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The Christmas Truce

From: Philip Ledoux <oldmanfromnh@yahoo.com>
http://educate-yourself.org/pnl/christmastruce04dec07.shtml
December 4, 2007

The Christmas Truce (Dec. 7, 2007)

The Christmas Truce
by David G. Stratman

From his book We Can Change the World

It was December 25, 1914, only 5 months into World War I. German, British, and French soldiers, already sick and tired of the senseless killing, disobeyed their superiors and fraternized with "the enemy" along two-thirds of the Western Front (a crime punishable by death in times of war). German troops held Christmas trees up out of the trenches with signs, "Merry Christmas."

"You no shoot, we no shoot." Thousands of troops streamed across a no-man's land strewn with rotting corpses. They sang Christmas carols, exchanged photographs of loved ones back home, shared rations, played football, even roasted some pigs. Soldiers embraced men they had been trying to kill a few short hours before. They agreed to warn each other if the top brass forced them to fire their weapons, and to aim high.

A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be treasonous and subject to court martial. By March 1915 the fraternization movement had been eradicated and the killing machine put back in full operation. By the time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered.

Not many people have heard the story of the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Day, 1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radio host played"Christmas in the Trenches," a ballad about the Christmas Truce, several times and was startled by the effect. The song became the most requested recording during the holidays in Boston on several FM stations. "Even more startling than the number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who hadn't heard it before," said the radio host. "They telephone me deeply moved, sometimes in tears, asking, `What the hell did I just hear?' "

I think I know why the callers were in tears. The Christmas Truce story goes against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be and says, "This really happened once." It reminds us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that our deepest wishes really are true: the world really could be different.

Christmas in The Trenches - Song

This inspirational Christmas story in song: Words & Music by John McCutcheon, c. 1984 John McCutcheon

This song is based on a true story from the front lines of World War I that I've heard many times. Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was the commanding officer of the British forces involved in the story. He was subsequently court-martialed for 'consorting with the enemy' and sentenced to death. Only George V spared him from that fate.
-- John McCutcheon

My name is Francis Toliver, I come from Liverpool. Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school. To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here, I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung. The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung. Our families back in England were toasting us that day, Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground, When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound. Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear, As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me. Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony. The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more, As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent. The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "'Tis 'Silent Night,'" says I, And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried. All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side. His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright, As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land, With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand. We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well, And in a flare lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home. These sons and fathers far away from families of their own. Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin, This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more. With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war. But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"

'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung. The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung. For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war, Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Toliver, in Liverpool I dwell, Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well, That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame, And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

Note: There was an engaging movie based on this inspirational Christmas story. A highly decorated U.S. general, USMC Major General Smedley D. Butler, describing how wars are waged largely to fill corporate coffers titled: War Is A Racket.

See our collection of inspirational resources at http://www.WantToKnow.info/inspirational

Explore these empowering websites coordinated by the nonprofit PEERS network:

http://www.momentoflove.org - Every person in the world has a heart
http://www.WantToKnow.info - Reliable, verifiable information on major cover-ups
http://www.inspiringcommunity.org - Building a Global Community for All
http://www.weboflove.org - Strengthening the Web of Love that interconnects us all
Educational websites promoting transformation through education and inspiration


Christmas Truce at the World War I Front

Though World War I had been raging for only four months, it was already proving to be one of the bloodiest wars in history. Soldiers on both sides were trapped in trenches, exposed to the cold and wet winter weather, covered in mud, and extremely careful of sniper shots. Machines guns had proven their worth in war, bringing new meaning to the word "slaughter." In a place where bloodshed was nearly commonplace and mud and the enemy were fought with equal vigor, something surprising occurred on the front for Christmas in 1914. The men who lay shivering in the trenches embraced the Christmas spirit. In one of the truest acts of goodwill toward men, soldiers from both sides in the southern portion of the Ypres
Salient set aside their weapons and hatred, if only temporarily, and met in No Man's Land.

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the world was plunged into war. Germany, realizing they were likely to face a two-front war, attempted to defeat the western foes before the Russians were able to mobilize their forces in the East (estimated to take six weeks), using the Schlieffen Plan.

Though the Germans had made a strong offensive into France, French, Belgian, and British forces were able to halt them. However, since they were not able to push the Germans out of France, there was a stalemate and both sides dug into the earth creating a large network of trenches. Once the trenches were built, winter rains tried to obliterate them. The rains not only flooded the dug-outs, they turned the trenches into mud holes - a terrible enemy in and of itself.

It had been pouring, and mud lay deep in the trenches; they were caked from head to foot, and I have never seen anything like their rifles! Not one would work, and they were just lying about the trenches getting stiff and cold. One fellow had got both feet jammed in the clay, and when told to get up by an officer, had to get on all fours; he then got his hands stuck in too, and was caught like a fly on a flypaper; all he could do was look round and say to his pals, 'For Gawd's sake, shoot me!' I laughed till I cried. But they will shake down, directly they learn that the harder one works in the trenches, the drier and more comfortable one can keep both them and oneself.1

The trenches of both sides were only a few hundred feet apart, buffered by a relatively flat area known as "No Man's Land." The stalemate had halted all but a scattered number of small attacks; thus, soldiers on each side spent a large amount of time dealing with the mud, keeping their heads down in order to avoid sniper fire, and watching carefully for any surprise enemy raids on their trench.

Fraternizing

Restless in their trenches, covered in mud, and eating the same rations every day, some soldiers began to wonder about the un-seen enemy, men declared monsters by propagandists.

* We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends; then we really did dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them and I think they joked about us. And we thought, well, poor so-and-sos, they're in the same kind of muck as we are.2

The uncomfortableness of living in trenches coupled with the closeness of the enemy who lived in similar conditions contributed to a growing "live and let live" policy. Andrew Todd, a telegraphist of the Royal Engineers, wrote of an example in a letter:

* Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very 'pally' with each other.

The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme, but whenever the board comes down the first unlucky devil who shows even so much as a hand gets a bullet through it.3

Sometimes the two enemies would yell at each other. Some of the German soldiers had worked in Britain before the war and asked about a store or area in England that an English soldier also knew well. Sometimes they would shout rude remarks to each other as a way of entertainment. Singing was also a common way of communication.

* During the winter it was not unusual for little groups of men to gather in the front trench, and there hold impromptu concerts, singing patriotic and sentimental songs. The Germans did much the same, and on calm evenings the songs from one line floated to the trenches on the other side, and were there received with applause and sometimes calls for an encore.4

After hearing of such fraternization, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, ordered:

* The Corps Commander, therefore, directs Divisional Commanders to impress on all subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power.

Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. 'we won't fire if you don't' etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.5

Christmas at the Front

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Though Germany readily agreed, the other powers refused.

Even without a cessation of war for Christmas, family and friends of the soldiers wanted to make their loved ones' Christmas special. They sent packages filled with letters, warm clothing, food, cigarettes, and medications. Yet what especially made Christmas at the front seem like Christmas were the troves of small Christmas trees.

On Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put up their Christmas trees, decorated with candles, on the parapets of their trenches. Hundreds of Christmas trees lighted the German trenches. The British soldiers could see the lights but it took them a few minutes to figure out what they were from. British lookouts reported the anomalies to their superiors. Could this be a trick? British soldiers were ordered not to fire but to watch them closely. Instead of trickery, the British soldiers heard many of the Germans celebrating.

* Time and again during the course of that day, the Eve of Christmas, there were wafted towards us from the trenches opposite the sounds of singing and merry-making, and occasionally the guttural tones of a German were to be heard shouting out lustily, 'A happy Christmas to you Englishmen!' Only too glad to show that the sentiments were reciprocated, back would go the response from a thick-set Clydesider, 'Same to you, Fritz, but dinna o'er eat yourself wi' they sausages!'6

In other areas, the two sides exchanged Christmas carols.

* They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang 'The first Noël', and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, 'O Tannenbaum'. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up 'O Come All Ye Faithful' the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words 'Adeste Fidéles'. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.7

The Christmas Truce

This fraternization on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas was in no way officially sanctified nor organized. Yet, in numerous separate instances down the front line, German soldiers began yelling over to their enemy, "Tommy, you come over and see us!"8 Still cautious, the British soldiers would rally back, "No, you come here!"

In some parts of the line, representatives of each side would meet in the middle, in No Man's Land.

* We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans - Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying.

We stood inside the circle like street corner orators.

Soon most of our company ('A' Company), hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us . . . What a sight - little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman's cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn't talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!9

Some of those who went out to meet the enemy in the middle of No Man's Land on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day negotiated a truce: we won't fire if you won't fire. Some ended the truce at midnight on Christmas night, some extended it until New Year's Day.

One of the main reasons Christmas truces were negotiated was in order to bury the dead. Though some had died recently, there were corpses out in No Man's Land that had been there for several months. Along with the revelry that celebrated Christmas was the sad and somber job of burying their fallen comrades. On Christmas day, British and German soldiers appeared on No Man's Land and sorted through the bodies. In just a few rare instances, joint services were held for both the British and German dead.

Yet many soldiers enjoyed meeting the un-seen enemy and were surprised to discover that they were more alike than he had thought. They talked, shared pictures, exchanged items such as buttons for food stuffs. An extreme example of the fraternization was a soccer game played in the middle of No Man's Land between the Bedfordshire Regiment and the Germans. A member of the Bedfordshire Regiment produced a ball and the large group of soldiers played until the ball was deflated when it hit a barbed wire entanglement.

This strange and unofficial truce lasted for several days, much to the dismay of the commanding officers. This amazing showing of Christmas cheer was never again repeated and as World War I progressed, the story of Christmas 1914 at the front became something of a legend.

* This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of 'Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.10

Notes

1. Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse as quoted in Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984) 19.
2. Leslie Walkinton as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 23.
3. Andrew Todd as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 32.
4. 6th Division of the Gordon Highlanders Official History as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 34.
5. II Corp's Document G.507 as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 40.
6. Lieutenant Kennedy as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 62.
7. Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th Century (New York: Penguin Books, 1996) 97.
8. Brown, Christmas Truce 68.
9. Corporal John Ferguson as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 71.
10. Oswald Tilley as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 97-98.

Bibliography

Brown, Malcolm and Shirley Seaton. Christmas Truce. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984.

Terraine, John. "Christmas 1914, and After." History Today December 1979: 781-789.

Winter, D. "Time off From Conflict: Christmas 1914." The Royal United Service Institution Journal December 1970: 42-43.

Winter, Jay and Blaine Baggett. The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.


 



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