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A Different Perspective: A Christmas truce

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 5th, 2013

It was bitterly cold. The winter of 1914 on the Western Front in the first year of what was then known as “The Great War,” or as we know it, World War I, was cold and miserable for millions of men drawn into what became a cataclysm.

In July 1914, nobody believed a war would occur; the latest Balkan crisis would result in bluster and bluff but not much else. Within a week both the French and British were mobilizing their armies. Soldiers marched off to war with bands playing and young girls throwing flowers in their path. Millions of men were under arms throughout Europe.

The first battles were of unbelievable scale in a vast war of movement, cavalry charges and wide, sweeping maneuvers. Modern technology unleashed unbelievable slaughter; by the end of the first three months of war, over 350,000 men had been killed and the toll continued to mount as men were forced into trenches. The trenches soon became permanent with men living a miserable existence in knee-deep mud, snow and freezing rain.

Just before Christmas Eve on a section of the Western Front near a portion of France that had been occupied by the German Army, another assault into the German trenches by French and Scottish troops failed with heavy casualties. The bodies lay where they fell between the lines, barely 100 yards apart.

The German High Command had ordered over 100,000 Christmas trees to be delivered to the Front to boost the morale of the soldiers. On Christmas Eve, the trees were placed about every 25 feet, lit and decorated to become a source of puzzlement to the British and French troops. A German soldier, actually a famous actor and singer, began to sing Silent Night. Soon he was joined by a British soldier and then adjacent French.

A German Officer suggested to his French and British counterparts that at least for Christmas Eve, there would be a cease-fire, which was accepted by all. Men who only a few hours before were sworn enemies laid down their arms and shared what meager rations they had between them. The truce lasted throughout the night and into the next day, when the officers agreed that the bodies of their dead should be removed and buried. Enemies lowered their rifles for a football — soccer as we know it — and for a few hours the rivalry was confined to a sport versus killing.

Letters sent home were first read by censors and the truce soon became common knowledge among outraged high commands of all three armies. The Scottish Regiment was disbanded by order of the king, its soldiers dispersed to other regiments. As in most wars, being a newcomer or replacement significantly decreases your chances of survival. The French unit was transferred to the Verdun sector, which in 1916 produced over 600,000 casualties in nine months. The German units were transferred in sealed boxcars across Germany to the Eastern front opposite the Russians. The German commander who initiated the truce was a Jewish lieutenant and his fate and that of most of his soldiers is unknown.

The power of Christmas, the birth of an infant in an insignificant backwater town of the Middle East 2000 years ago, has tremendous power over the minds and hearts of men. For a while, an evening and a day, armies were halted in their tracks and a war ceased for a short time. Even in a time of great tragedy, the meaning of Christmas can bring hope to all men.

Al Fonzi is a retired Army Lt. Colonel and career intelligence officer with more than 30 years of service. He is a self-described conservative and active in several political organizations. Fonzi first moved to Atascadero in 1972.

For the complete article see the 12-26-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 12-26-2012 paper.

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