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Letters from the Trenches, Christmas 1914

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Letters from the Trenches, Christmas 1914

 

Letters from the Trenches, Christmas 1914, a reading given at the Calgary Chautauqua by James Prescott on 11th December 2010. All quotations are to a greater or lesser extent trimmed from the originals, removing unwanted or redundant or awkward phrases and sentences.

 

 

In December 1914 men were slaughtering each other on an unimaginable scale. Christmas Eve brought gift packages from home. For the British, from Princess Mary, there were brass boxes containing cigarettes or sweets. For the Germans, from the German High Command, there were thousands of small Christmas trees with candles.

 

Is it any wonder that unofficial truces began, whether from a desire for Christian celebration; for a secular holiday; for a brief escape from trenches filled with mud; or simply for a few hours postponement of the moment of one's death?

 

In some sectors the fighting continued; in some the guns fell silent for a time; in some soldiers shared Christmas carols from the safety of their trenches; in some soldiers buried their dead and did other chores in full sight of the enemy doing likewise; and in some the soldiers met in no man's land, trading cigars and drinks, buttons and helmets, newpapers and addresses.

 

 

Hugo Klemm, 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment:

 

We placed a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout. We placed a second lighted tree on the parapet. Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs.

 

 

Graham Williams, London Rifle Brigade:

 

I was gazing toward the German lines when suddenly lights began to appear along the top of the German trenches -- these were Christmas trees with lighted candles burning steadily in the still, frosty air! Then our opponents began to sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht".  We thought that we ought to retaliate, so we sang "The First Nowell", and when we finished they all began clapping. The Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until we started up with "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the Germans immediately joined in singing the Latin words "Adeste Fideles". This was really a most extraordinary thing -- our nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

 

 

Captain Clifton Stockwell, Royal Welch Fusiliers, 26th December:

 

It froze hard on Christmas Eve, and in the morning there was a thick ground fog. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternising on Christmas Day. The sergeant suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half-a-dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet. The Saxons were shouting, "Don't shoot. We don't want to fight today. We will send you some beer." A cask was hoisted onto the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of No Man's Land.

 

We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing captain to appear.

 

A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of No Man's Land, so I moved out to meet him, amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count something-or-other and seemed a very decent fellow. We agreed not to shoot until the following morning.

 

He said, "You had better take the beer. We have lots." So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side. As we had lots of plum puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer.

 

 

Private Frederick Heath, North Staffordshire Regiment, late December:

 

The night closed in early -- the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.

 

With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home.

 

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. Light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice: "English soldier, a merry Christmas! Come out, English soldier; come out here to us."

 

For some time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But how could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas? So we kept up a conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. The night wore on to dawn -- a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos, and from our lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.

 

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill. But did we shoot? Not likely! Then came the invitation to meet half way.

 

Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. And so we stayed together for a while and talked, although we could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands.

 

 

Lieutenant Johannes Niemann, 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment:

 

Our Regiment and the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders were fraternising along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps, and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground. A great many of the passes went wide, but all played with huge enthusiasm.

 

Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts. But after an hour's play our Commanding Officer sent an order that we must put a stop to it. The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy.

 

 

Corporal Josef Wenzl, 16th German Reserve Infantry, 28th December:

 

One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into song with a carol, to which we replied with "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht". It was a very moving moment -- hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.

 

 

 

 


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