Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub has been on my TBR for quite a while, along with a lot of other World War One reference books; some of them, I don’t read end to end, just dig into as needed. But this one was written for a general audience, and is not terribly long. To me, it’s meant to be festive but ultimately does not feel that way to me.
Please note that this post includes some unpleasant description of the realities of war.
The 1914 unofficial “Christmas Truce” is usually referred to as a beautiful thing, but to me, it’s always been both beautiful and terrible, highlighting the irrationality of war. For a day or two, up and down the Western Front, whole sections of the opposing armies agreed not to shoot at each other, sang back and forth from their trenches, and met in No Man’s Land to bury their dead, shake hands, chat, and exchange food, drink, tobacco, and uniform souvenirs such as badges and buttons. Some of them took down addresses, to write to each other after the war (I wondered if any of those men later ended up killing each other). There were makeshift football matches and bicycle races and concerts. Then the fighting and killing began again, and continued until November 11, 1918. There were no further informal truces of that extent.
What if we could always just stop? Stop fighting, stop killing, just go on strike against war? But we don’t. It’s horrible that we don’t.
In general, the Germans initiated the truce, ironic given that the Germans had initiated the war by invading neutral Belgium. The German troops at the front in December 1914 were mostly Saxon and Bavarian conscripts, not career soldiers, who set up lighted Christmas trees on their trench parapets. The English volunteers were skeptical at first but joined in. The book focuses on those two armies, but mentions French and Indian troops who also participated, and briefly describes those who were wholly against the truce, from all ranks and nationalities. The author researched materials including letters, newspapers, and regimental histories as well as a few fictionalized accounts written later. The research is Eurocentric, almost all either English or German sources.
It seems to have started this way: venturing out of their trenches under makeshift white flags, officers (for the most part) arranged an interval to bury their dead, some of whom had been lying in No Man’s Land for months at that point. Imagine that; imagine the state of those bodies after months lying in the knee-deep mud, decaying and gnawed by rats; imagine that those corpses were men you knew, your friends and comrades. I don’t think the later meetings, exchanges, and games would have been possible without first burying those dead men. I think that having the bodies out of sight, when they’d been constantly visible for months, must have imparted a sense of a clean slate to the general atmosphere; a way to fool yourself into a momentary peace.
Many of the first person accounts refer to a sense of wonder at the beauty of lights and music instead of artillery, and surprise that their enemies were just humans. I wish that we could always have that beauty and wonder.
The truces ended, as they had begun, in fits and starts up and down the line, sometimes on formal agreement, sometimes when new troops rotated from the rear to the front lines and resumed shooting. Some soldiers did attempt to resist returning to fighting, by shooting into the air (not safe! don’t try it!) or over the heads of their enemies, but their officers, or the officers above their officers, soon put a stop to such small rebellions.
The war continued. Millions died. Our conflicts now, over a century later, are mostly smaller in scale, but no less brutal and horrifying. Will war ever end, or is peace only ever temporary? It’s something for me to think about as the year turns, and I once again work on mustering up hope for humanity’s future.