Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Silent Night

You are getting more of a book report today with a little less original thought. The truth of what happened is so much better than I could think up anyway. The following comes from a book called Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub. This really happened and the author has researched the facts thoroughly.

The story takes place in late December of 1914 on the front lines between Belgium and France. The front lines went on for more than 400 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. British, French and Belgium soldiers were dug in on one side, Germans and Prussians on other. Cold rain and mud filled the trenches of No Man’s Land. The men had been sitting there for months and the generals were satisfied to let the stalemate continue indefinitely. Some of the German generals had even begun planning to run electricity to the front in anticipation of a long haul. The soldiers had long ago lost their taste for war and simply wanted to go home. They were tired of living in the cold, unsanitary, muddy conditions with snow and sleet their constant, unwelcomed guest. They had no burning hatred of the other side. There they sat, sometimes only 60 yards from each other, close enough to shout back and forth. It was December.

It started with Christmas Carols--sung spontaneously all down the lines. Carols sung by one side and overheard by the other, then returned; serenading each other. What became known at the Christmas Truce was not one incident but many small acts. It was not in one isolated location but in several different places along the front lines. There was no coordination to the phenomena. It just happened.

On the morning of December 19th, a few German soldiers walked out of their trenches and into No Man’s Land holding heir hands up. They started removing some of their wounded.  The British took the opportunity to do the same. Then the Germans called the British over to suggest that they each hold their fire so they could collect the dead for burial. It was a grisly job since some of the bodies had lain on the ground for two months. This took a whole morning and they ended up helping each other, then they had a joint burial service.

Many of the Germans spoke English from their work as waiters, barbers, cooks or cabbies in the resorts across the English Channel. They started talking to each other during the burials and found their enemy to be not that different, finding something honorable and decent about them. Death does that to people.

The German army had thousands of small tannenbaum shipped to the front for Christmas. One German officer even stated that the traditional tree was more important to the men than the war. There is a story told by more than one soldier that a German baker was in the middle of making marzipan Christmas decorations and got so upset by the gunfire that he ran straight toward the enemy holding a small Christmas tree above his head. The enemy was paralyzed with wonder to see the flour-dusted apparition wearing a chef’s hat running toward them holding a Christmas tree. The baker mounted the tree onto the barbed wire fence separating the men. The trees began to appear along the front lines, bedecked with candles and lights.

In one section of the line the Germans sent a note across the lines that they would have a Christmas concert that night and suggested that ’When you see us light the candles at the edge of our trench at 7 pm, ...you can safely raise your heads above the trenches and we will do the same and begin our concert.” In another section they posted signs “We no fight if you no fight.” And the greatest unofficial truce in history began. It went on until the day after Christmas.

Each British soldier had been given a Christmas package in the name of Princess Mary, King George’s daughter. The tin contained cigarettes, pipe tobacco, sweets and a greeting card in the King’s handwriting, “May God protect you and bring you home safe.” They were also receiving packages of plum pudding and chocolates from their families. The Germans had their own Christmas gift from Kaiser Wilhelm: each man received a Mersham pipe, tobacco and cigars. So the men began to trade these boxes for the novelty of a new taste or having a gift from the enemy’s sovereign.

A common battle prize is buttons from an enemy’s uniform. The booty is usually obtainable only by taking it from a corpse. But men started cutting the button’s off their own uniforms and trading them—a much easier prize than killing someone for it.

Soccer games started all along the battle line. They showed each other pictures of their families back home. They exchanged addresses.

All good things end. The generals heard what was happening and were livid. Orders were given to resume the fighting on December 27 or face punishment. In one section of the front the British posted a sign saying “Merry Christmas” and the Germans responded with their own that said “Thank You.” And at 9 a.m. the war resumed.

World War I was the last war where the majority of combatants on both sides were Christians. When we share a faith and its traditions it’s much harder to fight, especially on a religious holiday you both celebrate. I have no more words to add. The story speaks for itself.

1 comment:

Marie Nelson said...

Thanks Jane, and thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas!