Christmas 1914

I’d meant to blog this in time for Christmas Eve, but what with a great deal of family turmoil (father-in-law 1,500 miles away dying, and wife has disappeared for ten days and counting to take it all in) it just didn’t work out that way. These things sometimes happen.

Christmas Eve this year was the centenary of one of the most amazing occurrences in the history of nations. Beginning on December 24, 1914, and continuing over the course of a few days, several thousand British, French, and German soldiers on the Western Front spontaneously and collectively said, “Enough,” and downed arms.

It started with Christmas carols. The troops sang – had been singing since the beginning of the war – amongst themselves, in the manner of soldiers since Caesar stood road guard.

In this connection I’d observe that soldiers and sailors can be among the most soppy of sentimentalists. Maybe it’s something about the rawness of combat, seeing one’s friends and comrades shredded to bits of meat, or dying slowly of fevers, the flux, or gangrene (for those who survived their wounds initially), which opens the mind to the essence of human feeling. Combat troops can’t afford the oh-so-sophisticated detachment we civilians like to wear as a sign of our world-weary, weight-of-the-universe-on-our-shoulders mental and moral elevation above the rabble. For them the whole point of human existence can within seconds be reduced to the question of whether you’re going to get it or am I. Or in the first-person lyrics of “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden“: Eine Kugel kam geflogen; gilt sie mir oder gilt sie dir?

For centuries about all the troops had to amuse themselves, whether on the march or in camp – other than alcohol and whores of course, and the occasional sack of a city such as Magdeburg or Badajoz (for those who survived storming the walls) – was music. Simple tunes which could be played on penny whistles, harmonica, or fiddle. Songs which lent themselves to keys reachable by musically untutored men singing in groups. Quite a number of those tunes and songs have lasted to this day: “Soldier’s Joy” dates to the 1600s; “Muß i’ denn,” the unofficial song of the gunners, was used by Elvis. Back in 1965 or so, Columbia Records released two collections of Civil War music, one for the Confederacy and one for the Union; in the 1990s a soundtrack for Ken Burns’s The Civil War came out (unfortunately the Burns soundtrack is solely instrumental; the Columbia recordings have the words and excellent, very extensive liner notes). Still later the popularity of the movie dramatization of Master and Commander spawned a momentary revival of interest in sailors’ songs and tunes.

The Germans, especially those from the Protestant tradition, engaged in group singing with particular zest, even by the standards of the time and place. This isn’t exactly scientifically established fact, but it strikes me that going all the way back to Luther, the communal singing of the great chorales was part of daily life in the areas which became Germany. Listen to them – “Nun danket alle Gott” (from 1636, in the darkest days of the Thirty Years’ War); “Lobe den Herren“; “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr” (among the very earliest Protestant songs, from 1524); “Lob Gott getrost mit Singen” (from 1544) – and you realize that you’re listening to the national music of a people. During the Great War the German troops frequently sang on the march. According to the myth of First Ypres (what the Germans recall as the Kindermord bei Ypern – the Slaughter of the Innocents at Ypres), the nearly-raw recruits shoved into combat sang “Deutschland über alles” as they marched onto the Old Contemptibles’ gunsights. Large numbers of them were August 1914 enlistees and were for all intents untrained when they were hurled against some of the best marksmen in the war.

A final off-topic observation: Among the most heart-rending passages in all the James Herriot books – it’s in the last one, The Lord God Made Them All – is his relation of hearing Russian troops singing one evening. They’d been liberated from slave labor in Germany at the end of World War II, and since it was impossible to maintain them where they were found, thousands of them were brought back to rural England. It must have seemed like paradise to them, green, fertile, with houses and village un-blasted by artillery or bombs, the air smelling neither of putrefying human bodies nor the smoke from corpses. One evening Herriot overheard them singing among themselves, songs which of course he couldn’t understand, not knowing Russian, but obviously songs of longing, loss, and heartache. The Russians, in their Orthodox church, had a similarly rich tradition of massed choral singing; after a few centuries of it you sort of get, as a culture, the hang of it. It nearly moved Herriot to tears. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but those prisoners, who had somehow managed to cheat the reaper who had massacred so many millions of their comrades, whether by starvation, labor, disease, or ordinary bullets, were in the process of being sold down the river by Churchill and Roosevelt. They were all compulsorily returned to the Soviet Union, where nearly to a man they were either shot out of hand or forwarded on to the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn, who met hundreds if not thousands of them over his time in the camps, points out that they were branded “traitors of the Motherland” rather than traitors “to” her, as would have been the normal usage. He also wonders, pointedly, how it was that in neither the Napoleonic invasion nor the charnel house of World War I did any Russians in any discernible numbers betray their Motherland, while after over twenty years of liberation of the proletarian and the peasant . . . they were declared to have betrayed her literally by the million.

In any event, Christmas 1914 started with the troops’ singing of carols. In many places the trenches were close enough that each side could hear the other plainly.  In many places the Germans had decorated their parapets with tiny Christmas trees, adorned in part with tiny candles. [Aside:  The institution of the Christmas tree is entirely German in origin, and wasn’t introduced to the Anglosphere until George III’s wife Charlotte came along and wanted something to remind her of home. George, being almost touchingly uxorious, obliged her with trees sprinkled about the royal palaces, and from there it spread to the aristocracy and eventually further on down the social scale. The tradition received added impetus from Victoria and her German husband Albert (Victoria grew up speaking German at home and she, Albert, and all their children spoke it in the family, which is why Edward VII never quite got over a slight guttural undertone in his English).]

At some point during Christmas Eve 1914 something clicked, and the troops began to mount their parapets and venture into no-man’s-land. It’s hard to track exactly who initiated it, and how, and in what order, although according to some reports it was the Germans who took the first steps. Not all the troops joined in. On the German side the Prussians by and large held back; it was the Saxons, the Bavarians, and the smaller contingents who participated. It was all, of course, entirely against orders, and without the knowledge of the higher-ups. In some cases it appears that shelling was laid on to discourage the fraternization. But for the most part, where the troops were willing the spirit ruled.

On Christmas Day there was, in the affected sectors, a general truce. The men buried their dead, cleaned up their turf, swapped chocolate, cigarettes, headgear, and insignia. Being Europeans, someone had a soccer ball and several impromptu matches were held among the shell holes. Letters got passed to be mailed to acquaintances in the other countries; many Germans, especially, had worked in England before the war, and so not only spoke good English but had formed friendships with the locals. The war had not yet obliterated the affection from their hearts.

Things carried on for the day, and in some sectors for a day or two after Christmas. By the New Year life and death were back to normal along the front, and the men who had proudly showed off pictures of wives, children, and girlfriends were blasting away at each other once again. The brass was of course livid, and where they could identify “ringleaders” it came down like a ton of bricks. I’ve never read that anyone was actually shot for fraternizing with the enemy, but I’d be very surprised if more than a few junior officers didn’t have their careers ruined because they either failed to stop their men or had joined in themselves. On the other hand, one has to wonder precisely how much you can ruin a man’s “career” when it’s pretty much a statistical certainty that he’s going to get killed in any event (the highest percentage casualties on all sides was among exactly those junior officers; they were the ones who went over the top with the troops, who lead their men into hostile trenches, whose job it was to show themselves physically contemptuous of certain death).

It happened again in 1915, to a smaller extent. This time the high commands were ready, and specifically directed shelling along those sectors where they feared the contours of the front lent themselves to such goings-on.

It never happened again during the war, and I’ve not heard of it happening during the 1939-45 war. Verdun beginning in February 1916 and the Somme in July put paid to the notion of we’re all in this together, only on opposite sides. The mountains of corpses not only contained many of the men who had looked about and taken the message of Christmas so earnestly in 1914 and 1915. Those same dead, and their maimed brothers, beckoned the survivors to revenge, not reconciliation; to savagery, not gentleness; to the war as its own purpose, calling, and unity, not to the message of glad tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all nations.

The Christmas truce of 1914 has been the subject of at least one quite readable book — Silent Night — as well as a tri-national film from 2005, Joyeux Noël. The latter was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, and I highly recommend it. It’s set among the ruins of a farm in France (the farm cat has somehow made it thus far, and among the French soldiers is a man from that village who knows the cat and his name – Nestor – and he gets into a gentle dispute when he undertakes to correct a German private who calls him Felix).  The protagonists are companies of Scots, French, and Germans. There are a few ironic twists; the German lieutenant is Jewish, for example. [This is not Hollywood invention, either; there really were Jewish officers in the German army: The major who recommended one A. Hitler for the Iron Cross was Jewish, and among the very few German Jews initially spared the oppressions of the Nuremberg Laws were decorated veterans from the war.]  Some of the plot features are of course dramatic inventions – the German private who in civilian life is an opera star sneaking his opera-star wife into the trenches for a private concert, for example. But a great deal of the specific events depicted did actually happen at one place or another along the front – church services, burial parties, swapping of food and booze, the soccer matches of course, and so forth.

There are moments of tremendous sentimentality in the movie. The reason that the opera star wife is at the front in the first place is that she’s used her connections with the Kaiser to arrange a Christmas concert at the headquarters of his son, the Crown Prince. Of course she’s just got to have her husband to sing, and gets him detached for the evening to appear with her. They perform “Bist du bei mir,” arranged to Bach’s melody (the actual song is apparently older than Bach) from the Anna Magdalena Notebook. Watching them sing – if you know German at least – you realize it’s a love song, the narrator comforting himself at his death with his love’s presence: Ach how pleasurable were my end, if your beautiful hands were to close my faithful eyes (“Ach wie vergnügt, wäre so mein Ende; es drückten deine schönen Hände mir die getreuen Augen zu.”). For a brief moment the camera cuts to the ancient French couple whose house has been commandeered for HQ, and who’ve been exiled to the basement; they can hear the singing and the husband gently lays his hand across his wife’s.  Another such moment is when, back at the front (he turns down a night in the sack with her, in order to go back to his comrades), the Scottish chaplain, who also (of course) plays the pipes, first joins in “Stille Nacht,” then by way of request plays the first bars of “Adeste, fideles,” and opera singer mounts the parapet, grabs a Christmas tree, and strides into no-man’s-land, singing as he goes. O Come, All Ye Faithful. And they come, the other pipers joining in.

If you look the movie up on and check out the reviews, you get a good illustration of how reviews not infrequently reveal as much about the reviewer as about his subject. Several of the reviews – e.g. this one from The New York Times – take the movie to task for being too sentimental, too “vague,” insufficiently sophisticated (the NYT, entirely predictably, confuses cynicism with sophistication . . . they’re not at all the same thing). As if. Oddly enough, it’s Roger Ebert who gets it right: “Its sentimentality is muted by the thought that this moment of peace actually did take place, among men who were punished for it, and who mostly died soon enough afterward. But on one Christmas, they were able to express what has been called, perhaps too optimistically, the brotherhood of man.”  These things actually happened. Real people made the actual decision to forego enmity, bloodshed, and hardness of heart to embrace, for a few hours, the fundamental, astounding message of Christ’s coming: Glad tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all nations.

Now compare the NYT‘s gripe:  “Another reason [why the movie “feel[s] as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth”] is that the movie’s cross-section of soldiers from France, Scotland and Germany are so scrupulously depicted as equal-opportunity peacemakers that they never come fully to life as individuals. All are well-spoken mouthpieces for cut-and-dried perspectives that vary somewhat, according to rank, background and war experience. As ferociously as they may fight, these soldiers are civilized good guys underneath their uniforms. When they go at one another, they’re only following orders.”  Gosh, maybe it’s shown that way because, you know . . . that’s the way it actually was?  Those soldiers did all come from something they would have understood and recognized as a common European cultural tradition, with common assumptions about themselves and their world, common assumptions (up until August 1914) about the future, a common religious tradition.  For the benefit of the NYT‘s reviewer, who seems to be utterly ignorant of history, what made the Great War so horrific for its participants was that it tore to ribbons 400 years of how Europe had understood itself.  Even the scale of the Napoleonic wars could be fit into the pattern of dynastic feuds, territorial ambitions, shell-and-pea alliance systems.  There was great slaughter between 1792-1815, but it was not beyond human comprehension.  The Great War was like nothing anyone had ever seen or imagined.  The characters in this movie are not just individuals who are marked to die; they are the carriers of a doomed heritage, and we the viewers are trusted to be sophisticated enough to understand that . . . although that trust turned out to be misplaced with the NYT‘s reviewer.

If the movie seems too much like a greeting card declaring “peace on earth,” I suggest that Gentle Reader might contemplate whether that’s because we have so debased the very notion of Christmas and its meaning that to state it in plain Saxon seems . . . well, “squishy.”  You see, the truly subversive aspect of Christianity, the genuinely transgressive part, is exactly “peace on earth.” Other religions might have placed emphasis on being nice to one’s fellows, but all those were tribal gods, and the fellows to whom one was supposed to be nice were other members of the tribe. In the crucible of combat it’s hard enough to maintain the humanity of one’s own comrades in mind; to embrace within that notion the guys pointing their guns at you is taking the confession of our commonality to a level unknown to civilian life (it’s certainly beyond the ken of that NYT reviewer). The Christmas truce was in fact – and not just in the fetid imagination of some Hollywood scriptwriter – a physical manifestation of the essence of Christmas. And of course, in watching the movie, we the viewers know What Comes Next: After the events depicted were over, these real men really went back to killing each other. By November, 1918, most of those real men were dead or maimed for life in body or soul. Gee whiz; let’s think of how can we taint this with our own cynicism, so as to let all Those in the Know get it that we’re so much better than those men who chose, for a few brief hours, actually to embrace the message brought to us all those centuries ago?

True heroism is seldom sophisticated; it hasn’t the time for it. True heroism always touches upon the deepest, simplest, most noble human attributes. These things don’t lend themselves to all this bullshit about on-the-other-hand and it’s-complicated and you-wouldn’t-understand and fully-developed-as-individuals. It’s about the kind of stuff you find . . . well, you find a lot of it in the Bible: Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friend, just to pick one off the top of the head. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but should have everlasting life. Paul going to Rome, knowing full well what awaits him there. The real men who actually laid down their arms were men who could say words like “hero,” “honor,” and “manhood” without smirking or winking.  If that’s not sufficiently worldly-wise for some dim-bulb movie reviewer from New York . . . well, that tells you about all you need to know about that reviewer, and the publication which gives him air.

And so now, in this 21st Century, a full hundred years after those men went Over the Top, not with fear in their mouths and death in their hearts, but in comradeship and – dare we say it? – love, let us contemplate what those men knew, that we have forgot. Do we, can we hear an echo within us of the Glad Tidings of Great Joy? And can we reject the tarted up “sophistication” so beloved of the NYT to embrace the simple humanity of the soldiers who, a century ago, said, “Enough”?

Joyeux Noël.

[P.S.  Reason has a nice piece on the truce as well, here.]

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