Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce (Plume, 2002)

'At Christmas 1914 there took place in some parts of the British line what is still regarded by many as the most remarkable incident of the War — an unofficial truce. During the winter it was not unusual for little groups of men to gather in a front trench, and there hold impromptu concerts, singing patriotic songs. The Germans, too, did much the same, and on calm evenings the songs from one line floated to the trenches of the other side, and were received with applause, and sometimes with calls for an encore.'
— Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce

If you read our back story in 'What's New', you remember me telling this tale: 'A rather rumpled Balkan violinist, who says his name is Bela, stopped by the Green Man offices to make use of the Library and its extensive tune collection — including the tunes he himself composed between the Wars. Other than having to be told that he couldn't smoke anything other than his Meerschaum in the pub, he's a perfect gentleman who's been putting on quite a performance of his country's dance tunes, to the delight of all present. His favourite tune is 'Neda Voda', a traditional Balkan tune, which he claims to have learned from Boiled in Lead while playing on an American tour a few years back. It's such an impressive performance that Stephen Hunt, our barkeep this afternoon, rummaged 'bout the bar and found a case of Slaty Bazant, a Bratislavian beer that Bela said he's quite fond of, but hasn't drunk in decades! Mind you, after quite a few bottles he started rambling on in German about Cossacks, sent by the Czar with snow still on their great coats, being seen in Dover waiting to embark for France during the Great War...' Now, both the tale of Cossacks in Britain during the First World War and the Christmas Truce of that War are believed these days to be simply popular longings for that which could not be. I cannot speak to the matter of the Cossacks, but Weintraub has written a marvelous book showing that indeed that the Christmas Truce did, more or less, happen. Sort of.

But, you ask, how could two sides so determined on destroying each other agree to stop the killing? How could what had become the deadliest killing ground in centuries for both sides allow sworn enemies to seek peace and companionship from each other?

Weintraub has already written one book covering the First World War, as he notes in an interview with National Review Online: 'I published a book about the five days leading up to the Armistice in November 1918, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. While researching it I discovered the abortive informal armistice in 1914 that had bubbled up from the ranks on Christmas Eve. Although it clearly happened, and survivors had been on a BBC television documentary in 1982, the event had taken on the quality of myth. I determined to find out more, particularly to grasp the mythic power that the truce seemed to possess, and to examine it from both sides. I had begun my earlier book with the line, 'Peace is harder to make than war,' and as I worked on Silent Night that line became even more meaningful. Although I was working on other books at the time, including two on World War II and several biographies, every time I went to England or Germany on other research, I dipped into files of newspapers for January 1915, as troops mesmerized by the miraculous Christmas peace, a sort of waking dream they could hardly believe, wrote home about it. In those pre-censorship days, the letters were often sent on to local newspapers, which printed them. Then I went to the military archives. It was all real — even the football games (our soccer) in No Man's Land. I even found some of the scores.'

What Weintraub has done is write one of the oddest books I've ever read. Odd because in the end it's so bleedin' depressin' — I knew that the sporadic Christmas Truce would soon give way to the slaughter of all involved. Reading about carols jointly sung by German and British soldiers, trees decorated in No Man's Land (a term Weintraub traces back to where the beheadings were done outside Medieval London), and even friendly insults being exchanged between Germans who had worked in pre-war London and the British troops whom many of them might have worked for is depressing.

It's not that Weintraub does a poor job of documenting this event — like all historians who are storytellers at heart and who are really interested in a minute slice of what has already happened, he writes very well. Even if the Christmas Truce was more fiction that fact, it's an interesting tale. His only fault is that in attempting to convince you that there was a Christmas Truce, he repeats stories over and over in order to create a pattern. How many times did I need to know that both sides sang the same bleedin' carols. Far less than the number of times that he told me here!

The book concludes with a 'what might have happened' speculation by the author: he tries to imagine the world after a Christmas truce had been both widespread and had lasted, which he believes would have forced the politicians to declare peace. (He has a higher faith in politicians than I do!) This is rather clumsily handled, reading like a bad piece of speculative fiction, because the premise involves the French and Belgians meekly accepting the German occupation of parts of their countries, and the Germans giving up some of what they'd fought so hard to capture. This chapter is by far the weakest part of the book. If I had been Weintraub's editor, I'd have chopped it out entirely, as it detracts from a tale well-told. As he notes in conclusion, 'However much the momentary peace of 1914 evidenced the desire of the combatants to live in amity with one another it was doomed from the start by the realities beyond the trenches.' So why speculate?

I did enjoy the book as a look at a small but significant event in the history of a war that should never have happened; however, and would recommend it.

[Jack Merry]