By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
Quiet doesn’t happen often in the Sophienburg, so I make the most of it when I can get it. Today, the week before Christmas, I attack the pile of mail on my desk, complete with Christmas cards. One in particular strikes me as I read the beautiful simplicity of the message “Peace on Earth”. It’s not just the blue and gold card by itself, but the fact that I’m sitting in the museum, surrounded by war… well, exhibits about war… that strikes me. War and peace might be a lengthy body of work for anyone, but the premise of peace within a war, is worth the story.
The Sophienburg has joined numerous historical museums and organizations across the United States to commemorate the centennial of America’s entry into World War I.Almost all of the current exhibits reflect how WWI impacted New Braunfels during the 1917-1919 era. It took almost two years for Curator Keva Boardman to research and prepare the exhibits for opening, and yet in that time, I had to admit that I still didn’t really know much about The Great War.
For those of you who slept through 10th Grade World History, here is a very short version of the four-year blip on the world timeline. World War I (also known as The Great War and the War to End All Wars before WWII) began July 28, 1914 because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The list of players is a little confusing, so keep up. On one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary were the Central Powers. On the other side is Britain, France, Ireland and Russia or The Allies. Italy originally sided with the Central Powers, but then switched sides and declared war on Germany in 1915 and Austria-Hungary in 1916. Japan also joined The Allies. Turkey, the Middle Eastern Region and a bunch of smaller countries were also involved throughout. The United States did not join the war on the side of the Allies until April 6, 1917. WWI was considered “the first modern war” using rapid fire machine guns, tanks, poison gas, aerial combat and radio communications. The aggressive nature of the fire arms forced the troops on both sides to “dig in” to survive. Miles and miles of intricate trench systems and barbed wire ran from the North Sea in Belguim south to the Swiss Border. 65 million troops (Yes, million! That’s equal to sending the entire population of California, Texas and Iowa.) were sent to combat in WWI. It is believed that there were more than 9 million military deaths (would wipe out State of New Jersey) and 21 million wounded. The Armistice was signed November 11, 1918.
That was the War component. Now about the Peace. The Great War had just begun in July of 1914. Many thought the whole mess would be over by Christmas, but no luck. According to numerous soldiers’ accounts all along the western front, there were periods of no shooting acknowledged by both German and British soldiers. The first unofficial truce reportedly started on Christmas Eve 1914. The British troops noticed that German troops had decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the truce.
The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.
A nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, Henry Williamson, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:
Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?
The truces were unofficial, prompting orders from commanders on both sides for “No fraternization with the enemy”. They also told their troops that the enemy was planning an attack on Christmas to keep them in the “fighting mode”.
It does not say whether the soldiers ever met again in peace time after the war. Looking at the war vital statistics, it would seem improbable.It would, however, be a nice ending to my story, but the most important part is the human element.In spite of the circumstances of their meeting, the dreadful conditions, the fact that they were supposed to be shooting at one another, they were able to share in a short time of Peace, for Christmas. The war raged on afterwards, but the bond of humanity exists. Maybe we can find that again.
Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men!