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December 05, 2022

Family Feud, Brotherly Love

By Van Lee

Many argue that World War One was a "family feud" of sorts. Indeed the leadership of many of the European nations were related. Kaiser Wilhelm II was closely related to the leaders of Great Britain and Russia. His mother was the aunt of Tzar Nicholas's wife (Alexandra) and the sister of King Edward VII. That made him 1st cousin to by marriage to the leader of Russia and by blood to King George V, King of Great Britain during WWI. That alone made three of the four major European powers (France being the fourth) related. Beyond this, many of the smaller European nations were ruled by distant relatives. Considering royalty sought to marry others of royal blood, it isn't any mystery as to how all the various nations came have related leaders.

Even on a more philosophical level one can argue we are all related. Many religions believe that all mankind came from a single set of people. If you subscribe to the theory of "Six Degrees of Separation," then at the very least all the belligerents were casual acquaintances. Of course the later would apply to most any conflict in history, but when combined with the bloodlines of their leadership, this really made WWI something of an anomaly of being a family feud that spread to encompass much of the world. And for anyone who has been involved in a family squabble, they can attest that family fights are often the nastiest. So it was with WWI. In the end, this family feud costs the lives of over five million Allied soldiers, sailors, etc., while a further three million died for the cause of the Central Powers. Another twenty-one million from both sides combined were wounded. All in all, WWI was the bloodiest conflict in history only to be later outdone by one single war, that being WWII.

Many times during the holidays, even feuding family members will call for a truce, if only to allow everyone to enjoy a few short moments of peace, where family means more then the petty differences that have grown out of control. So it was in 1914, the first Christmas of the war. Like so many wars before and after, the troops went to war with the idea that they would, "be home for Christmas." Well, it was Christmas Eve and everyone was still in the trenches, but the prevalent attitude on both sides on the conflict was that the war was still going to end soon and morale was high. Fighting was the last thing on everyone's mind and many drifted to the fact that they were not home by Christmas like everyone had planned.

In the darkness it started, quite at first, the lyrics of "Holy Night, Silent Night," calling out in the distance. No one really knows whose trench it was coming from. But soon enough, men from trenches of the Allies and the Central Powers were singing Christmas Carols in unison. After a while, someone called out, telling the enemy not to shoot. He crawled out of the trench, slowly, hoping that the other side would follow his request and not fire. No one fired. Shortly troops from both sides were in No Man's Land, the short distance between enemy trenches where most of the fighting took place.

On this occasion, the desire for a Merry Christmas, the desire to be home with family, the desire for life to just return to normal, prevailed. Men who were trying to kill each other only a few short hours before now began to exchange gifts. There weren't too much to exchange, but they found what they could. Many simply shared a cigarette with the enemy. Their respective governments had sent out care packages to the troops. The British had received packs with plum pudding and "Princess Mary Boxes." "Princess Mary Boxes" were metal boxes with an outline of King George V engraved on it and filled with chocolates, butterscotch, cigarettes. Also it came with a print of King George V wishing the troops, "May God protect you and bring you safe home." A rare treat for the men who had grown accustomed to the horrible fare they had been treated to in the trenches. The Germans had received meerschaum pipes for their enlisted personnel and cigars for officers. And of course, supporters of both sides had managed to get treats such as food, blankets, etc. in to the troops they supported. All of this was shared.

Numerous stories abound as to what all happened on that evening. According to one British correspondent, the "Jerries," slang for Germans, sent a chocolate cake to the British trench. A message was with this cake requesting a cease-fire. One of the German officers was celebrating his birthday and his troops hoped to throw him a short party. The British troops agreed and even offered some of their tobacco as a return gesture for the cake. At the requested time, the Germans stood up in their trench and began to sing being greeted by rounds of applause from both sides of "No Mans Land." The Germans called out for the British to join in. Legend states that one British soldier retorted, "We'd rather die then sing German." Supposedly, a German soldier called out, "It would kill us if you did!"

The British leadership was comfortably entrenched in a chateau nearly thirty miles away. Somehow they had received news of what was happening and the overall British commander Sir John French issued a warning to not fraternize with the enemy. These orders were immediately passed down to battalion and company commanders who in turn gave warning of the possible consequences. At the same time, these lower-ranking officers joined in the fraternization. After all, it would be up to them to determine who should be brought up on disciplinary action. They passed the general orders along fulfilling their orders, but they allowed the fraternization to continue. If nothing else, the lull in fighting would give them the time to strengthen their own fortifications.

As the sun rose, the fraternization became more prevalent. It has been documented with photographic evidence that some soldiers who were barbers in civilian life gave free haircuts to men on both sides. At least one German showman gave an impromptu juggling performance in the middle of "No Mans Land." Numerous games of soccer were played along the front-line, British "Tommie" against German "Jerries." One could only imagine the longing for such a competition to be the ultimate confrontation to decide their national grievances.

But the cheerful occasion still carried tragedy. Considering that most of the fighting had occurred in "No Mans Land," both sides also used this as an opportunity to gather their dead comrades that had otherwise been unrecoverable to this time. It has been claimed by many that the enemy forces helped each other gather and bury their dead.

In several locations, the truce continued on for a few days, but in most locations as night fell on Christmas Day, the war resumed, business as usual. One particular incident really illustrates the attitudes of the troops and the way the war resumed. Captain J.C. Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and his company had fraternized with the German troops. The Germans had even given them two kegs of beer during the day. At 8:30 the night of Christmas, Dunn fired three shots in the air to get the attention of men on both sides. Dunn climbed up one of the parapets and raised a flag that simply stated, "Merry Christmas." The Germans raised a flag on their side that said, "Thank You." Dunn and the German officer who raised their flag bowed to each other, gave each other a salute, then climbed back into their respective trenches. Once inside their trenches, the German officer fired two shots into the air. With those two shots, the war was once again on.

These incidents were greatly reported on in Great Britain and even in Germany many newspapers reported on this. But the people at home, particularly the family leaders, felt the war needed to continue. And so it did until November 11, 1918. But despite the horrendous tragedy that is WWI, some hope can be gleaned from this incident. Men at war are trained to hate and kill. The enemy is demonized and often thought of a sub-human. Yet through all this, humanity still holds the ability to put this aside and spread goodwill, cheer, love towards fellow man, and hope in general. It is the British and German men of the Christmas Truce of 1914 that gives humanity hope. If these men could put aside their differences even on a temporary basis in this manner, then there really isn't any reason why others can't. In the end, we are all related and family, and this Christmas remember this, family is more important then petty squabbles.

This is the Armchair Historian wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, happy Diwali, happy Kwanzaa, whatever holiday you may celebrate. And to all, have a great New Year.

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-12-05
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