WWI Christmas Truce: Putting Aside Differences
It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as the Great War. In 1914, on a frigid Christmas Eve in the middle of trench-scarred Western Europe, two warring armies took a time-out from lobbing shells and bullets at one another to light Christmas trees and sing carols together. A few of them exchanged gifts and photographs. Some soccer games with less deadly consequences than battles broke out. All in the middle of a battlefield littered with corpses, barbed wire, and shell craters.
One eyewitness to this now world famous Christmas truce was Captain E.H.W. Hulse of the Scots Guards, and he tells his story thus – “On the 25th… at 8:30am, I was looking out, and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us… They were three private soldiers and a stretcher bearer, and their spokesman 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…They protested that they had no feeling of enmity towards us at all, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey. I believe that they were speaking the truth when they said this, and that they never wished to fire a shot again. They said that unless directly ordered, they were not going to shoot at us again until we did.”
For Captain Hulse, it began a day of Holiday revelry between the Scots Guards and their enemy in the trenches across the way. All down the entire sector, throughout most of the division, he saw various groups of Germans and Scots, some numbering over 100, exchanging souvenirs and Christmas presents. Some Scots got invited to the German trenches for drinks, cigarettes, and cards. Hulse’s own holiday mixer broke out into spontaneous caroling.
In another part of the Western Front, a German soldier named Lothar Lanz tapped some comrades to raise a row of small trees, glowing with Christmas candles, onto the lip of the trench. As they strung the trees with cookies and cotton, they began singing Christmas carols. The shooting from the French trenches across from them eventually died down, and all the men climbed out. French and German met in the middle of the battlefield, shook hands, traded goods, and exchanged small gifts.
These two charming stories were far from isolated incidents. While peace didn’t spread to all of Europe on that Christmas Eve, it still managed to infect a decent number of units. Commanding officers, despite hardline orders coming from above, turned a blind eye to the fraternizing. Some places along the line held their truce until days after Christmas, even extending into the new year. When commanders finally insisted they fire again, many regiments sent a few warning shots to warn their enemies-turned-friends-turned-enemies to duck.
The Christmas Truce of WWI is one of the most famous stories ever to emerge from a battlefield, sparking countless novels, feature films, and even commercial ads (take a look at this one that came out a few years back). And honestly, how could it not? It warms the heart to read about two fighting armies, locked in mortal combat in the mud for months, setting aside their weapons and, for one brief shining moment, becoming friends. On the other hand, the story also shines a harsh spotlight on the cold futility of war, and how truly cruel it is to make young men and women turn their fellow humans into targets through a crosshair. Especially when stories like this make it painfully clear how much they don’t want to.
The story is made even more incredible when one takes into account the year 1914, and how truly chaotic it was. In June of that year, some archduke named Franz Ferdinand and his wife, a royal couple most soldiers condemned to the trenches never heard of before then, got shot in the turbulent city of Sarajevo, a place most soldiers condemned to the trenches had no plans of ever visiting. The violent murder arose because of ongoing spats between Serbian nationalists and the colonial powers refusing to listen to them. On paper, the situation could easily be resolved between the two countries (Austria-Hungary and Serbia). Except both nations were deeply ensnared in a complex network of treaties spanning most of Europe and beyond. A single spark from either side would set off an apocalyptic powder keg, one that would blow up half the globe.
When it became clear Serbia and Austria Hungary couldn’t settle their differences, things spiraled pretty quickly. It must have been a real head-spin for average people at the time. One minute they’re marching along Europe at the height of the industrial age, living their lives and going about their business. The next, their country is embroiled in a global conflict, arming, training, and hurrying ill-equipped troops to a frontline thousands of miles away.
In that troubled summer of 1914, most people didn’t really understand what exactly they faced. Youths saw it as little more than a chance to break from the homestead and have an adventure in some exotic place. Men clamored to recruitment centers and tried every trick in the book to gain admittance. And of course, both sides felt certain their team would win. “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” everyone said. Even Kaiser Wilhelm thought the whole affair would be one big blow out, promising his troops “you will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”
Honestly, the whole thing kind of reminds me of how we felt when Covid-19 descended. We saw the illness break out of its original borders and slowly infiltrate the entire globe, much like the dominoes falling in the lead up to WWI. I know when Covid arrived on US shores, I thought (or at least prayed) the powers that be would contain it quickly. “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” I fervently hoped. However, containment devolved into chaos. Toilet paper, tortillas, and canned goods vanished from the grocery stores as the world braced for the impact of the runaway train. My city ordered everyone to shelter in place and only leave their homes for essentials. In the blink of an eye, my life had gone from a busy one filled with travel, visiting friends, and writing, to staring at the wall of my own apartment, having no idea when “normal” would ever resume. As of this writing in December of 2020, “normal” still looks a long way off, if we’ll ever see it again.
Those unlucky ladies and gents of 1914 had to face a very similar reality. A fight that was supposed to be over by Christmas ground down into impossible stalemate. A few fast-paced battles produced casualty lists that greened the faces of politicians, and then armies dug into a snarling trench system that stretched all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea. Only one thing grew crystal clear as the summer wore away into fall. Absolutely nothing would be over by Christmas.
Yet, it was after that crazy tailspin of a year, when so many people watched the lives they knew disappear into the winds, that soldiers came together in the middle of forlorn battlefields and sang Christmas songs. They managed to remember the humans beneath the political banter and the propaganda posters, even while standing in the mangled wreckage of war. I’m sure they didn’t agree on everything. But despite all their differences, they all seemed to agree that war is hell, and if it was up to them, it would have ended that day.
They say history is doomed to repeat itself, and in our own time, as the Christmas season approaches, I watch from my home as the world seems to spin further off its axis every day. Covid, which seemed to be slowing down a mere month or so ago, has gone on the war path across the globe. One by one, countries are slamming their doors shut and locking people down once again. In my own country, cases and hospitalizations have sky rocketed and it looks like it will be a grim winter. On top of that, we have the residue of the most contentious election of the modern era to contend with.
It put our own household in bad need of some Christmas cheer, so our tree went up even earlier than usual. November had barely dawned before red and green, glittery wreaths, and twinkly lights adorned the rooms of our home. Egg nog has taken up its place in the fridge. The lights on our LED tree gleam across the living room, and they are quite soothing. So are the delightful Holiday songs and Classic Christmas movies on the TV.
But what about the rest of the country? I have to admit, from where I’m sitting, a Christmas Truce of 2020 seems unlikely. But you know what? People have surprised me before, and I know there’s a lot of good ones out there who truly want what’s best for everyone. We may disagree over a lot, but I think we can all agree how awful this pandemic is, and that we want it over for good.
Look past the bitterness, reach deep down inside, and think about the human faces behind the Covid numbers, the red versus blue states, and the other sizzling divides that have people screaming at each other in the streets. Put yourselves in someone else’s shoes. And if the mood strikes you, walk out into No Man’s Land, with your mask of course, and start singing some Christmas carols. You might be surprised who climbs out of the trench and takes your hand. And guys, we must take each other’s hands (figuratively, in these days of Covid) and help each other through it. Together is the only way we’re going to beat 2020, beat this virus, and restore a better normal. We can do it too, because we’ve made it through so many other things.
I have the Christmas music turned up in my living room. I’m sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree, and I’m waiting. Come out of the trenches and sing with me, if you please.
The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness: WWI – J.E. Lewis
A Brief History of WWI – J.E. Lewis
11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour – J. Persico
This will be the last post of 2020. I wish all of you a safe, peaceful, and magical holiday season filled with miracles. Visits to your blogs will resume in the new year!
And some big, fun news for my husband and me. This will be our last Christmas as SoCal residents. We are the proud new owners of this lovely 120-year-old home in Indiana, beautifully restored by my in-laws, and we will be moving there early next year! So here’s to new beginnings in 2021.