It’s three o’clock in the morning on an as of yet dark Saturday. Despite this I have kept this piece dated September 11, as that is when it truly began. Like many Americans, I sat at home and watched the coverage of the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Presented was the usual range of topics, from the footage of the attacks themselves, to talks with the families of the victims. Also oft mentioned as is always was the unity experienced by all Americans in the time after the attacks. This is the very topic that inspired this venture. However, I will not be exploring the story of the September eleventh attacks. Rather, for this story, we must travel back nearly one hundred years, to a time when movies were silent, men were gentlemen, and war was more brutal than ever.
The year was 1914, the day, June 28, and a young man by the name of Gavrilo Princip, had just changed the world. With his assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, the continent of Europe was sent into a political frenzy that quickly led to war. A war, mind you, coming off of a seven-year Europe-wide arms build up. There was nothing written for the coming conflict but horrible disaster from day one. Officially, that day was August the first, 1914. Every major European nation used this event and its repercussions in their own way to justify a mobilization of their full military power. The German advance into France was quick, and in only a month the German Army was within thirty miles of Paris, where they were halted by Allied forces, thus beginning four years of brutal trench warfare. Throughout the early stages of the war, propaganda in the Allied nations had described the German enemy soldiers as monsters. This, coupled with the nature of the warfare, created a fearsome image in the minds of French and British infantrymen. It can be argued that any man, given the situation, may find the desire to see humanity in his enemy, if only to calm his fears.
It was because of that desire of man, that the legacy of the many informal armistices of The Great War was born. All throughout the Western Front, and on both sides, stories from soldiers’ letters and reports from the lines told of non-sanctioned cease-fires called by opposing troops. In some locations along the lines, opposing trenches came within sixty yards of each other. Such was the nature of the vicinity, that exchanges were commonplace between the lines. These ranged from shouts of rude remarks which were met with laughs, to a documented yelled conversation between a German and British soldier concerning a particular shop in London, which both had visited. Often groups of three or four men would gather at the very tip of their trench lines and perform music, which was met on the opposing side with applause and calls for encores. Some of these cease-fire events became so commonplace, they were scheduled. One letter from a serviceman describes a situation set up on one part of the line, where every morning a wooden plank would be raised out of the trench and all firing from both sides would cease for breakfast, so that every soldier need not worry if he stood too tall in his trench, and he could eat in peace. The scheduling extended even to the artillerymen, who, although obligated to bombard when ordered, had specific coordinates set to bombard at specific times, so as not to harm enemy soldiers. Another letter from an infantryman describes a most remarkable case in which a German mortar was misplaced and hit British lines, after which a volley of gunfire was exchanged, followed by a German soldier shouting an apology, ceasing all hostile activity. Many amazing occurrences like these happened during the first two years of the war, but none more significant or singularly amazing, than the Christmas Truce of 1914.
The Christmas Truce is a title given many such cases in which opposing sides of a war have called a truce on the twenty-fifth of December, but none was as significant as the truce of 1914. The truce extended over a large area of the Western Front, each sector in a different way, and in some cases, lasted until New Years Day. It began on Christmas Eve, when German soldiers stopped firing and started decorating their trenches in Ypres, Belgium. They then proceeded to sing Christmas Carols whilst sitting atop their trenches. This was followed by the British singing their own carols in return. Soon after, Germans and British met unarmed in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts of cigarettes and foods from home. This truce spread and soon extended itself over many more areas. Dozens of letters retelling of the events of that night have been recovered and published. One letter in particular told in great detail the events of one sector. The soldier writes that German’s had come to visit the British during the night of Christmas Eve, to exchange carols and conversation. The following morning, British soldiers were up and about their business, walking all around and on top of the trenches, breakfast was eaten, open conversation and general fraternization occurred regularly throughout the day between the opposing sides. He even writes of a football (soccer) match being played out on the battlefield. Time was also allowed for both sides to recover and bury their dead. Funeral services were held with ministers from both sides, and men helped bury the dead of the other side. A report even stated that on December 26, a British officer fired two shots into the air from his trench, and a German officer three to ceremoniously restart the fighting. Stories like this abound from all areas of the lines concerning the Christmas Truce, and this is but one of many.
Whatever the case, it can be concluded that both sides ended that day with a new understanding of his enemy, and certainly a new degree of respect. It is important to understand that in no case throughout the war was a cease-fire officially sanctioned by the brass from either side, each case was completely of the soldiers’ discretion. And so we have a spectacular thing in which man simply seeks to find humanity in his enemy amongst the chaos of war. May we all take from this a true understanding of unity, in this eighth anniversary of a tragedy that once brought us all together. And may we always find humanity, in chaos.
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