Christmas truce

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A cross, left near Ypres in Belgium in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce in 1914. The text reads 1914
The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce
85 Years
Lest We Forget

The "Christmas truce" is a term used to describe several brief unofficial cessations of hostilities that occurred on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day between German and British or French troops in World War I, particularly that between British and German troops stationed along the Western Front during Christmas 1914. In 1915 there was a similar Christmas truce between German and French troops, and during Easter 1916 a truce also existed on the Eastern Front.


[edit] British–German truce

British and German troops meeting in No man's land during the unofficial truce

The truce began on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The Scottish troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.

The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the "No Man's Land" where small gifts were exchanged — whisky, jam, cigars, chocolate, and the like. The soldiers exchanged gifts, sometimes addresses, and drank together. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in No Man's Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

The truce spread to other areas of the lines, and there are many stories of football matches between the opposing forces.

In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but in some areas, it continued until New Year's Day.

The truce occurred in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military. Earlier in the autumn, a call by Pope Benedict XV for an official truce between the warring governments had been ignored.

British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien vowed that no such truce would be allowed again[citation needed], although both had left command before Christmas 1915. In all of the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. Despite those measures, there were a few friendly encounters between enemy soldiers, but on a much smaller scale than in 1914.

[edit] French–German truce

In December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.” From an account by Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, and separated from the French troops by a narrow no-man’s-land, described by him as “strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms.” Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.” He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.

[edit] Informal armistice

During the first two years after the lines of the Western Front stabilized, other situations of informal armistice (i.e. armistice not imposed by high command) were recognized by both sides. According to anecdotes, inexperienced British commanders were astonished to find British and German forces both exposing themselves above the trench line within clear range of enemy guns. Artillery was often fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides. Situations of deliberate dampening of hostilities also occurred by some accounts, e.g., a volley of gunfire being exchanged after a misplaced mortar hit the British line, after which a German soldier shouted an apology to British forces, effectively stopping a hostile exchange of gunfire.[1]

[edit] Legacy

The stories of this event have been told and retold in several media. British folk singer Mike Harding related the story in his song "Christmas 1914", as did American folk singer John McCutcheon in his "Christmas in the Trenches" and American country music singer Garth Brooks in his "Belleau Wood". In 1967, The Royal Guardsmen had a #1 hit with "Snoopy's Christmas", which relates a similar story through the struggle of Snoopy and The Red Baron. In 1999, the so-called "Khaki Chums" (officially: The Association for Military Remembrance) visited a region of Flanders and recreated the Christmas truce. They lived as World War I British soldiers had lived, with no modern conveniences. It also provided the inspiration for "All Together Now", a 1990 song by The Farm which has become a football anthem, often re-released at times of national tournaments. The group Celtic Thunder included a version of the song entitled "Christmas 1915" in their "Act Two" album.

Paul McCartney's video from the title song of the album Pipes of Peace shows a meeting between two officers, one British and one German (both played by McCartney), exchanging pictures of their respective families. When the truce breaks, and they rush back to their own foxholes, they realize they still have each other's pictures.

The Truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film" category at the 78th Academy Awards). The Christmas Truce was also briefly portrayed in Richard Attenborough's 1969 film Oh What a Lovely War, as well as in the movie Once Upon a Midnight Clear.

A number of books have been written on the Christmas Truce, including Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, which chronicles the event itself from first hand accounts. Harry Turtledove included the Christmas truce in his alternate history of World War I where the war also takes place in North America.

Similar events are depicted in William Wharton's autobiographical novel of World War II, A Midnight Clear (ISBN 1-55704-257-8, filmed in 1992) and the truce was referred to in an episode of the science fiction TV drama, Space: Above and Beyond.

In the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the protagonists discuss events of the past that led them to their current situation, including the Christmas Truce. Captain Blackadder was apparently still sore over being ruled offside during a football game with the Germans. He also cynically muses that "Both sides advanced further during one Christmas piss-up than they did in the next two-and-a half years of war."

On 21 November 2005, the last remaining Allied veteran of the truce, Alfred Anderson, died in Newtyle, Scotland at the age of 109.[2]

The song '1914' by A Rotterdam November is based on this event [3] as well as Collin Raye's "It Could Happen Again."[citation needed]

[edit] Christmas Truce letter

On 7 November 2006, singer Chris de Burgh paid £14,400 at Bonhams auction house for an original 10 page letter from an unknown British soldier that records events and incidents with the Germans on that night describing "the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent".

The letter begins:

This will be the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don't think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us—wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went to over to their lines. I think they've all come back bar one from 'E' Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc. it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between look out duties, which are two hours in every six.

First thing this morning it was very foggy. So we stood to arms a little longer than usual. A few of us that were lucky could go to Holy Communion early this morning. It was celebrated in a ruined farm about 500 yds behind us. I unfortunately couldn't go. There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as to day we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. We had breakfast about 8.0 which went down alright especially some cocoa we made. We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B. G's Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We've had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.

About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench. How we did sing. 'O come all ye faithful. And While shepherds watched their flocks by night' were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later.

Dinner is over! and well we enjoyed it. Our dinner party started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won't fire tomorrow if we don't so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday—perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.

We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two—it all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice…

The letter ends:

There are plenty of huge shell holes in front of our trenches, also pieces of shrapnel to be found. I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day and I don't suppose you thought of us doing so. So after a fashion we've enjoyed? our Christmas. Hoping you spend a happy time also George Boy as well. How we thought of England during the day. Kind regards to all the neighbours. With much love from Boy.

[edit] Christmas Truce memorial

On 11 November 2008, the first official Truce memorial was unveiled in Frélinghien, France, the site of a Christmas Truce football game in 1914. After the unveiling and a Service of Remembrance, men from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. The Germans won, 2-1.

1st Battalion The Royal Welsh and Panzergrenadier Battalion 371 were invited to take part because their regimental ancestors from 2nd Battalion The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 134th Saxon Infantry Regiment had held the Truce at Frelinghien on Christmas Day, 1914. The match was played in the presence of retired Major Miles Stockwell, grandson of Captain C. I. Stockwell, who commanded 'A' Company, 2/RWF in 1914 and wrote about the Truce in his diary. Mrs Margaret Holmes, daughter of Welsh Private Frank Richards, DCM, MM, and Oberst (Colonel) Joachim Freiherr von Sinner, grandson of Hauptmann (Captain) Maximilian Freiherr von Sinner. the commander of the Machine-gun Company of the German 6th Jäger Battalion, were also present at the game.

Before the match, as happened in 1914, a Saxon soldier rolled a barrel of beer towards the Welsh while Major Stockwell offered Lieutenant-Colonel von Sinner a plum pudding and a cigar. The football, signed by all players, is now in the possession of the Arbeitkreis für Sächsische Militärgeschichte. It will be displayed in the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr in Dresden, Germany.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • Marc Ferro, Malcolm Brown, Rémy Cazals, Olaf Mueller: Meetings in No Man's Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War (2007, Constable, London) ISBN 978-1-84529-513-4 (Translation of Frères des Trancheés, Edition Perrin, France, 2005)
  • Thomas Vinciguerra; New York Times, 25 December 2005; The Truce of Christmas, 1914.
  • Stanley Weintraub; Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (2001) (Extracts were reprinted in Military History Quarterly*.
  • David Brown; Washington Post, 25 December 2004; Remembering a Victory for Human Kindness; W.W. I’s Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce
  • Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton; Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914 (1984)
  • Richard Schirrmann: The first youth hosteller: A biographical sketch by Graham Heath (1962, International Youth Hostel Association, Copenhagen, in English).
  • Germany v England 1914 football rematch (2008), MOD Defence News. (accessed 15 Nov 08)

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Axelrod, Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
  2. ^ Scotsman.
  3. ^ A Rotterdam November - 1914 lyrics - lyricsmania

Michael Jürgs "Der kleine Frieden im Großen Krieg" (Bertelsmann, München)

[edit] External links

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