An Irishman's Diary

 

On Christmas Eve 1914, near Arras in northern France, German soldiers erected Christmas trees outside their trenches and began singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht to the astonishment of the British soldiers in the trenches opposite who recognised the melody of the best known Christmas carol of all.

Thus began one of the most amazing episodes in the first World War, or possibly in any war - a Christmas truce instigated by the ordinary fighting men of Germany and the British Empire. It is surely the best and most heartening Christmas story of the past century.

The outbreak of war in June 1914 was followed by appalling casualties in the battles of Mons and Ypres before the conflict settled down to trench warfare in a series of fortified positions stretching all the way from the Belgian coast to neutral Switzerland.

The soldiers of all armies suffered, not just from gunfire, shelling and gas, but from the added horrors of cold, damp, lice, hunger and rats. And in the case of the British soldiers, death beckoned not just from the German armies but from their own officers also: Court martial and a firing squad threatened those accused of desertion or cowardice. Men who refused to go "over the top" on suicidal missions might be summarily executed.

The generals on both sides appeared to be oblivious to the sufferings and the carnage inflicted on their own troops. So also were the political leaders in the capitals of Europe, described by James Connolly as "royal freebooters and metropolitan thieves", who were responsible for the war in the first place.

"Don't shoot!"

The German soldiers' celebration and the response by British troops, who joined in the singing of Silent Night, led to one brave German officer leaving his trench unarmed and advancing to the British lines with his hands in the air shouting, "Comaraden, don't shoot!" Within minutes, according to eye-witness and newspaper reports, both German and English soldiers left their trenches unarmed and commenced a fraternisation that was to last until Christmas night and, in many cases, even longer. Gifts were exchanged among the erstwhile enemies, conversation was carried on in English and German and sign-language, names and addresses were exchanged and even soccer matches were played in the bumpy pitches provided by the shell-scarred "no-man's land". For a time all the horrors and discomforts of the war seemed to have been forgotten.

"Laughter and joy"

Many stories were written by German and English soldiers in letters to their relatives at home about these extraordinary events and accounts were published in various newspapers. Private Oswald Tilley of the London Rifles wrote to his parents: "Imagine, when you were having your Christmas dinner I was talking in a friendly manner to German soldiers who I had been trying to kill the day before. It was astounding!" A German officer, Capt Sewald, recalled in his memoirs: "There was laughter and joy as if there had never been any hostility between the thousands of young men."

The newspapers in England used sensational headlines such as "The Amazing Truce", "Extraordinary Unofficial Armistice - British/Indian and Germans shake hands", while the Illustrated London News, the same magazine that did much to expose the horrors of the Irish Famine, carried a front-page sketch that visualised the Germans approaching the British lines.

Even in those days, many Germans were quite good English speakers because there was a tradition before 1914 of Germans working in England in a variety of jobs, especially as barbers and hotel staff.

German and British soldiers had a first-hand opportunity of discussing the propaganda stories published in their newspapers back home and of coming to realise that all their counterparts in uniform, far from being evil monsters, were human beings like themselves with the same problems, the same worries about staying alive, the same concerns for the safety of their families at home.

Needless to say, this unofficial cessation of hostilities infuriated the commanders on both sides who subsequently issued a series of orders and edicts, with dire threats to ensure that such an event would never occur again.

War cemeteries

It is interesting to speculate as to what would have happened if the soldiers refused to renew hostilities. It was the hope of Connolly and other prominent European socialists that on the outbreak of war workers in uniform would refuse to fight one another and would use the opportunity to overthrow their capitalist governments and establish workers' republics. But that dream did not become a reality and instead the hundreds of war cemeteries dotted along the French and Belgian borders bear chilly witness to the folly and greed of European rulers in 1914. The slaughter continued until the armistice in 1918, costing the deaths of 15 million soldiers of all nationalities.

Those who survived the war, having participated in the dramatic events of Christmas 1914 and having witnessed horrors and miseries well beyond our understanding, would at least have the consolation of remembering the two glorious days described by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of this war".