"When governments can no longer manage their international responsibilities, soldiers are sent to wage the needed war to restore failed politics."
In December 1914, the trench combatants of World War I came awfully close to calling "game over" - not from strategic victories, but from impromptu Christmas meetings in the pitiful waste of No Man’s Land on the Belgian fields of Flanders. The off-the-cuff Christmas truce most likely started near Ploegstreet Wood in Belgium.
The Great War was less than five months old. Many soldiers held hope the Christmas season would give pause for the politicians and generals to rethink the apocalypse of a world war. Tens of thousands of soldiers were already dead, and the stalemate of "trench warfare" had given birth to some of the most appalling living and fighting conditions ever known to warring humanity.
The land between the opposing trench lines, in many cases less than 100 yards, was called No Man’s Land.
Artillery had turned No Man’s Land barren of vegetation and pot-holed with craters. Cold rain transformed earth into knee-deep liquefied mud. The decomposed bodies of young men either floated in or sank into the bomb craters.
In the trenches, really no more than reinforced ditches, life included damp and miserable men, fleas, rats, and lice. Men deloused themselves by roasting lice in the flames of candles. The chronic stench of the trenches resulted from a lack of latrines, decaying bodies, fire, liquor, and even cats.
The first contacts between belligerents were the burial parties. Men on both sides approached with white flags of truce or with hands raised to ask permission to bury their dead. In the spirit of Christmas, or maybe in the shared faith of warring Christians, the burial parties assisted each other with the unpleasant task.
Snow fell on the 23rd. The temperature dropped. Mush turned into solid footing. A Tannenbaum (German for Christmas tree) appeared on a German parapet. More Tannenbaums appeared on parapets with candles affixed to their fir limbs by clamps.
A British soldier heard a German shout in perfect English, "Come over here!"
The British soldier screamed, "Come over yerself!"
With that awkward invitation, echoed by other ad-lib invitations along the Western Front, the Christmas truce found a foothold.
Germanic voices drifted across No Man’s Land with versions of ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’ ("Silent night, Holy night") or "O du frohliche," a deeply cherished hymn.
The other side responded with English versions.
Foodstuffs were tossed from one trench to the other. One German ignored sporadic gunfire to dare a walk with a lighted Tannebaum to the middle of No Man’s Land as a peace offering.
Soldiers on both sides left their trenches.
Curious yet cautious, one warring side of British, French, Scots, Gurkhas, Irish, and Indians met the other side of Germans from Saxon, Bavarian, and Westphalian cultures in No Man’s Land all along the Western Front.
Not all units participated. Some did with vigilance, but history records the soldiers of two warring armies meeting in the middle of a Great War, in the middle of a great battlefield, in the middle of No Man’s Land.
One German soldier refused the notion.
"Have you no German sense of honor left?" he asked of his compatriots.
Baptized a Catholic, he rejected all religious observances, never received mail or parcels, never smoked nor drank, never spoke of family and friends, and fretted alone for days on end. The unbalanced soldier served as a field messenger in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He was Cpl. Adolf Hitler.
Elsewhere, German and British officers exchanged pleasantries, cut buttons from their uniforms to offer as souvenirs, and discussed the latest news from both fronts.
A German officer in one sector stated, "We’ll be relieved by the Prussians. Give’em hell; we hate them!"
Few of the Brits spoke German, but an abundance of German soldiers spoke limited English, having worked in England before the war as waiters or cab drivers.
Cigarettes and cigars were exchanged; the English offered apple and plum pudding plus tins of Machonochie’s, consisting of meat, potatoes, beans and other vegetables.
The Germans, to everyone’s delight, rolled out barrels of beer. German sausage was a nice treat.
In one sector a befuddled rabbit dashed out of a cabbage patch. German and English soldiers gave chase for the potential meal. The German won.
Word was received in another sector that a general nicknamed "Old Horseflesh" was making a rare appearance on the front to inquire about rumors of fraternization. Both sides hustled back to their trenches. The Germans, on a lark, placed a trestle table in the middle of No Man’s Land with a bowl of goldfish on top.
Upon his arrival, "Old Horseflesh" complained of fraternization along the lines and stated among other things, "It’s disgraceful! We can’t interrupt a war for freedom just because of Christmas. Have you anything to report?"
A captain replied, "A bit of a puzzle, sir. It seems the enemy has put up a table in No Man’s Land with a bowl of goldfish on top of it."
Using his binoculars, "Old Horseflesh" peeped over the parapet.
"They are goldfish, by Gad!" he shouted. "What kind of devilish trick are the Huns up to? Send out a patrol tonight to investigate."
The captain and his German counterpart later bartered for the goldfish. The bowl of goldfish was eventually sent to the rear for evaluation by intelligence.
Depending on the sector, the Christmas Truce lasted two to three days, with teams from both sides taking part in soccer games on the frozen mud. Various items served as a soccer ball, including tied-up sandbags. Goals were made with hats; later enlarged with tunics and greatcoats as the players warmed up. Some teams kept score; others didn’t. But all the games were referred to as contests of part-soccer, part-ice skating.
The Christmas Truce was destined to fail. Units on both sides were relieved or replaced by normal rotation. Governments on both sides forbade further fraternization with threats of court-martials and/or execution.
Newspapers ran the stories; higher-ups denied the events occurred. History proves the hierarchy were liars.
Then came four more years of slaughter; millions would perish, perhaps not to determine the winner but only who survived.
"O ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say: God speed the time when every day
shall be a Christmas Day.
—Scottish poet Frederick Niven
Merry Christmas, folks.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.