Sunday, December 03, 2006

Christmas Eve 1914 ... Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht ...

From the Guardian newspaper online, Guardian Unlimited
When Peace Broke Out : Special Report Christmas 2001
British and German soldiers made history in 1914 when they stopped shooting and started to sing carols and play football together. Malcolm Brown on one of the most heartening Christmas stories of modern times Monday December 24, 2001.
"The facts almost beggar belief. At the first Christmas of a hideous war, Germans and British sang carols to each other, lit each other's cigarettes in no man's land, exchanged souvenirs, took group photographs, even played football. Some sort of accommodation with the enemy, from cheerful waves and shouted greetings to full-scale fraternisation, took place over two-thirds of the 30 miles of the western front held by the British Expeditionary Force.
"And then, to all intents, the story was forgotten. It disappeared under the gas clouds of Ypres and the colossal casualty lists of the Somme and Passchendaele. Thus, looking back on that stunning Christmas from the 1920s, a former infantryman who had shared the camaraderie across the lines could write: "Men who joined us later were inclined to disbelieve us when we spoke of the incident, and no wonder, for as the months rolled by, we who were actually there could hardly realise that it had happened, except for the fact that every little detail stood out well in our memory."
"Every little detail" - the devil is often said to be in the detail, but not in this story. On Christmas Eve at Plugstreet Wood, Germans put Christmas trees on the parapet of their front-line trench and sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night), then largely unfamiliar to British ears but instantly acknowledged as a carol of extraordinary beauty. Moved to respond the territorials opposite struck up with The First Noël. So it continued until, when the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful, they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words Adeste Fideles. Recalling the event many years later, one former soldier commented: "I thought this a most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war."
"A memorable joint burial service between the trenches on Christmas morning offers another uplifting detail. The prayers and readings were spoken first in English by a battalion chaplain and then in German by a young divinity student. "It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight," wrote one witness. "The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. I think it was a sight one will never see again."
"By early 1915, however, it became clear that the interlude was, or soon would be, over. The Manchester Guardian spoke the necessary words in an article of January 7: "'But they went back into their trenches,' a perfectly enlightened and quite inhuman observer from another planet would perhaps say, 'and are now hard at it again, slaying and being slain.'
Now at every Christmas personal accounts of the truce are regularly read from pulpits, on television, on radio. At a time when the world is yet again at war, this strange event of 1914 - with its message of common humanity and goodwill between enemies - has a special relevance. Far from losing its attraction, it is a story that seems to gain in resonance and potency as the years go by."