December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything”.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

It was different 25 years earlier, at the outbreak of “The Great War”. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.  France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.  The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing Christmas carols.  They saw lanterns and small fir trees, and messages were shouted along the trenches.  In places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs.

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

christmastruce2Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang
syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire ofChristmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News. December 24-25, 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but they were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

ronald-mckinnon
Private Ronald MacKinnon

Even so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

December 19, 1843 A Christmas Carol

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

Wait … What?

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young author when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent their mutual education, a half-century later.  He also visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  He must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, he later wrote that “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

In February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked in those mills.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

lowell-offering-coverHe left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

The research that followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts

The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits

How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”

Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin

Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 173 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

December 13, 1577 El Draque

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye

The “Pelican” left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577, with four other ships and 164 men.  The weather was so rotten that they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, before finally returning to Plymouth, where they started.  The flotilla set out again on December 13 after making repairs, soon to be joined by a sixth ship, the captured Portuguese merchant ship Santa Maria, renamed “Mary”.

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye.  Before it was over, Sir Francis Drake would be the first to circumnavigate the globe in continuous command of the expedition.

He was the third, actually, depending on how you count them.  Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250 men back in 1519, becoming the first about 58 years earlier.  Magellan himself didn’t make it though, he died in the Battle of Mactan on a Philippine beach, in 1521.  19 men and a single ship under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano, was all that remained on the expedition’s return in 1522.

The Spanish explorer García Jofre de Loaísa was the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men on seven ships.  None of his ships ever made it back.  25 of his men would return in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

Drake had crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his captains got on his last nerve.  Thomas Doughty had been in command of the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo.  One thing led to another and Doughty found himself accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”.   He was brought before a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, establishing the idea that lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain is its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of that ship’s passengers.

Doughty lost his head, in the end, in the shadow of the weathered and sun bleached skeletons and the bleak, Spanish gibbets where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.

golden-hind-replica
Golden Hind Replica

It may have been to smooth over the Doughty episode, that Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind”, (a female deer of 3 years or more), after the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the expedition’s prime sponsors. Soon reduced to three ships, Drake made the straits of Magellan by August of 1578, emerging alone into the Pacific in September.

Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold near Lima, when he heard about the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, sailing west toward Manila.  Nicknamed “Cacafuego”, translating as “Fireshitter” (I wouldn’t make that up), the ship carried 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins) and 26 tons of silver.  It was the richest prize of the voyage.

After a fine dinner with Cacafuego’s captured officers and gentlemen passengers, Drakedrake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

Drake landed near Alta, California in June 1579, where he repaired and restocked his vessel.  He claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion:  “New Britain”.   The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish, who by this time had a bounty of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million in today’s money) on the head of “El Draque”.

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew onboard, on September 26, 1580.  The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s income for the entire year.  Drake himself was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth.drake_1577-1580

Drake’s seafaring career ended in January 1596, when he died of dysentery, anchored off the central American coast.  There he was dressed in his armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin, off the Portobelo District of Panama.  Divers search for his coffin, to this day.

December 1, 2013 Sacred Soil

The Flanders Fields Memorial Garden will open in 2014, marking the centenary of the “great War”. “The war to end all wars”.

This November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the 98-year anniversary of the end of WWI.
At the time, it was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all wars”.  There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history which cannot be traced back to it.  International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, nor Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.
The current boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious differences are nothing new, they would have taken a very different shape if not for those boundaries.
World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history (WWI was only #5), was little more than the Great War, part 2. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off by something like 36 days.
I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle benefits of examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened three years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.
More than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War in the summer of 2013.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme.  All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”, there they collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields.
The soil from those battlefields was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  These seventy sandbags were transported to London, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. There the soil of the Great War will nourish and support a garden.  Ready for the following year – a solemn remembrance of the centenary of that war.
That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.
I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and not let it fade into some sepia toned and forgotten past.

This is what it looked like

November 26, 1703, The Great Storm of 1703

“Whatever the danger was within doors”,’twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the Tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within”

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain would see one of the most destructive storms in history.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off Westminster Abbey. Over 2,000 chimneys and 17,000 trees were toppled to the ground in London.  In the Thames, hundreds of ships of all sizes were piled up like toys.

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

Close to a third of the entire British Navy were drowned during the storm, as ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland. Many ships disappeared forever.  Others washed up on the shores of Denmark and Norway.

The most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke up, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of its quarter deck, only to be washed away as Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle. Atkins was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle sank, when he was again thrown by a wave, this time landing in a small boat. He alone would survive of the 269 men aboard the Mary.

Hundreds of sailors found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200 of them. They could have saved more, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in his future, Daniel Defoe was at this time a minor poet and pamphleteer. Defoe was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served his sentence for criticizing the religious intolerance of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens, but were soon driven inside to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without;  the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

great-storm-of-1703
It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone.

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down, and severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943.  The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone. Estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.  The final tally will never be known.