The Christmas Truce of 1914 is remembered today as something of a miracle, and based on letters the soldiers had written home it struck them much the same way.
How could it be that men can stop killing each other for a day after five months of mutual slaughter on the battlefield? Nor did they merely take a time out, but fraternized, much to the displeasure of their high command. They exchanged gifts, played European-style football, and generally behaved like men do when they get together during peacetime. Were they suffering from a form of psychosis? Didn’t it penetrate their brains that they were celebrating with men who had killed many of their comrades? Where was the hate, the lust for revenge
For many of those celebrating that day it would be the last Christmas of their young lives. Surely, some of them had to be aware of that possibility, given the heavy casualties incurred to that point. And some undoubtedly let that thought darken their day. But not all of them. Their letters home reflected a kind of school’s-out attitude. No thoughts about what was waiting for them the next day or week.
When the armistice was declared nearly four years later, at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, US flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker disobeyed orders and flew solo over the trenches to see what would happen at that precise moment. Here’s what he wrote:
On both sides of no-man’s-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man’s-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.
Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.
Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.
Maybe the men realized their enemies weren’t always the guys shooting at them. Maybe they understood that the ones at the top had everything to do with what was happening on the field.
If so, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was indeed special.
From the film, “Oh, What a Lovely War!”
Written George F. Smith for 24h Gold ~ December 19, 2018
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