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100 Years Ago We Still Remember

November 13, 2018

I was watching a hockey game from Los Angeles this week. Conspicuous in the sea of people were the coaches who were wearing a red poppy. On twitter a fan asked (Canadian) broadcaster Jim Fox if there was some kind of red flower celebration somewhere in the last week. He replied that in Canada (and other places) Remembrance Day is commemorated by the wearing of a red poppy.

More than one hundred years ago Canadian medical Doctor John McCray wrote the poem in Flanders Fields. In the concluded lines he wrote:

“If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep

Though Poppies blow in Flanders Fields.”

How do we remember something that happened 100 years ago?

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

I believe the best way is to share some of the stories from that era. One hundred years ago this Christmas there was the most amazing “soccer game” every played.

In Frelinghien, France a soccer game broke out between the British and the German soldiers. The irony of this soccer event (which was more of a kick about than a formal game) was that the soldiers were on opposing sides of the war. The day before the soccer game, these soldiers were shooting at these very men.

World War I was unique in that thousands of soldiers observed an unofficial truce on Christmas Day. Soldiers of the opposing armies lived in trenches only a few hundred yards from their enemies. In between the trenches was No Man’s Land. Periodically one group of soldiers would get up and charge through No Man’s Land hoping to capture the trench of his enemy. Many lives were lost in the battles between the trenches.

However, on Christmas Day 1914 the war was put on hold, not by commanding officers, but by the everyday soldiers in the trenches. How does a cease-fire of this nature begin? Wikkipedia explained it as follows:

“The truce began on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.”

Once the soldiers realized the other side was sincere in their peace offering, they met in No Man’s Land and exchanged gifts such as wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham The truce spread to other areas of the lines. In a few areas these cease fires lasted until New Year’s Day.

Commanding officers were not impressed when their soldiers fraternized with the enemies. Orders were given prior to Christmas to keep fighting. However, in 1914 and to smaller degree in 1915 and 1916 peace and fraternizing continued on Christmas Day.

Fighting in the trenches made World War I a miserable experience. More soldiers died from pneumonia and other diseases because they lived in the trenches, than were killed by bullets. The Christmas Truce (as historians now call it) that spread may have been as much a frustration with the war as a celebration of Christmas. One British private wrote “The first man I came to [in No Man’s Land] was an old man, and when we shook hands I thought he was not going to let go…Tears came his cheeks, and I felt sorry for him, as he was so old, and wanted to go home” (Truce by Jim Murray p. 80)

Memorabilia from the Christmas Truce has become a collector’s item. In 2006, £14,400 was paid at Bonhams auction house for an original 10 page letter from an unknown British soldier that records events and incidents with the Germans on that night.

Some quotes from that letter include:

“This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think there’s been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us — wishing us a Happy Christmas etc.

“They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations.

“Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2 way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they will not fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday — perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.
 The letter ends: “I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day and I don’t suppose you thought of us doing so.” (”

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

One century later as we commemorate Remembrance Day may we remember and appreciate the freedom that we have (and make peace and share a present with an annoying enemy in your life, you may find he is actually a friend).