Christmas in the Trenches: A Repost by Request


British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land during
the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars,
7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)

                                                                        -- Imperial War Museum photo

      It was 101 years ago tonight, Christmas Eve, that two armies faced each other in hastily dug trenches in the mud of France and Flanders. The opening salvos of the First World War had been fired, and the race to outflank each other had ended in stalemate. What began with an assassination in Sarajevo would not end for four more horrifying years.

      I'm not going to give a history lesson -- no one, including me, ever learns from history's lessons anyway -- but mean to celebrate that, amid the barbed wire and craters of No Man's Land, amid the carnage of perhaps the most ghastly conflict of all time, enemies met under a white flag ... and shook hands in peace.

      Most have heard of the story. The bare facts are that at several spots along the line separating the Germans and British, a spontaneous truce broke out on Christmas Eve. In at least one place, they played football -- soccer -- in No Man's Land and elsewhere exchanged cigarettes and alcohol, sang hymns like Silent Night in both languages, looked at each other's photographs, helped bury each other's dead.

      It was a magical moment in a world gone mad, and, of course, it didn't take long for chateau generals far from danger to order an end to the fraternization. And those orders were carried out.

      There are times, though, when I wonder what would have happened had the high command been ignored that night. Just suppose, for a moment, that a majority of those huddled in the frozen mud had said: "This is crazy." Just suppose they had really thought about the songs they were singing. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to men. Tidings of comfort and joy. Holy night. Would they have -- could they have -- continued?

      I know, I know, it's naive -- foolish, even -- to ask the question. No one wanted to end the war, not then. It was far too soon. Millions would have to die before any serious demand for a halt would be heard. From king to kaiser, from padre to politician, from field marshal to foot soldier, all believed God was on their side -- the German Army's belt buckles even said so -- and that right would prevail.

      Did it? The aftershocks from that war are felt still, right 'round the world. The War to End Wars in reality ended any possibility for peace, maybe forever. Injustices begun then continue, the causes obscured, a solution insoluble.

      I'm no pacifist -- my grandfather and his brothers were in the Great War, and my father and uncles in the next. I was in the militia in the 1960s, at a time when it wasn't popular, even in a country that wasn't fighting anywhere, that had instead invented the concept of peacekeeping to separate belligerent sides. My ratty old uniform with its corporal's stripes now hangs in the local Legion hall, alongside the military memorabilia of women and men far more deserving, going back 200 years to the War of 1812. I'm proud of the connection with them and what they did, however tenuous that connection may be.

      But ... yet ... if there isn't to be a lesson learned from that memorable Christmas Eve, can there not at least be a moral? Maybe it should be in the form of a fable, since it was so clearly a fabulous event. In the song Christmas in the Trenches, John McCutcheon wrote "at each end of the rifle, we're the same". Surely that's true, whether it's a Kalashnikov or a Colt. Do ideologies really matter so much that we're prepared to ignore that which makes us the same?

     It can't always be about cant -- can it? Can't it be about ... hope?

 " 'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore."
 -- John McCutcheon

Views: 74

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on December 24, 2015 at 6:57am

I recall tis terrific piece! So pleased to see it again!  Happy Christmas, Boan!

Comment by alsoknownas on December 24, 2015 at 7:33am

"I wonder what would have happened had the high command been ignored that night."

Or any other night.

Comment by Zanelle on December 24, 2015 at 9:21am

How could they start fighting again after that?    Why not stop forever...?   Maybe someday.  Thanks for posting this.

Comment by Boanerges on December 24, 2015 at 10:59am

Jon, thanks for remembering and for commenting.

AKA, I wish it were so.

Zanelle, I believe they went back to war because they didn't know how not to when given the order. Not then, not until the mutinies years later. I too would like to think that maybe someday, though. There is always hope.

Comment by koshersalaami on December 24, 2015 at 11:08am

In that case I think it might have been possible because what was behind that war was so nebulous. In the next one, no. Nazis were a far different animal. 

I have to remember you're writing from Canada, so when you talk about the early 1960's you're not talking about Vietnam. 

Comment by JMac1949 Today on December 24, 2015 at 12:07pm

Bo, Thanks for this most excellent post, truly in the Spirit of the Season.  R&L ;-D

Comment by Boanerges on December 24, 2015 at 2:31pm

Yeah, I've studied the causes of the First War until I'm blue in the face, Kosh, everything from The Guns of August to Paris 1919, and still have no real understanding. It was like some evil set of dominoes. Would I have gone? Yes. Ditto the Second War, but with likely a greater sense of urgency. As for Vietnam, the answer's a resounding no. However, between 20,000 and 30,000 Canadians did. I don't know why.

Thanks, JMac. That song (and its delivery) still moves me to tears.

Comment by older/exasperated on December 25, 2015 at 2:45am

Always nice to read this on Christmas morning. My best Bo send my regards to TPR................o/e

Comment by Boanerges on December 26, 2015 at 3:47pm

Glad you still enjoy it, O/E, but this really will be the last time. At least here -- looking for more fertile soil, shall we say. Say hey to the crew for me, and give my best to M.


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