Wednesday, December 24, 2014


One of the most inspiring factual Christmas stories in modern history is, perhaps, that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. I know that it has been told many times before by journalists, novelists, screenwriters and others, but I feel that, as a parable, it bears repeating, more because of the implications of its meaning than as a mere anecdote, although it remains a singularly moving and colorful story as such. And if there was ever a holiday season in which it deserved re-telling, it is surely this Christmas, on the one hundredth anniversary of this extraordinary event.
World War I, known back then as the Great War, was one of the most intimately horrific wars in history. Still fought in extremely close quarters and, at the peak of battle, still a war about hand to hand combat and grim, bloody, “justified” murder, it was also the first war that introduced the technology to permit even more effective mass slaughter: tanks capable of breaking through firing lines and overrunning barriers and men, machineguns that could fire between 400 and 600 rounds a minute and out-match a hundred riflemen, mustard and chlorine gasses that choked the air and blinded, suffocated and incapacitated soldiers on the opposite short, the things nightmares are made of, and all up close and personal.
Losses in the Great War were tragic and, for their generation, devastating. By the end of the conflict ten million combatants on both sides had died and another six million civilians had perished with them. Tens of millions of others would be wounded, mutilated or incapacitated for life.
This new technology necessitated keeping a low profile during battle, which, in turn, meant getting below ground level. It was because of this that World War I became, essentially, a trench war—to such an extent that, by the end of the war, the trenches built by both sides, laid end to end, could have easily stretched once around the circumference of the earth.  Trenches were usually built in threes and roughly parallel to each other on either side. The front-line trench was typically fifty yards from the enemy and was backed up by support trenches a couple of hundred yards back and a reserve trench several hundred yards farther back still, holding relief troops and equipment. They were purposely serpentine, snaking their way through the countryside in order to discourage direct frontal attack and to provide different angles from which to fire on the enemy. In between, no-man’s-land, a bleak strip of shell-cratered land strewn with barbed wire and other obstacles and surveilled by machine-gunners on either side.  
But the intimate nature of this arrangement meant that the men hunkered down in those trenches for weeks and months on end became “neighbors” with those who populated the enemy trenches across from theirs. And clearly, like nearly all other wars, the Great War wasn’t about any enmity among the individuals involved in the fighting, but about politicians doing the bidding of ambitious imperial leaders who set their sights on each other’s holdings and used propaganda to dupe common citizens into believing that it was their patriotic duty to fight and die for “king and country” and for a set of imposed “ideals” that served to invent “an enemy people” who only yesterday had been a neighbor, a fellow European, a brother or a sister.
It is worth recalling, nevertheless, that this was a time in which common individuals were starting to come into their own. It was the time of growing anarchism and Marxism, of movements toward increasing democratization, of unions and guilds to protect the rights of those whose toil and skills were augmenting the wealth of the powerful on both sides who were conducting this war for reasons of their own while adducing matters of patriotism and the glory of “just war”.
As such, there was no little concern among leaders on both sides regarding the “morale” of the troops in the trenches. And indeed those concerns, for anyone hoping to conduct a prolonged and widespread conflict in such conditions, were warranted. Nearly a half-year into the war, the two sides had reached a deadlock after British and French troops blocked initial advances by the soldiers of Kaiser Wilhelm. This was where the grueling trench war intensified, but ended up often being a waiting game in which no one could advance and no one could retreat and everyone had to become accustomed to periods of sitting out their days in cold, wet, filthy earthworks, randomly broken by the adrenalin of firefights or over-the-top hand-to-hand battles.
Odd though it may seem, by the latter months of 1914, verbal contact and even a certain amount of fraternization wasn’t unheard-of between opposing trenches, particularly between German and British troops, though there were occasionally such cases reported between the French and the Germans as well, to such an extent that a young French officer named Charles de Gaulle is said to have termed “lamentable” the attitude of a number of his troops who would have been perfectly content to let the enemy be. Incredibly enough, informal ceasefires were sometimes called just before nightfall to allow one side or the other to receive food or other supplies. And there were even reports of “visits” during lulls in the fighting by members of one army to the opposing army’s trenches, in a sort of courtesy-call etiquette respected by riflemen on both sides of the war.
As this sort of thing progressed, superior officers began being alarmed by reports of the practice and started sending down rigorous orders forbidding troops from any sort of fraternizing with the enemy. But that didn’t stop what amounted to a Christmas miracle’s taking place over the course of several days from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26th), 1914.
It all began with some of the German soldiers placing reminders of the Christian holiday up on the edges of their trenches—a candle here, a makeshift Tannenbaum there, and suddenly the rims of their excavations were beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s easy to speculate that some of the troops in the opposite trenches might have suspected a trick to get them to break cover. But then, the Germans began singing Christmas carols in their language. And soon, the British soldiers started answering them in English. Someone shouted, “Frohe Weihnachten!” And someone shouted back, “Merry Christmas!”
Finally, a few brave souls climbed up out of their trenches, negotiated the barbed wire and obstacles and met each other halfway in no-man’s-land, which was now converted into Every Man’s Land. Others came. They shook hands, smiled, shared and exchanged what they had—cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, whatever liquor they had in their flasks, chocolate, small deserts from their battlefield rations. And they traded souvenirs, buttons from their coats, caps, scarves, whatever might serve as a gift.
They took advantage of these rare moments of peace and shared Christmas sentiments to gather and bury the bodies of their most recent dead and they held joint Christmas services to honor the day. Even the artillery fell silent as soldiers from both sides of the rolls of concertina wire greeted each other, not as enemies, but as fellow human beings and as brothers with this same tradition, with families, and with memories of previous years of peace in common.
A reflection of how touching these moments were, is the account of one British trooper who wrote, “I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons...I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange....I saw one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
In the end, literally tens of thousands of opposing troops took part in the informal Christmas Truce of 1914, before their superior officers desperately imposed drastic measures to put an immediate stop to such an appalling display of...brotherhood. For a moment, men pushed into battle with other men just like them for unquestionable reasons neither understood and on the basis of fabricated logic and false justifications invented by their handlers, took their lives and their wills back and, responding to the higher orders of their own shared religious and social traditions, decided for a few days to no longer be enemies.
Imbued as they were with as much civic as religious doctrine, however, the brief silencing of the guns to celebrate Christmas would inevitably end, since they were, unfortunately, already past being free enough to believe in the power of one, by which individuals of like mind retain the power and the human duty to say “no” to their self-imposed authorities. Their upbringing, their schooled sense of patriotism, their feelings of contrived loyalty to anyone but their fellow man, led them back into war, and before they were through, millions more would die.
For a few days in December of 1914, however, the power of the Christmas spirit outweighed the power of warring empires and erstwhile enemies gave each other the gift of peace in the name of a common and loving human tradition.



Sylvia said...

Hi Dan, this is a remarkable piece about The Great War. One which has touched my heart because my own father's two brothers died "for King and Country" a few months after being sent over. They were about 19 or 20 years of age. My grandmother, who was already a widow, received some medals and cards, thanking her for the services rendered by her two sons. No bodies to bury. I still have the envelopes with the medals, ribbons and cards.
My father was about to go as well, but the war ended. He was 18 in 1918. His mother became an alcoholic and he was brought up by relations. Came over to Argentina without a penny, with an uncle who paid the ship fare.
As for the Christmas celebrations, it's true that they've been told many times in various forms, even included in an old movie. So touching...heart-breaking. You've offered up another way of re-telling the tale. I've "enjoyed" it very much indeed. Thanks a lot, happy 2015.

Dan Newland said...

Happy 2015 to you too, Sylvia, and many thanks for sharing you family's own touching story. Yours and millions of other family's stories are what keep wars from being mere historical mile markers and cold statistics. They provide the real dimensions of war through the minimalist remembrance of personal loss and family tragedy.
Thanks for reading this piece, and for your comments.