Silent Night; The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

Silent Night; The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Plume, 2002, paper.

December 2014 marked the centenary of the Christmas Truce on the Western front in World War I. Initiated by German troops, the cessation of combat spread up and down the Western front, which stretched from the North Sea to neutral Switzerland. Stanley Weintraub describes the set of conditions which lead to the truce. It began amongst the bottom ranks of German troops from Saxony and quickly caught the fancy of English and Scottish soldiers. It was immediately condemned by unit commanders, although most officers thought it best to allow the Truce to happen but control its contagiousness. French and Belgium troops joined the Truce, but their participation was less enthusiastic. With a truce they would face the prospect of an indefinite German occupation of their soil until a settlement could be hammered out at some future time.

The idea of a Christmas Truce had been the subject of a resolution in the U.S. Senate, and a proposal by the recently elected Pope Benedict XV. Throughout European warfare, there had been temporary armistices to carry off the wounded and bury the dead. But they had been negotiated by governments and military commands. Weintraub points out that this spontaneous truce seemed more akin to the populist politics of the street prior to the War, hence threatening to European power structures.

The Truce could be considered a variation on the live-and-let-live that often occurs during and particularly toward the end of a war. Growing up, I worked on an Iowa farm owned by a German American. He had a limp which he said was the result of a confrontation with an American soldier at the end of World War I. He believed that the American had deliberately shot at his leg rather than his heart.

The Truce worked in part because it carried with it a religious sanction. There was also much exchanging of souvenirs and the sharing of special food which the respective home fronts had sent to their soldiers on this first Christmas in the trenches. The Brits were quite taken with the Prussian spiked helmets; both sides exchanged the brass buttons that festooned their uniforms. The British plum pudding was less admired by both sides to the bargaining. The Germans found trees to decorate and sang beautifully. There were spontaneous games of football (soccer) which both sides enjoyed.

Many of the Germans had worked in England, knew English, and some command of the British sense of humor. There was much good-natured insulting that went on. Lots of beer, courtesy of abandoned Belgian farm houses, fueled the jocularity.

There was much talk about extending the Truce at least through Boxing Day, December 26. Traditionally in Britain, you spent most of Christmas Day at some religious service. On the 26th, employers rewarded their servants and tradesmen with a Christmas box, perhaps containing a gold sovereign, certainly some tasty food. In a class-conscious British army, December 26 was almost as important as Christmas itself. The Germans also celebrated December 26th as St. Stephen’s Day, a kind of second Christmas but involving secular activities. As a result of this tinge of piety, the army command on both sides worried about how to keep the spontaneous Christmas Truce from becoming anything like the mutinies that would color the end of the Great War.

 

Early in the War, there was relatively little suppressing of news from the front. Soldiers wrote home about their experiences including the Christmas Truce, and their homefolk, proud as peacocks, had the letters printed in the local paper. It was clear from these accounts that much of the day was spent in “housekeeping;” repairing the trenches, mending the endless barbed wire that marked the location of no man’s land and generally making the field of battle more defensible.

 

The end of the Truce was also spontaneous. Rain on the 26th had reduced the use of the artillery. Also as new units of troops rotated into the trenches, they were strangers to any kind of goodwill toward the enemy. They took the opportunity to fire on those troops still observing the Truce.

Weintraub engages in a “What if ….?” exercise, even if he doesn’t place a lot of faith in the scenarios that emerge. Certainly an extension of the Truce might have dampened the bloodshed that occurred in the New Year, 1915. The newspapers in the belligerent countries would soon limit themselves to patriotic screeds; they might have used the Truce to ignite a public pacifism to be fanned by the vast casualties that followed. The rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia; the disintegration of the Austrian Empire; the American intervention in 1917, with all their implications, might not have occurred. The slow decline of Britain’s influence on the European continent would have continued; undefeated Germany’s to rise.

On the other hand, there might not have been an Adolf Hitler or a Benito Mussolini appealing to soldier resentment in the 1920s and ‘30s.

 

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