Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Truce of World War I

The Scotsman December 12, 2006:

Life in the trenches along the Western Front during the First World War was horrific. For hundreds of miles across Belgium and France, British forces – a large number of Scots among them – huddled in six-foot living graves fighting a German enemy who were only shouting distance away.

The early winter of 1914 was typical: cold, damp and grey. Rolling fog would add to the macabre surroundings. The ground was often frozen and the trenches so thick and deep with mud that men could have the socks and boots pulled from their legs.

It is in this bleak environment – where shells and other engines of death searched for their targets – that the unthinkable occurred 92 years ago. Peace broke out.

For the shortest of spells in this frantic 4 1/2-year ordeal of death and destruction, and rejecting orders from HQ to battle on, both the Britons and the Germans laid down their arms to shake hands, swap rations and tobacco, and pay respects to the religious holiday. It was a Christmas Truce like no other.

A young officer from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment wrote to a friend in Kirkcudbright: "It was the most extraordinary occurrence that I suppose ever took place in any war."

The Rev Esselmount Adams, chaplain to the Gordon Highlanders, arrived on Christmas morning to conduct the funeral service for a 6th Gordon soldier killed a day earlier. Along this fragile battlefront, unarmed German soldiers walked from their positions about 200 yards away to join their enemies in a moment of solidarity and respect.

Dozens of bodies lay across this no-man's land. The chaplain hastily arranged another service. On either side of him stood opposing forces in a line. A German interpreter assisted. Afterward, the dead – at least 100, say the soldiers – were laid to rest. It was a day of reflection, a day to exchange pleasantries rather than gunfire.

Germans love the Christmas season, so much so that about a half-million fir trees were shipped to the troops to raise their spirits. At night, burning candles produced a row of trees in silhouette atop the trenches and carols were sung well into the night. British servicemen couldn't believe their eyes or ears, describing to their families of the impromptu "fairytale" moment as a "day of fiction". But, the fairytale was true.

Private George Wylie, of the Seaforth Highlanders, wrote to his father: "The Germans have been singing every night in groups in their trenches, and some very good singers there are amongst them." Of Christmas Day, he said, "there was nothing but groups of Seaforths and Germans (from the 10th Bavarian Regiment) shaking hands, patting each other on the back, and incidentally having a drink together, of which the Germans seemed well supplied."

There were reports of a proper football match between the two sides but it was more than likely nothing more than a fun exchange. Jonathan Ferguson, assistant curator at the National War Museum of Scotland, notes: "Football was very much a shared interest between the two cultures (so) ... there is very little doubt that there were at least informal kick-abouts."

Many of the Germans spoke fluent English, after having lived and worked in Britain or America. During the brief truce, one British soldier learned from a German counterpart that they both had often attended the same church in London.

The officer from the Warwickshire regiment learned a great deal from the Germans, including where they were from and how long they were assigned to the trenches. He said some of them were as young as 16, adding: "One of our sergeants said if he caught them pointing a rifle at him he'd turn them over and spank them."

A member of the Gordons, L-Cpl Stephen, told his parents in Aberdeen that the German men were "fed up" with the war, quoting one foe as saying, "The war is finished here. We don't want to shoot."

Many men from both sides were against the idea of fraternising with the enemy. One German soldier is quoted in Stanley Weintraub's book Silent Night as saying: "Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honour left at all?"

The soldier quoted? Adolf Hitler.

A Liverpool chaplin, working in hospital at the front, put the development of an unscheduled truce in perspective when he wrote friends: "Christmas Day seems to have impressed everyone. It was a truce of God, and came not from official quarters, but from the men themselves."

Indeed, it was a fairytale Christmas come true.

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