Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of
conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.
–Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”
In December, 1914 the First World War had been raging for a few months. German forces had swept across Belgium, Luxembourg and part of France where they were met by allied forces and stopped. Each then tried to outflank the other and kept moving north in what was called the “race to the sea.” Once the battle lines had reached the sea, troops began to dig in and build trench systems to protect themselves from machine guns and artillery. Often there were very short distances between the trench lines, in some cases there were only yards separating them. Sometimes troops would communicate across the lines by shouting at each other, or after a barrage signs would appear reading “missed a bit,” or “more left”.
Life in the trenches was hard; they were often filled with water that was a mix of filth and decomposing bodies. Between the lines was the infamous “no man’s land” strewn with barb wire, and pockmarked with shell holes and littered with corpses of the fallen. These conditions were shared by soldiers of both sides, and there must have a certain amount of sympathy across the lines as a result.
But on on Christmas Eve in 1914 tannenbaum, or Christmas trees decorated with candles began to appear at many points along the German line. In Germany, December 24th, rather than Christmas day is often the time for celebration with a large dinner, tree decoration and the exchanging of presents. So that night the French and British were treated to the surreal sight of the decorated trees being placed on top of German trench lines and the sounds of traditional Christmas carols floating out from within them. Christmas greetings were shouted across the line. But in other places the sounds of rifle fire, and thud of artillery continued.
Eventually some troops mustered the courage to meet in no man’s land. Since troops on both sides had been receiving packages from home containing special treats, there were a great deal of things available to share such as tobacco, cake, and other items. Uniform buttons were traded as souvenirs, and pictures of wives and sweethearts back home were shown.
In the light of Christmas day, at different places along the line, troops met again to exchange greetings. Often the first thing done was to locate and bury the bodies of comrades who had fallen, and whose bodies had not been able to be recovered. Afterwards there were impromptu games of soccer, sharing of food items, and exchanging of addresses so that soldiers could visit after the war. Rifleman C H Brazier wrote home about this saying:
You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir.
These truces ended after that Christmas, though some are thought to have happened periodically after that. But nothing on the scale of what happened on that Christmas in 1914. Stern orders were passed down from senior commanders promising harsh punishments to men who participated in these truces.
For the most part these were young men away from home for the first time, and who had seen horrific combat. The poignant thing for me is the relative innocence they had. The war had only just begun, and many of these troops had left their homes glad to be fighting for King (or Kaiser) and country. Both sides believed that the war would be over soon after winter. The fact is that the war went on for another four years and there were unimaginable losses of life at places like the Somme, Ypres and Verdun. Troops would see their friends die horribly from chemical weapons, and others’ minds were broken from the constant barrage of artillery and stress with what became known as “shell shock.” There were a few truces on Christmas in 1915 on a much smaller scale, and none to speak of after that. It’s no wonder the desire to participate tailed off as the war wore away any sense of mercy in the men. And yet there was a time that some of them set aside their weapons and anger and gathered together as men.
I had intended to write about something else for Christmas — something more festive. The horrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn made me re-think that, but I had no other topic. On the Sunday following the shooting, I watched a film called Joyeux Noel which is a French film about the Christmas Truce. Though it has no connection with the school tragedy, I couldn’t help but think about one while watching the other. Things like what happened in Newtown make me wonder if we can ever move past our murderous and destructive instincts. There is something basically wrong with us I think, whether you call it original sin, human nature or something else, there is something in us that seeks to discourage us from doing what is right. The Christmas Truce helps me remember that in the most completely unlikely places, something happens and we rise above. Even in the most trying circumstances someone steps into no man’s land with a handkerchief waived in truce, someone helps a person rebuild after a storm, and someone refuses to step out from in front of cowering children. I think Abraham Lincoln called these the “better angels of our nature.” I wish you all a happy Christmas, and may we see more of the better angels in the new year.
For more information on The Christmas Truce I recommend this web site: http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/