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1914 A.D.: World War I:  Soldiers Celebrate Their Own Privately Negotiated Christmas Truce

  Related note:  On March 11, 2011, Cpl. Frank Buckles, last known surviving American WWI veteran, is laid to rest.  He lied about his age at 16 yrs old to enter the military.  He has died at 110 years old at his West Virginia home.  War is bad, but thank you to that generation for their courage.  They are apparently all passed on now in America.  They answered the call to risk their life in WWI for the welfare of their fellow Americans, and that of our friends overseas.   

  War is Hell!!  Well, that's been said a lot, anyway.  And there have been plenty of soldiers that have completely agreed, as well as others who are not even directly fighting.  War is very bad for the wives and children left back home, right?  And it's bad for businessmen in the war zone.  And it's bad for civilians in the war zone.  In short, war is a bad thing for many and hopefully a good thing for very few. 

  Many books and articles are available on the subject of war, though, and cover it better and in more detail than I could ever hope to (or want to).  So, this account is just to remember an unusual thing which happened among some war weary soldiers slugging it out in the trenches of Europe during World War I.

  When you think World War I, you have to think trench warfare.  We've all heard of it, but what was it? 

  Trench warfare is ancient, not new, and involves building safe trenches opposite to your enemy - trenches that are pretty easy to defend.  And you probably also dig backup trenches behind your front trench, to fall back to if you need to.  And you can use those back-up trenches as places to store things like food, weapons, or military equipment.  

  Back-up trenches can be places to rest your soldiers while other crews of soldiers are on duty in the front trenches for anywhere from 3 days to a couple of weeks (but the shorter the time you spend in the front trench, the better!  Those trenches were not only more dangerous, but less comfortable.)  

  And you might dig trenches a half mile back from these front trenches, to allow your reserve soldiers to rest or do needed things.  That was done in World War I in many areas along the front.  Your Generals and Commanders and such probably have their headquarters in those trenches.  And you might want to tunnel or dig forward to slowly dig a new trench that's even closer to your enemy, and gain ground that way, or maybe launch a sneak attack from there.

  The trenches in World War I were usually 8 to 12 feet deep.  Some less, some much more in certain specific pockets of the reserve trench, for instance.  Some of those deep areas were used as concrete reinforced command centers.  Some areas might be rocky, or wet, and in such areas digging was almost impossible.  There the trench might be constructed above grade by piling material on top of the ground instead of digging into it. 

  The Germans tended to build deeper trenches and sometimes built fancier and more substantial reinforcement structures into them, sometimes of reinforced concrete.  After all, some of these trench v.s. trench stalemates lasted a couple of years, so it made sense to get serious about the trenches.

  Digging long trenches takes a lot of man power, but there was a lot of man power available.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers engaged in that giant world conflict between the great powers of that day, many in Europe.  One source I read said that British manuals indicated that military leaders could expect 450 men to complete about 275 yards of trench in 6 hours.  That's a lot of digging!  But there weren't just 450 men.  There were hundreds of thousands of men.  In WWI, there were trenches from the Alps to the Sea on the Western front. 

  They had to keep extending the ends of the trenches laterally; the best way to attack your entrenched enemy was to run around the very end of their long continuous trench and get behind them.  Their trenches didn't usually have very much protection on the back side.  So, since the Alps made one end of the trenches pretty secure, it became a 'race to the sea' towards the west, trench building at a furious pace as they went, to seal off that more vulnerable end.  Both armies mirrored each other's trenching efforts until there was continuous trench from the Alps to the ocean and then they settled in for the long haul. 

  Up at the lip of a trench there would be a flat space with some kind of protective wall in front of it.  You can't shoot at the enemy from the bottom of an 8 or 10 foot trench.  So, when you wanted to shoot away at the enemy who was shooting away at you, you would crawl up on top there, and lay flat on your stomach behind the defensive berm or rock wall, or sand bags laid out as a low protective wall at the top, and shoot away.

  You usually placed other defensive measures in front of your trenches so that if the enemy decides to rush out from their city or from their own trench they couldn't just leap into your trench.  Wooden stakes have been used in past times, but in WW1 barbed wire was almost always strung out in standing coils in front of the front trenches.  There would be 'hedges' of multiple rolls of uncoiled barbed wire as much as 50 feet deep.  That was no quick obstacle to overcome, and the whole time you spent trying to get through the other guy's wire, you were an easy target.  (In WWI the German's had an early barbed wire advantage:  their's was so thick that the British wire cutting pliers couldn't cut through it!  But the British wire was thinner and weaker and gave way to the standard wire cutting pliers the Germans had.)       

  The way this whole network of trenches began in WW1 was basically as follows. 

  The German army had tried to advance with lightening speed all the way from Germany, through Belgium, to Paris in September of 1914, and only with difficulty were they stopped at the Battle of Marne (named after the Marne River) just at the outskirts of Paris.  It was a terrible battle, and a critical one.  Up to that time in the war, the Germans had seemed unstoppable.  But at Marne, a small group of British (ironically under a British commander named French) and a large group of French soldiers stood their ground to try to save Paris and somehow things started to go their way. 

  Allied airplanes, a rather new military addition, flew above the German forces reporting on movements and looking for weaknesses.  They noticed a gap in the German line caused by the Germans realigning their forces to meet a threat and as soon as the allied commanders on the ground heard about the weakness they struck hard and decisively to rush some allied forces through that gap.  When that happened it put the Germans at a strategic disadvantage, compelling them to wisely call a retreat.

  This Battle of the Marne is famous in France, of course, because they saved Paris from being taken and because of other heroics that managed to win the day for the Allies.  One interesting point of the battle occurred when 600 Parisian taxi cabs raced out from the city bearing reserve fighters (about 10 per taxi apparently) adding 6,000 fresh fighters to the Allied forces at a critical moment when their arrival produced a large positive affect.  It makes kind of an interesting mental picture - a giant armada of fierce taxi drivers racing towards the battle lines......meters running, no doubt.  Were the drivers mostly recent immigrants?  Of course, this was 1914.  What did a 1914 taxi look like?

  But as for the Battle of the Marne, that's a vast simplification of a battle that cost about 500,000 combined total casualties, German and French (dead and wounded), but that battle marked the point when the German army fell back, found some good defensive ground at the Aisne River, and settled in.  And when the allied forces found them and asessed the situation it seemed a stalemate.  An indecisive battle was fought (the Battle of the Aisne), but there the trench digging basically began.  

    The French and British, fighting the Germans, had come head to head with no clear victor then and there, at the Aisne, for the first time in the war.  As the stalemate solidified, the trenches were dug and the trench warfare that came to typify World War I had begun in earnest.  In long opposing trenches, only a stones throw apart in many areas but two or three times as much in others, they dug in and began the grueling work of gaining land by storming an enemy trench and taking it, or more often, picking off the opposing soldiers in their partially safe trenches from the partial safety of their own trench. 

  The most forward trench in particular could be bad.  You were stuck there, in the front trench, on a rotating basis.  When it snowed it snowed in your trench.  When it rained it rained in your trench, and when it was cold or hot that's how it was in your trench.  When someone was shot and bled out it was there in the trench with you, and if the trench was full of water it became bloody water.  Mud could remain mud for weeks at a time in your trench, never freezing or drying up.  When you had to use the bathroom, well....

  World War I came at a time when artillery had evolved a great deal.  Trenches were not out of reach from enemy artillery so though there were latrines you might not always be able to get to them if under fire.  

  Big guns and mortars tried to fire shells into your trench.  So trenches were not built in continuous lines, but zig-zag, so that the shock wave from an ordinance round exploding in your trench would hit a dirt wall where the trench zigged or zagged, limiting the damage. Also, transport trenches connected the forward trenches with the rear trenches, for travel between them all. 

   We've all heard of the gases used in World War I - Chlorine, Mustard, Phosgene; they ranged from deadly to permanently injuring.  Phosgene had almost no odor and so soldiers had very little warning of its presence.  They often didn't get their masks on in time with the Phosgene - less warning time.  Chemical attacks like these were a terrible way to wage war.  Men with mustard gas burns, for instance, were hurt so severely that they seldom returned back to the fighting some sources said.  So Mustard gas burns were extremely severe, and mustard gas much feared.     

  Did I mention that you ate and slept as best you could there in your trench?  The food was not too good at times, as has been usual on the front lines of wars throughout time. So, you froze or baked, got shot at, mortared, or gased, you dug and dug and dug, and when it was your turn at the front trench, you were seldom comfortable, sometimes packed in tight, and might be standing in mud.  Trench warfare was just tough. 

  You weren't out in the open where everyone could shoot at you, but there were plenty of offsetting miseries.  And if you had to charge the other guy's trench they had plenty of good opportunities to take a shot or two at you, but you really didn't have much chance to shoot back until you were right upon them.  So, entrenched armies tended to stay entrenched.  It was costly to make the big brave assaults, though both sides received orders to do so from time to time.

  At dawn, waking up, you would crawl up on the lip and stand ready for a dawn attack.  Supposedly both sides did this and both sides knew that the other side did it, but dawn attacks were a great favorite with the officers so dawn attacks were pretty common anyway. 

  The area between one sides barbed wire and the other sides barbed wire was called no-man's-land.  Yet when it was foggy, or dark, or almost dark, patrols did get sent out there to try to eaves drop on the enemy, sneak attack the enemy, gain intellligence, gather bodies, etc.  Sometimes both sides would send patrols out into the foggy or dark no-man's-land, and the patrols would meet.  They had fire arms to use, but if they used them then machine gun nests on either side would fire towards the sound of the gun shots and perhaps kill everyone.  So, patrols that ran into each other while patrolling no man's land either pretended to just naturally make a direction change just then, or else it was hand to hand combat with bayonettes and knives and rifle butts - but no shooting, many times.  Why should the machine gunners, who could hear shots but see nothing, kill everyone out there in the dark or fog?  Better to take your chances in a knife or bayonnette fight.

  There were better wars to take part in if you were averse to being buried alive, as well.  Many times the gun and mortar shells caved in the trench walls above men and they were buried under several feet of dirt.  Maybe your buddies dug you out in time....maybe not!  Not a nice prospect to consider. 

  Rats were trench residents - they were constant companions.  Hated black ones, and even bigger and more hated brown ones.  They are reported to have enjoyed the eyes and livers of the blown apart dead people.  The rats were hated, shot, clubbed, etc., but they bred beyond anyone's ability to kill them all.  Rats were part of life and death in trench warfare.

  Morning hate.  That was the term they used - 'morning hate' - for the practice of shooting at each other regularly for an hour or two most mornings, after breakfast.  You had to fight some of the time, right? 

  Many times, soldiers on both sides sort of mutually agreed to let the wagons that brought their provisions (such as food and rum) arrive and unload and depart unmolested.  The higher up officers apparently objected to this practice - a little too friendly, probably - but the guys in the trenches liked it that way and usually went right back to doing it even if they were told they could not.  But the practice wasn't set in stone.  It was risky being the driver of a supply wagon.

  With soggy trenches and soggy feet they contracted 'trench foot', especially during the first year on the Western Front when they were just learning how to keep a dry trench.  And it was a wet year also.  Trench foot could become so bad that feet had to be amputated, or toes. 

  Lice were bad.  They not only itched, but they carried a sickness that came to be called 'trench fever'.  It was a severe fever and took about 3 months to recover from.

  The rotting dead, the over flowing latrines, the unshowered men, the lime they spread to keep down disease, the cordite from the explosions, the dead rats, the live rats, hot weather in some months, the odors from cooking food, and a few other things worked together to create a smell so horrible that newcomers could hardly bear it.  Veterans just came to ignore it. 

  In short, and in part, this was trench life and trench warfare on the Western Front in WWI.

  But, on the Western Front, as the end of that first year - 1914 - rolled around, the soldiers from both sides, who were trying their best to bear up under the rigors of this hard and terrible type of warfare, ended up doing the most amazing thing.  It is said to have started with the Germans.

  On December 24th, Christmas Eve, near Ypres, Belgium, Allied soldiers were surprised by the site of German soldiers decorating the visible rim of their trenches with candles and such.  The German's couldn't really see the decorations - they were for the Allies to see.  The Germans were feeling festive it appeared. 

  Something about it struck the Allied troops, and they began to sing Christmas carols, which the Germans also were doing.  Shooting was ceased.  It stayed ceased.  The common people of both nations were largely Christians, so the soldiers in the trenches were mostly Christian as well.  The war was a horror, and this singing of Christmas carols was a welcome relief for the spirit and soul. 

  The trenches on both sides were essentially continuous, and this Christmas celebration began to spread along the trenches in both directions on both sides.  Not everywhere, but in many stretches.  It took different faces in different places.

  In some areas the carol singing soldiers took a chance and crawled out of their trenches and made their way out into no man's land - a chancy gesture of good will, as they were easy targets.  But no shots were fired and in many areas the soldiers of the opposite side went out to no man's land to meet their enemy in good faith.

  Men shook hands and introduced themselves to each other.  Some exchanged war souvenirs, like buttons, or helmets, or knives, etc.  Small gifts were given.  Many British, Germans, and some French exchanged news about the war.  Both sides learned that they had not been given a very true or full picture of events. 

  There were cases where exchanges of food were made, each side appreciating a chance to eat something different than their normal fare.  There was joking and a little bit of feasting together.  Probably drinking together as well, though I didn't read that.

  In a couple of spots the troups held a football game (soccer) against each other and had a good time doing so.  People wrote home about the amazing mutual good will that was felt and exhibited between them, each side realizing that their mutual celebration of the Holy birth of Jesus here in the midst of this ugly war was a rare and unlikely event - very special. 

  One British man who was a button collector (yes, there are people that collect clothing buttons) mentioned to a junior German officer that he admired the buttons of the man's uniform, and the officer offered that the collector might cut off a few with his pocket knife and keep them.  The pleased collector thankfully obliged him and offered some of his own in return.        

  One British man recorded the odd sight of his trench mate, a bit of a barber, giving a kneeling German man a haircut, there in the midst of no-man's-land. 

  When the higher officers on both sides of the line heard about these strange occurrences they began to issue strict orders forbidding them, but for a couple of days they continued anyway, here and there, in sporadic fashion.  But before long, the officers had reestablished a 'normal' wartime environment.  And very strict orders against such fraternization with the enemy were in place by the next Christmas. 

  But, though all soldiers were back to business soon after Christmas, it wasn't quite 'business as usual'.  They were no longer fighting strangers, and throughout the war, in various places, there were such oddities as loosely agreed truces between the enlisted men to allow time to exercise and take leg stretching walks and to safely gather up dead bodies that were up on the ground up out of the trenches.  Things like that.  A certain measure of friendly civility had entered the inherant madness of war.  It couldn't be counted upon in all places and at all times, but they did occur often and in many places. 

  World War I had suddenly become a very odd war indeed, and it never quite recovered from the Christmas truce of December 24, 1914.

  How odd and wrong that Christian nations should ever find themselves fighting each other.


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