The Christmas Truce of World War I





David Brown, in the Washington Post (12-25-04):

Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.

What is known is that 90 years ago today -- four months into what would eventually be called World War I -- thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.

The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core -- the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.

It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man's land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.

Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.

Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.

Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn't recommence until after New Year's Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.

War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine....

Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly....

The meaning of the truce has been debated for years.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament:"The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired."

There's a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness -- which every participant recognized -- is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.

Christian Carion, the director of"Joyeux Noel," wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him:"We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion." He made his movie in Romania instead.


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