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Silent Night: The Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce Hardcover – 5 Nov 2001
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About the Author
Stanley Weintraub is Professor of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and writes as a book critic for the NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL and WASHINGTON POST. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From Chapter One: An Outbreak of Peace
By 4 December, as wintry rain made movement impossible, the British commander of the 2nd Corps worried about the 'live-and-let-live theory of life' that had surfaced on both sides. Neither side was firing, for example, at mealtimes, and although little fraternization was apparent, unspoken understandings accepted the status quo, and friendly banter echoed across the lines. The 'death and glory principle', as Lieutenant Charles Sorley, a poet, put it, was, in the circumstances, useless. Unannounced, even unspoken, arrangements lessened the discomfort while discouraging the enmity that encouraged the killing. A Royal Engineer, Andrew Todd, wrote to the Edinburgh Scotsman that soldiers on both sides, 'only 60 yards apart at one place', had become 'very "pally" with each other'. They were so close that they would throw newspapers, weighted with a stone, across to each other, and sometimes a ration tin, and, Rifleman Leslie Walkinton of the Queen's Westminsters recalled, 'shout rem!
arks to each other, sometimes rude ones, but generally with less venom than a couple of London cabbies after a mild collision'.
On the morning of 19 December, so Lieutenant Geoffrey Heinekey, new to the 2nd Queen's Westminster Rifles, wrote to his mother, 'a most extraordinary thing happened...Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men...It seemed too ironical for words. There, the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours.'
The initiatives for one of the long war's few humane episodes came largely from the invaders, yet not from their generals or their bureaucrats. Leading intellectuals like Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann had viewed the war as an essential defence against hostile forces representing cultures less rich and technologies less advanced. In 'Fünf Gesänge' Rilke, the leading lyric poet in the language, celebrated the resurrection of the god of war rather than a symbol of weak-minded peace. In defence of Kultur, Mann went to occupied Belgium to observe the future. To be excoriated as Hun barbarians when Germans allegedly represented the higher civilization appeared to him an absurd inversion of values, a feeling shared by educated young officers at the front who came out of professional life. Although war itself might seem necessary for Germany, a war-time Christmas seemed, to many who took the festival seriously, befouled. Captain Rudolf Binding, a Hussar, wrote to his father on 20!
December that if he were in authority, he would ban the observance of Christmas 'this year'.
Ordinary soldiers were oblivious to such sensitivities. As Christmas approached, Tommy and Jerry indulged in occasional and undeclared live-and-let-live cessations of fire. Jeers were swapped where the trenches were close enough to permit it -- 'Engländer!' one side would shout, 'Jerry!' (or 'Fritz!') the other. Most exchanges were in English, for many Germans had lived and worked across the Channel, some as waiters in hotels or seaside resorts, others as cooks, cabbies and even barbers, all summoned home in the last, hectic, pre-war days late in July. So many Germans were allegedly working in England before the war that at a House of Lords debate a speaker charged that 80,000 German waiters remained as a secret army awaiting a signal to seize strategic points. P. G. Wodehouse satirized such nonsense in The Swoop! Or How Clarence Saved England, about a Boy Scout who perceives, in the sporting results in his newspaper, a secret code to alert the Germans. Few readers were amused!
So much interchange had occurred across the line by early December that Brigadier General G. T. Forrestier-Walker, chief of staff to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien of II Corps, issued a directive unequivocally forbidding fraternization, 'for it discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks...Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.'
Top customer reviews
The tone throughout the book is largely one of casual observation and much of the text suffers from a failure to report just how extreme the events and conditions were, though some passages convey considerable latent power - the account of the burying of corpses in no mans land suggests a kind of inhuman horror to which the soldiers of both sides had become so familiar that it can only be marvelled at, and there are touching moments of clarity and reflection in the contrasts between the peaceful soldiers and the single-minded warmongering of their remote generals.
However, the narrative is too frequently broken up by eye witness accounts and associated stories and satires that add little to the story, that it becomes difficult to read, which is a terrific shame as the story deserves to be told so much better. The book ends on a slightly surreal tone as the author appears to swallow an encyclopaedia of all 20th century social, political and industrial history and then enjoys coughing it up over the final 20 pages.
Overall, the book tells a fascinating story, but does not tell it well, and is likely to be enjoyed more by readers of historical factual reporting than those looking for a good read and some emotional involvement, for whom Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong has much more to offer.
For Alsace-Lorraine would not wait another day,
Not even this single day in the dead of winter
When the clinging mud, clogging every pore
Had turned to hard frost in the abandoned turnip field,
Stiffening tunics that never dried,
Chaffing the skin of soldiers raw,
Trench rats observing the ablutions of first light,
Christmas morning's blue and bitter dawn.
Once enemies and soon to be again, would not kill today,
Alsace and killing would have to wait while football was played
And fallen comrades were spaded into frozen ground.
Craigavon, County Armagh,
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