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The soldiers' Christmas truce -- A bas la guerre! Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! Peace on Earth!

Review by Phil Shannon

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages

It was the war that was supposed “to be over by Christmas”. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers' truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

“Peace on Earth”, “goodwill to all men” — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the “enemy”, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of “no-man's land” between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub's haunting book on the “Christmas Truce” recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as “an aberration of no consequence”, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in “no-man's land” but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

“Soon”, however, “few would care about higher authority” as an unauthorised and illegal truce “bubbled up from the ranks”.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing “Merry Christmas” were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of “you no shoot, we no shoot”.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill”.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in "no-man's land" with stretchers as goal posts. Races were held on bicycles with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. “You would have thought you were dreaming”, wrote captain F.D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, “spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky”. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had “struck”, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Fear of fraternisation

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens “the will to kill”, “destroys the offensive spirit”, saps “ideological fervour” and “undermines the sacrificial spirit” necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (“Down with the war!”) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (“No more war! It’s what God wants!”) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After “mucking-in” with British soldiers, a German private wrote that “never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war”.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that “normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings”. “Now”, we gathered, “as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!”.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, “many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses”.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — “those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand”.

Brass desperate to restart war

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart “the war that had strangely vanished”. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of “we can't — they are good fellows”, the officers replied “Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!”.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in “no-man's land” with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers' organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany's war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a “two-day wonder”, the Christmas truce “evokes a stubborn humanity within us”. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that “on each end of the rifle we're the same”.

[From Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002.]

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Last survivor of 'Christmas truce' tells of his sorrow

The First World War's horrors still move us but one man recalls his moment of peace amid the bloodshed
  • The Observer,
The words drifted across the frozen battlefield: 'Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht'. To the ears of the British troops peering over their trench, the lyrics may have been unfamiliar but the haunting tune was unmistakable. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree glowing with light. 'Merry Christmas. We not shoot, you not shoot.'

It was just after dawn on a bitingly cold Christmas Day in 1914, 90 years ago on Saturday, and one of the most extraordinary incidents of the Great War was about to unfold.

Weary men climbed hesitantly at first out of trenches and stumbled into no man's land. They shook hands, sang carols, lit each other's cigarettes, swapped tunic buttons and addresses and, most famously, played football, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using their caps or steel helmets as goalposts. The unauthorised Christmas truce spread across much of the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped.

According to records held by the World War One Veterans' Association, there is only one man in the world still alive who spent 25 December 1914 serving in a conflict that left 31 million people dead, wounded or missing.

Alfred Anderson was 18 at the time. Speaking to The Observer, Anderson has revealed remarkable new details of the day etched on history, including pictures of Christmas gifts sent to the troops.

His unit, the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, was one of the first involved in trench warfare. He had left his home in Newtyle, Angus, in October, taking the train from Dundee to Southampton, then a ferry to Le Havre.

He was happy, healthy and surrounded by most of his former school friends, who had all joined the Territorial Army together in 1912. In October 1914 they thought that they were at the start of an exciting adventure. But by the first Christmas of the war they had already experienced its horror and the death of young friends was commonplace.

On 24 and 25 December, Anderson's unit was billeted in a dilapidated farmhouse, away from the front line, so he did not participate in any football matches. 'We didn't have the energy, anyway,' he said. But he can still recall vividly what happened on Christmas Day 1914.

'I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,' he said. 'Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices.

'But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted "Merry Christmas", even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.'

In some parts of the front, the ceasefire lasted several weeks. There are also numerous trench yarns, some possibly apocryphal, about the impromptu fraternising. One, detailed in Michael Jurgs's book The Small Peace in the Big War, involved a young private who was led to a tent behind German lines by an aristocratic officer and plied with Veuve Clicquot. In another tale, a barber supposedly set up shop in no man's land, offering a trim to troops from either side.

Now aged 108 and living alone in Alyth, Perthshire, Anderson still treasures the gift package sent to every soldier a few days before the first Christmas of the war from the Princess Royal. The brass box, which is embossed with a profile of Princess Mary, was filled with cigarettes.

It also contained a cream card, with 1914 on the front, which says: 'With best wishes for a happy Christmas and a victorious New Year, from the Princess Mary and friends at home.'

'I'd no use for the cigarettes so I gave them to my friends,' he said. 'A lot of the lads thought the box was worth nothing, but I said someone's bound to have put a lot of thought into it. Some of the boys had Christmas presents from home anyway, but mine didn't arrive on time.'

To his delight, he discovered that his most treasured possession - a New Testament given to him by his mother before he left for France and inscribed with the message: 'September 5, 1914. Alfred Anderson. A Present from Mother' - fitted the box perfectly.

He kept both in his breast pocket until 1916 when a shell exploded over a listening post in no man's land killing several of his friends and seriously injuring him.

'This is all I brought home from the war,' he said, showing the box and Bible, but forgetting about his beret with its famous red hackle, which is the first thing you see when you step into his home.

There are still many aspects of the war that Anderson finds difficult to talk about. 'I saw so much horror,' he said, shaking his head and gazing into the middle distance. 'I lost so many friends.'

He recalled one incident that gave him a 'sore heart'. When he was first home on leave, he visited the family of a dead friend to express his condolences. He knew them well but soon realised that he was getting a frosty reception. 'I asked if they were going to ask me in and they said no. When I asked why, they just said, "Because you're here and he's not". That was awful. He's one of the lads I miss most.'

Two years ago Prince Charles paid him a private visit after learning that he had served briefly as batman to the Queen Mother's brother, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who, along with hundreds of Mr Anderson's regimental colleagues, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

The seemingly invincible Anderson, who was awarded France's highest honour - the Légion d'Honneur - in 1998 for his services during the First World War, was recently in the rare position of witnessing one of his six children's golden wedding anniversaries. His children, he said, five of whom are still alive, are what keeps him going.

Alfred Anderson has spent 90 years trying to forget the war. But it has been impossible. So on Saturday he will look back. 'I'll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year. And I'll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it's too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad,' he said, his head bowed and his eyes filled with tears.

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