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The Truce of God

The Truce of God

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Published by: Camp Constitution on Dec 26, 2011
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01/02/2014

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The
Truce
of
God
Ninetyyearsago,Christiansoldiersseparatedbywarreachedouttoeachotherto celebratetheirLord'sbirth.
Piercingthe
fog
of
war:
A
German
sold
ierat
theWest
ern
Front
greetshis
British
counterpart
s
under
the
lightofa
Tannenbaum.
On
ChristmasDay
1914,
enemy
soldiers
laid
down
their
arms
ina
spontaneous
t
ru
cetoce
lebr
ate
the
dayin
No
Man's
Land
.
by
William
NormanGrigg
I
nAugust1914,Europe'smajorpowersthrewthemselvesintowarwithgleefulabandon.Germany,arisingpowerwithvastaspirations,plowedacrossBelgium,seekingto
checkmate
FrancequicklybeforeRussiacouldmobilize, therebyavertingtheprospect
of
atwofrontwar.Thousands
of
youngGermans,anticipatingasix-weekconflict,boardedtrooptrainssingingtheoptimisticrefrain:
"AusflugnachParis.
Auf
Widersehen
auf
demBoulevard."
("ExcursiontoParis.SeeyouagainontheBoulevard.")TheFrenchwereeagertoavengetheloss
of
AlsaceandLorrainetoGermanyin1870.TheBritishgovernment,leery
of
Germany'sgrowingpower,mobilized hundreds
of
thousands
of
youngmento"teachtheHunalesson."Acrossthecontinent,writesBritishhistorianSimonRees,"millions
of
servicemen,reservistsand volunteers..,rushedenthusiasticallyto thebannersofwar....Theatmospherewasone
of
holidayratherthanconflict."EachsideexpectedtobevictoriousbyChristmas.ButasDecemberdawned,theantagonistsfoundthemselvesmiredalongtheWesternFront-astaticlineoftrench esrunningforhundredsofmilesthrough FranceandBelgium.Atsomepointsalong theFront,combatantswereseparatedbylessthan100feet.
Their
cruderedoubtswerelittlemorethanlargeditchesscoopedoutofmiry,whitish-graysoil.III-equipped forwinter,soldierssloggedthroughbrack ishwaterthatwastoocoldforhuman comfort,buttoowarmtofreeze.TheunclaimedterritorydesignatedNo
Man's
Landwaslitteredwiththe
awf
ulresidue
of
war-expendedammunitionandthelifelessbodiesofthoseonwhom theammunitionhadbeenspent.Themor talremains
of
manyslainsoldierscouldbe foundgrotesquelywovenintobarbedwirefences.Villagesandhomeslayinruins.Abandonedchurcheshadbeenappropriatedforuseasmilitarybases.Aslossesmountedandthestalemate hardened,warfeverbegantodissipateonbothsides.Many
of
thosepressedinto serviceontheWesternFronthadnotsuc cumbedtotheinitialfrenzy
of
bloodlust.FightingalongsideFrench,Belgian,andEnglishtroopswereHindusand
Sikhs
fromIndia,aswellasGurkhasfromthe HimalayanKingdomofNepal.Theseco lonialconscriptshadbeentransportedfrom theirnativesoilanddeployedintrenches carved
out
of
wintryBelgian
cabbage
patches.HighlandScotswerealsofoundattheFront,proudlywearingtheirkiltsin defiance
of
thebitterDecembercold. The
Germa
ntroopswereledbyelite Prussianofficers,representatives
of
the
Our
Rome
series,interruptedto
allo
w
space
fora
Christmastide
theme
,will
be
cont
nued
inthe
ne
xt
issue.
34
THENEW
AMERICAN
DECEMBER
27,
2004
 
Weproposehavingaconcerttonight asitisourCaptain'sbirthday,andwe cordiallyinviteyoutoattend-pro videdyouwillgiveusyourwordofhonorasgueststhatyouagreeto ceasehostilitiesbetween7:30and 8:30....Whenyouseeuslightthe candlesandfootlightsattheedge
of
ourtrenchat7:30sharpyoucan safelyputyourheadsaboveyour trenches,andweshalldothesame, andbegintheconcert.bellicoseJunkeraristocracy.TheGermanrankandfileincludedBavarian,Saxon, Westphalian,andHessianreservists,more thanafewofwhomhadlived-orevenbeenborn-inEnglandandspokeperfectEnglish.Bismarck'seffortstounitethe scatteredGermanprincipalitiesnotwith standing,manyGermantroopsremained moreattachedtotheirlocalcommunities thantowhatforthemwasanabstractGer mannation.
Comrades
atA
rms
Wallowinginwhatamountedtocold,fetid sewers,peltedbyfreezingrain,andsur roundedbythedecayingremains
of
theircomrades,soldiersonbothsidesgrimly maintainedtheirmilitarydiscipline.On December7,PopeBenedictXVcalled foraChristmascease-fire.Thissugges tionearnedlittleenthusiasmfrompoliti calandmilitaryleadersonbothsides.But thestorywasdifferentfortheexhausted frontlinetroops.ADecember4dispatchfromthecom
mander
of
theBritishIICorps tookdisapproving
notice
of
a"live-and-let-livetheory
of
life"thathaddescendedontheFront. Althoughlittleovertfraternizationwasseenbetweenhostileforces, justaslittleinitiativewasshown inpressingpotentialadvantages. Neithersidefiredattheotherdur ingmealtimes,andfriendlycom mentswerefrequently
bandied
aboutacrossNoMan'sLand.Ina letterpublishedbytheEdinburgh
Scotsman,
Andr
ewTodd
of
theRoyalEngineersreportedthatsol diersalonghisstretchoftheFront, "only60yardsapartatoneplace ...[hadbecome]very'pally'with eachother."
Rather
thanflingingl
ead
attheiropponents,thetroopswould
occasionally
hurl
newspapers
(weightedwithstones)andration tinsacrossthelines.Barragesofinsultssometimeseruptedaswell, buttheyweredelivered"generally withlessvenomthanacouple
of
Londoncabbiesafteramildcolli sion,"reportedLeslieWalkintonof theQueen'sWestminsterRifles. AsDecemberwaxed,thecom batardor
of
thefrontlinetroops
THENEWAMERICAN
waned.WithChristmasap proaching,thescatteredand infrequentgesturesofgoodwillacrossenemylinesincreased.AboutaweekbeforeChristmas,GermantroopsnearArmentieresslippeda"
splendid"
chocolatecake acrossthelinestotheirBrit ishcounterparts.Attachedto thatdelectablepeaceoffering wasaremarkableinvitation:
As
Decemberdawned,
the
Frenchand
German
troops
found
themselvesmired
along
the
Western
Front
-a
static
line
of
trenchesrunning
forhundreds
of
miles
through
France
and
Belgium.
At
somepoints
along
the
Front,combatantswere
separated
by
lessthan
100feet.
Theconcertproceededontime,withthe bewhiskeredGermantroopssinging"like ChristyMinstrels,"accordingtooneeye witnessaccount.Eachsongearnedenthu siasticapplausefromtheBritishtroops, promptingaGermantoinvitetheTommies to"comemitusintothechorus."OneBrit ishsoldierboldlyshouted,"We'dratherdie thansingGerman."Thisjibewasparriedin stantlywithagood-naturedreplyfromthe Germanranks:"Itwouldkillusifyoudid." Theconcertendedwithanearnestrendition
 
FrenchandBelgiancrossroadsandcabbagepatches.Rather,bothsidesfoughtassoldiersfoughtinmostwars-forsurvival,andtoprotectthemenwhohadbecomeextended family.Inasense,thewaritselfwasbeingwaged
within
anextendedfamily,sincebothGermany'sKaiserWilhelmIIandEngland'sKingGeorgeVweregrandsonsofQueenVictoria.Moreimportantly,thewarringnationswereallpart
of
whathadoncebeenknownasChristendom.TheironyofthisfactwasnotlostonthosesentencedtospendChristmasattheFront. ByChristmasEve,theGermansideof theFrontwasradiantwithglowing
Tan-nenbeume
-
smallChristmastreessetup,sometimesunderfire,bytroopsdeterminedtocommemoratetheholyday."FormostBritishsoldiers,theGermaninsistenceoncelebratingChristmaswasashockafterthepropagandaaboutTeutonicbestiality,whiletheGermanshadlongdismissedtheBritishaswellastheFrenchassoullessandmaterialisticandincapable ofappreciatingthefestivalintheproper spirit
,"
writesWeintraub."RegardedbytheFrenchandBritishaspagans-evensavages-thepragmaticGermanswerenotexpectedtorisktheirlivesonbehalfofeachbeloved
Tannenbaum.
YetwhenaofthemandImustsaytheyseemedextraordinarilyfinemen....Itseemedtooironical forwords.There,thenightbeforewehadbeenhav ingaterrificbattleandthemorningafter,thereweweresmokingtheircigarettesandtheysmokingours."
Most
higher-upshadlookedtheotherwaywhenscatteredfraternizationoccurredearlier.AChristmastruce,however,wasanothermatter.AnyslackeningintheactionduringChristmasweekmightunderminewhateversacrificialspirittherewas amongtroopswholackedideologicalfervor.Despitetheeffortsofpropagandists,Germanreservistsevidencedlittlehate.UrgedtodespisetheGermans,[British]Tommiessawnocompellinginterestinretrieving
Football
in
No
Man
'sLand
SoontalkalongtheFrontturnedtotheprospect
of
aformalcessationofhostilitiesinhonorofChristmas.Again,thisideametresistancefromabove.CommentshistorianStan leyWeintraubinhisbook
SilentNight:TheStory
of
theWorldWarIChristmasTruce:
As
December
waxed
,
the
combatardor
of
thetroops
waned.
With
Christmas
approaching,
gestures
of
goodwill
across
enemy
lines
increased
.
As
Christmas
dawned
,
German
Saxontroops
shouted
g
reetings
to
the
Britishunit
across
fromit:
"A
happy
Christmas
toyou
,
Englishmen!
"
of"DieWachtam
Rhein,"
andwasclosedwithafewshotsdeliberatelyaimedatthedarkeningskies-asignalthatthebriefpre-Christmasrespitewasended.ElsewherealongtheFront,arrangementswereworkedouttoretrievefallensoldiersandgivethempropertreatmentorburial.Inalettertohismother,Lt.GeoffreyHeinekey
of
the2ndQueen'sWestminsterRiflesdescribedonesuchevent thattookplaceonDecember19."Some Germanscameoutandhelduptheirhandsandbegantotakeinsomeoftheirwound edandsoweourselvesimmediatelygot out
of
ourtrenchesandbeganbringinginourwoundedalso,"herecalled."The Germansthenbeckonedtousandalot
of
uswentoverandtalkedtothemandtheyhelpedustobury
our
dead.ThislastedthewholemorningandItalkedtoseveral
Ge
rman
andBri
tish
offic
ers
joinforaphotogr
ap
hinNo
Ma
n's
Land
.
Fr
om
his
pos
tbehi
nd
the
line
s,ay
oungAus
trian
corpo
ralnam
ed
Ad
olf
Hitl
er-
wh
or
emain
edsu
lle
nlyalooff
romreli
gi
ou
s
ob
servancesof
any
kind
-treat
ed
the
Christm
as
Truc
ewith
disdai
n.
36
THE
NEW
AMERICAN
DECEMBER
27
,
2004

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