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ZGram - 12/25/2004 - "Christmas in the Trenches"

zgrams at zgrams.zundelsite.org
Sat Dec 25 12:07:26 EST 2004





Zgram - Where Truth is Destiny:  Now more than ever!

December 25, 2004

Good Morning from the Zundelsite:

Even as a young child, I heard the story of "Christmas in the 
trenches" featured below.  It bears repeating.  It seems to be a 
relic of barely remembered chivalrous times when kindness and 
courtesy were extended even to one's enemies. 

Read and enjoy:

[START]

http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm

Feature Articles: The Christmas Truce

Updated - Saturday, 20 November, 2004

You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged 
trench.  It is the evening of 24 December 1914 and you are on the 
dreaded Western Front.

Stooped over, you wade across to the firing step and take over the 
watch.  Having exchanged pleasantries, your bleary-eyed and 
mud-spattered colleague shuffles off towards his dug out.  Despite 
the horrors and the hardships, your morale is high and you believe 
that in the New Year the nation's army march towards a glorious 
victory.

But for now you stamp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm.  All 
is quiet when jovial voices call out from both friendly and enemy 
trenches.  Then the men from both sides start singing carols and 
songs.  Next come requests not to fire, and soon the unthinkable 
happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering 
together in no-man's land laughing, joking and sharing gifts.

Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly 
in the inky darkness.  Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up 
and out of the trench and walk towards the foe...

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.  Today, 90 years after it occurred, 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.

Many accounts were rushed, confused or contradictory.  Others, 
written long after the event, are weighed down by hindsight.  These 
difficulties aside, the true story is still striking precisely 
because of its rag-tagged nature: it is more 'human' and therefore 
all the more potent.

Months beforehand, millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers 
from all over the continent had rushed enthusiastically to the 
banners of war: the atmosphere was one of holiday rather than 
conflict.

But it was not long before the jovial façade was torn away. Armies 
equipped with repeating rifles, machine guns and a vast array of 
artillery tore chunks out of each other, and thousands upon thousands 
of men perished.

To protect against the threat of this vast firepower, the soldiers 
were ordered to dig in and prepare for next year's offensives, which 
most men believed would break the deadlock and deliver victory.

The early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed; 
if the trench was badly sighted it could become a sniping hot spot. 
In bad weather (the winter of 1914 was a dire one) the positions 
could flood and fall in.  The soldiers - unequipped to face the 
rigours of the cold and rain - found themselves wallowing in a 
freezing mire of mud and the decaying bodies of the fallen.

The man at the Front could not help but have a degree of sympathy for 
his opponents who were having just as miserable a time as they were.

Another factor that broke down the animosity between the opposing 
armies were the surroundings.  In 1914 the men at the front could 
still see the vestiges of civilisation.  Villages, although badly 
smashed up, were still standing.  Fields, although pitted with 
shell-holes, had not been turned into muddy lunarscapes.

Thus the other world - the civilian world - and the social mores and 
manners that went with it was still present at the front.  Also 
lacking was the pain, misery and hatred that years of bloody war 
build up.  Then there was the desire, on all sides, to see the enemy 
up close - was he really as bad as the politicians, papers and 
priests were saying?

It was a combination of these factors, and many more minor ones, that 
made the Christmas Truce of 1914 possible.

On the eve of the Truce, the British Army (still a relatively small 
presence on the Western Front) was manning a stretch of the line 
running south from the infamous Ypres salient for 27 miles to the La 
Bassee Canal.

Along the front the enemy was sometimes no more than 70, 50 or even 
30 yards away.  Both Tommy and Fritz could quite easily hurl 
greetings and insults to one another, and, importantly, come to tacit 
agreements not to fire.  Incidents of temporary truces and outright 
fraternisation were more common at this stage in the war than many 
people today realise - even units that had just taken part in a 
series of futile and costly assaults, were still willing to talk and 
come to arrangements with their opponents.

As Christmas approached the festive mood and the desire for a lull in 
the fighting increased as parcels packed with goodies from home 
started to arrive.  On top of this came gifts care of the state. 
Tommy received plum puddings and 'Princess Mary boxes'; a metal case 
engraved with an outline of George V's daughter and filled with 
chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card 
of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V's greeting to the 
troops.  'May God protect you and bring you safe home,' it said.

Not to be outdone, Fritz received a present from the Kaiser, the 
Kaiserliche, a large meerschaum pipe for the troops and a box of 
cigars for NCOs and officers.  Towns, villages and cities, and 
numerous support associations on both sides also flooded the front 
with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks.

The Belgians and French also received goods, although not in such an 
organised fashion as the British or Germans.  For these nations the 
Christmas of 1914 was tinged with sadness - their countries were 
occupied.  It is no wonder that the Truce, although it sprung up in 
some spots on French and Belgian lines, never really caught hold as 
it did in the British sector.

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.

Even more amazingly, 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.  Each number ended with a 
round of applause from both sides.

The Germans then asked the British to join in.  At this point, one 
very mean-spirited Tommy shouted: 'We'd rather die than sing German.' 
To which a German joked aloud: 'It would kill us if you did'.

December 24 was a good day weather-wise: the rain had given way to clear skies.

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 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.

By now, the British high command - comfortably 'entrenched' in a 
luxurious châteaux 27 miles behind the front - was beginning to hear 
of the fraternisation.

Stern orders were issued by the commander of the BEF, Sir John French 
against such behaviour.  Other 'brass-hats' (as the Tommies 
nick-named their high-ranking officers and generals), also made grave 
pronouncements on the dangers and consequences of parleying with the 
Germans.

However, there were many high-ranking officers who took a 
surprisingly relaxed view of the situation.  If anything, they 
believed it would at least offer their men an opportunity to 
strengthen their trenches.  This mixed stance meant that very few 
officers and men involved in the Christmas Truce were disciplined.

Interestingly, the German High Command's ambivalent attitude towards 
the Truce mirrored that of the British.

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, 
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 ˆ h.p. motor-bike!'

Having raced off to file a report at headquarters, Hulse returned at 
10.00 to find crowds of British soldiers and Germans out together 
chatting and larking about in no-man's land, in direct contradiction 
to his orders.

Not that Hulse seemed to care about the fraternisation in itself - 
the need to be seen to follow orders was his concern.  Thus he sought 
out a German officer and arranged for both sides to return to their 
lines.

While this was going on he still managed to keep his ears and eyes 
open to the fantastic events that were unfolding.

'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.'

Hulse's account was in part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent 
it on to the newspapers for publication, as was the custom at the 
time.  Tragically, Hulse was killed in March 1915.

On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated 
through sadder means.  Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get 
into no-man's land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and 
give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would 
inevitably begin talking to one another.

The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce 
with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and 
comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

With the Truce in full swing up and down the line there were a number 
of recorded games of soccer, although these were really just 
'kick-abouts' rather than a structured match.

On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major 
in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played 
a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2.

Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: 'The English 
brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively 
game ensued.  How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. 
The English officers felt the same way about it.  Thus Christmas, the 
celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as 
friends for a time.'

The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other 
sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few 
days more.  In fact, there parts on the front where the absence of 
aggressive behaviour was conspicuous well into 1915.

Captain J C Dunn, the Medical Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 
whose unit had fraternised and received two barrels of beer from the 
Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities re-started on his 
section of the front.

Dunn wrote: 'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag 
with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet.  He [the 
Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German 
Captain appeared on the parapet.  We both bowed and saluted and got 
down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, 
and the War was on again.'

The war was indeed on again, for the Truce had no hope of being 
maintained.  Despite being wildly reported in Britain and to a lesser 
extent in Germany, the troops and the populations of both countries 
were still keen to prosecute the conflict.

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.

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 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.



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