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December 26, 2011

Ypres, Belgium: The Christmas Truce

by Anne Paddock

Three years ago while my daughter was on a school trip, my husband and I went on a weeklong WWI battlefield tour.  Normally, I am the travel agent in the family securing flights, hotels, rental cars, and doing most of the research. But, this trip was my husband’s brainchild and all I had to do was show up because this adventure was a “duty” trip: the only reason I was going was to spend time with him.  My husband bought books, maps, made endless phone calls, and spoke to other WWI enthusiasts before deciding which sites, museums, and towns we needed to visit. And, he made the hotel reservations and mapped out our whole trip.

Touring World War 1 battlefield sites, trenches (as illustrated above), memorials, and museums was not something on my bucket list but by the second day of touring, I was hooked and one of the most fascinating sites we visited was in Ypres, Belgium.  The story of what happened in Ypres on December 24-25, 1914 is worth remembering and repeating, especially this week. Prior to this trip, I never heard of Ypres, a city on the northwestern border of Belgium and France that was primarily known for its textiles but is now much more well-known for “The Christmas Truce.”

The first World War which is often referred to as “The Great War” had just begun in the summer of 1914. In the early stages of the war, Germany invaded Belgium, a neutral country in order to easily advance into France. The British and the French came to the aid of the Belgians and fought the Germans throughout this area from 1914-1918. In the first few months of the war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were already killed or wounded with both sides just beginning to see the horrible effects of war.

On December 24, 1914 the war along the Ypres front seemed to stop for two days when the Germans began decorating the areas around their trenches, lighting candles, and singing holiday carols. The British cautiously responded by singing their own carols, waving white flags and when no shots were fired from either side, the soldiers started to fraternize:  trading cigarettes, food, souvenirs, and decorating a tree in an area called “no mans land” which delineated the sides with rows of barbed wire. There was even a soccer match. Word spread for miles up and down the front and for a brief time – Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – a solidarity among the soldiers was embraced along most of the front.

When word reached the higher-ups, the militarists reacted with outrage. Fraternization between the sides was strictly forbidden and therefore, a Christmas Truce never occurred again.  97 years ago, men whose goals were to kill each other put their differences aside and celebrated the true meaning of Christmas: a brotherhood among all men. When I saw the commemorative cross in an open field south of Ypres, celebrating the famous Christmas Truce, I couldn’t help but think how things would have turned out so differently if those that were fighting in the trenches continued their celebration of solidarity and defied the militarists on both sides.  A lofty dream, yes but one in which all sides would have preferred had they known that more than 10 million soldiers and civilians (with some estimates in excess of 30 million) would die during “The Great War.”

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