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Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness

Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches -- in some cases only 100 feet -- allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs -- including some in their enemy's language or in Latin -- was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco's finest hour.

In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.


Soldiers climb out of a trench in World War I. The losses from such warfare were massive on both sides. (AP)

"I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays. . . . We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination -- the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake."

On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man's land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.

"They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry," a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. "The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again."

An English captain, R.J. Armes, wrote: "At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked."

According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back "as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him," wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.

It didn't work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.

Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.

The General's Perspective

The meaning of the truce has been debated for years.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: "The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired."

There's a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness -- which every participant recognized -- is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.

Christian Carion, the director of "Joyeux Noel," wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: "We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion."

He made his movie in Romania instead.

Staff researchers Gretchen Hoff in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this article.


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