- BERLIN --The Christmas truce
of the Great War in 1914 was started by a "peace movement" of
German soldiers who won over their trenchbound British foes by lobbing
chocolate cake at them instead of hand grenades, a new book claims.
- The interpretation of the events on the Western Front
on Christmas Eve 1914 is made by Michael Jürgs whose book, The Small
Peace in the Great War is the first to be written about the ceasefire from
a German perspective.
- The book has received wide publicity in Germany where
its findings have been welcomed, not least because they help to dispel
the stereotype of the German soldier as a ruthless fighting machine.
- "This is the friendly Hun from next door,"
wrote Markus Hesselmann in Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. "It's
about German front line soldiers not obeying orders and making peace by
leaving their weapons behind."
- Jürgs compares the actions of German soldiers in
1914 to those of the country's peace movement opposing the Iraq war. "There
were not merely one or two incidents of peace on the Western Front in 1914,"
he writes. "In reality there was a spontaneous peace movement which
ran for hundreds of kilometres and thousands took part," he adds.
- His book reveals that German troops began preparing for
the truce well in advance. Several days before Christmas, soldiers from
a Saxon regiment lobbed a carefully packaged chocolate cake across no-
man's land into the British trenches. A message was attached asking whether
holding a one-hour ceasefire that evening might be possible, so that the
troops could celebrate their captain's birthday.
- According to Jürgs, the British stopped firing,
stood on their trench parapets and applauded as a German band struck up
a rendition of "Happy Birthday". Jürgs quotes from the diary
of Kurt Zehmisch, a German lieutenant who describes how thousands of German
Christmas trees delivered to the front line helped to bring about the ceasefire.
"It was pure illumination - along the trench parapets there were Christmas
trees lit up by burning candles," Zehmisch writes. "The British
responded by shouting and clapping."
- What followed was a bout of unprecedented fraternisation
between enemy forces that has never been repeated on an equivalent scale:
German Fritzes bearing candles, chunks of cake and cigars met British Tommies
carrying cigarettes and Christmas pudding in no-man's land. The two sides
exchanged presents, sang songs and played football, using tin cans for
makeshift balls and spiked Pickelhaube helmets for goalposts.
- Jürgs says the Germans were able to take the initiative
because many had been in Britain as "guest workers" before the
war and, unlike most of the British, had a command of the enemy's language.
- The truce collapsed shortly after Christmas 1914 when
news of the ceasefire reached the horrified high commands and strict military
discipline was reinforced. Jürgs writes that in one area, Ploegsteert
forest in Belgium, the ceasefire continued until the end of February 1915.
- © 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd