When warring sides shared a bit of peace on earth

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The late Gazette editor Jack Rogers, stationed in Alaska during the Cold War, told of at least one incident that would have resulted in court martial, had higher-ups been aware or not looked the other way.

It seems American military personnel and their sworn enemies from the USSR were not opposed to occasional fraternization, meeting on the frozen Bering Sea to exchange pleasantries and not a small amount of authentic Russian vodka for some type of U.S. brew.

The sampling reportedly went a little too far on at least one occasion, a member of one of the military units going home with the wrong comrades.

The idea of an unofficial wartime truce was nothing new, of course, with one of the most famous occurring 105 years ago today, when German troops began placing candles on their trenches and Christmas trees, singing “Stille Nacht, heilege Nacht” loud enough for the British troops to join in with the English lyrics.

The next anyone knew, the two sides were exchanging gifts of food, tobacco and alcohol along No Man’s Land, along with souvenirs such as buttons and hats.

As artillery fell silent, the two sides allowed their enemies to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers for burial. Joint Christmas services were even held, and in some sections of the front, the truce continued through New Year’s Day.

“I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons.... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange....,” wrote Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war.

“The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Another letter: “Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere,” Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day.

“In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?”

Germans, British, American and even Russian combatants share a religious heritage unknown to enemies western soldiers encounter today, making the Christmas truces of a century ago impossible to repeat.

We can only hope and pray an authentic peace on earth is the world’s true destiny, thanks to the Christmas story.

Read a Wikipedia account of the Christmas Truce of 1914 here.

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