Nick Barbash | A Christmas Story of Peace and Love

Friday, 24 December 2004 19:15 by: Anonymous

Also see below:     
Garth Brooks | Belleau Wood    [
Debi Smith | A Christmas Story    [
John McCutcheon | Christmas in the Trenches    [
Last Survivor of 'Christmas Truce' Tells of His Sorrow    [

    A Christmas Story of Peace and Love
    By Nick Barbash
    The Daily Cardinal

    Thursday 09 December 2004

    This Christmas Eve marks the 90th anniversary of a wondrous event that will likely never happen again.

    On the night of Dec. 24, 1914, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force and the Fifth French Army were huddled in trenches along the Western Front near the Belgian town of Flanders. They had ceased combat operations and were preparing a small Christmas celebration.

    Approximately 250 yards across the combat zone known as no man's land, the German First and Second Armies were doing the same within their own cold and dirty trenches. For both sides, Christmas was a brief respite from a war that was only five months old but whose horrors of poison gas, heavy artillery and death by the thousands had already eclipsed anything previously experienced in human history.

    Sometime around 9 p.m., a company sergeant-major in the North Staffordshire Regiment reported to his commander that several dozen German soldiers had climbed out of the trenches and were lighting candles and singing songs. The commander peered out over the parapet and was astonished to see a single unarmed German soldier walking toward them bearing a white flag. He crawled out of the British trench and met the soldier halfway across the battlefield, where he discovered the German had been a waiter in England before the war and was interested in trading cigars for brandy. He took the British commander to a group of German officers, and it was agreed there would be an unofficial truce until midnight of Christmas night.

    All along the Western Front, hundreds of soldiers on both sides poured out of the trenches into no man's land to celebrate Christmas with the men they had sworn to kill. British 2nd Lt. Dougan Chater wrote in a letter that "in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas."

    The opposing sides exchanged candy, liquor, cigarettes and plum pudding. They roasted a pig. They played an enthusiastic soccer game on the frozen ground, which, according to German Lt. Johannes Niemann, was "three goals to two in favor of Fritz against Tommy." They sang carols of the season, never caring that some of them sang "Stille Nacht" while others sang "Silent Night." They helped bury each other's dead and recited prayers for peace together.

    Not everyone was overcome by the surreal sight of German and British soldiers sitting and laughing together on their own battlefield. Gustav Riebensahm of the 2nd Westphalian regiment wrote in his diary, "the whole thing has slowly become ridiculous and must be stopped." Lt. Bruce Bairnsfather wrote, "It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match ... not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed." A young Austrian soldier named Adolf Hitler said such an exchange "should not be allowed."

    But as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day and the camaraderie continued, most of the men on either side began to think about how this Christmas miracle altered their perception of the conflict in which they were engaged. British soldier Sapper Davey declared, "hate, for a moment, disappeared along the Western Front." Josef Sebald observed, "this was war ... but there was no trace of enmity between us." British 2nd Lt. Drummond recalled a German remarking, "We don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill us. So why shoot?"

    Inevitably, Christmas came and went, and the time for the resumption of hostilities approached. British and German soldiers bade their new friends farewell, telling each other to stay low and that they would aim high when ordered to open fire.

    Several hours later, as the guns on what was once again the enemy side went off, a tin can was discovered in a British trench with a piece of paper inside it that read, "We shoot to the air." Thus ended the strangest, most unlikely 24 hours any of them would ever experience.

    According to John McCutcheon, who penned the ballad "Christmas in the Trenches," British commander Ian Calhoun was court-martialed along with several others for fraternizing with the enemy. World War I dragged on for four more years, at the cost of 38 million total casualties.

    But for just one day, a small group of ordinary people was able to embrace the humanity of those they had been told were simply targets, and in doing so, was able to temporarily reclaim their own humanity.

    It is my Christmas wish that 90 more years not pass before the guns go silent again forever.


    Nick Barbash is a sophomore majoring in political science and international studies.

 


    Go to Original

    Belleau Wood
    By Garth Brooks

    Saturday 25 December 2004

    Listen as you read 
    Real Player Required

    Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
    Over Belleau Wood that night
    For a Christmas truce had been declared
    By both sides of the fight

    As we lay there in our trenches
    The silence broke in two
    By a German soldier singing
    A song that we all knew

    Though I did not know the language
    The song was "Silent Night"
    Then I heard my buddy whisper,
    "All is calm and all is bright"

    Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
    "Cause I'd die if I was wrong
    But I stood up in my trench
    And I began to sing along

    Then across the frozen battlefield
    Anothers voice joined in
    Until one by one each man became
    A singer of the hymn

    Then I thought that I was dreaming
    For right there in my sight
    Stood the German soldier
    'Neath the falling flakes of white

    And he raised his hand and smiled at me
    As if he seemed to say
    Here's hoping we both live
    To see us find a better way

    Then the devil's clock struck midnight
    And the skies lit up again
    And the battlefield where heaven stood
    Was blown to hell again

    But for just one fleeting moment
    The answer seemed so clear
    Heaven's not beyond the clouds
    It's just beyond the fear

    No, heaven's not beyond the clouds
    It's for us to find it here


    -from the Garth Brooks CD "Seven" - Belleau Wood.

 


    A Christmas Story
    By Debi Smith
    t r u t h o u t | Perspective

    Saturday 25 December 2004

    On the longest night of the year, I was at my computer struggling to compose a holiday greeting. It was about two in the morning and I decided to take a break and search online for an interesting Christmas story. Our family had been invited to come to a friend's house the following evening to share in an old fashioned poetry and story reading, "something Christmas related," my friend had said.

    Our families met a couple of years ago when their nine year old daughter joined the soccer team I was coaching and which my own daughter was on. They pulled up to the first practice in an old Toyota which sported Montana license plates and a "Free Tibet" sticker. They had just moved to town.

    The mother soon proved herself to be one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, and generous people I've ever known; surreptitiously leaving me baked goods in my car from the bakery she and her husband were operating, offering to help out whenever and wherever needed, and always positive and enthusiastic. In our chats after practice, we soon learned that we had many things in common: similar parenting styles, similar eclectic and somewhat radical ideas about education, similar values and approaches to living... Our daughters, and our families, were soon hitting it off and it wasn't long before we got together and shared a meal.

    It's funny how laying food out on a table tends to encourage the laying out of our most deeply held beliefs as well. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the ancient and almost sacred act of breaking bread makes us feel safe, nourished, and trusting enough to be ourselves. The topic soon turned to politics.

    Somehow, politics had never been a direction our afternoon chats had wandered, surprisingly, considering how much time I was then spending researching the events of September 11th and the disturbing conclusions I was coming to and so vocal about with everyone else.

    But here we were breaking bread together and talking politics for the first time. I quickly realized I'd made an incorrect assumption. Never assume that just because someone drives a car with a "Free Tibet" sticker on the back it automatically means the passengers are politically liberal.

    Thus began an interesting and somewhat tentative friendship with Libertarian leaning Bush supporters.

    My new friend and I continued to have wonderful dialogues about mothering, schooling, etc. Our families still shared meals, though with a tacit agreement to avoid discussing politics. Over time however, concurrent with the Bush administration's rush to war in Iraq, the dinner dates and get togethers began happening less and less frequently. This didn't stop the kids however, who still continued to have their play-dates and sleep-overs.

    Kids don't care what someone's politics are. It's not that they don't care in the sense of being un- interested. In fact in the past few months I've been surprised at how many times I overheard kids asking their friends - whose parents represented the entire political spectrum - who they were "voting" for, and regardless of the answer, would continue on happily with whatever they were mutually engaged in.

    Shortly before November's election, my friend's daughter showed up for her classes at the local homeschooling center our family also attends-a place widely regarded as being fairly liberal (though political labels are such an ineffective way of defining anyone). She'd just been to a Bush rally the previous day and was covered from head to toe in Bush placards and buttons. My first feeling upon seeing her was one of frustration and dismay. I'd had my own Bush experience the previous day in which I witnessed first hand a very disturbing assault upon civil liberties and was feeling especially concerned about the direction our country was headed. Seeing this young girl so gleefully supporting Bush almost sent me over the edge. Almost immediately however, I caught myself in another faux pas. This one perhaps more major than the last. How could I worry about the demise of civil liberties on one hand and be upset with an eleven year old for exercising hers on the other?

    Two days later I observed this same 11 year old girl, still sporting her Bush buttons, giggling and eating lunch with a friend. Her friend wore a hand painted "Kids for Kerry" t-shirt festooned with Kerry buttons. They certainly didn't seem to be having any problems with each other.

    These events and observations brought about a needed shift in my perceptions. Which in turn also seemed to precipitate a positive shift, despite political differences, in the friendship our families shared. Even so, however, there's been one nagging question I've been unable to ignore. How could they be supportive of Bush? It's a question I've regularly, and timidly, pondered asking them.

    When my friend called this week inviting our family over for a holiday gathering, asking us to bring along a reading, I told her that we'd love to attend and that I'd be sure to bring along something "anti-Christmas or political" to read. It's the most "political" thing I've said to her in months. It was met with silence. I laughed. For a moment she'd thought I was serious.

    Trying to find an interesting Christmas story or poem to share, I googled "a Christmas story." The search returned 605,000 results, the first of many being for the 1983 children's movie of the same name. Obviously I needed to narrow my defining operators so I added the word peace to my search. I knew this would turn up a plethora of results as well, but was especially interested in finding a story I could share that talked about peace. Jesus was the prince of it after all.

    My search returned 48,900 results. I haven't a clue what 48, 899 of them were however, because the very first one was all I needed. It was THE story I knew I was looking for.

    The story, published on December 9, 2004 by the well regarded University of Wisconsin-Madison student newspaper, and written by Nick Barbash- a sophomore majoring in political science and international studies-is titled "A Christmas story of peace and love."

    Here was the retelling of a story-a true story-that happened 90 years ago this Christmas Eve, about soldiers in a time of war laying down their weapons for a brief moment in time, and coming together to celebrate their humanity.

    Sometime around 9 p.m., a company sergeant-major in the North Staffordshire Regiment reported to his commander that several dozen German soldiers had climbed out of the trenches and were lighting candles and singing songs. The commander peered out over the parapet and was astonished to see a single unarmed German soldier walking toward them bearing a white flag. He crawled out of the British trench and met the soldier halfway across the battlefield, where he discovered the German had been a waiter in England before the war and was interested in trading cigars for brandy. He took the British commander to a group of German officers, and it was agreed there would be an unofficial truce until midnight of Christmas night.

    All along the Western Front, hundreds of soldiers on both sides poured out of the trenches into no man's land to celebrate Christmas with the men they had sworn to kill...

    The opposing sides exchanged candy, liquor, cigarettes and plum pudding. They roasted a pig. They played an enthusiastic soccer game on the frozen ground...They sang carols of the season, never caring that some of them sang "Stille Nacht" while others sang "Silent Night." They helped bury each other's dead and recited prayers for peace together.

    As I read, a dim recognition of the story came from some remote corner of my memory. Maybe I'd read a version of it somewhere, or perhaps I'd heard about it on TV, or maybe a history class mentioned it, or maybe it's just some primal knowing that humankind has the potential for such things. Nevertheless, I was stunned. I immediately began searching the internet for more details. I wanted to verify the story, but was also incredibly intrigued and wanted to learn more. Apparently, many people through the years have tried to chalk the story up to being mostly legend. But in a 2001 interview in the National Review, Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, tells how he became convinced it was more than myth.

    In 1985 I published a book about the five days leading up to the Armistice in November 1918, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. While researching it I discovered the abortive informal armistice in 1914 that had bubbled up from the ranks on Christmas Eve. Although it clearly happened, and survivors had been on a BBC television documentary in 1982, the event had taken on the quality of myth. I determined to find out more, particularly to grasp the mythic power that the truce seemed to possess, and to examine it from both sides. I had begun my earlier book with the line, "Peace is harder to make than war," and as I worked on Silent Night that line became even more meaningful. Although I was working on other books at the time, including two on World War II and several biographies, every time I went to England or Germany on other research, I dipped into files of newspapers for January 1915, as troops mesmerized by the miraculous Christmas peace, a sort of waking dream they could hardly believe, wrote home about it. In those pre-censorship days, the letters were often sent on to local newspapers, which printed them. Then I went to the military archives. It was all real - even the football games (our soccer) in No Man's Land. I even found some of the scores.

    In 1998, BBC News ran a story based on the book Christmas Truce which was written by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton.

    The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is as much a part of the historical texture of World War I as the gas clouds of Ypres or the Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been dismissed as though it were merely a myth. Or, assuming anything of the kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident, blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and pacifists of later generations.

    But the truce did take place, and on some far greater scale than has been generally realized. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No Man's Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!"

    I can't help but wonder. How many of today's servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, or how many of the so called "insurgents" who are really mostly just regular people resisting an illegal occupation, or how many of the innocent bystanders and victims of war would really just prefer a nice meal together, an exchange of simple gifts, and perhaps a nice game of soccer rather than all the senseless killing and dying currently taking place?

    Weintraub doubts that the kind of truce that took place in No Man's Land 90 years ago could ever happen again, saying at the end of his interview, "To see a common humanity in likely future opponents seems unlikely. A Christmas truce could not happen again without a mutual respect for the values of Christmas."

    I see his point, but I'd like to respectfully disagree. I have much more in common with my Bush supporting friend than a shared holiday. Our humanity is not bound by our religious beliefs, by what we do for a living or live to do, by what color our skin is, by how much money we have or don't have, nor even, as I now realize, is it bound by what our politics might be. Our humanity is much bigger and deeper than that.

    I shared Nick's story at the reading last night. I also shared the poem, Christmas in the Trenches, written twenty years ago by John McCutcheon. It was met, despite all the mixed political viewpoints in the room, with resounding applause. We ourselves were meeting in our own No Man's Land after all, rising above our petty differences and recognizing something more deeply shared..

    Another Christmas truce like the one that took place all along the Western Front in the winter of 1914 may be unlikely. And sending cards proclaiming "Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All" are but meaningless and futile exercises if we can't find that space between the trenches-that no man's land that is really everyman's- where we, if even for only but a moment, see ourselves and our humanity reflected in another's eyes. Deep down we know we share something greater than the values of the few but powerful people asking us to kill each other. Deep down we know we share something far greater than the values proclaimed by any one religious, political, or cultural belief.

    It is my wish for humanity that we start living more fully that which we deeply know. For when we do, No Man's Land will cease being littered with the awful detritus of our fear and in its place will bloom the hope, life, and dreams we all commonly share. And then we shall finally know the true meaning of Christmas and Peace on Earth.


    Debi Smith writes from Ashland, Oregon, where she shares a home with her husband, two children, a cat, and a dog. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 


    Go to Original

    Christmas in the Trenches
    By John McCutcheon
    Catholic.net

    Saturday 25 December 2004

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht." "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
"There's someone coming toward us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same

 


    Go to Original

    Last Survivor of 'Christmas Truce' Tells of His Sorrow
    By Lorna Martin
    The Observer U.K.

    Sunday 19 December 2004

The First World War's horrors still move us but one man recalls his moment of peace amid the bloodshed.

    The words drifted across the frozen battlefield: 'Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht'. To the ears of the British troops peering over their trench, the lyrics may have been unfamiliar but the haunting tune was unmistakable. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree glowing with light. 'Merry Christmas. We not shoot, you not shoot.'

    It was just after dawn on a bitingly cold Christmas Day in 1914, 90 years ago on Saturday, and one of the most extraordinary incidents of the Great War was about to unfold.

    Weary men climbed hesitantly at first out of trenches and stumbled into no man's land. They shook hands, sang carols, lit each other's cigarettes, swapped tunic buttons and addresses and, most famously, played football, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using their caps or steel helmets as goalposts. The unauthorised Christmas truce spread across much of the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped.

    According to records held by the World War One Veterans' Association, there is only one man in the world still alive who spent 25 December 1914 serving in a conflict that left 31 million people dead, wounded or missing.

    Alfred Anderson was 18 at the time. Speaking to The Observer, Anderson has revealed remarkable new details of the day etched on history, including pictures of Christmas gifts sent to the troops.

    His unit, the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, was one of the first involved in trench warfare. He had left his home in Newtyle, Angus, in October, taking the train from Dundee to Southampton, then a ferry to Le Havre.

    He was happy, healthy and surrounded by most of his former school friends, who had all joined the Territorial Army together in 1912. In October 1914 they thought that they were at the start of an exciting adventure. But by the first Christmas of the war they had already experienced its horror and the death of young friends was commonplace.

    On 24 and 25 December, Anderson's unit was billeted in a dilapidated farmhouse, away from the front line, so he did not participate in any football matches. 'We didn't have the energy, anyway,' he said. But he can still recall vividly what happened on Christmas Day 1914.

    'I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,' he said. 'Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices.

    'But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted "Merry Christmas", even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.'

    In some parts of the front, the ceasefire lasted several weeks. There are also numerous trench yarns, some possibly apocryphal, about the impromptu fraternising. One, detailed in Michael Jurgs's book The Small Peace in the Big War, involved a young private who was led to a tent behind German lines by an aristocratic officer and plied with Veuve Clicquot. In another tale, a barber supposedly set up shop in no man's land, offering a trim to troops from either side.

    Now aged 108 and living alone in Alyth, Perthshire, Anderson still treasures the gift package sent to every soldier a few days before the first Christmas of the war from the Princess Royal. The brass box, which is embossed with a profile of Princess Mary, was filled with cigarettes.

    It also contained a cream card, with 1914 on the front, which says: 'With best wishes for a happy Christmas and a victorious New Year, from the Princess Mary and friends at home.'

    'I'd no use for the cigarettes so I gave them to my friends,' he said. 'A lot of the lads thought the box was worth nothing, but I said someone's bound to have put a lot of thought into it. Some of the boys had Christmas presents from home anyway, but mine didn't arrive on time.'

    To his delight, he discovered that his most treasured possession - a New Testament given to him by his mother before he left for France and inscribed with the message: 'September 5, 1914. Alfred Anderson. A Present from Mother' - fitted the box perfectly.

    He kept both in his breast pocket until 1916 when a shell exploded over a listening post in no man's land killing several of his friends and seriously injuring him.

    'This is all I brought home from the war,' he said, showing the box and Bible, but forgetting about his beret with its famous red hackle, which is the first thing you see when you step into his home.

    There are still many aspects of the war that Anderson finds difficult to talk about. 'I saw so much horror,' he said, shaking his head and gazing into the middle distance. 'I lost so many friends.'

    He recalled one incident that gave him a 'sore heart'. When he was first home on leave, he visited the family of a dead friend to express his condolences. He knew them well but soon realised that he was getting a frosty reception. 'I asked if they were going to ask me in and they said no. When I asked why, they just said, "Because you're here and he's not". That was awful. He's one of the lads I miss most.'

    Two years ago Prince Charles paid him a private visit after learning that he had served briefly as batman to the Queen Mother's brother, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who, along with hundreds of Mr. Anderson's regimental colleagues, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

    The seemingly invincible Anderson, who was awarded France's highest honour - the L gion d'Honneur - in 1998 for his services during the First World War, was recently in the rare position of witnessing one of his six children's golden wedding anniversaries. His children, he said, five of whom are still alive, are what keeps him going.

    Alfred Anderson has spent 90 years trying to forget the war. But it has been impossible. So on Saturday he will look back. 'I'll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year. And I'll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it's too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad,' he said, his head bowed and his eyes filled with tears.

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 14:46