This is the time of year that is particularly difficult for Military Families. It always has been and unfortunately will continue to be. There are many stories with Christmas themes, but the one that has always fascinated me was The Christmas Truce of World War One. In 2005 there was even a movie made based on actual events, Joyeux Noel.
Yes, the Truce was real and it truly happened and it didn't simply happen in one small area. Except for a few scattered places, it happened almost completely along the line of No-Man's-Land. It was Christmas and no one wanted to be where they were. They desperately wanted to be somewhere else. Despite the situation, the innate humanity of the soldiers shone through. It truly was a time of peace on earth and goodwill to all.
So how did the celebrated Christmas Truce come about? During the first five months of World War I, the German attack through Belgium into France had been halted. In early September 1914 French and British troops stopped the German advance at the Battle of the Marne, outside of Paris. The Germans fell back to the Aisne Valley, where they prepared defensive positions.
In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches. The stalemate would last for four more years.
To the north, on the right flank of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another. In the ensuing "Race to the Sea", the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to threaten the end of the others line. After several months of fighting, a bulk of the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders. As neither side had sufficient forces to outflank the other, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.
It was here that the Christmas Truce more than likely began. This was the only time an actual truce ensued. For several years thereafter the German offer of a truce was rejected by the Allies. In some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.
Malcolm Brown, a historian at the Imperial War Museum and co-author of another book on the subject, Christmas Truce, has estimated that a short peace broke out along about two-thirds of the British line. In most accounts, the initiative comes from the German side, perhaps because they were in the more favorable position, and felt more secure. On 23 December 1914, for example, halfway between Ypres and Lille, soldiers
from Leipzig started putting small tannenbaum (fir trees) on the parapet of their trenches, with candles clamped on to provide a seasonal glow. With no guns firing, their British counterparts crawled from their trenches to gaze at the display. They looked, one said, “like the footlights of a theatre”.
The truce proper began in as many different ways, and at as many different times, as there were groups of soldiers to start it. In some places, Germans held up signs bearing a phrase, in broken English: “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
In others, it took remarkable faith in the forbearance by either side. According to the memoir of Private W?J Quinton of the 2nd Bedfordshires, on his stretch of the line there was singing on both sides. He wrote that: “The peace began in the dark, with another call for an encore after a song from the enemy. Then, a German voice called out from no-man’s-land: “I am a lieutenant! Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, for I am out of my trench and walking towards you. Will one of your officers come out and meet me half-way?” Suspecting an ambush the British officers refrained from doing so, and, with dozens of guns pointed in his direction, the German appealed again. “Gentlemen!” he cried. “I am waiting!”Again, there was no response.
Finally, an officer from the Bedfordshires summoned his nerve and headed out into the darkness. The singing from the Germans grew louder. And the two men negotiated the terms of a truce. “We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years,” wrote Corporal John Ferguson, of the Second Seaforth Highlanders. “We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators …. What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!”
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve. (It was) “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere, when British and German troops climbed out of their trenches and crossed no-man's land to shake hands, sing carols and share cigarettes.” Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled.
In a document later discovered by the New York Times. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it in even greater detail. As night fell on Christmas Eve, bringing with it a hard frost, the soldiers who had traded insults up and down the line, instead began to sing for each other.
“Suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet,” he wrote, “makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! … First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours
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