Cover image for Silent night : the story of the World War I Christmas truce
Title:
Silent night : the story of the World War I Christmas truce
Author:
Weintraub, Stanley, 1929-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2001]

©2001
Physical Description:
xviii, 206 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
Language:
English
Subject Term:
ISBN:
9780684872810
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

From an acclaimed historian and National Book Award finalist comes the poignant story of World War I's 1914 Christmas truce--the spontaneous and tantalizingly brief moment when mortal enemies came together as friends. photos. Illustrations.


Author Notes

Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts & Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He has written acclaimed works of military history on World Wars I & II. He lives in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.

(Publisher Provided) Stanley Weintraub was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 17, 1929. He received a B.S. in education from West Chester State Teachers College in 1949 and a M. A. in English from Temple University. He served in the Army during the Korean Conflict where he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Korean Ribbon with five battle stars. Upon his return, he received a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University where he went on to teach until his retirement.

He wrote over 40 books during his lifetime including Private and Public Shaw: A Dual Portrait of Lawrence of Arabia and George Bernard Shaw, Beardsley: A Biography, 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 received the George Freedley Award in 1971 for Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw, 1914-1918 and the Freedom Foundation Award in 1980 for The London Yankees: Portraits of American Writers and Artists in London, 1894-1914.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

There are moments in history in which the surreal and the real merge and become indistinguishable. On Christmas Eve of 1914, the meat grinder of the Great War had been chewing up lives for several months. Amid this seemingly uncontrolled savagery, a small miracle emerged: across the crater-scarred No Man's Land, the sounds of "Silent Night" floated, and soldiers on both sides spontaneously laid down their arms, exchanged gifts, and generally became human beings, rather than instruments of destruction. In this deeply moving account of the truce, Weintraub, professor emeritus of arts and humanities at Penn State University, illustrates how ordinary men followed the better angels of their instincts, reaching out to fellow soldiers despite clear instructions to keep fighting. The author utilizes numerous vignettes in which British and French soldiers experience touching encounters with Germans. At first, they move warily toward each other, and then their common humanity draws them closer. Of course, the poignancy of these moments is accentuated by our knowledge that the slaughter would will resume in a few hours. This is an emotionally stirring, uplifting, yet ultimately sad story brilliantly told by a gifted writer. --Jay Freeman


Publisher's Weekly Review

Popular historian Weintraub (MacArthur's War, etc.), emeritus professor of arts and humanities at Penn State, tackles a sober subject from WWI, when amid the millions of casualties in the obscene carnage of trench war, a mutual agreement arose for a cease-fire at Christmastime of the first year of conflict. Drawing from secondary sources as well as much archival research in a variety of languages, Weintraub has compiled a brief, anecdotal account that reveals his skill as a researcher and deftness as a narrator in chapters like "An Outbreak of Peace," "Our Friends, the Enemy" and "How It Ended." There are lively anecdotes, contemporary doggerel and some extraneous asides such as that "a Chinese fourth century B.C. military text mentions a primitive form of football." While succinctly conveying the mood and stakes of this unprecedented display of mutual trust during war, Weintraub's short book could help draw Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton's magisterial Christmas Truce back into print. In the meantime, and just in time for the holidays, we have this offering from one of our most patient chroniclers. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

At Christmas time in 1914, blood enemies emerged from their trenches in Flanders Field in Belgium, shook hands, and wished each other a merry Christmas. In his newest book, Weintraub (A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War) draws on letters, diaries, and a variety of other source material to tell the inspiring story of the spontaneous Christmas Truce of World War I, when enemy troops laid down their arms, exchanged gifts, and reveled in their shared humanity. The desperate longing for peace, which Weintraub captures through the words of the soldiers themselves, underscores the poignancy of the ending of the truce, when outraged commanders ordered newly made friends to kill one another. Despite the impact of Weintraub's storytelling and documentation, some readers may be stymied by occasionally untranslated German or confused by his interweaving of fictional accounts of the event. Still, Weintraub's work stands as a unique testament to our fundamental brotherhood. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Michael F. Russo, Louisiana State Univ. Libs., Baton Rouge (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

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. Excerpted from Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub. Copyright © 2001 by Stanley Weintraub. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Epilogue
The Last of the Last
Described as "the last known survivor of the Christmas Truce," former Royal Welch Fusiliers private Bertie Felstead died at 106 on July 22, 2001. "The older he was, the more famous he became," a reporter for The Economist wrote. The New York Times called him "a soldier who joined a timeout in the war." The soccer Fédération Internationale reported that Felstead was "the last survivor of the First World War Christmas Day truce when British and German troops played football together." In every language in which European football was reported, stories about Felstead's dramatic experience appeared, and, from pulpits, soccer-related sermons were delivered. In one, the Reverend Axel Gehmann declared, "In our play we reveal what kind of people we are."
At Laventie, west of Lille, where the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were holding the line, Felstead recalled, shouts of "Merry Christmas, Tommy!" were answered from the British trenches with "Merry Christmas!" The Germans reportedly followed-curiously-with "All through the Night" (perhaps Felstead was misheard in a late interview and meant "Silent Night"). The Welshmen responded with "Good King Wenceslas" and other carols. (The Welsh loved to sing.) At dawn, Felstead recalled, "Human nature being what it is, feelings [had] built up overnight and so both sides got up from their front line trenches to meet halfway in no-man's land." The Jerries, he thought, got the idea first. Armed with sausages, tinned coffee, tinned sauerkraut, and cigars, the field grays of a Bavarian regiment left their lines and met the enemy at a small willow-lined stream that separated them. There they bartered their stock for English cigarettes, tinned bully beef and biscuits, and, Felstead remembered, mingled together and kicked a ball about. "Of course we realized that we were in the most extraordinary position, wishing each other Happy Christmas one day and shooting at each other the next, and we sheltered each other. No one would shoot at us while we were all mixed up."
Less than half an hour later-much had apparently occurred in the interim-their company officer and a major accompanied by a sergeant appeared, one of them shouting, "You came to fight the Huns, not to make friends with them." Reluctantly the Welsh infantrymen returned to their lines, after which British eighteen-pounders fired salvos at the trenches from which the camaraderie had come
"There wouldn't have been a war if it had been left to the public," Felstead later said, as he was increasingly feted for his longevity and his connection to the almost mythic Christmas truce. In 1916, at the Somme, he had suffered a "blighty" wound, which hospitalized him in England. Felstead was then sent to Salonika, in malaria-ridden Greece, and invalided home the next year. Demobbed in 1919, he worked as a civilian for the RAF in Gloucestershire, retiring in 1939. Increasingly sought after as a participant in the Christmas truce, he continued to dine out on his experience and in 1998, at 104, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur by President Jacques Chirac, with the decoration presented by Brigadier David Ross, colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Felstead was also cited in the book Centurions , presented to him at his nursing home on his 105th birthday, for his role in the remarkable truce, as one of the hundred most memorable Britons of the twentieth century
There was only one problem with Felstead's increasing fame, which lasted to his death and continues into the nearly four hundred obituaries and articles about him. His Christmas truce in 1915, rather than 1914, which he called the "second Christmas Truce," almost certainly never happened. Both the Germans and the British issued explicit orders, under pain of court martial and punishment, that there was to be no repetition of the 1914 stoppage of the war, and certainly no play. Wars were to be won, with no holidays from the killing. There was no football, and no match. (The two Scottish officers who actually attempted to initiate a truce at the second Christmas were stopped, court-martialed, and reprimanded.) Private Felstead joined his battalion after it had participated in the 1914 truce, and he obviously savored its stories of what had happened. Nothing in his account seems to ring true for 1915, but the last man-as he thought he was-has the last word, and he made the most of it
Yet he was not the last. Alfred Anderson, who died at 109 on November 21, 2005, in a nursing home in Newtyle, Angus, Scotland, was eighteen and in the 5th Territorial Battalion of the Black Watch, which was off the line but nearby when German and British troops emerged from their trenches on Christmas Eve 1914, and fraternized. Neil Griffiths, speaking for the Royal British Legion of Scotland, eulogized Anderson as "the last surviving link with a time that shimmers on the edge of our folk memory." His passing left only eight living veterans of the war in Britain, of an original five million, none of whom had been in Flanders as early as the first Christmas. He had been the only soldier left of the 690,235 Scots who then wore the king's uniform. On his last Armistice Day he was too frail to take part, but said, "I'm the last man standing-the last surviving Scottish soldier from the Great War. It's up to me to remember all those who have gone before."
For nearly ninety years he had little to say about his closeness to the Christmas Truce. Then a fleeting celebrity flickered. He was interviewed at 105, and again at 108. For the BBC's "The Last Tommy Gallery," Anderson recalled his shipping out across the channel in a cattle boat; a three-day march from Le Havre, in freezing weather, to the front; and the deaths of his new companions in arms. As his father had an undertaking and joinery business in Newtyle, to which young Alfred was apprenticed, death generally did not shock him, but these deaths, of his wartime intimates, had. The last of the veterans of the retreat from Mons, and thus of the memorable "Old Contemptibles" of the British Expeditionary Force who wore the Mons Star, he was the last of the last in many dimensions
"I remember the eerie silence that Christmas Day," he told an interviewer. "All the explosions stopped. We were billeted in a farmhouse at the time and we went outside and stood there, listening-and remembering our friends who were gone and our people back home. We'd spent two months with the cracking of bullets and machine-gun fire, and sometimes distant German voices-but now it was quiet all round. In the dead silence we shouted out 'Merry Christmas'-although none of us felt at all merry."
Anderson had received his Princess Mary brass box-the hinged tin of cigarettes with a Christmas card from the royal family. For him, a nonsmoker, it was the wrong stuff. Unwilling to barter, he gave the cigarettes away, but not the box with the princess's profile embossed on the lid. He told the Observer , "A lot of the lads thought the box was worth nothing, but I said someone's bound to have put a lot of thought into it. Some of the boys had Christmas presents from home anyway, but mine didn't arrive on time." He used the tin to protect the pocket-size New Testament given him in parting, inscribed "September 5, 1914. Alfred Anderson. A Present from Mother." It would be the only object he brought back from the war, which he would leave rather violently. "I have the bible yet," he said at 108
Life on the line was especially difficult for a uniformed Scot. "The kilt was a bad thing. You were never dry. Dragged in the mud and water and that. The water came up your leg and it never really evaporated. Wherever you walked in the trenches, there were fellers who wore trousers if they wanted. And funny enough, nobody queried it. Because they were glad to get out of the kilt themselves."
"We were so tired," he recalled, "[that] we didn't have the energy to play football-and we were quite away from the frontlines, so we didn't do any mixing with the Germans that was so famous." But his battalion heard "some cheering"-and soon "some of the boys" returned to their billets to tell the others what was happening
In his sector, the truce was perhaps the most abbreviated along the three-hundred-mile front. Artillerymen to the rear soon obeyed orders from even farther to the rear to begin a rolling fire to disrupt the stillness. "Then it became the usual thing. . . . The silence came to an end in the afternoon when the guns started again. The killing began again, too. It was a very short-lived peace. Now at Christmas I think of that day in 1914 and I remember all my friends who didn't make it."
One who didn't was Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who married the future King George VI and became his queen and mother to Elizabeth II. Anderson was briefly batman-orderly and messenger-to Bowes-Lyon, who died in the bloody battle of Loos. Carrying messages through the trenches was essential, as telephone land lines were useless. If shell bursts didn't sever the lines, rats chewed the insulation
At Loos, "Hundreds of our regiment were killed. You see, our bombardment wasn't strong enough to break the German [barbed] wire or destroy their machine guns." The Jerries had more firepower, while the Scots had only one or two machine guns for every battalion. One night, on the Somme, in the spring of 1916, his squad on a night patrol returned before daylight. As they were resting and brewing tea, a shell exploded over their heads. Several were killed. Anderson had shrapnel lodged in his neck, and crawled to an officers' dugout where someone applied a field dressing. He lay there in pain, until he was evacuated in a mule wagon. "My fighting days were over, but I had been lucky to survive. That day my dearest friends were left behind in that trench forever."
It was a blighty wound, from which he recuperated for two months in a hospital in Norwich. Issued a pass then to return home, he boarded a train to Newtyle and, to offer condolences, visited the family of one of his friends killed on the Somme. Three grieving sisters came to the door. "They were very frosty and didn't invite me in. I wasn't welcome with them, and I said, 'It's not my fault.' But they were quite clear. 'Aye, but you're here, and he's not.'" Anderson turned about and walked away
After the war he resumed his job as a joiner, carpentering coffins and furniture in his father's business, which he then took over. When war came again, he was too old for active service but organized the local Home Guard. Years later, in 1998, Anderson was, like Bertie Felstead, awarded the Légion d'honneur. The Prince of Wales visited him twice, last in 2002, talking with him about Captain Bowes-Lyon, Prince Charles's great-uncle, whom he had never known. Anderson, the prince said later, "had a legendary reputation within the Black Watch. . . . He will be missed by many. We should not forget him, and the others of his generation, who gave so much for their country."
At the end, Andrew Anderson received thirty seconds on the evening news. Yet as the last veterans of the truce flickered out, their lives became public property, imagined as more than they were. The Edinburgh Scotsman wrote that he "was a witness to the remarkable truce on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 . . . when German and UK soldiers played football." But he never boasted of what he did not do. In a dilapidated farmhouse close to the front, Anderson experienced the brief silence of the truce, held on to a treasured brass Christmas box, and bantered afterward with friends who had been out in no-man's-land, mingling with their temporary friends, the enemy. That he "witnessed" the truce, as some romantically suggest, stretches reality. The last survivor, he had long recognized that, and realized that when the shooting stopped, it was only a parenthesis between the horrors that had come before and the horrors still to come. "See," he said toward the end, "all these years I've been trying to forget. It's all being raked up again. I thought I was going to die peaceful like."