances, cooperation can develop even between antagonists.

31 Oct 07,, 02:23
Ray, Lemontree, and other members who have served along the LOC - have you heard of or witnessed similar behavior along the LOC where unspoken cooperation has occured between the two sides?

I understand that it is a different scenario where you don't have open war between the two sides, but I find tacit cooperation between soldiers from opposing sides to be a fascinating topic.

31 Oct 07,, 15:01
I saw a watched a story of WWI where British troops and German troops spent Christmas eve together on the front lines. The resumed fighting in the morning. Have you ever seen this?

31 Oct 07,, 15:12
Ray and Lemontree,

While you are at it, can you confirm or deny whether there indeed existed an unit-level Gentleman's Agreement on vacating super-high altitude posts in winter along the LOC pre-1999?

31 Oct 07,, 18:25
In the 1971 War, the distance between the Pakistani and us was 50m.

I believe the two sides fired all over the place but at each other!

After the war, we showed the Pakistani troops on the LC, the film Pakeezah since it was a Mosem oriented film and a very popular hit. They also got alcohol that they desired.

The Pakistani Company Commander was a fine chap and many a lunch I shared with him on the stream dividing us.

I still remember him with fondness.

31 Oct 07,, 18:27
Ray and Lemontree,

While you are at it, can you confirm or deny whether there indeed existed an unit-level Gentleman's Agreement on vacating super-high altitude posts in winter along the LOC pre-1999?

I don't know about any gentleman's agreement, but it was a practice because of the avalanche threat!

Tarek Morgen
31 Oct 07,, 19:23
I saw a watched a story of WWI where British troops and German troops spent Christmas eve together on the front lines. The resumed fighting in the morning. Have you ever seen this?

in some places this unoffical truce lasted even until after eastern betwen the Germans and the Allies.

01 Nov 07,, 01:09
During Linebacker II, my squadron commander said: "be careful boys, there is nothing up north worth dying for." And he meant it. No penetrating thunderstorms. No challenging SAM sites. No bombing bridges that were well defended. All the kind of things we would have done in a heartbeat during my first tour in Viet Nam. I have to believe that Uncle Ho knew we were not going to hit him hard if he didn't try to shoot us down.

04 Nov 07,, 05:30
Worth reading is Tony Ashworth's book Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System. I notice that he's cited in the excerpt.

One thing Ashworth pointed out is that there were some units which never practised "live and let live," and some parts of the front which never settled down that way (such as the notorious Hooge section of the Ypres salient--well described in Capt. Hitchcock's book Stand To).

04 Nov 07,, 05:52
Interesting subject, Shek. I recall stories of a Christmas truce along part of the line during WWI and I believe both sided did fraternize during it.

Something similar to this went on all during the American Civil War. I took the liberty of copying this from wiki.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers were strongly determined to defeat each other, but they did possess some affection for each other as fellow Americans. They called informal truces to trade; brothers often traveled beyond their armies' lines to see each other; and the wounded of both armies left on the battlefield often helped each other when possible. One of the most common type of trade involved coffee and tobacco. Since southern forces' food, espeically coffee, was of poorer quality then that the Northerns; and since Southerns possesed tobacco, soldiers from both sides often traded with each other in between battles. There were also trade for newspaper, sewing needles, and currency.

The Civil War soldier was devoted to his cause and preferred not to humiliate his enemy. He did have a deep sense of respect for him. One example may be seen in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's generous surrender terms to Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April 1865. Lee's officers were permitted to keep their swords and side arms (revolvers). Lee's men were allowed to return home and keep their own horses to assist them on their farms. Grant supplied 25,000 food rations to Lee's starving men, many of whom had not eaten in days, upon Lee's surrender. Grant ordered an end to a 100-gun salute begun by Union Artillery within the Army of the Potomac to celebrate Lee's surrender. Grant saw no need for such celebration. He believed Lee's men were once again their countrymen and saw no reason to humiliate them.

One of the most striking examples, however, was provided by Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain received from Grant the honor of receiving the formal surrender of General Lee's veterans at Appomattox Court House on April 12, 1865. Out of deep respect for Lee's men, Chamberlain ordered his men to attention and saluted Lee's men as they marched before the Union forces and stacked their arms.

Triple C
05 Nov 07,, 08:12
I wonder if chivalry developed along the same process? It could be a fascinating speculative topic for medievalists and military historians. After all chivalry was a conscious social movement started by the church to limit the destructiveness of knightly violence at the end of Early Medieval Age, and was consisted of a code of conduct that all combatants understood, and constrained combat to a semi-ritualistic, regulated aggression. Other factors would encourage the developement of the chivalric code as well, mail armor being a formidable defense, killing an disarmed and unhorsed opponent necessary, ransom a lucrative reward for mercy...