In my previous post, I mentioned how the plans of Americans for a quiet Christmas were interrupted by World War 2 (or a small portion thereof). This time, I want to tell you the story of how Christmas interrupted World War 1 for the British, German, and French troops.
In December of 1914, the Great War in Europe had just started to change into the trench
warfare with which we are so familiar. The first months of the war had been months of movement, of battles over open ground and using whatever cover was available. Massive artillery barrages, eight-foot-deep trenches with floors of mud, and bayonet charges over machine-gun-swept “no man’s land” were all in the future. The Allies, or “Entente” powers (primarily Britain and France) had stopped the massive push by the “Continental” powers (mostly German) short of their target of Paris, and as both sides wearied of battle, and the weather changed to cold rain and mud, both sides began to dig in. By the middle of December, the trenches were still shallow, dug by hand using small shovels called “entrenching tools”, or E-tools. Both sides were looking forward to some rest, and some quiet.
The relationship between the Germans and British at the start of World War 1 were very different from that of early World War 2. Neither saw the other side as barbarians or animals. Many Britons had visited Germany prior to the war, and many Germans traveled to Britain. Some families had members in both countries. Indeed, the Kind of England and the Kaiser of Germany were cousins. Both countries looked upon the war more as a continuation of politics by other means than as any kind of holy crusade or attempt at crushing evil. And most of the soldiers on both sides were “lifers”, men who had chosen the military as a way of life. None had yet been subjected to years of constant fire, to watching all their friends be killed, or seeking shelter from terror-inducing barrages. All that was years away. Leading up to Christmas, there were a number of small cease-fires in local areas, to facilitate resupply and removal of the wounded. But what happened on that Christmas eve, happened in numerous places, and would ring down through the years, to be known as, simply, the Christmas Truce.
It started spontaneously at numerous places along the lines. German troops lit candles and
placed them on the rim of thei small trenches. Some German units put up small spruce trees with bits of foil, wire, and paper as decorations, lit by candles. Then, the British troops were amazed to hear … carols! Christmas carols, sung in German, then in English, as one small group at a time, the British joined in with their German opposites. Here and there, a German or British soldier would approach the “enemy”, and soon, dozens, then hundreds were out of their trenches and mingling in the middle, exchanging small packets from home and carious bits of food, including the infamous “bully beef”, a canned beef product once described as “twice as tough as shoe leather, and half as palatable”. Soon, some groups found, or made, footballs (“soccer balls”, to us Yanks), and impromptu football matches sprang up. Even some French units joined in, though these were rare as Germans had invaded their homeland.
Sadly, the High Commands of both sides found out. Specific orders were handed down on both sides to cease any “fraternisation” immediately. A few groups tried to maintain the camaraderie through Christmas day, but most went reluctantly back to their original positions. Though the truce was ended, both sides were reluctant to restart hostilities, and both sides’ commanders worked hard to bring their troops under control.
No more great holiday truces ever occurred again during the war. There were sporadic attempts at an Easter Truce in 1915, but command staff worked hard to keep their solders in line. And as 1915 wore into 1916, the early battles of the war began to draw blood on both sides in copious quantity, while officers often ordered barrages in “no man’s land” to keep their troops from crossing over. There have been some reports of a limited truce in 1916 in one small area of the lines. But in general, the war ground on, men died by the thousands and tens of thousands, and every day became a struggle to survive.
But for one moment in time, on one cold, shining December night, an entire world at war paused for just a few hours and celebrated all that brings us together. For one night, enemies became friends, and the guns were silenced. And today, 98 years later, that day stands as a shining example of how we all, despite our numerous differences, can come together in peace and harmony.
May God bless and keep the troops from all countries, all around the world, and bring them home, soon and safe.