These days when foppish metro sexuals prance around shopping malls high fiving and wishing one another “Happy holidays!” while others stick to the more conventional “Merry Christmas,” it is perhaps enlightening to look back to the small town of Ypres in the Flemish region of Belgium in a time long ago.
It was nearing Christmas of 1914 and all across the charred, blood soaked “No Man’s Land” fields of World War I (The “war to end all wars”, remember?) the British and the French, as well as the Germans on the other side were bloodied, worn down and rapidly dwindling in number in the hellfire blaze of machine guns and tanks rather than the single shot rifles and horseback cavalry of preceding conflicts. In fact, neither side could keep up with the burying of its dead. The carnage was too great for the gravediggers.
One daring soldier of the “Khaki Chums” a British unit, had an idea: “Those chaps on the other side are really just like us,” he concluded. “They would love to stand down, drink a pint and sing a Christmas carol or two, and write a letter to the folks back home.”
The idea became action. Word spread. A message was sent across enemy lines. An answer came back.
And thus, the “Great Christmas Truce” of WWI was born.
It began with tentative steps by an emissary from each side stepping over the bodies that carpeted no man’s land. The two men finally came face to face.
“Merry Christmas, mate!” the British private said as he thrust out his hand.
“Fröhliche Weihnachten!,” said the German corporal as he reached out and shook the Brit’s hand.
And over the next 24 hours (36 and 48 hours in some areas), the British troops, joined by French soldiers, exchanged gifts with their heretofore deadly enemies. The Germans drank French wine and English ale and the allied French and Brits got their fill of schnapps. The Germans decorated their trenches and trees in the area with candles and sang Christmas carols. Food, tobacco and all sorts of souvenirs were exchanged back and forth as Christmas gifts. The two sides put down their weapons to battle each other in soccer matches. Even the gruesome task of retrieving bodies of dead soldiers for proper burial behind their own lines became an eerie almost joyous task as the sides came together to hold joint services.
Addresses were exchanged with promises to “…write if I make it back home, mate!”
Genuine friendships were forged and the surreal truce lasted through Christmas Eve all the way to Christmas night. At some points along the former battle lines, it lasted through New Year’s Day.
Bruce Bairnsfather, a British solider who fought throughout the war observed, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything… I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. I brought out my wire clipper and with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange… The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck…”
But alas, “saner” heads prevailed.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, blew his top when he heard of the non-goings on at the battlefield. He quickly issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with opposing German troops.
It is said, that Alois Schiklegruber, who 20 years later would become known to the world as Adolf Hitler, and then a young corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, stood firm in his opposition to the truce.
But for a brief and silent and joyous respite from the madness of war, an estimated 100,000 British, French and German troops all along the Western Front learned the true meaning of “peace on earth.”
The General Sir Horace Smith-Dorriens of the world lied to us of course: the “war to end all wars” didn’t.
And today, though we no longer have “problems” but only “issues,” in the end we realize they are nonetheless equally as deadly no matter what we call them. Read that “Newtown, Conn.” Somehow euphemisms just never have been able to stamp out ugly reality.
I say it’s time for another “Christmas Truce.” And let’s make this one last about 365 days.