REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON
Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)
It was the war that was supposed "to be over by Christmas". It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers' truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.
"Peace on Earth", "goodwill to all men" — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the "enemy", exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of "no-man's land" between the trenches.
Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.
Stanley Weintraub's haunting book on the "Christmas Truce" recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as "an aberration of no consequence", but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.
With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in "no-man's land" but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.
"Soon", however, "few would care about higher authority" as an unauthorised and illegal truce "bubbled up from the ranks".
The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing "Merry Christmas" were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of "you no shoot, we no shoot".
The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.
The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — "Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill".
Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.
Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in 'no-man's land' with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. "You would have thought you were dreaming", wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.
The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.
Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, "spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky". By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had "struck", like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.
Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens "the will to kill", "destroys the offensive spirit", saps "ideological fervour" and "undermines the sacrificial spirit" necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — "A bas la guerre!" ("Down with the war!") from a French soldier was returned with "Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott!" ("No more war! It's what God wants!") from his Bavarian counterpart.
After "mucking-in" with British soldiers, a German private wrote that "never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war".
Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that "normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings". "Now", we gathered, "as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!".
If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, "many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses".
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — "those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand".
The high command on both sides were desperate to restart "the war that had strangely vanished". Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of "we can't — they are good fellows", the officers replied "Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!".
To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in "no-man's land" with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.
Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.
Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers' organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.
On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany's war effort.
Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a "two-day wonder", the Christmas truce "evokes a stubborn humanity within us". As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that "on each end of the rifle we're the same".
From Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002.
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