Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stop the war, it's Christmas

What if they had a war, and nobody came?  All of you have heard that question asked before.  In this case the question would be more like;  What if they were in the middle of a war and everybody on both sides, decided,  "To hell with the war, it's Christmas Time, screw the generals, screw the politicians, we're taking of for Christmas."

 Strange as it sounds, that's what happened on Christmas Eve in 1914..

World War I had started that summer, triggered by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Throne in June.  His assassination set of a series of events rooted in complicated alliances, old rivalries, chances to regain land lost in ancient wars, you name it everyone had a reason, or an excuse to get in the act.  As is always the case, everyone was sure with a few quick battles, their side would win, and the boys would be home by Christmas.  As is always the case, everyone was wrong.

By Christmas a front ran south across France from the English Channel to the Alps.  Much of the front was made of fortified trenches. Essentially the trenches were, long hand dug ditches, that he men lived in. If you wanted a safer place to sleep, you dug out a little cave in the trench wall.  As best the bottom of the ditches had some boards thrown down so men didn't get stuck in the mud while they were trying to move around. In some places the opposing trenches were less than 50 yards apart.  Between the two was a no mans land of tangled barb wire and littered with the unburied dead from both sides.  Conversations across No Mans land were fairly common... The British knew the Germans had plenty of wine, the Germans knew the Brits had cigarettes.... and by Christmas everyone was ready for a break in the killing.. Except the Generals, who for the most part were safely out of enemy artillery range, behind the trenches, living in warm, dry comfortable houses, well stocked with good hot food, wine, cigars and cigarettes.

War to the average soldier is limited to what he can see and experiences personally.  At the front on  Christmas Eve in 1914 there were no BBC trucks with instant communications to tell everyone what was happening.  It just seemed to happen, most of what we know for sure comes from letters sent home by individual soldiers and published in the soldier's hometown newspaper.  A  British website  Christmas Truce 1914 is trying to put together a collection of the surviving letters.  From the Christmas Truce website, Here's couple examples of how it started, from the people who lived it..

From Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen's Westminsters, of Bishop's Stortford:

"You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ
 (The Hertfordshire Mercury, Saturday January 9, 1915).

This letter from Private Cunningham, of the 5th Scottish Rifles, to his friend Mr James D Gray, in Carluke, Scotland, also reveals in more detail how such truces came about:

 "On Christmas Eve the firing practically ceased. I think both sides understood we were going to have a day off. Through the night we sang carols to one another, the German lines were only a hundred yars away, so we heard each other quite plainly. This went on all night. When dawn arrived we started putting our head above the parapet and waved to each other. On our left was a brewery occupied by the Germans and to our surprise we saw a German come out and hold his hand up, behind him were two rolling a barrel of beer. They came halfway across and signed to us to come for it. Three of us went out, shook hands with them, wished them a merry Christmas, and rolled the barrel to our own trenches amid the cheers of both British and Germans! After that it was understood that peace was declared for a day. We both got out of our trenches and met in the middle of the field, wished each other seasons greetings. The Germans said: "A merry Grismas!". Some of them were quite good at English. We had a most interesting day. The Germans got permission for our officers to bury some of their dead which were lying near our lines. "
 (The Scotsman, January 5, 1915).

The stories almost all refer to Christmas Carols, Services and burials for the dead and exchanging goodies.  The goodies, mostly cigarettes, cigars. food, (cookies, cakes, cheese sent from home).  In may cases local commanders met and set conditions for the truce, and a date and time when it would end.  I read one story of a German Barber who gave a bunch of Brits free and long overdue hair cuts.  There's another story about a soccer game that occurred. the Germans won 3-2

There were a few places where the truce was violated.. In one instance, the Germans broke the ceasefire, firing on the Brits..  That pissed off some nearby Belgium's who were also fighting for the Kaiser.. They demanded a resumption of the truce and threatened to fire on the Germans if it happened again.

I read of another case about a British Artillery commander who misplaced a order to initiate a major barrage Christmas Eve... took him several days to find it

Even though it was widespread, and occurred over large stretches all the way from the British Channel to the Alps, it didn't happen everywhere,  in many places only a few miles from where Germans and Brits were singing and getting drunk together, people were still killing each other..

The truces didn't all end the same.. because local commanders had set the rules for individual local ceasefires, in some cases the shooting started again the day after Christmas.  Must be rough, getting drunk with someone one day, and having to try and kill him the next... in others it extended well into January.

We'll never know how many lives the truce may have saved, or prolonged

When it was over, it was over. the killing continued another five years.  The King was furious about the truce, so was the Kaiser and politicians from both sides... Generals from both sides were embarrassed by what can best described as a mass mutiny..  They made sure it didn't happen again in subsequent years

Even so, they were reminded the rest of their lives whenever people talked about the Christmas Eve Miracle back in 14.

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