The Christmas Truce

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The Christmas Truce

You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged trench.  It is the evening of 24 December 1914 and you are on the dreaded Western Front.

Stooped over, you wade across to the firing step and take over the watch.  Having exchanged pleasantries, your bleary-eyed and mud-spattered colleague shuffles off towards his dug out.  Despite the horrors and the hardships, your morale is high and you believe that in the New Year the nation's army march towards a glorious victory.

But for now you stamp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm.  All is quiet when jovial voices call out from both friendly and enemy trenches.  Then the men from both sides start singing carols and songs.  Next come requests not to fire, and soon the unthinkable happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering together in no-man's land laughing, joking and sharing gifts.

Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly in the inky darkness.  Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up and out of the trench and walk towards the foe...

The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man's land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914.  Today, 90 years after it occurred, the event is seen as a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One - a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians.

The reality of the Christmas Truce, however, is a slightly less romantic and a more down to earth story.  It was an organic affair that in some spots hardly registered a mention and in others left a profound impact upon those who took part.

Many accounts were rushed, confused or contradictory.  Others, written long after the event, are weighed down by hindsight.  These difficulties aside, the true story is still striking precisely because of its rag-tagged nature: it is more 'human' and therefore all the more potent.

Months beforehand, millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers from all over the continent had rushed enthusiastically to the banners of war: the atmosphere was one of holiday rather than conflict.

But it was not long before the jovial façade was torn away. Armies equipped with repeating rifles, machine guns and a vast array of artillery tore chunks out of each other, and thousands upon thousands of men perished.

To protect against the threat of this vast firepower, the soldiers were ordered to dig in and prepare for next year's offensives, which most men believed would break the deadlock and deliver victory.

The early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed; if the trench was badly sighted it could become a sniping hot spot.  In bad weather (the winter of 1914 was a dire one) the positions could flood and fall in.  The soldiers - unequipped to face the rigours of the cold and rain - found themselves wallowing in a freezing mire of mud and the decaying bodies of the fallen.

The man at the Front could not help but have a degree of sympathy for his opponents who were having just as miserable a time as they were.

Another factor that broke down the animosity between the opposing armies were the surroundings.  In 1914 the men at the front could still see the vestiges of civilisation.  Villages, although badly smashed up, were still standing.  Fields, although pitted with shell-holes, had not been turned into muddy lunarscapes.

Thus the other world - the civilian world - and the social mores and manners that went with it was still present at the front.  Also lacking was the pain, misery and hatred that years of bloody war build up.  Then there was the desire, on all sides, to see the enemy up close - was he really as bad as the politicians, papers and priests were saying?

It was a combination of these factors, and many more minor...
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