The Walls They'd Kept Between Us: The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Walls They'd Kept Between Us: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of World War One's legendary Christmas Truce, when English and German soldiers in the first few deathly months of the war spontaneously laid down their guns to declare their shared humanity in what one young Englishman called "one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen." About 30,000 British soldiers up and down the Western Front took part in the truce, enraging military commanders. The next day, combat resumed until November 11, 1918. By then, over ten million soldiers had died, along with seven million civilians.

From muddy miserable trenches on both sides of No Man's Land on 1914's frozen Christmas Eve, the truce spread: From Germans singing Stille Nacht, to English singing While Shepherds Watched, to a couple of Germans climbing out of their trench, waving their arms and shouting "A Merry Christmas, English! We are not shooting tonight!" Their act was followed by grateful swarms of combatants likewise clambering out, shaking hands with each other, and decorating trenches and bayonets with candles and lanterns. On a merciful Christmas Day, both sides sang together, saluted each other, held prayer services, buried the dead their new partners in peace had just killed, and exchanged what gifts they had - a pack of cigarettes, a plum pudding, a brass button. Wrote one Englishmen in a newly published letter, "We exchanged buttons and cigarettes. And I had two or three cigars given me, and we laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether." They also, famously, played soccer. The match was re-enacted this year by English, German and other NATO troops in Kabul; midway through the match, in perfect synchronicity, play on the make-shift pitch had to be postponed for the landing of a Black Hawk helicopter holding John McCain, visiting American troops.  Never was John McCutcheon's great song about the Christmas Truce more timelessly, heartbreakingly true. 

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 for evermore.

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.

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Burying the dead

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With a poignant, likewise timeless bonus from George Harrison.

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