They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.
(A Christmas Carol. The Second Stave: The Ghost of Christmas Present.)
Though Dickens is writing of seamen in this passage, thinking of soldiers stationed far from home over the holidays put me in mind of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when Great War soldiers on both sides of the front called for a ceasefire and crossed no-man’s-land to celebrate Christmas. I realized I wasn’t quite sure of the details, particularly what was true and what was not about that story, so I did some digging. I found this terrific article by Simon Rees on First World War that I’d like to share.
The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man’s land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914. … The event is seen as a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One — a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians.
The reality of the Christmas Truce, however, is a slightly less romantic and a more down to earth story. It was an organic affair that in some spots hardly registered a mention and in others left a profound impact upon those who took part. … The true story is still striking precisely because of its rag-tagged nature: it is more ‘human’ and therefore all the more potent.
A lot of soldiers on both sides had received Christmas packages from home and, in some cases, special rations. So some good cheer was already dawning.
With their morale boosted by messages of thanks and their bellies fuller than normal, and with still so much Christmas booty to hand, the season of goodwill entered the trenches. A British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches.
It was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain’s birthday. They proposed a concert at 7.30pm when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches.
The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. … The Germans then asked the British to join in.
On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, but at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors there was an unnerving silence that was broken by the singing and shouting drifting over, in the main, from the German trenches.
Along many parts of the line the Truce was spurred on with the arrival in the German trenches of miniature Christmas trees — Tannenbaum. The sight [of] these small pines, decorated with candles and strung along the German parapets, captured the Tommies’ imagination, as well as the men of the Indian corps who were reminded of the sacred Hindu festival of light.
It was the perfect excuse for the opponents to start shouting to one another, to start singing and, in some areas, to pluck up the courage to meet one another in no-man’s land.
Christmas day began quietly but once the sun was up the fraternisation began. Again songs were sung and rations thrown to one another. It was not long before troops and officers started to take matters into their own hands and ventured forth. No-man’s land became something of a playground.
Men exchanged gifts and buttons. In one or two places soldiers who had been barbers in civilian times gave free haircuts. One German, a juggler and a showman, gave an impromptu, and, given the circumstances, somewhat surreal performance of his routine in the centre of no-man’s land.
Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, in his famous account [a letter to his mother which was later widely published in newspapers], remembered the approach of four unarmed Germans at 08.30. He went out to meet them with one of his ensigns. ‘Their spokesmen,’ Hulse wrote, ‘started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike!’
‘Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, “Virginian?” Our fellow said, “Aye, straight-cut”, the German said “No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!”… It gave us all a good laugh.’
Today, pragmatists read the Truce as nothing more than a ‘blip’ – a temporary lull induced by the season of goodwill, but willingly exploited by both sides to better their defences and eye out one another’s positions.
Romantics assert that the Truce was an effort by normal men to bring about an end to the slaughter.
I am in the latter camp. Pax et bonum.
In the public’s mind the facts have become irrevocably mythologized, and perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today. In our age of uncertainty, it’s comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.
(Simon Rees. “The Christmas Truce.” August 22, 2009. FirstWorldWar.com)
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