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The Christmas Truce of 1914

 
iVAN
11/27/2004 02:03 AM
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The Christmas Truce of 1914
The Christmas truce


Stories tell of the British and German soldiers playing football together in No Manīs Land on Christmas day - but is this just a legend? Historian Malcolm Brown separates fact from fantasy.

The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is as much a part of the historical texture of World War I as the gas clouds of Ypres or the Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been dismissed as though it were merely a myth. Or, assuming anything of the kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident, blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and pacifists of later generations.

But the truce did take place, and on some far greater scale than has been generally realised. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No Manīs Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!"

"It was a day of peace in war," commented a German participant, "It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace."

So the Christmas Truce is no legend. It is not surprising, however, given the standard popular perception of World War I, that this supreme instance of "All Quiet on the Western Front" has come to have something of a legendary quality. People who would normally dismiss that far off conflict of their grandfathers in the centuryīs teens as merely incomprehensible, find reassurance, even a kind of hope, in the Christmas truce.

This was not, however, a unique occurrence in the history of war. Though it surprised people at the time - and continues to do so today - it was a resurgence of a long established tradition.

Informal truces and small armistices have often taken place during prolonged periods of fighting and the military history of the last two centuries, in particular, abounds with incidents of friendship between enemies.

In the Peninsula War British and French Troops at times visited each others lines, drew water at the same wells and even sat around the same campfire sharing their rations and playing cards.

In the Crimean War British, French and Russians at quiet times also gathered around the same fire, smoking and drinking. In the American Civil War Yankees and Rebels traded tobacco, coffee and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of the same stream and even collected wild blackberries together. Similar stories are told of the Boer War, in which on one occasion, during a conference of commanders, the rank and file of both sides engaged in a friendly game of football.

Later wars too have their small crop of such stories. It is rare for a conflict at close quarters to continue very long without some generous gestures between enemies or an upsurge in the īlive and let liveī spirit. So the Christmas truce of 1914 does not stand alone; on the other hand it is undoubtedly the greatest example of its kind.

There are certain misapprehensions regarding the Christmas truce. One widely held assumption is that only ordinary soldiers took part in it; that it was, as it were, essentially a protest of cannon-fodder, Private Tommy and Musketier Fritz throwing aside the assumptions of conventional nationalism and thumbing their noses at those in authority over them.

In fact, in many cases, NCOs and officers joined in with equal readiness, while others truces were initiated and the terms of armistice agreed at īparleysī of officers between the trenches.

There is also some evidence that while some generals angrily opposed the truce, others tolerated it and indeed saw some advantage in allowing events to take their own course while never for a moment doubting that eventually the war would resume in full earnest.

One other misapprehension about the truce calls for rebuttal. There has grown up a belief, even among aficionados of World War I, that the Christmas truce was considered to be so disgraceful and event, one so against the prevailing mood of the time, that all knowledge of it was withheld from the public at home until the war was over.

In fact, the truce was fully publicised from the moment news of it reached home. Throughout January 1915 numerous local and national newspapers in Britain printed letter after letter from soldiers who took part; in addition they ran eye-catching headlines ("Extraordinary Unofficial Armistice", "British, Indians and Germans shake hands"), and even printed photographs of the Britons and Germans in No Manīs Land. Germany also gave the event press publicity, though on a smaller scale and for a shorter period of time.

Publishing a year later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his history of 1914 called the Christmas truce "an amazing spectacle" and in a memorable description, saluted it as "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war".

The phrase sums up the attraction of the truce: it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a 52-month war is still remembered and will continue to catch the imagination.

In a century in which our conception of war has changed fundamentally, from the cavalry charge and the flash of sabres to the Exocet, the cruise missile and the Trident submarine, the fact that in 1914 some thousands of the fighting men of the belligerent nations met and shook hands between their trenches strikes a powerful and appealing note. It is perhaps the best and most heartening Christmas story of modern times.
Freedom Man
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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These events even happened during WWII in small pockets areas of fighting between Germans and Americans during the allied march to Germany.
It was the last tattered remnants of chivalry.
Clear Eyes
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Thank you, Ivan, I read that a while back.

People the world over .. for the most part .. CAN get along when the freaking īleadersī stay out of our lives.

hugs
Freedom Man
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Just a peaceful patina of Holiness and civilization in the fleeting hours before further death and destruction..............
Then past army karma bearing the fruit of
Christians killing Christians........
Anonymous Coward
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Great post iVAN. I could write volumes on this event but Iīll just boil it down to this...

One day that will happen again on some battlefield somewhere and instead of going back at it, the boys will just all tell their officers to go fuck themselves and head on home like the soldiers of the Great War should have done.

Thatīs why this story is the best kept secret of WW1. The war machine could never function properly if the common soldier realized that the other guy facing him was just a kid like him who only wanted to go home. NOT, the evil monster the brass was making him out to be.
iVAN
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Very True.. cheers
I had always heard both sides had to call in different troops because those who celebrated together kept missing shots and firing above targets heads.
Logical Cosmic Rat
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Oh thank you Ivan. I am so bemused by this story, I never knew. God Bless us one and all.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men.

luv
REAR VIEW
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Thanks Ivan...but you left out one little itty bitty fact and that is:

Generals on BOTH sides immediately removed all soldiers involved in the truce from the front lines just to stop this sort of "bad soldiering and behavior" which may have got contagious. Even in all this the enemys saw the same solution-stop the truce!

You see, when the powers that be dictate a war to be fought they can have none of this self declared truce or peace among soldiers. You see, this sort of good moral human behavior takes the sails out of the propaganda demonizing the enemy and stirring the soldiers to fight on to the bitter end.

Funny tho, the only ones being protected by the soldiers were still, as now, those controlling the money!
Tom Joed
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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August 1914 is where we really need a peace making John Titor.
Magnificat
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Thanks iVAN.
Anonymous Coward
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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1) stupid rat.

2) this is a warning if that the soldiers wont shoot each other the officers will gas them all.
Anonymous Coward
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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It was mostly British and Germans that observed the unofficial truce. The French, for the most part, never joined in. The Germans and the English didnīt quite have the same level of hatred for each other.

Probably a protestant/catholic thing.
Anonymous Coward
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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Anonymous Coward
12/08/2005 10:18 AM
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GLP