Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men

From the pages of history . . .




"For most people, Christmas is a time of celebration -- presents to be opened with family and friends, heaps of rich food and drink, and optimism for the New Year. So imagine the feelings of men exhausted from four months of heavy fighting; homesick, missing their wives and children, and spending Christmas Eve shivering in muddy, waterlogged trenches. Their lives seemed to be lived out in a dark looking-glass world of cold, hunger and hatred. But Christmas sometimes works a strange magic, even in conditions like these, as it did in the December of 1914.


On Christmas Eve, the German guns on the Western Front fell silent after dark. No shells, no murderous clatter of machine gun fire, not even the occasional whine of a sniper's bullet. The British soldiers followed their example. It was a cold, clear night, and stars burned brightly in the sky. The utter silence that fell over the trenches created an eerie atmosphere. Then, along some sections of the trenches, lookouts on the British side saw strange lights flickering and swinging along the German front line. Some shots were fired. But when officers peered through their trench periscopes or binoculars, they were amazed to see that these lights were illuminated Christmas decorations. There were even some small Christmas trees hung with candles. At first, many soldiers remained suspicious. After all, the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal French, had issued a stern order to all units warning of a German attack over Christmas or New Year. 'Special vigilance will be maintained during these periods,' they had been told.


Then the German soldiers started singing carols. Some were unfamiliar to the British soldiers, but others, such as 'Stille Nacht' (Silent Night) were very well known to them. Then the British soldiers began to sing carols too, the two sides serenading each other with shared Christmas memories. Perhaps it was hearing these familiar songs that led to the amazing events of the following day.


Dawn on Christmas morning brought a thick mist over some sections of the Front, but when it cleared, the most extraordinary scene revealed itself. All along No Man's Land, in some places almost as far as the eye could see, soldiers had ventured out to meet their enemies. They huddled around in small groups, usually based around one man who could speak the other man's language. Sometimes, French was the common language between them. Sometimes men spoke no language at all, communicating with smiles and gestures. Soldiers swapped cigarettes, chocolate and beer or whiskey. Others, more daringly, exchanged items of equipment -- belt buckles, regimental badges, even helmets. Before the war, many Germans had worked in England and some gave letters to be posted to friends or girlfriends they had hurriedly left in August. Several photographs were taken, showing groups of German and British troops huddling together, freezing cold but quite relaxed in each other's company.


Sometimes, meetings like these occurred when a truce had been arranged among the officers, to bury the dead left lying between the trenches. Here, burial parties stopped to talk to each other. In other parts of the Front, especially where opposing trenches were very close, soldiers simply called over, promising not to shoot their opponents if they would come out to meet them."


Over on the front line between Frelinghien and Houplines, Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment faced the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders. His soldiers had boldly walked into the pockmarked land between the trenches to talk with their enemy. Now, to Niemann's astonishment, one of the Scottish soldiers had run up from his trench with a soccer ball. Then within moments, two sets of goal posts were improvised with helmets on the frozen ground.


Niemann remembered the game clearly. Despite the language barrier, and the fact that these same men had been trying to kill each other only the day before, the game was remarkably good-natured. Both sides played with a fierce determination to win, but all kept quite rigorously to the rules, even without the advantage of a referee. The Germans were astonished to discover that theses Scottish soldiers wore nothing under their kilts. Whenever a fierce tackle or a strong gust of wind revealed a Scotsman's buttocks, they would hoot and whistle like schoolboys."






---- from True Stories of The First World War by Paul Dowswell



You can read more about the Christmas Truce of 1914 here.

3 comments:

Donna G. said...

If I've ever heard this story, I'd forgotten it, says she who also doesn't remember breaking her leg. :-/ This is great! Thank you for sharing it, Elizabeth, and Merry Christmas!!

tlmalcolm said...

I logged into your blog and found to my surprise the story that our pastor told at the Christmas Eve service that Fred had attended because he was singing.(the rest of us were waiting to attend the midnight service). Fred just this morning was telling us the story you wrote about in your blog!! Guess the Malcolm brains do work alike at times!!

mommyx12 said...

Gemma is going to be one on January 6th. Same day my twins were born. They were so excited to have her born on their birthday. Her birth gives me 5 birthdays in 6 days!! And if you count my Robyn and Mary in December I have 7 in 3 weeks. And right after Christmas!! Bet you can relate!!

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