In the Spirit of Christmas

Midnight 24th December. Quiet has fallen. The hush is broken by the sound of male voices wafting over the broken ground from a hundred yards or so away:-

“Stille Nacht,
Heilige Nacht.”

Disbelieving British soldiers strain to make sense of what they are hearing, before joining in with Christmas songs of their own.

When day dawns, foodstuffs are exchanged, names and addresses noted down. A spontaneous outbreak of football occurs.

All this takes place exactly one hundred years ago today.

So goes the story anyway.

And it’s a great story. But how much truth is there in it?

There is almost no documentary evidence for games of football being played in No Man’s Land on December 25th 1914, though there is one reference to a tin of bully beef used as a makeshift ball. That there was a widespread ceasefire and a degree of fraternisation is, however, well attested and photographically recorded – but it wasn’t universal. Some who came out of the trenches were shot by snipers, others used the temporary lull to strengthen their defences. (The extent of this seems to have been relatively widespread and is not to be confused with the sporadic local truces – entirely sanctioned officially – arranged, for example, for the collection and burial of bodies which happened throughout the war.)

In any case even at Christmas 1914 the fighting was resumed within hours and no such extended expression of bonhomie occurred again. The armies’ top brasses made sure of that. As The Farm had it.

“The same old story again
All those tears shed in vain
Nothing learnt and nothing gained
Only hope remains.”

Yet the story of the Christmas Truce speaks to a hunger in us. We have a need for tales of humanity amidst carnage, acts of kindness between enemies, however sketchy their origins. It makes us believe that as individuals we too would behave well in adverse circumstances.

All together now. (Sorry, Gordon. It’s based on Pachelbel’s Canon.)

The Farm: All Together Now

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