Derek Coleman: Christmas wishes to our men, women who serve
War is never nice, it’s not pretty and, as demonstrated by George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to capture Trenton on Dec. 25, 1776, it does not stop for Christmas. There are exceptions to every rule though.
World War I began with the assassination of an Austrian Archduke on the streets of Sarajevo in August of 1914. Within weeks German armies were invading northern France and heading for Paris only to be stopped by British and French forces. Each side tried to outflank the other and by December there were lines of entrenchments separated by as little as fifty yards stretching hundreds of miles from the North Sea coast, across Belgium and France to the borders of Switzerland.
Daily these armies shot at, bombarded and killed each other. There were raids and small attacks and the remains of the dead lay in shell holes and hung on barbed wire between the lines. December was cold and wet that year and at the British headquarters the senior officers suspected the Germans might take advantage of the Christmas period to launch a sudden assault. Orders went out to beware of such an attack and specifically banning any fraternization with the enemy.
Christmas Eve was quieter than usual. The rain had stopped and there was less shelling and shooting. Then, as the light faded and darkness fell, strange little lights were seen along the German trench lines. Mindful of the orders from HQ the British troops feared an attack and began firing but when there was no retaliation and no assault from the German trenches the shooting soon faded away to an uneasy quiet.
Dawn on Christmas Day, 1914 was cold and frosty and revealed that the previous night’s lights had been candles on small Christmas Trees with which the Germans had decorated their trenches. As soon as it became light German soldiers began calling across no-man’s land to the troops opposite, wishing them Merry Christmas and inviting them to come over. Finally one or two brave souls put their weapons aside and stood on the parapet of their trenches.
Soon some British soldiers did likewise and within a short time they moved forward to meet in between the trenches. The idea caught on, Captain Sir Edward Hulse, commanding a company of the 2nd Scots Guards, walked into no-man’s land early in the morning and met a group of German officers. Cigarettes and cigars were exchanged and the Captain managed to get a look at the German trenches. Making a mental note of what he saw he went to headquarters to report the incident. When he returned he found his own defenses completely empty, his whole company were between the lines mingling with an equal number of German soldiers from a Saxon regiment.
The same scenes were repeated up and down the lines. Altogether almost 100,000 men, mostly British and German but with some French and Belgian troops, were involved. In one place the Germans sent a couple of barrels of beer to the British and gratefully took tins of jam in return. Cigarettes and cigars were exchanged for ham and wine; men showed family pictures to the enemy who they had been trying to kill the day before and swapped addresses, promising to write when the fighting finished. The opportunity was also taken to clear the dead from between the lines and to give them a decent burial, in some cases with men from both sides attending the services.
There is at least one recorded incident of a German kneeling on the frozen mud while a British soldier gave him a haircut and several soccer games were played, one of them with around fifty men on each side and goals marked by the piled hats of the players. A German officer, Leutnant Niemann, gleefully recorded that the Germans beat the British by three goals to two.
The unofficial truce lasted all day on most of the line. In some places it extended for two days and in one or two there was no shooting through to New Years.
The end of the truce was more formal than the start. Captain C. I. Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers wrote that on the morning of December 26 he stood on the parapet above his trench and fired three shots in the air. A German officer appeared in the opposing trench, bowed, saluted and fired two shots. The previous day they had shaken hands and swapped gifts but this was the signal to restart the war. Three months later Captain Stockwell was killed in action.
In 1914 no one knew how long the war would last. Both sides were still fresh and retained some of the enthusiasm with which they had started. A year later there were some isolated Christmas truces but nothing on the scale of that first year. By 1916, after the introduction of poison gas and the slaughter of the battle of the Somme, few were in the mood for fraternization. By the time the United States entered the war there was just a grim determination to get it over with and no one wanted a truce.
Ninety-eight years later we have men and women serving in war zones in far flung corners of the world. It is because of their sacrifice that we are free to celebrate these holidays. We cannot give them a Christmas truce like that experienced in northern France in 1914 but we can wish them a very Merry Christmas and pray that God brings them safe through the holiday season and back home again.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.