A hundred years ago, peace broke out in No Man’s Land.
It happened in Belgium, where the fighting had long been stalemated, and the trenches were so close together, the combatants could hear the enemy sneeze.
It seems to have started with music—soldiers singing. The German’s began with Deutschland Uber Alles. The Brits responded by singing in English and in harmony. Given the season, both sides were soon singing carols
The Germans put up a Christmas tree with candles.
Eventually, according to Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, one unarmed British Infantryman stood up. The Germans decided not to shoot. Then, one of them stood up, too. Before they knew it, they were out of the trenches and exchanging tobacco, cakes, chocolate, rum and schnapps! Many of the German troops had lived in England during the decade leading up to the war, so communication was easy.
They used the peaceful moment to collect and bury the dead who lay frozen in the space between the trenches.
No less than Pope Gregory had called for such a thing to happen, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” The British officially rebuffed his entreaty. Officers on both sides tried to stop such fraternization, including the Young Charles de Gaulle, who called it “lamentable.” General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien forbade it. Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry declared his opposition.
But the grunts, somewhere around 100,000 of them on both sides, prevailed and had their moment of peace, sang their carols, and played a little football. Some exchanged souvenirs—buttons off their uniforms, helmets. Led by the Scots, they sang Auld Lang Syne.
And they wrote home about it. The world press kept mum at first, but then on December 31, The New York Times printed the story and then word was circulated by newspapers in Britain and France.
This past Saturday, I saw a play about the Christmas truce —All is Calm—performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at the Church of St. Mary’s in the Highlands in Cold Spring New York. The words were all taken from letters and poems of men writing from the trenches. The actors spoke them in the accents of the men who wrote them. A male chorus accompanied the performance. It made me weep. You can learn more about the play here: All is Calm including hearing one of the poems.
|A rehearsal shot of the performers|
This year, in honor of the centennial of World War I, Sainsbury’s made a commercial reenacting the Christmas truce. Watch it here:
If you think the little film is overly romanticized , I give you a quote from a letter written by Captain Sir Edward Hulse: “It was absolutely astonishing, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn that it was faked.” If the brief re-enactlemnt was not enough for you, watch this marvelous film:
In the play All is Calm, one of the actors recites the words of a letter written about the events of that Christmas. The soldier writing wonders what would happen if the men on both sides just went on strike. He says he doesn’t think it possible but allows as how, “It’s a thought.”
I wish you peace.
Annamaria - Monday