The Great Christmas Truce
2020 has been a tough year for many and a true nightmare for some.
However, for most of us, it’s been nothing more than a giant inconvenience.
Wearing masks, staying inside, and being separated from friends and family is never fun - particularly during the holidays - but as we entered the tail end of December, these and other daily nuisances have prompted a number of people I know to proclaim this “the worst Christmas ever.”
I beg to differ.
It’s December 1914, you’re a 23-year-old soldier, and for the last five months, you’ve been engaged in trench warfare all across Belgium.
You’re British, Irish, or Scottish, but from whatever region of the Commonwealth you hail, it’s likely the poorest part.
And you’ve got a cough.
A really bad one, but you’re not worried because it’s common among the men.
In fact, it will be so ubiquitous in winters going forward that it will be referred to as “trench cough.”
You don’t know it now, but it’s the genetic forefather of what – after a nasty mutation in 1917 - will become the Spanish Flu.
But that’s another story.
You’re a part of the allied powers – which include Great Britain, Belgium, France, and later the United States - that are battling the German Army.
Both sides have been trying to outflank each other over the past few months but all that’s been accomplished is a stalemate that runs from the Swiss border to the North Sea in the form of 450 miles worth of trenches.
It’s winter now and though it hasn’t begun to snow, it’s bitterly cold.
And when it rains, the trenches fill up to your knees with water and mud, which doesn’t bother the trench rats, especially aggressive vermin often as large as small dogs.
A little over 300 yards from you there is another series of trenches.
In order to see them, you have to climb 10 feet up on what they call “firing steps” and barely peek your eyes over the top of the parapet.
Artillery has taken a quantum leap in deadliness since the last great war, and since going below, mortars have been brought up on both sides for a better kill trajectory, but that’s not what you’re worried about.
Because you know that if you put any more of your head above the surface it will likely get taken off by a German sniper.
In between the two trench lines is an area known as “no man’s land.”
Both sides call it that.
It’s a stretch of land pockmarked from constant shelling and filled with multiple lines of barbed wire and improvised obstacles.
Despite the physical and ideological gap, there has been some contact between the two armies recently.
It first started with short truces between the French and Germans.
They were initiated by surgeons on both sides, who still consider themselves doctors before soldiers, and use the breaks in order to recover bodies and search for the wounded.
Neither side wants to display a white flag, so instead, one man sticks his head up cautiously, slowly comes up to the barbed wire, and rattles it loudly, letting the Germans know he’s there so some overeager young sniper won’t think he has an easy target.
The Germans would then send a man up to do the same, and once they were both standing, and nobody was shooting, they would meet in no man’s land to negotiate the terms of the truce.
Then a time and a length are agreed upon – high noon perhaps, for an hour - watches are synchronized, and the terms observed very closely.
Neither side violates the truces.
“Stretcher parties” are then sent out to gather up the dead.
These were sometimes made up of men from the unit, but in the British Army, it was traditionally the bandsmen – the men who formed the battalion or regimental band – who did this duty.
In all the mud, and muck, and blood it was often hard to tell who was British and who was German.
Artillery and machine guns to horrific things to the human body and time just makes it worse.
The men that were recovered during these truces were often referred to as “ghouls,” because although there was usually some putrefying flesh left on the bodies under their uniforms, the skin was regularly stripped from their faces, either from bomb blasts or the aforementioned trench rats, leaving only a skeletal head remaining.
As it got farther into December, these small truces became more frequent, but none of them was sanctioned by the higher command – on either side - because they were worried about the men growing too sympathetic to their enemies.
But at the battalion level and lower, as the two sides became more familiar with each other, they noticed that there were common downtimes, for instance, both sides ate evening chow at about the same time, around 5:00 pm, when food was delivered from rear kitchens and both sides stopped shooting at each other.
And that common recognition is what led to the Christmas Truce of 1914 along certain parts of the Western Front in Flanders, Belgium.
By December 24th, the weather had turned bitterly cold and there was sporadic firing up and down the line, but as the day went on it subsided, and by the time it was deep into a cold but clear Christmas Eve night all the guns and artillery had gone quiet.
Then at some point in the night, the Germans started lighting candles and putting them on locally acquired trees and putting those trees, or Tannenbaum, up above the trenches where the British troops can see them.
They also begin decorating their trenches with paper ornaments and hand-made brass stars and angels made from artillery shells that they’ve cut, polished, and shaped.
And seeing this, the British start making their own ornaments.
Then they start to hear the Christmas hymn Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, known in English as “Silent Night, Holy Night,” coming from the German trenches.
Many of the British soldiers are shocked, not knowing this was a German song, so they start singing back the English version.
The Germans then start singing other carols, and so do the British.
Carols from Dicken’s time like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and other famous English songs that are well known to Americans to this day.
The night passes and now it’s Christmas Day and the men that are still awake are still singing as the sun comes up on the first Christmas of World War I.
And after the brutal fighting that’s gone on for the past five months, all up and down the British and German lines there’s a general feeling that maybe they should take a day off.
Of course, the high command would never agree to or arrange anything formally, instead, some local British officers began sending notes by leaving them out in no man’s land – and then not attacking the runners who come out and get them.
And the request is simple – why don’t we hang up the rifles for a few hours and come together in the middle of no man’s land and exchange gifts, items of interest, and any alcohol you have or anything you might want to give to each other.
So slowly, up and down parts of the line, men, first in one’s and two, then in larger groups, began to stand up above the trenches.
If you were watching this from your trench it would look like small dark spots emerging from the earth, and nobody was shooting at them, which is a miracle in itself given the informality and organic nature of the truce.
And now there’s a buzz on both sides in the trenches.
Men are gathering up things from their knapsacks and rucksacks, pulling out pictures of their mothers, girlfriends, wives, and other mementos – anything to humanize them – and putting them in their pockets and getting up out of the trenches
Then, and nobody knows who produced it first, though each side had plenty in reserve, someone starts kicking around a soccer ball, and an impromptu game of football springs up.
And much more personal acts of fraternization are taking place up and down the line.
One British soldier admires the ornate shiny buttons on a German soldier’s tunic. Pointing to two on his foe’s uniform and then back to two on his own, the German instinctually understands, produces a pair of wire snips, and after few quick cuts, the buttons are traded.
In another section of no man’s land, a British soldier, and barber, brings his grooming tools out to the middle and begins giving haircuts to Germans and his fellow soldiers.
Hats, shoulder patches, and epaulets were exchanged, and pictures shown.
And for the first time since being in-country, men had a chance to stand up - out in the open - and view the land around them without the threat of being shot.
But the truce was not along the entire length of the lines because not only was the high command against it, so were some of the local officers.
In fact, some of the soldiers – on both sides were against the truce.
A young Charles de Gaulle, future Army General and Prime Minister of France wrote very disapprovingly in his diary of the men “losing the heart of a hunter by meeting their prey.”
On the other side of the line, one such unamused soldier was a young German corporal named Adolf Hitler.
And although his unit was not on the front lines that Christmas, the future Nazi leader said of the truce: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” going on to scold his fellow soldiers by saying, “have you no German sense of honor left at all?”
But in areas where the truce was in effect, the mood became light and gay, almost like a party.
The British traded cognac and brandy while the Germans brought schnapps and beer, and almost everyone took a drink.
As the day went on, they found that a lot of the Germans spoke English - exceptionally good English - as many of them were highly educated, while others had spent time in London before the war.
And despite rifle shots being heard a mile to the north and artillery shells landing somewhere down south – whose artillery no one can tell – hundreds of former combatants were now celebrating Christmas together
In one section officers are chatting with each other, German’s sharing where they’ve visited in England and British describing the towns they’ve seen in Germany.
One German soldier even confesses that he left a girlfriend and a 3.5hp motorcycle in Suffolk before the war and inquires as to if someone could check on her - and his bike – if they should get leave.
Eventually, word got up to HQ that in some areas, the men were not only not fighting but were fraternizing with the enemy, and though the high command did nothing formally, officers were aware that the higher-ups did not take kindly to this type of behavior, so local commanders started to take charge and began to pass the word to wrap it up.
And by the late afternoon a sense was pervading the soldiers that the war would be on very soon again, so names and addresses were exchanged and the men – slowly – started to go back to their trenches with promises of meeting again next year, but in peacetime.
When the British soldiers got back to their trenches they immediately started writing letters home to friends and loved ones, describing the incredible event that just transpired.
Henry Williamson a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother about the day.
Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it.
The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco.
Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands.
Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?
Captain Robert Miles, who was attached to the Royal Irish Rifles wrote a letter to his brother.
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.
A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front.
The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us.
Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines.
Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
The truce did indeed last through the rest of the night, and two weeks later when the first of these letters began to reach England, the press picked up on them and they were reprinted on the front page of all the major London newspapers.
World War I would go on for another four years and claim 20 million lives, evenly split between military and civilian casualties.
Another 21 million were wounded.
Before the end of “The Great War” in 1918, the Spanish Flu had been identified among members of the military, and over the next two years, it went on to infect 500 million people – one third the planet’s population at the time - and killed over 50 million.
Some estimates are as high as 100 million.
I’m sure there were some good candidates for “worst Christmas ever” during that time.