Holiday Rerun: The Christmas Truce of 1914

My Own True Love and I are on the road for the holidays: home for Xmas with a little side trip to look at vintage airplanes. (History geeks don't stop being history geeks just because it's Christmas.) Instead of letting the blog go blank, I thought I'd re-run last year's Xmas post, with an addendum:


German and British soldiers photographed together in No Man's Land on the Western Front.

For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man's land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded "trench foot". The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.

Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into "no-man's land" to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.

One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:

One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment--hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.

It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year's Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.

The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?

Peace on earth, good will to men.



My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention:

Thanks, Nancy.


Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The Barbarous Years

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 is the third volume in historian Bernard Bailyn's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the growth of British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Bailyn discusses the settlement of British North America within the context of both the Native American cultures of the region and the broader political context in Europe. He gives as much importance to Powhattan's expansionist policies in Virginia as to the Dutch rebellion against Spain, the Thirty Years War, and England's subjugation of Ireland. The resulting "conflict of civilizations" occurs on many fronts: nearly a century of brutal encounters not only between European settlers and native peoples, but among the Europeans themselves.

In addition to what Bailyn argues is a "single, continuous Euro-Indian war" from 1607 through the 1670s, settlers suffered continuous and destabilizing conflicts within and between the colonies. British settlers found themselves at odds with the Dutch, Finns, Swedes, Walloons, Germans, Danes and French Huguenots over religion, culture and commerce. Large-scale landowners of all nationalities competed with both small planters and land-poor freedmen.

Bailyn's style is a successful balancing act between erudition and storytelling, large-scale history and telling detail. The general framework and many of the characters in Bailyn's stories are well known to anyone with a basic knowledge of early American history; the details are not. Poised as a refutation of what Bailyn describes as "gentrified" histories of the early colonies, The Barbarous Years is a blood-soaked--and illuminating--version of a familiar story.

This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Road Trip Through History: Stonehenge

We caught our first glimpse of Stonehenge from the highway--the familiar stone circle silhouetted against the sky. I felt a flutter of excitement. After all, Stonehenge is a major Bronze Age site, built at roughly the same time as the Great Pyramid at Giza. Like the pyramids, it's built from monolithic stones, some brought from more than 200 miles away. Unlike the pyramids, we don't really know why* it was built or by whom.** As far as ancient mysteries go, it's one of the most mysterious.

My Own True Love, who was not really interested, asked "Couldn't we just say we've seen it and drive on?" As it turned out, he had the right idea.

The day was cold and gray. The wind was relentless. The line to get into the site was long. Protestors stood just outside the fence that defined the site, with signs urging that the ongoing excavations be shut down.***

Once we got past the ticket gate, the day was still cold and the wind was worse. The guidebooks had made it clear that visitors are no longer allowed into the stone circle itself without making special arrangements.  Instead, you walk around the monument on a tarmac and grass path made for the purpose. Under the right circumstances, this could be an awe-inspiring experience--like circumambulating a Buddhist stupa. These were not the right circumstances. The crowd moved in clumps, stopping when their audio tours told them to stop and occasionally posing to take each other's pictures with the stones in the background. On a warm day, it might have been festive. As it was, there was a dogged quality to the whole thing. Halfway around the circle, we looked at each other and said, "Let's blow this pop stand."

Close up, the grandeur was gone.  We'd have been better off with the view from the highway.


* Most scholars believe the circle served as a celestial calendar, based on the alignment of its stones with sunrise and sunset at the summer and winter solstices. Recent discoveries suggest it could be part of a giant mortuary complex (there are some 500 Bronze Age burial mounds within a three-mile radius of the site).

** But we do know it wasn't the Druids, who date from 1500-2000 years later.

***The wind was so high that I didn't take notes--a fact I'm kicking myself for in retrospect. My memory tells me the signs cited reverence for a sacred site, reverence for the first kings of Britain, and respect for the dead. All good things--and yet….

Image credit: gianliguori / 123RF Stock Photo