A Christmas Truce
The dawn of the Twentieth Century was filled with great hope. Mankind was on its way to true greatness. The secular world said it was so.
Science held the answer to all of our problems. We made electricity do our bidding. We learned to send messages through thin air! Oh, the glory of man! What need was there for God? Mankind could do anything. Just ask the humanists.
We were learning so much about ourselves. Sigmund Freud and others stretched the boundaries of our mental understanding. Sociologists and anthropologists opened the doors to exciting new discoveries. Science would find the way to stop all crime and poverty, disease and human misery. And the most exciting promise of all – we would learn how to stop war!
The promise of no war! This was the holy grail of sociology and anthropology. The secular world claimed the ability to do what no religion ever could. The secular prophets of humanism declared the coming of a new world. Nothing can stop the onward march of humanity upward and onward into greatness!
The Promise of Science Fails
But something happened. There was a bump in the road. Humanity stumbled. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. One month later Austria declared war on tiny Serbia. Russia mobilized to defend Serbia.
During the next week Germany declared war on Russia and France. England declared war on Germany to protect Belgium. By mid-August it seemed every major nation had declared war on somebody. America stayed apart. We struggled with neutrality.
The losses were staggering during the early days of the war. Germany almost destroyed the Russian First and Second armies. They took 100,000 Russians prisoner. Then Germany turned her attention toward Belgium. The Belgium Army put up a good fight. They were massively outnumbered.
France rushed to Belgium’s aid. Britain sent forces across the Channel. They were not ready. The Germans defeated the British Expeditionary Force at Antwerp in early October. The Brits fell back to Ypres. The site was set for the next major battle.
In mid-October the Germans met the Allied forces at Ypres. They battled back and forth for more than a month. There was no clear winner. Everyone lost. Estimated casualties (killed, missing, and wounded) were 150,000 Germans, 55,000 British, 50,000 to 85,000 French and about 20,000 Belgium soldiers.
By the end of 1914, the number of casualties reached an estimated 750,000 German and 995,000 French soldiers. The casualty count is not complete. The number could double. It does not include casualties from England, Belgium, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and several other countries. These countries were involved in the war.
Life and Death in the Trenches
On September 15 soldiers in Belgium and France began digging a line of trenches. German soldiers dug trenches along their side of the battlefield. British, French and Belgium soldiers dug along their side of the battlefield. The area between the trenches was called “No Man’s Land.” The British Expeditionary Force (British army) occupied 27 miles of trenches passing through Belgium.
The distance between the trenches usually was 100 to 300 yards. But it could be as small as 30 yards. Soldiers from one side could call out to the other. Insults and greetings floated across No Man’s Land. But don’t get the wrong idea. Few men lived for long on that barren piece of ground between the opposing trenches.
Life in the trenches was miserable. Soldiers lived for months in these trenches. They ate, slept, lived, and died there. In the early days of the war, the trenches were little more than muddy ditches in the ground.
The bottom of the trenches became a wet, cold, slimy, muddy mess. Soldiers developed a fungus n their feet. It was called “trench foot.” If not treated, trench foot could eat away entire toes. Could anyone imagine things getting worse?
Well, things did get worse. A merciless winter was poised above the trenches. Rain, snow, sleet, and freezing temperatures began. They battered the men in the trenches. Morale plummeted.
Soldiers on both sides did not sign up for this. Enlistments soared during the surge of patriotism that often accompanies the beginning of war. War was declared in August. It was late summer. The new recruits expected to be gone for a few weeks. Then the war would be over. They would be home for Christmas. Talk of war-time glory came easy. But reality can be a harsh warden.
Christmas Comes to the Trenches
They did not go home for Christmas. So Christmas came to them. Parcels packed with goodies from home began to arrive at the front. Brits received plum puddings from their government. Each man also got a “Princess Mary” box. It was a metal case with Princess Mary engraved on the top. The box was stuffed with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco.
The Kaiser sent each German soldier a Kaiserliche. This was a large meerschaum pipe. The sergeants and officers received a box of cigars each. The Christmas spirit started to infuse the trenches. It was the season of giving. For a while the mud, the rain, the cold seemed almost bearable. Almost.
December 24 was a good day. It was cold but the sky was clear and sunny. No rain. It was as though heaven was smiling down into the trenches. Some of the German units received a new gift—miniature Christmas trees. They began to line the German trenches. Their candles added to the Christmas spirit. Only ninety-eight British soldiers were killed by snipers that day.
The sound of Christmas carols began to float across No Man’s Land. “Stille Nacht! Heilege Nacht!” The most famous German Christmas carol was answered by the Brits. “All is calm; all is bright.” The Christmas Truce had begun.
Fraternization with the enemy was forbidden. But lower ranking officers looked the other way. Some even joined the celebration. Senior officers fumed. But they did not interfere. This Christmas celebration was started spontaneously by the troops. They needed a day to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.
On Christmas morning the troops slowly ventured out of the trenches. Men exchanged gifts and buttons. Soldiers who were barbers in civilian life gave free haircuts. One German who was a juggler put on a show in the middle of the killing field—No Man’s Land.
Stories abound of soccer matches. One story tells of a game where teams were picked. A British chaplain was called as referee. But the Germans won, 3-2. In some places a soccer ball was kicked playfully back and forth.
This spontaneous celebration took place only along the British sector of the front. But the truce was temporary. In most places it lasted the entire day. Many celebrants worked to preserve the peace until midnight. In the words of one German soldier, “Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.” Only sixty-two British soldiers died from snipers on Christmas Day.
On December 27 the rain returned with sleet and cold temperatures.
The War Returns
This Christmas Truce took place only in 1914. Soldiers returned to the loathsome part of their job—the killing.
World War I saw death on a massive scale. No previous war came close for military casualties. How many military casualties? Official sources record 30,951,433 killed, wounded, and missing in action. This does not include civilians. In comparison, the Civil War was the costliest war in American history. It produced 625,000 military casualties. The loss of life from World War I was unprecedented.
But for one shining moment in 1914 soldiers paused to remember the Prince of Peace. The light of the world shone brightly in No Man’s Land. All was calm. All was bright.
Much of this information is from web sites including www.1914-1918.net, www.firstworldwar.com, and blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history, search “Christmas Truce” at each web site.