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Christmas under fire


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It remains an extraordinary testimony to the power of the Gospel that, during such a terrible time of World War, soldiers of so many armies, on opposite sides, could cease fighting, come out of their trenches and embrace their enemies in honour of the Prince of Peace

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Christmas under fire

  1. 1. By Dr. Peter Hammond
  2. 2. On Christmas Eve 1914, a spontaneous cease-fire was observed across the whole of the Western Front.
  3. 3. The Christmas Truce of the First World War, An extraordinary event in the history of warfare, initially received widespread media coverage in the New York Times of 31 December 1914,
  4. 4. followed by British newspapers, such as the Mirror, The Illustrated London News and the Times, which printed front page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing Christmas carols.
  5. 5. The French government was the first to severely censor any reports on what they called "fraternisation with the enemy."
  6. 6. The Christmas Truce is now openly acknowledged at the Imperial War Museum in London with photographs of German and British troops celebrating Christmas together.
  7. 7. Political pressure was brought to bear to censor all reports of the event from mainstream history books for decades.
  8. 8. For years this extraordinary event was known only by word of mouth from participants.
  9. 9. The damage caused by Christmas Truce to propaganda campaigns to demonise the enemy was regarded as a serious threat to the war.
  10. 10. It has taken decades to unearth the details of the fascinating events surrounding Christmas 1914.
  11. 11. In the first five months of the Great War, over a million Europeans had already been killed in action,
  12. 12. most by artillery fire.
  13. 13. The initially fast moving campaigns had degenerated
  14. 14. into static trench warfare with a continuous frontline of barbed wire and trenches running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.
  15. 15. Emily Hobhouse was the most prominent campaigner against British involvement in the First World War.
  16. 16. It was the famous Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, who had exposed to the world
  17. 17. the horrors of Lord Kitchener's scorched earth campaign against the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the horrors of the British concentration camps in South Africa,
  18. 18. The interior of the ruined Dutch Reforned Church, Ventersburg – burned by British forces.
  19. 19. On the night of 2 Feb 1902 a British column burnt down the church in Lindley.
  20. 20. Norvalspont Concentration Camp
  21. 21. The Norvalspont Concentration Camp
  22. 22. The grim plight of those held at the Bloemfontein Concentration camp.
  23. 23. Children at Bloemfontein Concentration camp carrying water.
  24. 24. Anna Davel and daughter perform domestic chores outside their tent.
  25. 25. Orphans at Norvalspont Concentration Camp.
  26. 26. Orphans - the innocent casualties of war
  27. 27. The Body of Miss Botha of Ladybrand. 18 years old when she died in Bloemfontien. It was her wish that the Vierkleur be draped around her chest after her death.
  28. 28. Gysbert Johannes Vermeulen of Dewetsdorp died at the age of twelve in Bloemfontein Concentration Camp
  29. 29. Bloemfontein Concentration Camp - Lizzie van Zyl holding the porcelain doll given her by Emily Hobhouse
  30. 30. The body of Japie van den Berg outside the tent where he died, Bloemfontein Concentration Camp
  31. 31. In 1914, Emily Hobhouse authored the Open Christmas Letter calling for peace.
  32. 32. 101 British women signed Emily's Open Christmas Letter which was endorsed by 155 prominent German and Austrian women in response.
  33. 33. Under the heading: "On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men", Emily Hobhouse wrote: "Sisters: The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished, and still wish, for peace, may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do."
  34. 34. She mentioned that "as in South Africa during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), the brunt of modern war falls upon non-combatants, and the conscience of the world cannot bear the sight."
  35. 35. "Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women… and urge our rulers to stave off further bloodshed?... May Christmas hasten that day…"
  36. 36. The German Mothers responded: "To our English Sisters, sisters of the same race, our warm and heartfelt thanks for Christmas greetings… women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness,
  37. 37. devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, that really civilised women never lose their humanity…"
  38. 38. Emily Hobhouse also oversaw the raising of funds and shipping of food and medicines
  39. 39. to the women and children of Germany and Austria
  40. 40. who were suffering as a result of the British Naval blockade.
  41. 41. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria,
  42. 42. because of the British naval blockades,
  43. 43. were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.
  44. 44. Numerous ministers were proclaiming from the pulpit: "That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night when the Angels sang."
  45. 45. Although these messages were officially rebuffed, and supressed in the heavily censored media, many of the soldiers in the frontlines seemed to share these sentiments.
  46. 46. From the first week of December, informal truces were observed by soldiers on the frontline.
  47. 47. In a letter dated 7 December 1914, Charles De Gaulle expressed his dismay at fraternisation with the enemy, where French and German troops had exchanged newspapers , recovered their dead and organised burial parties in no-mans-land.
  48. 48. French General d'Urbal, expressed alarm over soldiers staying too long in the same sector becoming friendly with their enemies, to the extent that they were conducting conversations between the lines and even visiting one another's trenches!
  49. 49. After heavy rains near Ypres, where the Germans held the high ground and the British the lower ground, English troops came out of their flooded trenches in full view of the Germans who expressed their sympathy and did not open fire on their soaked and vulnerable enemy.
  50. 50. The 2nd Essex Regiment recorded on 11 December, in their War Diary, that their officers and men met the German Saxon Korp half way between the trenches and exchanged food, cigarettes, chocolates and conversations.
  51. 51. On Christmas Eve German soldiers began decorating their trenches with Christmas trees and candles.
  52. 52. The Christmas Truce began in the region of Ypres, in Belgium, where the Germans were enthusiastically singing Christmas carols in their trenches.
  53. 53. When British soldiers joined in singing Silent Night and then responded with carols of their own, the two sides began shouting Christmas greetings to each other.
  54. 54. Shortly after that soldiers spontaneously came out of their trenches and walked across no-mans-land to greet one another, exchange gifts and souvenirs.
  55. 55. This truce spread rapidly across the entire Western Front with over 100,000 German and British troops involved in this unofficial cessation of fighting.
  56. 56. Soon Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Belgian and French troops joined in the Christmas celebrations in the frozen strip of no-man's-land.
  57. 57. Joint worship services were held.
  58. 58. Respectful burial services were conducted by the combatants for the dead between their lines.
  59. 59. Soldiers swopped ration packs , wine, pies, chocolates and souvenirs, such as buttons, badges and hats.
  60. 60. The next day football matches were played between the lines. British officer Robert Greys wrote of the football match between the 133 Saxon Regiment and his Scottish troops.
  61. 61. The Germans won 3 - 2. The Glasgow News on 2 January, reported that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders won their match 4-1.
  62. 62. Royal Field Artillery Lt. Albert Wynn, wrote of their soccer match against the Hanoverians, near Ypres, on Christmas Day.
  63. 63. Commanders threatened repercussions for lack of discipline and numerous officers ordered their artillery to open fire on the fraternising troops in no-mans-land. On none of these occasions did the artillery obey orders.
  64. 64. There are numerous complaints on record by officers shocked at the total breakdown of discipline as men point blank refused orders to open fire on their own soldiers, mingling with the enemy, in no-mans-land, on Christmas Day.
  65. 65. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commanded the British II Corp,
  66. 66. Horace Smith-Dorrien was one of the very few British survivors of the battle of Isandlwana, during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
  67. 67. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, issued orders forbidding fraternisation with the enemy and complained that his orders were disregarded by the soldiers!
  68. 68. Richard Schirrmann was so impressed by the comraderie experienced between his German regiment and French soldiers during the Christmas Truce,
  69. 69. even exchanging addresses with one another, that he went on to found the Youth Hostel Association in 1919, to provide meeting places where young men of all countries could get to know one another.
  70. 70. There was also a general observances of a Christmas Truce on the Eastern Front
  71. 71. where German, Austrian Hungarian, and Russian commanders ordered cease-fires for the duration of Christmas.
  72. 72. Numerous French and British officers were court martialled for participating in this fraternisation with the enemy.
  73. 73. Whole units had to be pulled back from the front and sent to other fronts, when they displayed reluctance to fire on "enemy" that they had celebrated Christmas with.
  74. 74. Numerous artillery units began to fire only at precise locations, at pre-arranged times, to avoid causing casualties.
  75. 75. Many instances of soldiers firing high, and ineffectually, were reported.
  76. 76. An Easter Sunday Truce was attempted by German units in 1915, but they were suppressed by British artillery fire.
  77. 77. In November 1915 a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool Battalion and conducted burial services together.
  78. 78. In December 1915, there were explicit orders directed by Allied commanders and elaborate procedures made, to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas Truce.
  79. 79. But even the multiple artillery barrages ordered along the entire frontline, throughout Christmas Day by the British, were not completely effective and a number of truces were observed on the Western Front, Christmas 1915.
  80. 80. On some sections of the Western Front, carols and gifts were exchanged between German and British troops
  81. 81. and at least one football match, with about 50 soldiers on each side was recorded in 1915.
  82. 82. Sir Ian Colquhoun of the Scots Guards was court-martialed for defying orders by maintaining a short truce to bury the dead between the lines, on Christmas Day 1915. Because he was related to British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, this punishment was commuted.
  83. 83. German attempts to observe Christmas Truces in December 1916 and 1917 were rebuffed by British Artillery barrages.
  84. 84. Recently evidence has come to light of a successful Christmas Truce in 1916, between German and Canadian soldiers near Vimy Ridge, where they exchange Christmas greetings and presents. The Canadians and Germans visited one another's lines on 25 December 1916.
  85. 85. Numerous famous authors such as C.S. Lewis (of the Narnia series), fought on the Western Front. Authors at War
  86. 86. J.R.R. Tolkien (who was born in Bloemfontein), who wrote Lord of the Rings, fought on the Western Front.
  87. 87. A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh), fought on the Western Front.
  88. 88. A Christmas Truce Memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, in France, on 11 November 2008, on the spot where 25 December 1914,
  89. 89. the Royal Welsh Fusiliers played football with the German 371 Battalion. The Germans won 2-1.
  90. 90. The 2005 French film, Joyeux Noël dramatizes the Christmas Truce of 1914 through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers on the Western Front.
  91. 91. Intercepted The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same frightening scene.
  92. 92. "This is a nightmare," the co-pilot said. Doomed
  93. 93. "He's going to destroy us," the pilot agreed.
  94. 94. The men were looking at a grey German Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter cruising just a few feet away from their wingtip.
  95. 95. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill. A Time of War
  96. 96. The B-17 bomber pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farmer. His bomber had been shot up in the skies above Germany.
  97. 97. Half his crew was wounded,
  98. 98. and the tail gunner was dead,
  99. 99. his blood frozen over the rear machine guns.
  100. 100. But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer "Pinky" Luke, looked at the fighter pilot, the German did not pull the trigger.
  101. 101. He nodded at Brown instead, escorted him out of German . What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry.
  102. 102. Years later, Brown would track down his erstwhile enemy for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.
  103. 103. His encounter with the German fighter pilot is told in "A Higher Call." The book explains how that aerial encounter reverberated in both men's lives for more than 50 years.
  104. 104. "The war left them in turmoil," says Adam Makos, who wrote the book with Larry Alexander. "When they found each other, they found peace."
  105. 105. Their story is extraordinary, but it is not unique.
  106. 106. British and German troops gathered for post-war reunions; some even vacationed together after both World Wars.
  107. 107. Franz Stigler, fall 1944
  108. 108. Fighter Ace Revenge, not honour, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943. Stigler was not just any fighter pilot. He was an Ace. One more kill and he would win The Knight's Cross, German's highest award for Valour.
  109. 109. Revenge Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler's comrades and were bombing his country's cities.
  110. 110. August in 1939
  111. 111. August alongside his Ju-88 bomber in France, summer 1940
  112. 112. Scramble Stigler had already shot down 2 B-17s that day & was refueling & re-loading his guns, standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber's engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land.
  113. 113. As the bomber disappeared from view behind some trees, Stigler saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.
  114. 114. In His Sights As Stigler's fighter rose to meet the bomber, he manoeuvred to attack from behind. He climbed behind the bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger.
  115. 115. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.
  116. 116. He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber.
  117. 117. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.
  118. 118. Looking Into the Eyes of His Enemy Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber's wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror. Stigler pressed his hand over the cross he kept in his flight jacket.
  119. 119. He prayed for a moment and then eased his index finger off the trigger. He could not shoot. It would be dishonourable to shoot at a crippled enemy aircraft, even if it was a bomber.
  120. 120. A Knight of the Air Stigler was not only motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code of honour. He could trace his family's ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe. He had once studied Theology.
  121. 121. Stigler recalled the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: "You follow the rules of war for you -- not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity."
  122. 122. Change of Mission Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground would not shoot down the slow-moving bomber.
  123. 123. Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.
  124. 124. "Good luck," Stigler said as he parted. "You are in God's hands."
  125. 125. Mercy For An Enemy Stigler took pity on his enemy when he locked eyes with Brown.
  126. 126. Reprieved As he watched the German ME-109 fighter peel away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn't thinking of the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.
  127. 127. Thanksgiving He flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.
  128. 128. Silenced Brown's commanding officer strictly forbad him to ever talk about the incident. It was considered dangerous for morale.
  129. 129. New Life Brown flew more missions before the war ended. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida.
  130. 130. Nightmares Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.
  131. 131. Resolution Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life?
  132. 132. At JV-44s alert shack, Steinhoff takes a call from the orphanage. Behind him (L to R) are the Count, Hohagen, and Luetzow.
  133. 133. JV-44's staff April 1945. Franz wearing sunglasses, Hohagen shields his eyes. Also commanders from the KG-51 bomber unit (far left) and the jet training wing at Lechfeld (center)
  134. 134. Reunion of Enemies On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read: He had scoured military archives in the U.S. and England.
  135. 135. He had attended a pilots' reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.
  136. 136. "Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?"
  137. 137. It was Stigler. He had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. He became a prosperous businessman.
  138. 138. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and "it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter."
  139. 139. Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn't wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialled the number, and Stigler picked up.
  140. 140. "My God, it's you!" Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.
  141. 141. Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: "To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate."
  142. 142. The two pilots would meet again, but this time in the lobby of a Florida hotel.
  143. 143. One of Brown's friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.
  144. 144. Friendship The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English: "I love you, Charlie."
  145. 145. Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived, Makos says.
  146. 146. Brown and Stigler became friends. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans' reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.
  147. 147. Brown's daughter says her father would worry about Stigler's health and constantly check in on him.
  148. 148. "It wasn't just for show," she says. "They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week."
  149. 149. As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says: "The nightmares went away."
  150. 150. Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he showed the extent of his gratitude.
  151. 151. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honour.
  152. 152. During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived -- children, grandchildren, relatives – because of Stigler's act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his seat of honour.
  153. 153. "Everybody was crying, not just him," Warner says.
  154. 154. Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then much more.
  155. 155. Makos discovered what that was by accident while spending a night at Brown's house. He was poking through Brown's library when he came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.
  156. 156. Makos opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Brown:
  157. 157. "In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.
  158. 158. "The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.
  159. 159. "Thanks Charlie. "Your Brother, Franz"
  160. 160. It remains an extraordinary testimony to the power of the Gospel that, during such a terrible time of world war, soldiers of so many armies, on opposite sides, could cease fighting, come out of their trenches and embrace their enemies, in honour of the Prince of Peace.
  161. 161. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the Government will be upon His shoulder. And His Name will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His Government and peace there will be no end…" Isaiah 9:6-7
  162. 162. Dr. Peter Hammond Reformation Society P.O. Box 74 Newlands, 7725 Cape Town, South Africa Tel: (021) 689-4480 Fax: (021) 685-5884 Email: Website:
  163. 163. SILENT NIGHT
  164. 164. SILENT NIGHT Silent night, Holy night All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin, mother and Child Holy Infant, tender and mild Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
  165. 165. Silent night, Holy night Son of God, love's pure light Radiant beams from Thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
  166. 166. Silent night, Holy night Shepherds quake, at the sight Glories stream from heaven above Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah. Christ the Saviour is born, Christ the Saviour is born.