Around this time of year, one of the great stories of the season (at least for me) are the tales of the Christmas Truces on the Western Front during the winter of 1914. To me, those stories are something of a triumph of the human spirit.
These stoppages in fighting happen in many wars in Western history. The American Civil War and Spanish Civil War had similar truces, where both sides' soldiers met, exchanged news and goods, and maybe played some sport.
I did a post on the 1914 truce back in the JS days, but it's time for a retell. We'll combine it with a little 'theatre of the mind', though, to perhaps make it more interesting.
Picture if you will, a farmhouse. Picture it being wintertime: snow on the ground. Think of something like this:
It's Christmas Day. All of the regular readers here, past and present, are all gathered together in the living room by the fireplace, sated after a huge Christmas dinner. Some of you are watching the NBA game on TV, others possibly nodding off, drinks in hand. Might be the rest of you are outside in the snow chucking a football around.
Eventually, everyone comes in and gathers around-for it's time for a revered holiday ritual. Glasses are refilled.
Barnesy: "Grandpa Yankeedog, are you going to tell the story of the Christmas Truces of 1914?"
Doc: "Yeah, tell us the story!"
Havock: "Just TELL us the FKN story, you old BASTARD!"
YD (in the 'old man' voice) "Alright, everyone, come on closer while I tell you the story."
YD: "Now, all this happened right around the beginning of the last century. This was before TV, them interwebs, and oranges. Why, the question mark hadn't even been invented yet! People then, just like now, got to fussin' and fightin' over all kinds of stuff. Kinda like at dinner today when Bangar hit Moko with a chair leg for eating the last of the sweet potatoes, or when Tricia stuck her tongue out at Natalie during the prayer..."
Mayhem: "SHE started it!"
YD: "You kids hush! Now where was I? Oh yes. I was in Teddy Roosevelt's Cavalry, riding a war-moose up San Juan Hill..."
YD: "Yeah, I know! Young punk. Anyway, this all happened during WW One, what everyone called the Great War, because it was great if you were lucky enough not to be in it. Well, in that first autumn of the war, all them politicians told the boys that they'd all be home by Christmas. Winter started to kick in, and still no sign of the war ending. So the troops settled in to the trenches all along the Western Front, from the Channel to where the Swiss live..."
Bangar: "They fought in Wisconsin?"
YD: "No! That was the Cheese Conflict of 1896. If you all are going to keep interrupting me, I'll let you hear the story as the men themselves told it....
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 Christmas trees, decorated with candles, on the parapets of their trenches. Hundreds of Christmas trees lighted the German trenches and although British soldiers could see the lights, it took them a few minutes to figure out what they were from. 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!'
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.
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!" 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 streetcorner 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!'
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 reason Christmas truces were negotiated was in order to bury the dead, many of whom 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.
YD: "Now, all those officers and politicians knew that if the troops refused to fight, peace might have broken out. So after the first year, they scheduled artillery barrages and trench raids right around Christmas to keep everyone all riled up, and the Christmas truces along the trenches, well, they petered out and by the end of the war were just memories.
...and that's the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, which is why you kids shouldn't be out messing with my tools in the shed, or monkeying around with the bandsaw!"
Moko: "I don't get what the Truce of 1914 has to do with using your tools..."
YD: "That's because you have no respect for your elders! Maybe instead of yapping, you'll go get me another glass of eggnog. Now you kids go about your business, and leave Grandpa alone to drink his eggnog and watch his favorite holiday movie-Emmanuelle At The North Pole."
BigBadAl: "Can I watch, too?"
YD: "No, you can't! Go outside and sled down the hill on the piece of cardboard I got you for Christmas. When you come back, I'll tell you the story of the First Christmas, where Baby Jesus was born in Allentown..."
Natalie: "Bethlehem. Baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem."
YD: "Wherever. It was somewhere out in Pennsylvania. Anyway, kids, we're now going to play a game called 'Leave Grandpa YD Alone'. The object of the game is to leave Grandpa YD alone. So go outside and play in the snow. And don't angry up my chickens!"
The actual passage of the Christmas Truce came from About.com-thanks for letting me 'borrow' it. There are numerous stories and articles about it on the 'net, most of which are worth a read. Astounding that people could put a world war aside for one day and get along. It gives one a bit of hope for the human race after all.
But on a lighter note, I know about all this because of Great-Grandpa Yankeedog's experience in WWI. They even wrote a song about it. Like to hear it, here it goes: