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CHRISTMAS IN THE GREAT WAR


A famous incident from WWI illustrates the nature of the Christmas season very well. It was December 1914, the first Christmas of the war. Already the stalemate along the western front in France had begun to set in. British, French and German troops faced each other in their lines of trenches. If you know anything about trench warfare, then you know it’s a nasty business: hastily dug holes in the ground about two metres deep topped with barbed wire. Special periscopes were fixed at intervals along the front line trenches, because to stick your head above ground even for a second could easily be a fatal mistake. Artillery bombardment could come at any time, day or night, and the soldiers were in constant mortal danger, not only from enemy fire but also from the cold and disease that by the end of the war had caused more casualties than the enemy.


In between the trenches was no man's land. It was littered with craters from artillery fire, providing a momentary safe haven for attacking troops and, later in the war, a place where the poison gas could pool and stagnate. It would be liberally strewn with barbed wire and bodies in various states of decay. If an attack was ordered, soldiers would have to go over the top through this quagmire. Many were cut down within metres of their own trenches by machine guns. That was trench warfare in the Great War.


But on Christmas Eve 1914, something strange happened. No orders were given by the commanding officers (in fact the British High Command hated the whole thing), but in Ypres in Belgium, German troops began placing candles decorating the few trees that still remained around their trenches. They sung Christmas carols, including Silent Night which was originally written in German. The English soldiers responded with their own carols. The two sides continued shouting greetings to one another until there were invitations for visits across no man’s land. Small gifts were exchanged – whiskey, jam, chocolates. A joint funeral service was held in the middle of the battlefield, where Psalm 23 was read in English and German. In one spot a soccer game was played-–won 3-2 by the Germans, incidentally.


In some isolated pockets on the lines, the truce lasted all the way through to New Year. But in most places it ended on Boxing Day. In one spot, a British captain climbed up on his parapet and fired three shots into the air. The German officer he had shared a beer with the previous day also rose from his trench, bowed his head to his counterpart and also fired three shots into the air. And, as the officer wrote at the time, the war was on again.

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