Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

by Stanley Weintraub

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439107133
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 11/11/2001
Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 153,442
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University and the author of notable histories and biographies including 11 Days in December, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, MacArthur's War, Long Day's Journey into War, and A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. He lives in Newark, Delaware.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War. Burly Cossacks, sent by the Czar to bolster the Western Front, were seen embarking from British railway stations for Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia from their boots. In France, during the British retreat from Mons, angels appeared -- spirit bowmen out of the English past -- to cover the withdrawal. And the third was that, to the dismay of the generals, along the front lines late in December 1914, opponents in the West laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in a spontaneous gesture of peace on earth and good will toward men. Only one of the myths -- the last -- was true.

In an issue sent to press just before Christmas, The New Republic, an American weekly writing from a plague-on-both-sides neutrality, accepted what seemed obvious. "If men must hate, it is perhaps just as well that they make no Christmas truce." A futile resolution had been introduced in the Senate in Washington urging that the belligerents hold a twenty-day truce at Christmas "with the hope that the cessation of hostilities at the said time may stimulate reflection upon the part of the nations [at war] as to the meaning and spirit of Christmas time."

Since early August the European war had claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing. An appeal for a cease-fire at Christmas from Pope Benedict XV, elected just three months earlier, only weeks after war had broken out, had made headlines but was quickly rebuffed by both sides as "impossible." Rather, The New Republic suggested sardonically, "The stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men. A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds." A wartime Christmas would be a festival "so empty that it jeers at us."

To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.

"Live-and-let-live" accommodations occur in all wars. Chronicles at least since Troy record cessations in fighting to bury the dead, to pray to the gods, to negotiate a peace, to assuage war weariness, to offer signs of amity to enemies so long opposite in a static war as to encourage mutual respect. None had ever occurred on the scale of, or with the duration, or with the potential for changing things, as when the shooting suddenly stopped on Christmas Eve, 1914. The difference in 1914 was its potential to become more than a temporary respite. The event appears in retrospect somehow unreal, incredible in its intensity and extent, seemingly impossible to have happened without consequences for the outcome of the war. Like a dream, when it was over, men wondered at it, then went on with the grim business at hand. Under the rigid discipline of wartime command authority, that business was killing.

Dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence, that remarkable moment happened. For the rival governments, for which war was politics conducted by persuasive force, it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable, only an impulsive interval in a necessarily hostile and competitive world. The impromptu truce seemed dangerously akin to the populist politics of the streets, the spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats. For that reason alone, high commands could not permit it to gain any momentum to expand in time and in space, or to capture broad appeal back home. That it did not was more accident than design.

After a silent night and day -- in many sectors much more than that -- the war went on. The peace seemed nearly forgotten. Yet memories of Christmas 1914 persist, and underlying them the compelling realities and the intriguing might-have-beens. What if...?

Late in December 1999 a group of nine quirky "Khaki Chums" crossed the English Channel to Flanders with the "blatantly daft idea" of commemorating the truce where it may have begun, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. Wearing makeshift uniforms recalling 1914, and working in the rain and snow, they dug trenches, reinforcing them with sandbags and planks which "literally disappeared into the bottomless mud." For several days they cooked their rations, reinforced their parapets, and slept soaked through to the skin. They also endured curious onlookers and enjoyed visits from the media. Before departing, the nine planted a large timber cross in the quagmire as a temporary mark of respect for the wartime dead, filled back their trenches and slogged homeward.

Months later they were astonished to learn that local villagers had treated their crude memorial with a wood preservative and set it in a concrete base. In season, now, poppies flower beneath it. Thousands of Great War monuments, some moving and others mawkish, remain in town squares and military cemeteries across Europe. The afterthought of the "Khaki Chums" lark in the Flanders mud is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Copyright © 2001 by Stanley Weintraub

Table of Contents

Contents

INTRODUCTION

1 An Outbreak of Peace

2 Christmas Eve

3 The Dead

4 Our Friends, the Enemy

5 Football

6 How It Ended

7 What If -- ?

SOURCES

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INDEX

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Weintraub has brought an obscure and bizarre incident to life with a flair that gives the reader a detailed glimpse of a unique Christmas story." —The Seattle Times

"Deeply moving." —The Boston Globe

Introduction

Introduction

Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War. Burly Cossacks, sent by the Czar to bolster the Western Front, were seen embarking from British railway stations for Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia from their boots. In France, during the British retreat from Mons, angels appeared—spirit bowmen out of the English past—to cover the withdrawal. And the third was that, to the dismay of the generals, along the front lines late in December 1914, opponents in the West laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in a spontaneous gesture of peace on earth and good will toward men. Only one of the myths—the last—was true.

In an issue sent to press just before Christmas, The New Republic, an American weekly writing from a plague-on-both-sides neutrality, accepted what seemed obvious. "If men must hate, it is perhaps just as well that they make no Christmas truce." A futile resolution had been introduced in the Senate in Washington urging that the belligerents hold a twenty-day truce at Christmas "with the hope that the cessation of hostilities at the said time may stimulate reflection upon the part of the nations [at war] as to the meaning and spirit of Christmas time."

Since early August the European war had claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing. An appeal for a cease-fire at Christmas from Pope Benedict XV, elected just three months earlier, only weeks after war had broken out, had made headlines but was quickly rebuffed by both sides as "impossible." Rather, The New Republic suggested sardonically, "The stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men. A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds." A wartime Christmas would be a festival "so empty that it jeers at us."

To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.

"Live-and-let-live" accommodations occur in all wars. Chronicles at least since Troy record cessations in fighting to bury the dead, to pray to the gods, to negotiate a peace, to assuage war weariness, to offer signs of amity to enemies so long opposite in a static war as to encourage mutual respect. None had ever occurred on the scale of, or with the duration, or with the potential for changing things, as when the shooting suddenly stopped on Christmas Eve, 1914. The difference in 1914 was its potential to become more than a temporary respite. The event appears in retrospect somehow unreal, incredible in its intensity and extent, seemingly impossible to have happened without consequences for the outcome of the war. Like a dream, when it was over, men wondered at it, then went on with the grim business at hand. Under the rigid discipline of wartime command authority, that business was killing.

Dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence, that remarkable moment happened. For the rival governments, for which war was politics conducted by persuasive force, it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable, only an impulsive interval in a necessarily hostile and competitive world. The impromptu truce seemed dangerously akin to the populist politics of the streets, the spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats. For that reason alone, high commands could not permit it to gain any momentum to expand in time and in space, or to capture broad appeal back home. That it did not was more accident than design.

After a silent night and day—in many sectors much more than that—the war went on. The peace seemed nearly forgotten. Yet memories of Christmas 1914 persist, and underlying them the compelling realities and the intriguing might-have-beens. What if...?

Late in December 1999 a group of nine quirky "Khaki Chums" crossed the English Channel to Flanders with the "blatantly daft idea" of commemorating the truce where it may have begun, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. Wearing makeshift uniforms recalling 1914, and working in the rain and snow, they dug trenches, reinforcing them with sandbags and planks which "literally disappeared into the bottomless mud." For several days they cooked their rations, reinforced their parapets, and slept soaked through to the skin. They also endured curious onlookers and enjoyed visits from the media. Before departing, the nine planted a large timber cross in the quagmire as a temporary mark of respect for the wartime dead, filled back their trenches and slogged homeward.

Months later they were astonished to learn that local villagers had treated their crude memorial with a wood preservative and set it in a concrete base. In season, now, poppies flower beneath it. Thousands of Great War monuments, some moving and others mawkish, remain in town squares and military cemeteries across Europe. The afterthought of the "Khaki Chums" lark in the Flanders mud is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Copyright © 2001 by Stanley Weintraub

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Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This beautifully written book reads like a novel. It's uplifting and inspiring. These men showed what the human spirit can accomplish even in the ugliest of circumstance, and Stanley Weintraub captures the scene perfectly. This true story makes you wonder, if the heroes WWI could show compassion for their fellow man, why can't the rest of the world?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Christmas will never be the same again. Every time that I hear the carole 'Stille Nacht', I will always remember how the true Christmas spirit lived, a long time ago, in a place that too many people have long since forgotten.
bookworm12 on LibraryThing 27 days ago
During World War I, German, French, British and Belgian soldiers found solace in the ¿enemy¿ for a brief period. On Christmas Eve in 1914 the men were dug into miserable trenches, up to their ankles in mud and filth. Despite warnings from their superiors and even at the risk of losing their own lives, the soldiers declared a momentary truce and enjoyed the holiday. They crossed into no man¿s land and swapped cigarettes and food. They ever played soccer and buried their dead. This occurred all along the front, with different groups of men deciding to initiate a cease-fire. Weintaub¿s book is wonderfully researched, pulling information from soldiers¿ letters, newspaper articles, etc. he recreates the scenes. The details are what really stuck with me, a German soldier giving a British soldier buttons from his uniform, a soldier who was accidently shot in the midst of the peace. The event itself is so unbelievable that¿s it¿s fascinating to read about, but the author¿s writing is a bit dry. To me, it was still worth it, because it shows a gleaming light of humanity in the face of an awful war, but it¿s not a page-turner.
JBD1 on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Pretty basic, but a good story.
lamour on LibraryThing 27 days ago
I had heard about the Christmas truce of December, 1914 but I did not realize how extensive it was. According to Weintaub, instances of fraternization by German soldiers with French, English and Scottish soldiers occurred all along the Front and were usually initiated by the Germans- especially the men from Saxony. Using soldiers letters to home or in some cases to newspapers at home, military unit histories, and soldier memoirs, Weitraub explains how the events were started and what the soldiers did when they met in the No Man's Land between the lines. He also adds a chapter on how the story has been mythologized in modern culture by giving examples of modern songs such as Christmas in the Trenches to show the story has been altered to suit story lines. Apparently there is a Garth Brooks song that has American soldiers participating in this event, a historical moment that could not have occurred since no American units fought at the front until 1918. He concludes with speculation on how world history would have been different if the politicians had followed the soldiers' actions and stopped the war in December 1914.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing 27 days ago
I read this book for my NF readers' group ... it was an OK book, stimulated some discussion ... but not the best book we've selected.
ksmyth on LibraryThing 6 months ago
I picked up Stanley Weintraub's brief account of the 1914 Christmas truce after setting it down without completing it a couple of years ago. It is a good account of this odd anomaly of the Great War. Weintraub does a fine job of setting the scene: soldiers a settling down into their trenches, replete with the discomfort of the wet winter weather, the rats, bad food, and the nearness of the enemy lines divided by a No Man's Land littered with bodies-friends and foes alike. He contrasts this with the incongruities of the Christmas season-British and German soldiers alike receive government-sponsored goodies from home, which, while appreciated, do little to alleviate the suffering of those in the trenches-they don't drain the trenches, some waist high in mud, they don't reduce the danger from sniper's bullets or artillery shells. That is left to the men themselves. From December 24th through December 26th, chiefly German and British soldiers informally agree to a lull in the fighting, first to bury their dead, and then to trade petty luxuries, souvenirs, trade pleasantries, and even to kick around a football. What the governments and generals will not do, the front line troops do themselves. Weintraub, importantly, points out that the truce wasn't universal, but many, many units in the trenches sent home accounts of the several days of quiet and fraternization. If the book has a failing it is not fully exploring the fear of the governments and the generals that the truce could lead to an outbreak of peace-and what they did to insure it did not happen again. Well told, with an eye to humanize an inhuman conflict. A special nod goes to Weintraub's use of English, German and French source.
NeptunasRex More than 1 year ago
The author captures the 1914 Battlefield Christmas story better then any other publication that I have read regarding that brief time in WWI MEMORIES. Stanley Weintraubs, provides stories detailing the unofficial truce up and down the Main Line of Resistance. From combatants sharing Christmas gifts from home amongst one another to friendly scorer games between enemies. Entwined into each chapter are personal stories of fighters experiences between one another. At a time when German and Prussian forces were within the outer circles of Paris and winning the war to propaganda machines painting each opposing force as blood thirsty and sadistic. Of all the books on WWI this challenges the reader indirectly to ask if something greater may have been involved....Highly Recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In flanders field the poppies blow between the crosses row on row that mark our place. And in the sky the larks still bravely singing fly, Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago we lived felt dawn , saw sunset glow,loved and were loved and now we lie in flanders field. Take up our quarrel with the foe,to you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yoursr to hold it high. If you break faith with us who die we shall not sleep though poppies Grow in flanders field.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have heard about this but never read actual account of it. I enjoy historical books and really enjoyed this to read over the holidays. It is amazing what war can do and yet the spirit of the mtrue meaning of Christmas came through all that war on that special night.
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FocoProject More than 1 year ago
Given that the Christmas Truce happened only once, under unfavorable conditions and never again was repeated during the duration of the first World War, the story told in this book is pretty amazing. That numerous countries in different parts along the front line all had the same idea to put down their weapons and enjoy Christmas was unheard of and for the governments involved, potentially dangerous.

Against restrictions and bans from both sides of the battle front, soldiers disobeyed direct orders and officers looked the other way, singing carols, putting up Christmas trees, trading drinks, exchanging smokes and even playing futbol.

Based on letters and stories related by veterans, Stanley Weintraub puts together a comprehensive tale of what happened on December 1914. And strangely it is a war story with a good, heartfelt message. Unfortunately, the truce was not to last and in most places did not extend into New Years, and for the rest of the war, never repeated itself anywhere. The book gives insight into what happened in numerous places and tells some very interesting stories.

Because the topic discussed is so narrow, however, this book can get tedious to read, for as one goes on, the stories seem to repeat itself. Many times, it may seem like you are reading the same story. Also questionable, though not incredibly so, is the fact that the author jumps around from one place to another to unfold his book, where I think it may have been better to make this book a compilation of stories and let the reader take on the stories they found intriguing. Nonetheless, the way it is broken down is comprehensive and relatively well narrated.

There is however a pair of points that I did find frustrating. One, the fact that a lot of times he quotes in the tongue in which things were written and fails to provide translation, even as foot notes. Having studied French, I caught all the English and French references, but I was entirely lost in the German vocabulary and it took reading into the book to put two and two together to figure out what some words meant. The other problem I had with the book was a very obvious bias on the author¿s side to paint the Germans as the saintly figures, in fact crediting them with most of the realizations that took place between trenches. It may have been the case that, as he explains, the Germans were winning and therefore they had less to lose by extending a hand to their enemies, but throughout the book, one gets the feeling that there is a definite bias.

If one can overlook those two points, however, the book did make for some interesting reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book. I don't recommend reading it if you can't read books without using your agenda as a bookmarker. It defines fact from fiction, and is reputable in doing so. I found it a stimulating glimpse into humanity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In December 1914, the Western Front ran through Belgium and northern France. The muddy, slimy quagmire of Flanders trenches became the home-away-from-home of soldiers from Belgium, France, including Algeria, and Britain, including Scotland, Wales and India, on the one side, and from Germany, Saxony, Westphalia, Bavaria and Prussia, on the other. Bubbling up from the ranks of the enlisted and the conscripted, soldiers observed a Christmas 'you no shoot, we no shoot' day, initially to reclaim and bury their dead from No Man's Land. The holiday feelings manifested themselves in Christmas trees, carolling, friendly insults and facetious taunts, followed by heartfelt exchanges of sausages, chocolates, cigarettes, plum pudding--and even barrels of beer and soccer matches. Recalled memorably later on in 'Oh! What a Lovely War,' and in letters, songs and poems, the remarkable impromptu truce was downplayed in official reports. Seeking plausible deniability, officers on both sides blamed the enemy side. But here Weintraub poignantly presents in black and white the ample evidence, including photographs. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Silent Night is an excellent book! It not only provides the facts of the Truce but also the fiction. The reader cannot help but be provoked to speculate on the What if ...? It is a must have for any World War I collection.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story brings the warmth of a family Christmas dinner in a warm house with friends, to the soldiers at war. No matter where you are or which ever country you come from, a war will always stop at the dinner table.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very painful to read. I could barely make it through the first fifty pages before throwing it out of the window. I would strongly suggest not reading this book to anyone who is interested.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read over 40 books about World War I, and this is the worst book I've ever read on the subject. The book is boring, disorganized, and relentlessly pursues it pacifist agenda. The book is repititous ad nauseaum. In the author's attempt to convince his readers that the ordinary soldiers didn't want to fight, he presents a huge number of barely discernible short stories and excerpts throughout the book. The text is erratic and disorganized. This unconvincing book seems not like the work of a published author, but the work of a human psychology student's term paper. Much of the book simply consists of word-for-word extracts from other published media. Ignore the positive reviews on the back cover - it's clear these reviewers didn't read more than the first few pages. This book isn't worth the paper it's printed on!