The Christmas Truce

The Western Front. December, 1914.
It seems that the weather has been awful for ever. The trenches are waterlogged. The temperatures are below zero. The soldiers' movements, wading sometimes up to their knees, prevent the slime from freezing solid. They are totally ill equipped for such conditions.

One gets so used to the rats that they're hardly noticed. Then there's always the stench of decomposing bodies not far off in no man's land, especially when the temperature rises above freezing level again.

Today however, sometimes a friendly voice is heard from the enemy trenches no more than 50 yards away. In some places only 30 yards separate the lines. The British army is manning a stretch south of the Ypres salient.

The Germans and the British have received State gifts. Christmas puddings and 'Princess Mary Boxes' for Tommy. A tin case with her silhouette engraved on it. It contains butterscotch, chocolates, tobacco and some cigarettes. There's also a postcard of Princess Mary with a message from her father, King George V, 'May God protect you and bring you safe home.'

From Kaiser Wilhelm II, Fritz received meerschaum pipes. The officers have been given boxes of cigars. Many supportive associations have sent gifts to both sides. 

The French and the Belgians have also received gifts for Christmas, but apparently on a less official basis. Of course both countries are already suffering from the occupation, which naturally weighs  heavily on their Christmas spirits.

Miniature Christmas trees (tannenbaum) were delivered to the German trenches. Lit with candles they are displayed along the parapets.
The Germans start to sing carols. Stille Nacht (Silent Night). They ask the Brits to join in. One thoughtlessly replies, 'we'd rather die than sing German'. A German wittily responds- 'It would kill us if you did!'
Even the weather was clear by the 24th. The Christmas truce had begun.

The truce was first used to decently bury fallen comrades. When this grim, sad and difficult task was done, both sides began to exchange gifts and souvenirs. Soon they are strolling about mingling together, sharing rations, jokes and small talk in no man's land. There's even a performance from a German juggler. It seems like a crazy, Christmas circus. In some areas both sides are playing football.

Strangely, although the Commanding officers of both armies were strongly opposed to fraternising with the enemy, and firm orders were given against it, there was no great insistence about this, and the truce lasted for all of Christmas. In some areas it even seemed to last until New Year's day. And despite the fact that the orders were ignored, no disciplinary action was taken.

Sir Edward Hulse, Captain of the Scots Guards recounts how he received four unarmed German soldiers at 8.30 am on Christmas day. Hulse wrote an account of this- 'Their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl friend and a 3.5 hp motor-bike!'
(At such a time of the first year of the war, it would never have occurred to the German soldiers to say- 'before we resume mowing you down with withering machine gun fire, blinding and poisoning you with our mustard gas, and blowing you into small pieces with our heavy artillery, we thought it only right to...').

On the German side, Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons wrote- 'The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.'

On some sections of the front, the war was resumed sooner. A medical officer, Captain J.C. Dunn wrote- 'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He (the Germans) put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.'

This precious truce came at a time when both sides were probably equally confident that the war couldn't possibly drag on until 1918, and it hadn't yet created the desolate ruin, nor apparently the bitter hatred that was bound to come. In 1914 the horror and mass slaughter perpetuated by the blind ignorance of Commanding Officers issuing stupid orders from plush rooms far from the front, must then have seemed almost inconceivable. The same High Command superiors who were to establish the Treaty of Versailles, 'the twenty year amnesty' that was to prove to be exactly that.

This reciprocal chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour strongly underlines the absurd tragedy of the Great War. On the 11th November, 2008, one of the last Poilus (French infantry, so called because of their understandably muddy, unshaven and unkempt appearance) declared- 'This war never warranted the death of a single soldier.' More than nine million fell, approximately 6000 a day.
But the results, thanks to the famous treaty, largely contributed to foster the creation of even greater monsters, capable of causing even greater horror.

Yet The Christmas Truce still reminds us of what's possible when there's good will, even among ordinary men formed to slaughter each other, and this despite the most horrific circumstances.
Both sides would have suffered the loss of friends and comrades, sometimes in the most gruesome way, yet they, unlike their well fed, well compensated and well protected superior Commanders, were then far more inclined to lower their rifles, and even sing together to celebrate their first Christmas in the trenches.
But it's also a reminder of the folly of war, certainly in this particular case, when there was little difference between the front line soldiers, whatever side they happen to be on.

Thanks to the continual, pompous management of High Command, the impossible treaty based on blind politics of vendetta was established. The twenty year fuse destined to explode in an even more atrocious, devastating and determining way, was thus lit, before the world seemed to wake up at last, having finally learnt its lesson in the hardest possible way. Assuming that human nature is ever really capable of this..
Text © Mirino. Sources include- The Christmas Truce, with many thanks. Top image (probably a frame from a film reconstructing the event). 2nd image front page of the Daily Mirror (Friday, January 6th, 1915) news item of the truce. December, 2011

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