A World War Christmas without killing
December 1, 2005
There is a well-documented incident of World War I which speaks of an event on Christmas Eve 1914. Though for many years the incident was declared a myth, historian Stanley Weintraub verified that British and German soldiers did in fact put down their weapons and celebrate Christmas together. The Berkshire regiment of the British Army was entrenched only a few hundred yards from the XIX Corps of the German Army in the province of Flanders. When I say “entrenched” I mean it literally. Much of World War I was fought with “trench warfare.” Before the introduction of airplanes as bombers and fighters, wars were waged on the ground. The battles were fought over real estate. Whichever side was in control of the most terrain was thought to be winning. In order to make gaining ground more difficult, huge trenches were dug by both sides. These elaborate mazes of ground work were hundreds of yards long and manned by soldiers with small arms and machine guns. Between those deep ditches was a no man’s land that any advance needed to cross in order to attack the opposing side. Periodically, troops would try to bridge the gap by charging across the real estate and hence improve their position by killing or forcing the other side to abandon their trenches.
Of course, the opposing side was determined not to let that happen. So to thwart any charges of troops, they would try to shoot anyone who so much as stuck their head up over the enemy’s wall. One strategy was to send so many troops across the void (in one case over 750,000 in eight days) that the enemy could not kill them all and enough would get through to take over the enemy’s trench. When that occurred, those still living would celebrate a victory. Between short bouts of death and mayhem were long periods of filth and boredom. In order to keep their soldiers motivated, both sides were well-indoctrinated by their leaders of the despicable character of the enemy. The German soldiers were portrayed by the British high command as bloodthirsty Huns, while the German generals painted the Brits as savage oppressors. Since the dawn of armed conflicts, governments have used fear and misinformation to inspire their troops. It would be much less compelling to suggest that the enemy is much like yourself except wearing a different uniform.
Christmas week in 1914 found the German Saxons and the British Berkshire Regiment separated by a few hundred yards of no man’s land. Other than occasional sniper fire, artillery barrage and mustard gas assault, there was a lull in the action. British snipers reported seeing small conifers (Christmas trees) that had been placed on the German parapets. As a response, the British warriors began singing Christmas carols which could be heard by the Germans. After a few shouted overtures of yuletide blessings, small groups from both sides began to meet in the middle to exchange coffee, cigarettes, chocolate and sausage. The British High Command was horrified that the soldiers had stopped trying to kill each other. They released a directive that read: “Fraternization discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.” In other words, when soldiers realize that the enemy once believed in Santa Claus too, they are less inclined to want to kill them. Unfortunately for the High Command, they were safely billeted almost 50 miles from the fighting, so they could do little but send directives.
The cease fire lasted for a little more than 24 hours, from Christmas Eve to Christmas night. On one star-filled evening, soldiers from both sides met in the middle, both to celebrate the holiday, exchange gifts and to collect their dead from no man’s land. In one reported case, German and British soldiers were buried next to each other with both sides grieving for the dead. At midnight Christmas Day, by a prearranged signal, a flare was launched indicating that the truce was over and it was time to resume the carnage. But for those 24 hours, men caught in the most inhumane circumstances, engaging in the most barbaric of behavior, were reminded that though wars are initiated by governments, they are fought by ordinary men and women. And for at least that Christmas morning in 1914, those soldiers opted for humanity over politics. I’d like to think that was a worthy birthday gift for The Christ.Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.