World Peace I: the WWI Christmas truce

Shooting suddenly stopped along the Western Front on Christmas Eve in December 1914. The outbreak of peace was stopped only after military officers for the Allied and German forces brought new forces onto the Front, who were unaware of the fraternization that threatened to stop World War I, before it claimed the lives of millions.

This is the message from the 2001 book by retired Pennsylvania State University Professor of Arts and Humanities Stanley Weintraub. Author of numerous histories and biographies, Weintraub wrote Silent Night: the story of the World War I Christmas truce.

The book is primarily a powerful collection of letters and testimonies from those who participated and witnessed the outbreak of peace. The Christmas truce took place in numerable spots along hundreds of miles in Belgium, France and Germany, which was the Western Front.

The book also contains numerous pictures of soldiers at the Front, maps, and illustrative reproductions, which enhance the reader’s understanding of the conditions that brought about peace.

Prelude to peace

Weintraub describes most of the events through excerpts such as the following December 19, 1914, letter from a British officer to his mother: “A most extraordinary thing happened. …Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. It seemed too ironical for words. There, the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours.”

Weintraub wrote: “So much interchange had occurred across the line by early December that Brigader G. T. Forrstier-Walker, chief of staff to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien of II Corps, issued a directive unequivocally forbidding fraternization.” Yet, troops ignored orders and “as Christmas approached, friendly approaches from both lines increased.”

The truce

German soldiers gave a British unit a chocolate cake that contained the following message: “We propose having a concert tonight as it is our captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend—provided you will give us your word of honour as guests that you agree to cease all hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30. …When you see us light the candles and footlights at the edge of our trench at 7:30 sharp you can safely put your heads above your trenches, and we shall do the same, and begin the concert,” read the message.

“The invitation was accepted with an offer of tobacco, and at the appointed hour a double quartet of whiskered heads popped up and sang like Christy Minstrels,” Weintraub wrote.

The Front was complete with thousands of small, festive trees both sides imported to celebrate Christmas.

One German soldier “jumped out of the trench into the open field. He sprang over the enemy’s trench with the Christmas tree in his hands, completely unaware of the deadly bullets whizzing all around him. He carried the Star of Bethlehem, and that was his protection. Yet, as if that were not enough, as Manfred [Korn] carefully lit the Christmas tree in the enemy trench, the glow of its light fell everywhere, and all shooting ceased.

“Toward midnight, firing ceased and soldiers from both sides met halfway between their positions,” Weintraub wrote.

“Armed with a bottle of schnapps,” a German offered a Scottish soldier “a drink and a promise that if his side continued the informal truce, they wouldn’t fire either.” British troops were informed by the Germans that “they were tired of battle and exasperated with harsh discipline.”

A British soldier recounted, “We shook hands, wished each other Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. …Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

On Christmas morning, several British soldiers held up a placard that read “A Merry Christmas.” When the sign wasn’t riddled with bullets, “two men jumped onto the parapet of their trench and raised their hands above their heads to show that they had no weapons. Two Germans opposite did the same, and began walking toward them, up from the Lys riverbank. As they met and shook hands, the trenches emptied, and men on both sides began running toward each other.

On another part of the Front, when the Christmas morning fog lifted, the British saw six Germans “standing on their parapets without arms, shouting, ‘Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.’ Three of them began to roll a barrel that had been hoisted onto a parapet “into the middle of No Man’s Land.”

Not only did enemy troops exchange food, drink and song, a soccer match occurred in “No Man’s Land,” the area between Allied and German trenches.

The war resumes

Even after orders were received by both sides to stop the fraternization and resume hostilities, courteous signals were given to the other side before shots were fired.

Weintraub wrote: “On the banks of the Lys, Captain Stockwell of the 2nd Welch Fusliers had three shots fired high and harmlessly at 8:30 a.m., posted a sign “reading ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ above a forward trench, and climbed atop his parapet. The Germans opposite quickly displayed a ‘THANK YOU’ sheet, and their company commander stood proudly on his own parapet. The two officers bowed, saluted, then descended into their trenches, from which the German captain fired two shots into the air. The war recommenced.”

To hasten hostilities, commanders on both sides reassigned troops and rotated units in an effort to bring in new forces, who were unaware of the fraternization.

If the war ceased

Weintraub closes the book by speculating what may have happened if the war had stopped on that Christmas Eve in 1914. Weintraub said 8,395,000 people would not have died during the 46 months the war dragged on after the truce.

Weintraub also contends the Bolshevik revolution that gave rise to hard-lined Communism in the former Soviet Union may have also failed, in favor of a “moderate alternative to Sovietism. Fear of Bolshevism had much to do with the ruinous success of Rightist politics across Europe in 1918 and after.

“Germany might have become a prosperous, mildly socialist, constitutional Wilhelmine monarchy—in time, a republic—with Hitler an obscure demobilized corporal in a sea of discharged soldiers for whom the industrious nation would have found postwar work. The catastrophe of post-Versailles inflation need not have happened, nor its devastating economic political aftermath” and perhaps prevented World War II.

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