Wednesday, December 25, 2013

DECEMBER 25 = The Christmas Truce of 1914


"25th Dec. At 8.30 a.m. I was looking out, and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us; I told two of my men to go and meet them, unarmed (as the Germans were unarmed), and to see that they did not pass the half-way line. We were 350-400 yards apart at this point..... They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer, and 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 and a 3.5 h.p. motor-bike! He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a post card in front of me, in English, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again. We then entered on a long discussion on every sort of thing. I was dressed in an old stocking-cap and a man's overcoat, and they took me for a corporal, a thing which I did not discourage, as I had an eye to going as near their lines as possible. I asked them what orders they had from their officers as to coming over to us, and they said none; they had just come over out of goodwill."

The Frontline Troops Call a Halt to the Fighting

This was the highly improbable scene that morning of Dec. 25 in 1914 as described by Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the 2'nd Scots Guards of the British Army in France. The actual events, while not so strange when looked at in context of the war up to that point, are all the more remarkable for being true. It was still early in the war, and the hate generated by years of relentless combat and propaganda had not set in yet. Troops still had recent memories of home; civilian life was not so far off as it would soon become. And the surroundings of the battlefield were not nearly so stark and outer worldly as they would become. Villages still were in evidence, and no-mans land was not yet the shell-hole hell-hole that it would become in only a short time. It still bore traces of life. And for the troops that took the biggest part in the events of Dec. 24 -25, 1914, the British and the Germans, it was comparatively easy. The war had raged in France and Belgium thus far. So their men could still think of home as a place untouched by war. Nevertheless, combat companies which had only recently been locked in mortal combat with each other found themselves exchanging Christmas greetings that year.

The Spirit of Peace Begins to Spread...

The event started in the Ypres (pronounced "eepres", but derisively pronounced "wipers" by the Brits) region of Belgium. German troops there began decorating small Christmas trees on Dec. 24. They continued by singing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), and the Brits in opposing trenches responded by singing English Christmas carols. It was reported in one of the Brit newspapers - the Daily Telegraph that the Germans somehow had shipped a chocolate cake to the Brit trenches along with a note requesting a ceasefire at 7:30 that evening in order to celebrate the season as well as their captain's birthday. The Brits agreed, and sent some tobacco as a return gift. Both sides had recently received care packages from home, so they had an extra amount of food with them. So when 7:30 came the two sides each popped their heads above the edge of their trenches, and slowly began to emerge. Eventually, the men came out and began to exchange other gifts of tobacco, and cakes that they had received from home. The truce spread to other areas of the battle front. In some areas, the truce was called as a way for men from both sides to collect their dead from no-mans land, and give them a proper burial. Inevitably, the men in the burial teams began to interact.

The Officers Really Didn't Like the Idea....

The commanders of the troops took a decidedly dim view of this sort of fraternization. Comfortably ensconced in fine homes well behind the frontlines, they sent orders that this was all to stop. But in actual practice they and their counterparts on the other sides were surprisingly relaxed, viewing this as an interval during which they could shore up their own defences. Captain Hulse, quoted above had left orders that this was to stop, and left to report the situation to headquarters. He had no sooner returned than he found about twenty or thirty men from both sides gathered in no-mans land talking quite amiably:

"Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, 'Virginian?' Our fellow said, 'Aye, straight-cut', the German said 'No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!'... It gave us all a good laugh." There were even impromptu soccer games played in some places. This spontaneous truce could not of course last. But it did go on for all of Christmas day in those places where it did occur. In some sectors it actually lasted for some days after New Years. Captain Hulse recorded the end of non-hostilities:

"During the afternoon the same extraordinary scene was enacted between the lines, and one of the enemy told me that he was longing to get back to London: I assured him that "So was I." He said that he was sick of the war, and I told him that when the truce was ended, any of his friends would be welcome in our trenches, and would be well-received, fed, and given a free passage to the Isle of Man! Another coursing meeting took place, with no result, and at 4.30 p.m. we agreed to keep in our respective trenches, and told them that the truce was ended."

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Sources :

"Silent Night - the 1914 Christmas Truce" by Stanley Weintraub, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001

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