Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas 1914

A British officer's photo of soldiers meeting during the Christmas Truce of 1914. © IWM, Item Q 11718.

Greetings, readers. Happy Hanukkah to those of you celebrating the first day of the holiday! Today, I wanted to write about a singular event during World War One: the Christmas Truce of 1914. Though it was for a time regarded as a rumor or myth, this remarkable event really happened and is well-documented in written and visual records. On various stretches of the front lines, a truce in honor of the holiday was called, informally, between British and German soldiers. It lasted roughly from December 25, 1914 to January 3, 1915. What I find so compelling about it, as many others do, is that in the midst of a brutal combat, soldiers on opposing sides could choose to put down their weapons and interact in a spirit of brotherhood and goodwill. What an amazing thing that our ghosts of 1914 did during those several wintry days on the battlefield! 

Soldiers from the British and German armies gathered to play games, exchange various souvenirs, and, poignantly, to bury comrades fallen in previous days of fighting. There are some incredible photographs artifacts related to these events in the Imperial War Museum's (IWM's) collection:
British and German officers meeting during the Christmas Truce, 1914. ©IWM, Item Q 50721

German Bierstein given to Pte. Bill Tucker in honor of winning a Christmas football match. ©IWM, Item EPH 3147

For those of you wanting to research the Christmas Truce, the village of Kinnethmont website has a stellar description of the event, with artifacts. Wikipedia's "Christmas Truce" entry notes that a memorial to the truce was dedicated in 2008, with descendants of soldiers from both armies participating in its commemoration. The Guardian also has a nice, brief, selection of first-hand accounts of the truce. Use the keywords "Christmas Truce" to search the IWM collections database, and you'll discover many artifacts and manuscript items. The 2005 French film, Joyeux Noel, looks at the truce from the perspective of various soldiers.

The temporary embrace of peace was both miracle and tragedy--that it was possible, even for such a brief time, made it all the more heartbreaking that it was abandoned and combat resumed once again. However, that soldiers were able to set aside differences of all kinds and relate to one another as people did much to destabilize nationalistic sentiment on both sides. In fact, so potentially threatening to the war were these several days of peace that both sides' armies resolved that there would be no repetition of the Christmas Truce in subsequent years. War offices also worked to repress the truth about the truce, such that it was regarded as only the stuff of legend for some time afterward.

Until the next time we visit the Ghosts of 1914 and of Christmases past, I wish you all a very happy and peaceful holiday.

© Fiona Robinson

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