So with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” being such a big part of the holiday season, I thought a blog about Christmas truces in war time would be interesting. I need to think again. Warhistorybuffs know about the famous WW I Christmas truce that broke out spontaneously in the trenches of the Western Front in 1914. The German Landsers, British Tommies, and French and Belgian Poilu on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day decided to stop shooting at each other and instead in many spots celebrated together by exchanging small gifts and even playing soccer.
But 1914 was about it, much to my shock. Oh, war history is sprinkled with a few heart-warming stories of enemies calling it quits for a day. I will relate one such story here. What I did find in my googling is the holidays are a popular time for attacking, and surprisingly, some of the more aggressive Christmas war leaders were American, starting with George Washington.
But first, Christmas 1914
WW I was so horrific that in the first five months alone from August through December 1914 the French and Germans, not even counting the British, had lost more than 600,000 killed and more than a million wounded. Generals learned the best defense against modern cannons and machine guns were trenches, so the ditches stretched from the French Alps to the ocean near the Belgian border. Military planners on both sides didn’t know what to try next to counter the defensive trench systems, so in late December 1914 there was a pause in the big battles. The common soldiers on both sides realized it was suicide to attack across no man’s land, but their generals didn’t learn that until 1917-18. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 the exhausted soldiers knew what to do – stop fighting and celebrate the holiday.
Many accounts say the Germans started the truce by singing Christmas carols and hymns, which were answered by singing from the opposing trenches. Christmas Eve was peaceful and beautiful, with the moon reflecting off the frosted ground. Men began crawling out of the trenches — how can you shoot a person who was singing carols? There were some incidents when well-meaning soldiers showed themselves only to be shot. But estimates have it two-thirds of the Western Front or 100,000 soldiers participated in the informal truce. Officers were aghast, but what could they do? Soldiers exchanged food, buttons, and hats. Several accounts mention enemies kicking soccer balls back and forth although there were no organized matches. In many spots the soldiers realized the pause in hostilities would be a good time to retrieve their dead comrades who had been lying in no man’s land.
The generals ordered a stop to the fraternization and the next day the killing resumed. One Tommy looking back on the truce said the common soldiers on both sides would have agreed to stop the war then and there, although a German corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler commented that it was “dishonorable” for a German soldier to be so friendly to his enemy.
A heart-warming small truce
A German wife and mother, Elisabeth Vincken, and her 12-year-old son, Fritz, were living in a small cabin in the Ardennes forest in December 1944 after being chased from their home by fighting in Aachen, Germany. Now a new battle was raging near them, the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. A knock on their door revealed three lost American soldiers, one of whom was wounded. Elisabeth invited them in and cooked a rooster and potatoes she had been saving for a Christmas dinner when her husband returned from work. While they were getting ready to eat, another knock at the door showed four German soldiers. Elisabeth insisted everyone leave their weapons outside, and the cold and hungry Germans gladly joined the little feast. One of the Germans was a medical student who had interrupted his studies for the war. He examined and treated the wounded American.
The Germans produced a bottle of wine and loaf of bread, which eased tensions considerably. Communication was conducted through broken French. The German squad even gave the Americans a compass they could use with their map and directed the Americans away from a town occupied by the German army. On Christmas Day, the groups parted.
This story would have joined the thousands of other apocryphal tales from WW II except for a series of serendipitous events. Fritz Vincken (his parents survived the war too) wound up in Hawaii and publicized his story wherever he could (it ran in “Readers Digest” in 1973) hoping to find the American and German soldiers who had come to his door. President Ronald Reagan heard about it and used it in a 1985 speech he made in Germany. But the big break came when the television show, “Unsolved Mysteries” relayed the tale in 1995. Ralph Blank, a resident of a Maryland nursing home, saw the TV show and revealed himself to be one of the American soldiers and produced the map and German compass to prove it. Fritz went on to find another one of the American soldiers but none of the Germans. He died in December 2002, 58 years after the little Christmas truce engineered by he and his mother.
Christmas, a time for war
Thanks to the excellent military history newsletter, Military History Now (MilitaryHistoryNow.com) I learned that far from peace on earth, the holidays are an excellent period to surprise your enemy and attack. Americans are some of the more successful practitioners of this tactic although they also paid a big price for forgetting their history.
The embattled Continental Army was shrinking by the day in late 1776 when General George Washington used Christmastime to reverse the downward slide and probably save the fledgling United States. His famous crossing of the Delaware River to lead the army in an attack on Trenton, N.J., has been immortalized in painting and endlessly parodied. But the entire operation was a brilliant logistical and strategic maneuver.
Washington’s Dec. 26 surprise not only captured 900 German mercenary troops in Trenton but also seized invaluable supplies. The future president repeated the logistical miracle again by ferrying his army across the river in late December and defeating British reinforcements in Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, and at Princeton on Jan. 3.
Civil War generals and commanders apparently took Washington’s example to heart because the holidays between Thanksgiving and New Years featured several big battles and one infamous raid. President Lincoln said the best Christmas gift he ever received was the news that General William Sherman had captured Savannah, Georgia, on Dec. 22, 1864. The Confederates had their own Christmas cheer when in late December of the same year they repelled a Union invasion at Fort Fisher near Wilmington, N.C. Lincoln sacked the incompetent leader of that action, General Benjamin Butler, and in January the renewed Yankee assault overwhelmed the fort and Wilmington.
Famous rebel cavalry leader John Morgan knew his history and used Christmastime in 1862 to surprise Union forces and successfully raid several towns in Kentucky and tear up railroad tracks.
Supreme Allied commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his intelligence officers forgot their history in December 1944 when they ignored signs of a German army buildup near the Ardennes forest. The Germans attacked resting American troops on Dec. 16 triggering the Battle of the Bulge and drove them back 60 miles before being stopped. Gen. George Patton, a warhistorybuff without equal, didn’t forget. When he noticed the same German buildup, he feared the Nazis were planning a holiday offensive and turned around his entire army so it was ready to counter-attack. His troops relieved the Bastogne siege on Dec. 26 and continued to drive the Germans out of the bulge.
Other nations used Christmas to their advantage. In 1916 Latvia soldiers fighting for the Russian Tsar used a very cold Christmas (naturally, when isn’t it cold in Russia?) to surprise and successfully penetrate fortifications erected by the Kaiser’s German troops near Riga. The Germans eventually counter-attacked and regained 80 percent of the lost territory. The Russians were using the Julian calendar at the time, and the Germans assumed their enemy would be celebrating the Julian Christmas and not attacking. Under the current Gregorian calendar, the battles occurred in January but why quibble? Latvia still remembers their soldiers’ achievements and built a museum on the grounds of the battlefield that you can see today.
Outgunned Ethiopia used Christmas 1935 to slow Italy’s aggression. The Ethiopian troops surprised the invading Italians and caused 3,000 casualties in the holiday attack. Italians referred to that phase of the Abyssinian War as the “Black Period.” Italian dictator Mussolini was so distraught that he appealed to Italians to donate their gold jewelry and wedding rings in support of the bogged-down war. The Italians reversed the offensive by using poison gas on the Ethiopians on the day after Christmas and completely subdued the Africans by 1937.
And finally, Snoopy!
Actual Christmas truces remain few and far between, but that hasn’t stopped people from imagining the best in human nature. It’s only fitting to end this blog on a fictional account that everyone hears each year on the Christmas playlists. I’m referring of course to the The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 hit single “Snoopy’s Christmas.” WW I “Ace” Snoopy on his bullet-riddled doghouse loses again to the Red Baron but with a different ending from previous musical encounters:
The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out, “Merry Christmas, mein friend!”The Baron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they’d meet on some other day
Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ringing through the land
Bringing peace to all the world
And good will to man