Saturday, December 25, 2010

My favorite modern Christmas story: the Christmas Truce of 1914

It's become a Christmas blogging tradition for me to post about my favorite modern Christmas story, the Christmas Truce of 1914. It was a spontaneous, unofficial truce during the First World War that occurred all along the lines between the English and French, on the one side, and the Germans, on the other, at Christmas time.

I'm going to be repeating some things I've posted in previous years. But classic Christmas stories deserve to be retold over and over.

Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: the Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce wrote about the event more briefly in The Christmas truce: When the guns fell silent Independent 12/24/05. A fairly recent French film has been made about it, called Joyeux Noël, which I was able to get from Netflix a couple of years ago.

The photo above is part of the back cover of Der kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg [The Little Peace in the Great War] (2003) by Michael Jürgs. The caption says, "There has never been a good war and never a bad peace."

While most of us could think of a war we considered good in some way and likewise a peace that was less than good, the sentiment is a basically sound one.

Describing the Christmas Truce, Weintraub writes:

By Christmas morning, no man's land between the trenches was filled with fraternising soldiers, sharing rations, trading gifts, singing, and - more solemnly - burying the dead between the lines. (Earlier, the bodies had been too dangerous to retrieve.) The roughly cleared space suggested to the more imaginative among them a football pitch. Kickabouts began, mostly with balls improvised from stuffed caps and other gear, the players oblivious of their greatcoats and boots. The official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment says "Tommy and Fritz" used a real ball, furnished by a provident Scot. "This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz." Other accounts, mostly German, give other scores, and British letters and memories fill in more details.
And he laments:

A Christmas truce seems in our new century an impossible dream from a more simple, vanished world. Peace is indeed, even briefly, harder to make than war.
William Faulkner projected the Christmas Truce on a much larger scale in his novel A Fable (1954). (English professors seem to think it's not technically a novel but literally a fable but don't ask me to explain the difference.) This 1968 Signet paperback edition pictured the protagonist as a Christ figure, and Faulkner indeed uses Christian symbolism heavily in the novel/story/fable:

For some reason, Faulkner wrote part of this book on the wallpaper in one of the rooms of his small mansion in Oxford, MS, Rowan Oak. You can still see it there.

Simon Rees writes about this amazing event in The Christmas Truce 08/22/09:

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.
Indeed it is.

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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