Monday, December 20, 2004

1914 Christmas Truce of World War I

Have you ever heard of what happened on the front of World War I on Christmas Day 1914? The Americans and Germans stopped killing each other just long enough to spontaneously celebrate Christmas together, right on the battlefield between their trenches. I’d never heard about this event before my pastor drew it to my attention a week ago. It happened in spite of the superior officers who wanted them to keep fighting. It happened even though the two enemies didn’t speak the same language. From my pastor’s notes, “[I]t still stands as the only time in history that peace spontaneously arose from the ranks in a major conflict, bubbling up to the officers and temporarily turning sworn enemies into friends.” How could we let this piece of history go untaught and ignored? That’s a crime in and of itself.

Please look up this event for yourselves. It’s fascinating. I feel like crying just thinking of how differently we do war now. Could this ever happen again? Maybe not.

I’ll transcribe as much as I can here over the next couple of days. Check back for more. Weintraub often refers to the German soldiers as “Saxons” and the English ones as “Tommies.” I don’t know who Frank Richards is that he keeps referring to, but I’m sure it’s made clear in his book (which I don’t have).

Taken from Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub, The Free Press, 2001

At the “earliest crack of dawn” Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons wished “a good morning” to the English opposite. The next section in his battalion had heard of his “incredible adventure” by field phone and began making “friendly overtures.” Zehmisch had “delightful conversation in English, French and German” with enemy officers who had joined him. Contagion had set in. On Christmas morning at Houplines, near Armentieres, Frank Richards and his friends in the second Royal Welch Fusiliers “stuck up his board” on which they had lettered “A MERRY CHRISTMAS’ and waited to see what would happen. (He was used to evading orders. In the ranks since 1901, with duty in Burma and India, he had “risen,” he wrote in memoir “to primate.”) When their message was not riddled by fire, two men in his company jumped onto the parapet of their trench and raised their hands above their heads to show that they had no weapons. Two Germans opposite did the same, and began walking toward them, up from the Lys riverbank. As they met and shook hands, the trenches emptied and men on both sides began running toward each other. “Buffalo Bill” Stockwell, Richards’ company commander, had seen it too late to matter, rushing into the forwrd trench only when his men were gone. His nickname had come from his habit of pulling out his revolver and threatening to blow a man’s “ruddy brains out” for some trifling thing - and what he saw then was no trifle.

Since no choice existed but to accept reality “company officers climbed out, too. Their officers were also now out...We mucked in all day with one another.” One English-speaking Saxon confided that he was fed up with the war and Richards and his friends readily agreed.

Other unit commanders attempted at the start to put limits on fraternization, but were usually no more effective than Buffalo Bill. A belligerent Welch captain hoped to limit the cease-fire, but a sergeant with different views hoisted a large screen lettered “A MERRY CHRISTMAS.” At first, in the thick ground fog that accompanied the overnight frost, the Germans failed to see it. Yet, with no shots to fear, men ate their breakfasts openly. As the mist began lifting, soldiers on both sides “got a bit venturous and looked over the top,” normally unsafe in daylight. “A German started to walk down the tow-path [of the Lys] toward our lines and,” Richard wrote, “Ike Sawyer went to meet him. The German handed over a box of cigars. Later the Germans came boldly out of their trenches, but our men, still forbidden to leave theirs, threw out tins of bully [beef] and plum-and-apple jam.” And they shouted “Here you are, you poor hungry bastards!”

Exchanges of food were driven by the vast differential between supply and demand that the holiday had created. Germans would have given much for the legendary coarse English marmalade, but the only jam that reached the troops in 1914 was cheap plum-and-apple. From the German standpoint the surfeit was a boon. In exchange - in Richard’s sector - they promised to roll toward the British lines two barrels of beer. In Captian Stockwell’s account, the Saxons opposite “had been shouting across in English” all Christmas morning but only when the fog had lifted did his troops see half a dozen of the enemy standing on their parapets without arms, shouting, “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.” Three of them began to roll a barrel that had been hoisted onto a parapet “into the middle of No Man’s Land.” More Saxons emerged between the lines and things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposting Captain to appear. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other, and seemed to be a very decent fellow. He could not speak a word of English. he then called out his subalterns and formally introduced them with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat. One of the subalterns could talk a few words of English. I said, “My orders are to keep my men in the trenches and allow no armistice. Don’t you think it is dangerous, all your men running about in the open like this? Someone may open fire.”

He called out an order, and all his men went back to their parapet, leaving me and the five German officers and a barrel of beer in the middle of No Man’s Land. He said, “You had better take the beer; we have lots.” So I called up two men to bring the barrel to our side. I did not like to take their beer without giving something in exchange, and I suddenly had a brainwave. We had lots of plum puddings, so I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then called out, “Waiter,” and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it, amid cheers from the both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. Our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.

From Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Isn’t it amazing? If only it could happen now.

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