Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Silent Night-The Christmas Truce of 1914.

I meant to write bout the Christmas truce before going away for the holiday but I didn't get around to it I'm afraid.

Today, more than 90 years after it occurred, the event is seen as a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One – a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians.

Months beforehand, millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers from all over the continent had rushed enthusiastically to the banners of war: the atmosphere was one of holiday rather than conflict.

But it was not long before the jovial facade was torn away. Armies equipped with repeating rifles, machine guns and a vast array of artillery tore chunks out of each other, and thousands upon thousands of men perished.

The truce began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.

The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the "No Man's Land" where small gifts were exchanged. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects.

At one funeral in No Man's Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Quickly, the truce spread to other areas of the lines, and there are many stories of football matches between the opposing forces. All of this in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military. Earlier in the autumn, a call by Pope Benedict XV for an official truce between the warring governments had been ignored.

British commander Sir John French vowed that no such truce would be allowed again. In all of the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. Despite those measures, there were a few friendly encounters between enemy soldiers, but on a much smaller scale than the previous year.

No comments: