Dear Readers: As I prepare for my last Canto Talk podcast of 2013, I would like to invite you to join Silvio Canto Jr. and our military history expert,Deadliest Blogger’s Barry Jacobsen, for a discussion of “Wartime Christmas History” stories. (Click here for archived podcast or live show Thursday, Dec. 19th at 7 pm PST/9 pm CT/10 pm EST)
At least two wartime history stories will be featured:
I’d wager that if you asked the average person to name one important event during the First World War, many people wouldn’t plump for a military action. It’d be an interesting experiment to find out how many people in Britain today know the name of any major battle, beside the Somme. There’d be takers for Verdun, perhaps, Passchendaele and probably Ypres (although just like many of the men who were stationed there, hardly anyone, including me, would quite know how to pronounce Ypres– the British soldiers stationed there called it ‘Wipers’).
No, the event that has lived longest in the popular memory– that has provided fodder for songs and pop videos, and has become a myth all of its own– is the Christmas truce of 1914.
On Christmas day, 1914, despite orders to the contrary made by British commanders, an informal ceasefire took place between German and British soldiers on the Western Front. For just over a day soldiers on either side in Flanders held off attempting to kill each other: a peaceable act that has become a kind of popular shorthand for the good faith the common man has for his fellows, even in the worst of circumstances.
What are the facts? You’ll find them nicely laid out at The Long, Long Trail website. Only five months into the war, neither trench lines nor mental lines were drawn as absolutely between the combatants as they would become later. Fraternisation with the enemy, especially at Christmas, was recognised as a risk to discipline: General Smith-Dorren ruled early in December that “unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited”.
Yet as Christmas neared, local truces occurred. These meant that wounded men could be retrieved from no-man’s land, and that the dead could be buried.
In addition, the close proximity of the two sides to one another meant that one side could hear the other singing carols– even see the other erect Christmas trees above the trenches. Christmas, and the feelings stirred by the season, seemed to encourage the “‘live and let live’ theory of life” that Smith-Dorren feared would destroy “the offensive spirit in all ranks”.
On Christmas Eve, the miserable wet weather of the season relented a little, with a hard frost that made life easier for all on the front. Fighting continued, but meetings were held between the sides to collect and bury bodies. This fraternisation continued into Christmas day, tolerated but not approved of by the British army authorities: it is the Germans who generally initiate contact. Some men share cigarettes and cigars; elsewhere beer and plum pudding; letters are passed on; often the erstwhile combatants simply talk. You can read some of the fascinating first-hand accounts at the well-sourced Hellfire Corner. There’s something genuinely humbling about the tales the soldiers tell: and a wonderful sense of perplexity and delight amongst those taking part that such a thing could occur.
In December 1944, in an all-out gamble to compel the Allies to sue for peace, Adolf Hitler ordered the only major German counteroffensive of the war in northwest Europe. Its objective was to split the Allied armies by means of a surprise blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes to Antwerp, marking a repeat of what the Germans had done three times previously–in September 1870, August 1914, and May 1940. Despite Germany’s historical penchant for mounting counteroffensives when things looked darkest, the Allies’ leadership miscalculated and left the Ardennes lightly defended by only two inexperienced and two battered American divisions.
On December 16, three German armies (more than a quarter-million troops) launched the deadliest and most desperate battle of the war in the west in the poorly roaded, rugged, heavily forested Ardennes. The once-quiet region became bedlam as American units were caught flat-footed and fought desperate battles to stem the German advance at St.-Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and, later, Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division. The inexperienced U.S. 106th Division was nearly annihilated, but even in defeat helped buy time for Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke’s brilliant defense of St.-Vith. As the German armies drove deeper into the Ardennes in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads west of the River Meuse quickly, the line defining the Allied front took on the appearance of a large protrusion or bulge, the name by which the battle would forever be known.
A crucial German shortage of fuel and the gallantry of American troops fighting in the frozen forests of the Ardennes proved fatal to Hitler’s ambition to snatch, if not victory, at least a draw with the Allies in the west. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s remarkable feat of turning the Third Army ninety degrees from Lorraine to relieve the besieged town of Bastogne was the key to thwarting the German counteroffensive. The Battle of the Bulge was the costliest action ever fought by the U.S. Army, which suffered over 100,000 casualties.
Barry Jacobsen offers a detailed analysis on his Military History Page.
The Bulge has its own truce story, too: Three American soldiers and four German soldiers who shared Christmas Eve 1944 with a German woman during the Battle of the Bulge. All soldiers were lost and looking for a place to stay and warm up. The woman insisted that all soldiers disarm and that “this was Christmas and there would be no killing on this night.”