Feb 4, 2002
Christmas, 1914. The troops of two empires, British and German, faced each other, stalemated in trenches divided by only a few yards: No Man's Land.
Nearly a million had already died in this first year of World War I, a war that would stretch out for four years and claim eight and a half million soldiers dead and 13 million civilians. On that Christmas Eve, while capitalists, generals and politicians feasted in safety and boasted about their war, in many trenches, soldiers called a truce. Violating orders, they agreed not to shoot during Christmas.
Usually the German soldiers made the first truce offers to the British, French, Scotch or Irish units facing them. Soldiers who afterwards wrote letters home about this extraordinary moment, described the Germans putting up Christmas trees, calling greetings, and singing Christmas carols like “Silent Night” and addressing their supposed enemy as "Comrades."
Soldiers from the British side might respond with carols of their own. A soldier might have a harmonica, concertina or flute to play. Both sides would applaud each other. Signs were made: "You no shoot, we no shoot." Cautiously the first truces were made. Groups of soldiers left their trenches and met in No Man's Land. They gathered and buried the dead of both sides. They exchanged their cigarettes, their liquor, their Christmas rations and gifts. They exchanged souvenirs, often trading pieces of each other’s uniforms. They wore each other’s hats and helmets and posed all together for the rare camera (usually an officer's). They shared pictures of their families, and stories of their lives in peacetime. Soccer games were the highlight of the truce. A "ball" would be a stuffed sandbag, the goals marked with piles of soldiers' coats. For up to two weeks in some places, the truce held.
The soldiers sent letters home to their families, even a few pictures, describing this extraordinary thing they had done. The families forwarded the letters to the newspapers. But the newspapers would not print them. It was wartime. The soldiers were not supposed to be peaceful! The higher authorities tried to pretend it had all been made up by traitors. Not until a soldier's letter was sent overseas and printed by The New York Times did the barricade break, and papers in both England and Germany began to print the soldiers' stories.
Even with letters and pictures, the Christmas truce has been questioned from the start as something that could not possibly have happened, at least, not the way the soldiers said it did. But of course, the soldiers were the ones who were there!
It was partly to gather all of the evidence that Stanley Weintraub, a military historian and author, researched and wrote this book, Silent Night. He gathered original letters and photos, oral histories, newspaper reports, and official field diaries of many army units. He shows that the truce movement was widespread and profound.
The book's main shortcoming is that it ignores the background to this truce: the socialist tradition in which the working classes of most of the belligerent countries had grown up. A very large fraction of the working class was conscious that the workers’ only real enemy was the capitalist class, and that workers of all countries had common cause against that enemy.
Lenin, the leader of the working class revolution in Russia, heard about the Christmas truce. He pointed out that if there were organizations prepared to fight for such a policy among the soldiers of all the belligerent nations, there might have been a quick end to the world war in favor of the working masses. Lenin wrote, “Try to imagine Hyndman, Guesde, Vandervelde, Plekhanov, Kautsky and the rest [leaders of so-called socialist parties that supported the world war] – instead of aiding the bourgeoisie (something they are now engaged in – forming an international committee to agitate for fraternization and attempts to establish friendly relations between the socialists of the belligerent countries, both in the trenches and among the troops in general. What would the results be several months from now?”
This aspect of the truce is ignored by Weintraub. Nevertheless, the book gives an immensely fascinating look at this little known episode of World War I.