Monday, April 4, 2011
Christmas Day 1914 - Miracle in the Trenches
Following the outbreak of war in June 1914, the British and German armies dug in across France and Belgium and faced each other in a long series of trenches that extended for hundreds of kilometres across the countryside.
Above - Soldiers moving up to the front line through a communication trench. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)
In a totally new type of defensive warfare, the soldiers lived in hellish conditions in these trenches, exposed to the weather, constant shelling, and small arms fire. Occasional attacks ordered by the various high commands required the men to climb up out of the trenches and advance over the ground between, usually strewn with barbed wire entanglements, where hundreds would be slaughtered in “no-man’s land” by the waiting machine guns of the enemy.
In day-to-day trench life it was courting death to raise one’s head above the trench parapet – waiting expert snipers dotted about the countryside in concealed positions could snuff out a mans life with a head shot from 300 metres away.
It was in these diabolical circumstances that Christmas Day 1914 approached and both armies were reconciled into having to experience thoroughly miserable conditions for their Yuletide. But it was not to be.
On Christmas Eve, carols were heard emanating from the German trenches that began to glow as candles were placed along the parapets. The Germans sang “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), and the British responded with the English version, together with bursts of mouth organ rag time music.
Christmas Day 1914 dawned and a British officer and later war cartoonist, , Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, recalled the scene as it emerged across a Flanders field looking towards the German trenches:
“On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug – out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin, low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards – the ideal Christmas day of fiction.”
Bruce Bairnsfather's immortal sketch of Christmas Day, 1914, in the trenches of World War One. (Click to enlarge)
As the morning wore on the British became increasingly aware of German heads appearing above their trench lines, and soon followed suit, with a sort of tacit agreement developing that the snipers would not shoot in Christmas Day. Eventually a full German figure emerged above the trenches – a suicidal manoeuvre on any other day.
The British followed and soon scores of soldiers, all unarmed, advanced towards each other across no man’s land. Amid surreal scenes, Germans and British shook hands, swapped souvenirs, chatted and exchanged pleasantries.
Another Bairnsfather sketch showing the British and German soldiers mixing together on Christmas Day 1914. (Click to enlarge)
It was later revealed that similar scenes took place across some 500 km of frontal lines on that magic day, with friendships made, soccer games played and photographs taken – all normal young men taking 24 hours out from the insanity of war.
British and German troops mixing in the sunshine at Bridoux Rouge on Christmas Day 1914. (Image from Wikipedia Commons; click to enlarge)
Both the British and German High Commands were outraged by these activities for this was “fraternisation with the enemy” – a serious military offence that could mean the firing squad for any individual identified. Sensibly this was overlooked, although strict orders were issued forbidding any future repeats.
It was back to business as usual soon after, with the war extending nearly another four years before ending on the 11th November 1918. Nine million soldiers lay dead in one of histories greatest tragedies.
The events of Christmas Day 1914 would constitute one of the more remarkable events of World War One and remain as a testament to the desire for peace in the common soldier - as contrasted by the desire for war from those in high places that are usually far away in safe locations.
Descendants of British and German World War One soldiers in the uniforms of the day commemorate Christmas Day 1914 near some of the old trenches in a ceremony held in 2008. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)
For more on the extraordinary Bruce Bairnsfather see