Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas, 1914-5


(This was a post I'd put up on Christmas Day two years ago. Out of my thousands of posts written over the last six years, it's one of my personal favorites and I just thought it was worth reposting. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all and may today, and every day thereafter, be marked with joy, love for your fellow man, safety and hope.)

Every Christmas, ever since the invasion of Iraq, I remind myself of the moving and legendary Christmas truce between British and German forces that took place in 1914. Actually, contrary to most any other historical event, rather than being exaggerated, the truce, singular, is actually downplayed and scaled down. The cease-fire between opposing sides on Christmas Eve 1914 was more widespread and longer-lasting, even spawning at least two sequels in the two succeeding years.

The First World War was one of the most barbaric ever, the century's first global clash of nations using mechanized tools of war. Unlike previous wars, dogfights between pilots in airplanes were common and the strange spectacle of diesel-powered tanks dipping and rumbling across the cratered terrain of European battlefields had easily led people to believe that war between humans had crossed that threshhold into the inhuman.

Which is why the story of the Christmas truce between enemies during this same war is all the more remarkable. It's a still-heartening reminder that, while the technology of war had evolved, the human heart had remained constant and good will toward one's fellow man had yet to become a quaint notion.

When German soldiers were observed decorating their foxholes and barricades and overheard singing Christmas carols, the British soldiers across No Man's Land had responded in kind. Soon, soldiers approached eachother, their hands up, without permission from their officers and a truce was declared. Presents such as jam, cigars, cigarettes and so forth were exchanged. Equipment was also exchanged between sides so living conditions could be improved. The dead left out in No Man's Land were buried and mourned by both sides.

Then someone proposed playing a game of soccer. Actually, several soccer games broke out. The high command of both sides were outraged this was going on but were powerless to stop it since many of their lower field officers had happily joined in the abrupt festivities.

Similar stories began emerging that this had happened among French and Belgian forces. Perhaps photographs of loved ones were traded during the truce and whatever little communication there was between French, Belgian, English and German troops spoke of simple, common pleasures. As with the current Pope Benedict today, the last, Benedict XV, had earlier that year called for an end to the bloodshed.

Contrary to popular belief, these truces lasted longer than Christmas. According to several accounts by those who were there, the truce actually lasted for the better part of a week and wouldn't resume until fresh troops would relieve the ones who'd lain down their arms.

It was a very necessary reminder to these men that whatever advances had been made in war technology, the mustard gases and ugly machines that had taken over the landscape, humans were still humans the world over and fellow Christians could still find some common ground and celebrate a common holiday, putting a world war and the unimaginable human devastation on a back burner.

It is impossible to imagine anything like that happening these days, partly because we are fighting a nebulous enemy that wears no uniforms, carries no identification cards or dog tags nor even shares our religion or celebrates our holidays.

But the differences in religion don't fully explain the new breed of barbarity we're seeing in the world today. War has gotten more impersonal than ever with longer-range weapons, faster and harder tanks and laser-guided smart bombs yet when it gets down to it, it can still get quite personal and ugly.

Maybe, as Albert Einstein said, the fourth world war will be fought with rocks and Mankind will once again be able to see the whites of eachother's eyes as they try to kill and maim eachother again. And perhaps that proximity in the absence of sophisticated war technology will better remind these future enemies that Christmas and Easter afford irresistible opportunities for them to recognize and celebrate eachothers' similarties instead of hating them for their differences.

The truces of 1914-5 were held in defiance of generals and politicians who had seen no place for the Christmas spirit in the alien desolation of the battlefields. This defiance in defense of what is fundamentally and universally human is something we're seeing all too infrequently these days and may never see again.

12 Comments:

At December 25, 2008 at 10:50 PM, Anonymous jcricket said...

Kinda poignant, JP. Nice post.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

 
At December 25, 2008 at 10:56 PM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

yup. soldiers and sailors carry a bond that transends many other things.

don't forget that the king of england and kaiser wilhelm were cousins, and also related to the romanovs.

 
At December 25, 2008 at 11:39 PM, Blogger Stan B. said...

Thanks for that...

 
At December 26, 2008 at 8:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a number of good music videos about the incident, which was made into an oft-covered folk song by John McCutcheon. The music might be a touch soft for a head-banger like you, JP, but the pics accompanying the videos are touching, and the McCutcheon vid has links to so many clips on the topic that it could keep you busy until the troops are out of Iraq.

 
At January 1, 2009 at 9:30 AM, Anonymous LM Johnson said...

Something similar happened during WW II during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest. Yanks came upon a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. They stopped in and it was occupied by a woman and her small son. Shortly after some German soldiers also arrived. They ended up pooling all of their rations and the woman was able to make a larger meal to feed everyone. The Germans helped treat the wounds of an American soldier. In the morning, all of the soldiers left and directed each other how to get safely to their own lines. This was written about in several magazines and was also made into a movie (perhaps only a made-for-tv movie). The young son verified that this did, indeed, happen. Wish I could remember the name of the movie.

 
At January 1, 2009 at 9:33 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing this, LM. I never knew that.

 
At January 6, 2009 at 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding last comment...the name of that movie is SILENT NIGHT and I have it on dvd...it airs on the Hallmark Channel every Christmas!

 
At December 24, 2010 at 3:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks
jo6pac

 
At December 26, 2010 at 1:43 PM, Anonymous watchdog said...

There was a movie made a couple of years ago about the 1914 Christmas truce called Jouex Noel, a French film.
the actuall incident happened before the main trappings of modern warfare; the gas, the dogfights, the tanks, were used on the battlefeild. The men were all promised by their respective governments that it would all be over by Christmas and of course that first Christmas they were stuck in freezing trenches.

 
At December 26, 2010 at 1:54 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

When I reposted this post, I looked up the movie in Netflix and saw "Jouex Noel" on the DVD list. I ordered it. I can't wait to see it. This story endlessly fascinates me. Thanks for mentioning it.

 
At December 26, 2010 at 4:36 PM, Anonymous watchdog said...

It's a good film, I have a digital copy of my own. I've been studying the first world war for a few years now, try the book Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub for a more complete telling of the entire Christmas truce all along the front lines.

 
At December 26, 2010 at 4:43 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Thanks, watchdog. I think I will.

 

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