Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tracing the Truce of l9l4

A propos of the previous post--sorry, alliteration OD--I found something of the essential meaning of Christmas two years ago, on a battlefield in Belgium. I suppose this story includes within it both a reaction to violent conflict and the Franciscan's interpretation of Christmas and Christianity as animated primarily by charity. Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self-promotion--this appeared in the Kennewick, Wa. Tri-City Herald last Sunday--here is "Tracing a Truce."

Sometime before New Year’s, many of us will again gather to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and wonder what happened to the true spirit of Christmas. Ironically, I found it in December 2006, on a visit to Snoopy’s dreamland, the battlegrounds of World War I. I was searching for two famous bomb craters near the town of Ypres, Belgium when I happened upon a small homemade cross. It turned out that I was standing on sacred ground: here, on December 24, l9l4, British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other and celebrated Christmas. World War I re-enactors had erected this small monument to the “Khaki Chums,” German and British soldiers who had taken part in this remarkable interval(you can see it above this text).

Christmas l9l4 marked the fourth deadly month of what everyone assumed would be a six-week war. “We’ll be in Paris for lunch, St. Petersburg for dinner,” the German Kaiser bragged. In August l9l4, German forces had invaded Belgium and France, hoping to knock the French out of the war quickly. The small British Expeditionary Force rushed across the channel to block the German offensive. Neither side could advance, owing to new, lethal weaponry--machine guns and high-intensity shells—that had already killed thousands. Thus they dug themselves deep into the earth, creating huge trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles from northern Belgium to east central France.
The soldiers huddled in these trenches once believed, like their leaders, that they could win the war and return home with a medal by Christmas. Now they knew they were in for a long, hard slog in dreadful conditions. They lived several yards below ground, in constant danger from the elements, shells, snipers and rats and in close proximity with the corpses of their comrades, which often lay unburied for weeks in “no-man’s land,” the hundred or so yards separating the German and British trenches. They could look forward only to periodic assaults against the enemy across the line, which only got more men killed; there was no end in sight. Then suddenly, with the approach of Christmas, came a remarkable series of events that held the promise of at least a temporary deliverance.

It started in mid-December, with a phenomenon known as “live and let live.” A number of units began to suspend hostilities briefly--they would stand down their snipers and shell the enemy only at certain times, for example avoiding the dinner hour. This was partly because Germans and British knew each other well; many British tourists visited Germany each year, and German students often worked summers at British seacoast resorts before l9l4. The holiday spirit grew with the arrival of gifts from the respective governments. British soldiers received a tin containing chocolates, cigarettes, pipe tobacco and a greeting from King George V. A German newspaper reported on the delivery of German soldiers’ gifts with tongue firmly in cheek:

“yesterday about 4 o’clock in the afternoon there was a fierce and terrible onslaught of Christmas packages into the trenches. No man was spared. However, not a single package fell into the hands of the British or French. In the confusion, one soldier suffered the impaling of a salami straight into his stomach. Another had two large raisins from an exploding pastry right into his eyes, and a third man had the great misfortune of having a full bottle of cognac fly into his mouth.”

A few days before Christmas, German soldiers near Ypres launched a veritable friendship offensive, slipping cakes and candies across the lines with an invitation: “We propose having a concert tonight as it is our Captain’s birthday, and we invite you to attend, provided you give your word of honor as guests that you agree to cease all hostilities between 7 and 8:30 pm. Look for the candlelights across the line at 7:30, put your hands above the trenches, and we will do the same.” And so they had their concert of Christmas music, the Germans singing and the British applauding. Then, on Christmas Eve, all up and down the trenches, hundreds of German and British soldiers did the unthinkable: they stopped fighting and started celebrating. German soldiers sang British songs in German; British soldiers followed with favorite drinking songs. In some places, German soldiers came to British trenches bearing Christmas trees, briefly alarming Hindu and Moslem troops unfamiliar with Christian traditions. But almost everyone reported an infusion of genuine Christmas spirit. An officer of the Scots Guards wrote in his diary, “the Germans in our sector protested that they had no feeling of enmity at all towards us, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers, they had to obey. I believe they were speaking the truth when they said this, and that they never wished to fire a shot again. “

The next day, Christmas Day, the two sides continued the truce, opting first to bury their dead. This had proved impossible, because snipers targeted anyone emerging from the trenches. Afterward came more drinking and fraternizing. In one area, British and German officers shared a meal consisting of pheasant, foie gras and plum pudding, washed down with fine champagne, while the enlisted men drank beer together. Elsewhere, soldiers arranged soccer matches, even though balls were hard to come by and their playing field was pockmarked with shell holes.

Of course, this peaceful interval was fleeting. On December 26, commanders pulled the most enthusiastic revelers from the line--lest they insist on a permanent truce--and the armies resumed their grim march towards genocide, revolution and mass slaughter. Indeed, when I turned around to take in the countryside around the Khaki Chums cross, I saw signs leading to three large British military cemeteries(see photo above). But I carry with me the memory of that cross and the brief outbreak of humanity it commemorates, because they speak to the best instincts in my fellow humans and to a revival of that elusive Christmas spirit, the hope for a better world that was born in Bethlehem so long ago."


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