March 17, 2018

Merry Christmas, 1914

On this day in 1914 the "Christmas Truce" of WWI, tentatively and spontaneously begun the previous evening at many places along the Front, held. This meant a day of anything from conversation to gift giving to soccer games to dining out:
    We ate their Sauerkraut and they [ate] our chocolate, cakes, etc. We had killed a pig just behind our lines. There were quite a lot of creatures rambling about the lines, including an old sow with a litter and lots of cattle and poetry. We cooked the pig in No Man's Land, sharing it with the Boche.
This recollection and many others are in Silent Night, by historian Stanley Weintraub. In the following passage, Weintraub quotes the memoirs of the famous British soldier-cartoonist of trench life, Bruce Bairnsfather:
    Even after the extraordinary Christmas Eve, soldiers were astonished by what they saw at daylight on Christmas Day. "I awoke at dawn," Bruce Bairnsfather recalled, "and on emerging on all fours from my dugout, became aware that the trench was practically empty. I stood upright in the mud and looked over the parapet. No Man's Land was full of clusters ... of khaki and gray ... pleasantly chatting together.
"Khaki Chums" bailing out on Christmas day, 1999. Photo copyright Khaki Chums.
The "outbreak of peace" has been commemorated by play, poem and the movie Joyeaux Noel -- and by the tv show Blackadder: "Both sides advanced more during one Christmas piss-up than they managed in the next two-and-a-half years of war." But nothing reads as well as the first-person accounts, these now including those from the "Khaki Chums," a British reenactment group who had the "blatantly daft idea" of commemorating the "Christmas Truce" of 1914 exactly where Bairnsfather experienced it. In 1999, nine of them spent five days near St. Yvon, Belgium wearing army issue, eating from tins in period labels, digging and living in regulation trenches -- three and a half feet deep, sandbagged three feet high, covered with Victorian doors, floored with planks which disappeared in the mud. It was cold and wet and, in the eyes of Chief Chum, Trish Gillingham, perfect:
    The digging continued throughout Christmas Eve, and by late afternoon the place was looking quite comfortable -- a real home from home. In fact just the place you would love to spend Christmas if you didn't want to spend it in an alcohol-induced slumber in front of a warm fire stuffing yourself senseless and swapping presents that you neither want or need with others who feel the same.
Early Christmas morning the worst storm to hit Belgium in fifty years turned the usual two inches of trench water to two and then three feet. Calling their truce, the Chums retreated to a nearby barn for their Christmas Day festivities -- these included packages from home, mailed to the locals earlier and delivered that morning. But they were back in position that night, and they held what ground they had until Boxing Day; then they filled the trenches back in and got the nine o'clock ferry home.

Photo copyright Khaki Chums.
The crowd of journalists and television crews were not authentic, but the crowds of well-wishers, offering hospitality and so much to drink that we could have started up an off-licence," were sincere:
    At the end of our stay we planted a large cross as a mark of respect for those who fought and died in the area. As with our wreaths we expected it to be uprooted and thrown away shortly after we left. Therefore it came as quite a surprise to hear that the local people had treated the cross with wood preservative and set it in a concrete base. Already there are several poppy crosses at its base and the locals will keep it well looked after. It is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.
This last sentence is no longer accurate: not long ago, the Khaki Chums returned to rededicate their cross and to be present at the unveiling of a plaque on the wall of a nearby cottage, built on the site where Bairnsfather, in a dugout during the winter of 1914-15, drew his first frontline cartoons.

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