Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas and the origin of "No Man's Land"

British and German soldiers meeting in No Man's Land during the Christmas Truce of 1914.

If you look closely at the above picture, you will see both German and British troops posing together.  You would be forgiven if you thought it was an archival photo of former combatants on Armistice Day, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  But the photo was taken on Christmas Day in 1914.  The Christmas Truce.

World War One had to have been one of the most horrific to have fought in.  Modern weaponry met left over Napoleonic tactics of lining up and marching toward the enemy.  And those horrors were not even the most dangerous problems that faced the front line soldiers: a flu pandemic and freezing, waterlogged trenches.  Germany knew at the War's outset that it would soon face two fronts: the allied forces to the west and the Tsar to the east.  So before the Russian forces could be mobilized, the German's launched the Schlieffen Plan.  They drove hard and fast into France.  However, the French, British and Belgian forces rallied, and held the line, but were not able to push the enemy back.  Both sides dug in and horrible trench warfare was born.  Those trenches were only a few hundred feet apart and the area in between became known as "No Man's Land." 

As the warfare stagnated, the two sides started to communicate.  In many ways the fighters were more similar then they were different.  Young men, little more than boys, facing the same miserable elements and illnesses.  They would yell funny insults during the lulls in battle to see who could get the biggest rise out of the unseen opposing soldiers just a few yards away.  In some cases, it turned out they knew each other, such as the German tailor whose clients in his pre-war London shop ended up in the unit across the way.  Then in Ypres, Belgium, a strange thing started to happen.  Perhaps, with all that the opposing soldiers had in common, it should not have been that surprising, but as Christmas Eve approached, a detente evolved.  As dark fell, the Brits saw lights starting to glow from the German lines.  Lights at night in the trenches were deadly because it gave the other side a great silhouette to put an Enfield round through.  But the British did not shoot.  They were intrigued, though at first they thought it was a trick.  Until they realized that the Germans were setting up a myriad of Christmas Trees.  Soon the Allied forces reciprocated and one side alternated serenading the other with carols. 

The Christmas miracle, of sorts, grew on Christmas Day itself.  A few Allied soldiers asked the German's if it would be OK for them to venture out into No Man's Land to bury the bodies of long dead French soldiers who had sat there unattended because foregoing the cover of the trenches was akin to certain death.  Not only did the German's agree, they got out of their own trenches to help.  Imagine, British and German soldiers burying French dead together on Christmas Day.  From there, they shared a meal and then stories from the home front.  A member of the Bedfordshire Regiment produced a soccer ball and a game raged with the Germans until the ball was punctured by barbed wire.  The leaders of both sides knew just how dangerous this whole thing was.

Maybe the poor guys across the way weren't the embodiment of evil that the propaganda said they were.  Worse still, both sides started to tell everyone back home what had happened.  It is tough to get your populace to support the extraordinary effort required to wage war.  The price in lost sons and lost production is immeasurable.  So those in power clamped down.  Hard.  Allied officers who witnessed, let alone engaged in, the Christmas Truce, were reassigned and demoted.  The Germans issued an order that anyone who engaged in such fraternization in the future were to be summarily shot.  With some grumbles, the soldiers on both sides fell back into their pre-truce routines. 

So here I sit some 97 years later and wonder at the miracle that was the Christmas Truce of 1914.  Unsanctioned and certainly unofficial, the truce that grew organically out of shared adversity was a phenomena we should never forget.  Purveyors of hatred who undoubtedly cared more about their own personal power ended up winning the day.  On that day, but maybe not forever.  I cannot but think (hope?) that the internet is our own new found No Man's Land where it is easy to lob rounds at anonymous and unseen enemies on the other side, yet messages and humor waft back across to let us know we may be more alike than we thought.  If we communicate a little more and fight a little less, maybe we will discover we have more in common than we do not.  Perhaps peace will once again organically break out.

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