The Christmas Truce – 1914
Previous to World War I, the last major conflict in Europe was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Since then, warfare had changed on the battlefield, but in the war rooms ruled by the Generals, it was still 1870.
The single shot rifle with questionable accuracy had been replaced by Maxim’s machine gun that could dispense thousands of round per minute. Motorized vehicles had replaced horses and mules as the way to move artillery and supplies. The new-fangled airplane would change the face of war forever. On the high seas the U-boat and dreadnaught changed the strategy of naval warfare. Improvements in the accuracy and the killing power of artillery rained death from above. Modern munitions factories provided the armies with enough bombs and bullets to keep going and going and going.
These and many other innovations and technological advancements gained momentum before, during and after WWI. As war opened in August of 1914 the ability to kill and be killed did not fit with the old “gentlemanly” war of waging war.
By the end of November 1914 the crushing German advance that had swallowed the Low Countries and threatened France had been stopped by the allies before it could reach Paris. Neither could go around the flank of the other. Since they couldn’t go right or left, they went down; they dug trenches into the Belgium low country with high water tables. The opposing armies stared at each other from a line of hastily built defensive trenches that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland. Barbed wire and parapets defended the trenches and between them stretched a "No-Mans-Land" that in some areas was no more than 30 yards wide.
Life in the trenches was utterly inhuman. Continuous sniping, machinegun fire and artillery shelling took a deadly toll. The misery was heightened by the ravages of Mother Nature, including rain, snow and cold. Many of the trenches, especially those in the low-lying British sector to the west, were continually flooded, exposing the troops to frost bite and "trench foot."
This treacherous monotony was briefly interrupted during an unofficial and spontaneous "Christmas Truce" that began on Christmas Eve, 1914. Both sides had received Christmas packages of food and presents. The clear skies that ended the rain further lifted the spirits on both sides of no-mans-land.
The Germans seem to have made the first move. During the evening of December 24 they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British enlisted men, without consulting their officers, accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as their present to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the British line. Enemy soldiers shouted to one another from the trenches, joined in singing songs and soon met one another in the middle of no-mans-land to talk, exchange gifts and in some areas to take part in impromptu soccer matches. Many families in England and Germany had descended from the House of Hanover. As the British and German soldiers intermingled, some discovered they were cousins or had many common friends in Berlina and London. One of the German soldiers had worked as a barber before the war and had cut the hair one of the English soldiers.
The high command on both sides took a dim view of the activities. It was beyond belief of the old generals on both sides that these young men would simply lie down their weapons and refuse to kill one another. Orders were issued to stop the fraternizing with varying results. In some areas the truce ended Christmas Day in others the following day and in others it extended into January.
One thing is for sure - it never happened again. By the time another year of horrendous senseless killing had taken place, good will toward one’s fellow man had been replaced by a thirst for vengeance. Peace on earth and good will toward all men would have to wait for another time.
Descendants of soldiers from both the English and German trenches continue to relive the Christmas Truce to this day as they gather at a small church on the field of Flanders on Christmas.
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