Morning Coffee: Christmas Truce

ChristmasIt’s Christmas Eve 1914, a mud-filled foxhole in northern France. Not the place any young man expected to be spending this holiest of nights. Allied forces on one side, the Germans on the other, many of these young men expected to make quick work of the fighting and be home in time to celebrate Christmas with their families. Yet, here they were knee-deep in mud, drenched by the almost non-stop rain, staring down the barrels of their guns at each other across the blood-soaked Western Front.

A million lives had already been lost and there was no end in sight.

Charles Brewer, a 19-year-old British lieutenant with the Bedfordshire Regiment of the 2nd Battalion was glad to see the rain stop and the skies clear on this now moonlit Christmas Eve. All was quiet when a sentry spied a glistening light on one of the German parapets less than 100 yards away. Aware it might be a trap, Brewer slowly lifted his head to look over the sandbags and through the barbed wire to see that it was a Christmas tree. Along the German trenches was a line of lit trees, glimmering in the night like a string of beads. From behind that line rose the faint sound of singing – a Christmas carol. The words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar to the British troops, but the melody certainly was. When the Germans finished singing the British responded with a round of cheering and sang the English version of the carol – “Silent Night.”

The dawn of Christmas Day brought something even more remarkable. In pockets all along the 500-mile Western Front, German and Allied forces laid down their arms and walked tentatively through the no-man’s land between their lines. They stepped around the burned trees, shell craters, and the trenches filled with the frozen bodies of their dead. They climbed over the sandbags and avoided the barbed wire to shake hands with the men who had been their enemies only the day before and wish them a Merry Christmas. Political leaders had ignored Pope Benedict XV’s call for a Christmas cease fire but these men did not, initiating their own spontaneous and unofficial armistice.

“We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years,” British Corporal John Ferguson wrote of that Christmas Day between his Seaforth Highlanders and German forces. “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.”

“Almost always, it was the Germans who at least indirectly invited the truce,” writes Stanley Weintraub in his book “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.” Many of the German soldiers had lived and worked in Great Britain before the war and spoke English.

The men exchanged gifts of cigarettes, chocolates, sausages, liquor and plum puddings. They shared stories of the hardships of war. German soldiers in Houplines rolled a barrel of beer they had seized from a near-by brewery across no-man’s land to share with their new Allied friends. It was unanimously agreed that “French beer was rotten stuff.”

There were pick-up soccer games in no-man’s land where players had to navigate around barbed wire and shell craters. They marked goals with their caps. Where there wasn’t a real leather ball to kick, tin cans and small sandbags worked just as well.

Not everyone was moved by the spirit of Christmas. Fighting continued along some areas of the Front. There were soldiers killed who, in the hopes of a Christmas cease fire of their own, attempted to cross the lines in an offer of peace. German leaders were concerned their men might lose the will to fight. One in particular, a young Adolph Hitler, scolded his fellow soldiers. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime! Have you no German sense of honor left?”

As Christmas Day 1914 came to an end the men parted ways. A few cease fires continued until New Year’s but most resumed fighting the next morning. At 8:30am on the 26th, in Houplines, Captain Charles Stockwell of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers fired three shots into the air and raised a flag that read “Merry Christmas.” His German counterpart raised a flag that read “Thank you.” The two men mounted the parapets, saluted each other and returned to their trenches. Stockwell wrote that his counterpart then “fired two shots in the air—and the war was on again.”

British Expeditionary Force commander John French ordered that such a spontaneous grassroots cease fire should never happen again, and it did not. Millions of more lives would be lost before the guns would fall silent once more with the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918. The 1914 Christmas Truce, though, would not be forgotten. One British soldier wrote home the following day, “I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.”

May Christmas 2015 be one to remember. A very Merry Christmas from my house to yours!

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