Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 25, 1914

Trench warfare is nothing new, but in World War I it became the standard. The Western Front was a seemingly endless series of ditches inhabited by young men ordered to kill each other.

The British Empire, France, and (later in the war) America faced off against the Germans, with a few hundred yards of No-Man's Land between them. For most of the tragedy of WWI it was a stalemate. Each side would shoot at the other, or throw grenades, but to leave your trench for an exposed position was almost certain death.

Winter made the trenches even worse. Men were exposed to the elements. The ground was too frozen to dig easily. Snow would melt and fill them with mud that got everywhere. And it was bitter cold. There was no comfortable place to rest or eat, and sanitary facilities were nonexistent at the front. Day after day men staked out their positions against each other.

Christmas of 1914 was just another day. It was cold. The worst war the world had ever faced up to that time was in its 5th month, and the Western Front had already become a stalemate. They shot at each other here and there, but mostly waited.

Even in the most inhumane of surroundings, people still try to be people. Both sides put up a few Christmas decorations in their frozen ditches. On the night of December 24, German soldiers in Ypres lit holiday candles and sang a few Christmas carols. The light gave British soldiers targets... but they didn't shoot.

Then the British soldiers began singing carols, too. The languages may differ, but the music doesn't change. "Silent Night" was the favorite, as it was commonly known in both countries.

After a while, men began leaving their trenches, walking across the desolate No Man's Land. No one fired a shot, even though exposed targets were everywhere. They shook hands and exchanged small gifts, food, and cigarettes. Most knew enough of the others language to talk.

Due to recent fighting there were still bodies on the ground. They each gathered their dead, dug a mass grave together, and buried them. They held a joint memorial ceremony in the freezing night.

The sun rose over Christmas day, to find them still gathered. Soccer balls were produced and matches were played on and off all day. One soldier recalled so many wanted to play that one game had teams of roughly 50 men on each side of the field.

Beats killing each other, eh?

A British officer, who collected trinkets, approached a German officer and asked to exchange uniform buttons. The German produced a scissor, quickly snipped 2 off their heavy coats, and they traded them.

A British machine-gunner who'd been a barber in civilian life spent the day giving haircuts to any German who asked. Many of the young men had been on the front for months, and wanted a trim.

Similar events went on across the Western Front, some ending on December 26, though in other areas they continued to New Years Day. One British captain later described a sing-along which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!"

"That's funny... Except for their uniforms these guys look just like us!"
Officers behind the front were horrified when word of these events drifted back to them. Both sides began posting higher-ranking officials in the front to maintain discipline around the holidays, and strict punishments were threatened for those who celebrated with the enemy.

These rules reduced them, but similar events continued to occur. In 1915 a German soldier wrote that "when the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for black bread, biscuits and ham." He described the No Man's Land they gathered in as "strewn with shattered trees, the ground plowed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots, and tattered uniforms."

And in 1916 a 23 year-old Canadian soldier wrote home that German and Canadian soldiers near Vimy Ridge shared Christmas greetings and traded presents: "Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. Christmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. ... We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."

There are (roughly) 8,700,000 known species on Earth, only one of which routinely kills its own kind in large, deliberate, numbers. War can bring out the worst our species has to offer. Less frequently, though, it reminds us that we are the same. Our causes, weapons, and names change with time. But we are still people.


Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story, Dr G. Have you watched the French movie "Joyeux Noel"?

Anonymous said...

If you lean out your office window, you might hear singing from the insurance company office across the street: "goodwill towards men"

CindyS said...

There's now a wonderful opera based on this event, called "Silent Night". It premiered at Minnesota Opera a couple of years ago, and Fort Worth is doing it this year (a friend has a role in it).

One of my favorite songs of the season is "Christmas in the Trenches", by John Huffman, which chronicles the events through the eyes of a young British soldier named Francis Tolliver. You can hear it here:

bobbie said...


Steeny Lou said...

Thank you for sharing that, Doc. I needed to hear about some good stuff going on amongst humans.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Cato said...

No random farmer or factory worker ever decided that he was going to pick up the nearest weapon and have it out to the death with someone he's never met two thousand miles away on his own accord. Events like the Christmas Truce put that pretty starkly. Many times, in past wars, when people have been sure nobody was watching, soldiers have simply chosen not to shoot. I think that when the peer pressure is far away, people realize that the other guy with a rifle is just as out of place and miserable as they are.

War is always the work of a government, and governments are probably humanity's leading cause of death. It astounds me that there are still people who are willing to trust them with new powers, believing for some reason that it'll be different for this, the thousandth time. Our founding fathers had it right when they shackled the government, but they didn't use enough chain.

CindyS said...

Oops. Christmas in the Trenches is by John McCutcheon.

Mark p.s.2 said...

at that time war was worker VS worker.
The proletariat.

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