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Christmas Truce of World War One (Part TWO of TWO)

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______The

Christmas

_____Truce

_by Simon Rees

_Part TWO of TWO

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December 24 was a

good day weather-wise:

the rain had given way

to clear skies.


On many stretches of the

Front the crack of rifles

and the dull thud of shells

ploughing into the ground

continued,

but at a far lighter

level than normal.


In other sectors there was

an unnerving silence that

was broken by the singing

and shouting drifting over,

in the main,

from the German trenches.


Along many parts of the

line the Truce was spurred

on with the arrival in

the German trenches of

miniature Christmas trees –

Tannenbaum.


The sight these small pines,

decorated with candles and

strung along the German

parapets,

captured the

Tommies’ imagination,

as well as the men of the Indian

corps who were reminded of

the sacred Hindu festival

of light.


It was the perfect excuse

for the opponents to start

shouting to one another,

to start singing and,

in some areas,

to pluck up the courage to meet

one another in no-man’s land.


By now, the

British high command –

comfortably ‘entrenched’ in a

luxurious châteaux 27 miles

behind the front –

was beginning to hear

of the fraternisation.

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Stern orders were issued

by the commander of the BEF,

Sir John French,

against such behaviour.


Other ‘brass-hats’

(as the Tommies nick-named

their high-ranking officers

and generals),

also made grave pronouncements

on the dangers and consequences

of parleying with the Germans.


However,

there were many high-ranking

officers who took a surprisingly

relaxed view of the situation.


If anything,

they believed it would at least

offer their men an opportunity

to strengthen their trenches.


This mixed stance meant that

very few officers and men

involved in the Christmas Truce

were disciplined.


Interestingly,

the German High Command’s

ambivalent attitude towards the

Truce mirrored that

of the British.

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Christmas day began quietly

but once the sun was

up the fraternisation began.


Again songs were sung and

rations thrown to one another.

It was not long before troops

and officers started to take

matters into their own hands

and ventured forth.


No Man’s land became

something of a playground.


Men exchanged

gifts and buttons.


In one or two places soldiers

who had been barbers in civilian

times gave free haircuts.


One German,

a juggler and a showman,

gave an impromptu,

and given the circumstances,

somewhat surreal performance

of his routine in the centre of

no-man’s land.


Captain Sir Edward Hulse

of the Scots Guards,

in his famous account,

remembered the approach of

four unarmed Germans at 08.30.

He went out to meet them

with one of his ensigns.


‘Their spokesmen,’

Hulse wrote,

’started off by saying that he

thought it only right to come over

and wish us a happy Christmas,

and trusted us implicitly

to keep the truce.

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He came from Suffolk where

he had left his best girl and

a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike!’


Having raced off to file a

report at headquarters,

Hulse returned at 10.00 to find

crowds of British soldiers and

Germans out together chatting

and larking about in no-man’s

land,

in direct contradiction

to his orders.


Not that Hulse seemed to care

about the fraternisation in itself –

the need to be seen to follow

orders was his concern.


Thus he sought out a German

officer and arranged for both

sides to return to their lines.


While this was going on he

still managed to keep his ears

and eyes open to the fantastic

events that were unfolding.


‘Scots and Huns were

fraternizing in the

most genuine possible manner.

Every sort of souvenir was

exchanged addresses given

and received, photos of families

shown, etc.


One of our fellows offered a

German a cigarette;

the German said,

“Virginian?”

Our fellow said,

“Aye, straight-cut”,

the German said

“No thanks,

I only smoke Turkish!”…

It gave us all a good laugh.’


Hulse’s account was in part

a letter to his mother,

who in turn sent it on to

the newspapers for publication,

as was the custom at the time.

Tragically,

Hulse was killed

in March 1915.

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On many parts of the line the

Christmas Day truce was

initiated through sadder means.


Both sides saw the lull as a

chance to get into no-man’s

land and seek out the bodies

of their compatriots and give

them a decent burial.


Once this was done the

opponents would inevitably

begin talking to one another.


The 6th Gordon Highlanders,

for example, organised a burial

truce with the enemy.


After the gruesome task

of laying friends and comrades

to rest was complete,

the fraternisation began.


With the Truce in full swing

up and down the line there

were a number of recorded

games of soccer,

although these were really

just ‘kick-abouts’ rather

than a structured match.


On January 1, 1915,

the LondonTimes published

a letter from a major in the

Medical Corps reporting that

in his sector the British played

a game against the Germans

opposite and were beaten 3-2.


Kurt Zehmisch of the

134th Saxons recorded

in his diary:

‘The English brought a soccer

ball from the trenches,

and pretty soon a lively

game ensued.

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How marvellously wonderful,

yet how strange it was.

The English officers felt

the same way about it.


Thus Christmas,

the celebration of Love,

managed to bring mortal

enemies together as friends

for a time.’


The Truce lasted all day;

in places it ended that night,

but on other sections of the

line it held over Boxing Day

and in some areas,

a few days more.


In fact,

there parts on the front

where the absence of

aggressive behaviour was

conspicuous well into 1915.


Captain J C Dunn,

the Medical Officer in the

Royal Welch Fusiliers,

whose unit had fraternised and

received two barrels of beer

from the Saxon troops opposite,

recorded how hostilities

re-started on his section

of the front.


Dunn wrote:

‘At 8.30 I fired three shots

in the air and put up a flag

with “Merry Christmas” on it,

and I climbed on the parapet.

He [the Germans] put up

a sheet with “Thank you”

on it,

and the German Captain

appeared on the parapet.


We both bowed and saluted

and got down into our

respective trenches,

and he fired two shots

in the air,

and the War was on again.’

The war was indeed on again,

for the Truce had no

hope of being maintained.

Despite being wildly reported

in Britain and to a lesser

extent in Germany,

the troops and the populations

of both countries were still

keen to prosecute the conflict.

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Today,

pragmatists read the Truce

as nothing more than a ‘blip’ –

a temporary lull induced

by the season of goodwill,

but willingly exploited by

both sides to better their

defences and eye out one

another’s positions.


Romantics assert that the

Truce was an effort by

normal men to bring about

an end to the slaughter.


In the public’s mind the

facts have become

irrevocably mythologized,

and perhaps this is the most

important legacy of the

Christmas Truce today.

In our age of uncertainty,

it comforting to believe,

regardless of the real

reasoning and motives,

that soldiers and officers

told to hate,

loathe and kill,

could still lower their guns

and extend the hand of goodwill,

peace, love and

Christmas cheer.

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