Friday, December 5, 2014

100 years ago this Christmas

World War I was only five months old at the end of November, 1914. A crushing German advance had been stopped by the Allies before it could reach Paris. Opposing armies stared at each other from lines of hastily built defensive trenches. Between the trenches was no-man's-land, sometimes only 30 yards wide. Trench warfare was abominable since continuous sniping, machine gun fire and artillery shelling took a deadly toll, but the misery was relieved on Christmas day. British soldier Frank Richards wrote home, "On Christmas morning we stuck up a board that said 'Merry Christmas.'The Germans had stuck up a similar one. Two of our men put down their arms and jumped on the parapet with hands above their heads. Two Germans did the same, our men going out to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench. We met in the middle of no-man's-land. The German company commander asked our commander if we'd accept two barrels of beer from a brewery they captured. He accepted, and a few Germans rolled the barrels over and we took them to our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to their trench to get bottles and glasses. Officers on both sides clinked glasses and drunk to each other's health. Our commander gave them a plum pudding."

In a letter to his wife, British General Walter Congreve described how German and British soldiers exchanged cigarettes, sang Christmas carols together and played football (soccer) with a makeshift ball. Soldiers at the Western Front had not expected to celebrate on the battlefield, but even a world war could not destroy the spirit of Christmas. As a Highland Regiment officer said in The Times in 1915, "It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, should on Christmas day (and for all that word implies) lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness."

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