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Barbed Wire and the Spirit of Christmas

John A. Miller

The Christmas season has a special meaning to us all.  A meaning that is all our own.  It's the time of the year for our hopes and dreams to come true.  To feel the magic that touches our hearts and wishing for that miracle to come true.  Many remember this as the season to be jolly, bright, full of hope, and happiness.  While many others remember Christmas as the day that the Lord our Savior was born.  Christmas is also that time of year to take old feuds and bring them to an end.  Christmas has been in our homes, our hearts as well as on the battlefield.  

World War One was the last of what is generally referred to as a romantic war and the beginning of the modern war.  Many tactics used by the Germans during World War One, were learned from our American Civil War.  Observers from Prussia learned the usage of cavalry, trains, and also artillery.  The tactics of artillery crushed the forts of Denmark in 1864.  While using other tactics that were learned from our American Civil War, the Prussians were able to defeat the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1871.  With these victories Prussia was able to unite the independent states which created Germany as we know it today. 

Folklore has enlivened the Christmas season with stories such as Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  Even during the American Civil War Santa Claus came to visit the soldiers.  Riding his sleigh and passing gifts of comfort to the troops on the battlefield. Gifts such as candies, personal needs, tobacco, and coffee.  Soldiers would even cross over their lines during the night or pickets would yell across to the other side wanting to make a trade.    

The one story that I will always remember is called 'The Christmas Truce'.  This is a special story with a sincere meaning and morals that could thaw the coldest of hearts.  Not many people have heard about this true story. It is one that is not generally taught in school or at home, but I had heard it once when I was at church. Weihnachten is the German word for Christmas.  Many Christmas traditions that we know are from the German-speaking world. This story goes to the battlefields of Europe, when the Germans and Austrians invaded France and Belgium in a plan called the Schlieffen Plan. 

The Schlieffen Plan was named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who became Chief of General Staff in 1891. He developed a plan in 1899-1900 for mobilization of German army for attacking France.  After making changes to his plan, he submitted his plan in 1905. This was done after the Japanese defeated Russia in the Russo-Japan War. The plan would call for nearly all of the German Army wheeling through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg then entering France and keeping a small force in Germany to impede the expected Russian advance. 

In 1906, Helmuth von Moltke replaced General von Schlieffen as the new German Army Chief of Staff.  Moltke modified the strategy by advising that Holland was not to be invaded. The main route would now be through the flat plains of Flanders in Belgium, where this Christmas story takes place.  

The Schlieffen Plan was put into operation when the German Army invaded Luxembourg and Belgium in August of 1914. And by September the Schlieffen Plan had not done well. The Belgium Army had stalled the German advance with support of the British and French Armies, and the Russians also invaded Eastern Prussia. The events during the Schlieffen Plan ended the German hopes of a short and decisive war. The German Army was not destroyed and with its successful retreat, they started to fortify their positions by digging trenches between the North Sea to the Switzerland Frontier. 

In December 1914, after several months of heavy fighting, German and British troops had fought to a stalemate within their trenches. Troops faced each other in a stand off looking upon the fields of “No Mans Land” which was covered in barbed wire. Their living conditions in the trenches were very harsh.  They were full of mud and stale water from the winter rains that flooded the dugouts and turned them into mud holes. Soldiers had to keep their heads down to avoid getting shot by a sharp shooter. 

This picture is from a stereograph that I have in my collection.  It shows barbed wire in an area known as No Mans Land in Belgium.  No Mans Land is a term used by troops to describe the ground between the two opposing side. Its width along the Western Front would vary a great deal. The average distance in most sections was about 250 yards, although in some cases the troops were facing each other at 50 yards.  Barbed wire covered the area of No Mans Land in the areas most likely to be attacked.  Iron stakes laboriously driven into the ground under the black of night and as laboriously strung with barbed wire as part of the defenses to hold back enemy troops.  

The upper ends of the stakes you see would have a loop to hold the wire and the ends were sharpened in order that they may prove dangerous to the advancing troops.  Ten belts of barbed wire reached before the trenches. In some places the wire was more than a 100 feet deep. No Man's Land would be full of broken and abandoned military equipment and would also contain a large number of bodies that perished after a battle.  An advance across No Man’s Land was a very difficult task.  The function of the barbed wire was to delay the advancing soldiers by catching their clothing or tearing their flesh. 

Now after reading that one must wonder where this story is going. Although rarely remembered here in the states, the 'Christmas Truce' of 1914, was where the soldiers along the Western Front in the southern part of the Ypres Salient in Belgium laid down their arms on Christmas Day and met in No Man's Land.  German and British troops alike were pondering on memories of home and seeing images of their families.  It is a German tradition to celebrate Christmas on the evening of December 24 and war was no exception.

On December 24, 1914, during the night many German soldiers decorated their Christmas trees and placed them on the parapets and lit the candles.  British soldiers couldn’t figure out what was going on and were ordered not to fire but to watch closely.  The British soldiers soon heard the sounds of music coming from the German trenches.  During the night both sides were singing the same carol in different languages such as Silent Night, and Stille Nacht. 

Many of the Germans worked in England before the outbreak of war and many of them spoke English, and soon conversations began. Men hugged and saluted each other, laughed and cheered for one another. Eventually, the guns were silenced and unarmed men soon came out of the trenches onto the field of No Mans Land and sang Christmas carols, while their dead comrades littered the ground by their feet.

A heavy frost came that night and at sunrise on Weihnachstag (Christmas Day) some of the German soldiers came out of the trenches holding a branch of pine decorated with candles that were lit. Some of the British were stunned at what they saw as most soldiers had never seen a Christmas tree. While others created signs wishing their counter parts a Merry Christmas.  Officers who allowed their men to participate in the truce went into No Man's Land in small groups of three or four.  Even though the war had paused for the day, the trenches still had to be manned.

The truce started to spread over the lines in other places in which the French and Belgium troops also participated.  That day the two armies talked and played games of soccer or football using what ever they could spare to form a ball.  In one story a football game came to a close after their ball had struck the barbed wire fence. 

The men on both sides exchanged food, alcohol, chocolate, pictures and cigarettes for badly needed supplies. Soldiers even borrowed tools and equipment from their enemy, in order to improve their living conditions.  Some men cut off extra buttons from their uniforms or removed badges and traded them.  Soldiers also exchanged letters to be mailed to their families. The bodies of the dead had been there for several months trapped within No Man's Land were finally buried. This also gave another reason for the British and German soldiers on burial duty to talk and celebrate the truce that was endured that day. 

Both Germans and the British saw for the first time that their living conditions were indeed the same and that they were all men.  Soldiers realized that they had suffered the same, even though propaganda stated otherwise. Some of the soldiers even tried to get a close glimpse of the lay out of their opponents’ trench to mark where the gun emplacements were. The spirit of Christmas managed to stop some of the bloodshed and to ease each other while they were away from home.

However, fighting did occur on Christmas day in other places along the trenches. In France the truce was not very popular since the Germans were the invaders. France still bore the scars of their mortifying defeat of Franco and Prussian War during 1870-1871. The French resented the British soldiers for considering a ceasing fire. French women would spat at British troops when they heard them talking about the Christmas truce.

The spirit of Christmas oversaw the bloodshed on the battlefields of Europe. The soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce had a heart of steel, and in their eyes there was no evil, only good.  Overlooking the fields of barbed wire, the spirit of Christmas was felt far and wide. There were no Christmas lights or Christmas gifts. Just the uniforms they wore, and the joy of the Christmas they managed to share.  The soldiers on both sides had experienced the true meaning of Christmas in 1914. 

Arthur Tom Morgan sums it up the best when he wrote: “The image of opposing soldiers, shaking hands with each other on one day and then deliberately trying to kill each other the next, is a powerful one, and one which is part and parcel of remembrance of the Great War. It was, perhaps, a last example of open-handed chivalry before the squalor and horror of the next three years changed the old world forever.

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