100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce during World War One

By the summer of 1914, Europe was thrown into World War One. As the war progressed, and battle lines stalled, trench warfare, supported by barbed wire became a way of life. In some places the trenches between the Allies and the Axis were thirty to forty yards apart. By December 1, it looked as if the war would not be over by Christmas. On December 7, Pope Benedict XV had asked the warring governments for a truce, but neither would have it. There would be no official truce on Christmas.

The wet weather leading up to Christmas had made the trenches a muddy and soggy mess. Water was everywhere, and conditions in the trenches were harsh. As battles were fought near Christmas, the bodies of the deceased still laid upon the ground. But as Christmas approached, there were a few informal truces that took place, which included the fraternization of soldiers. As Christmas Eve night approached, temperatures began to dive and a heavy layer of frost formed on the ground. What happened next was a truly remarkable historic event.

It seems that the first area of the Christmas Truce began at Ypres, Belgium. German soldiers began decorating their line of trenches with candles and singing Christmas carols. The British soldiers on the other side responded by singing carols of their own. Some of the songs were sung in German and English. Then shouting matches of season’s greetings and general greeting took place.

One British soldier recalled, “On Christmas Eve at about 4 p.m. we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic.”

One British soldier recalled that during the night, “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht’. I shall never forget it; it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”

Alfred Kornitzke, who was a German cook, was preparing a festive confection for his company, who were facing the Algerians. As the Algerians kept up the gunfire, Kornitzke, still wearing his baker’s hat, got fed up with all of the shooting at the Germans, as Christmas Eve was not celebrated by those of the Islam faith. Soon, he jumped out of the trench with a Christmas tree and began moving toward the Algerians line in No Man’s Land. “He did not stop until he was halfway between the lines. There he sat the tree down carefully, calmly took some matches…he had intended to use for his petroleum stove, and in the frosty star-filled night, lit the candles, one by one…Now, you blockheads, now you know what’s going on! Merry Christmas!” His Christmas greeting must have worked because with that, the Algerians ceased firing.

As Christmas morning came, many of the men began yelling out “Merry Christmas.” It wasn’t long before white flags were seen coming from the trenches and soldiers gathered in the middle of No Man’s Land. Captain Josef Sewald, of the 17th Bavarian remembered when he yelled over to his enemy from his trench:“We didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands.”

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.British Captain Robert Miles recalled “We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. A regular soldiers’ peace!” As the soldiers came out of their trenches and began to mingle, they exchanged small gifts of food, tobacco and alcohol. Uniform buttons were also traded. One English soldier recalled, “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.”

The Jenaer Volksblatt, a German paper, had a very witty piece written about the Christmas Truce. “Yesterday about four o’clock in the afternoon there was a fierce and terrible onslaught of Christmas packages onto our trenches. No man was spared. However, not a single package fell into the hands of the French. In the confusion, one soldier suffered the paling of a salami two inches in diameter straight into his stomach…Another had two large raisins from an exploding pastry fly directly into his eyes…A third man had a great misfortune of having a full bottle of cognac fly into his mouth.”

Details were sent out into No Man’s Land to recover the corpses of fallen soldiers for a proper burial. Church services were also held. It was reported that soccer and football were played. It seemed as if those once considered enemies had become the bests of friends. The men talked about their homes and their families, girlfriends and wives.

However, military strictness was observed with regard to positions and trench layout. According to Lance Corporal George Ashurst, 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, one German soldier came out of his trench bearing a flag of truce. He was met by another British soldier and escorted to the British trench, but since he was not blind folded “he had to be made a prisoner of war.” The German soldier protested and was upset. Other soldiers took the opportunity to view the enemy’s machine gun emplacements on the trenches.

There were at least five documented Americans serving in the French Foreign Legion that participated in the Christmas Truce, Eugene Jacobs of Pawtucket, R. I., Victor Chapman, a Harvard man from New York, Phil Rader, George Unard, and African American cook from Galveston Texas, and John Street from St. Louis. John Street was killed the day after Christmas by a German bullet. Phil wrote a letter about the Christmas Truce that was published in several American newspapers. He recalled, “For 20 days we had faced that strip of land, 45 feet wide between our trench and that of the Germans—that terrible no-man’s land, dotted with dead bodies, crisscrossed by tangled mazes of barbed wire. That little strip of land was as wide and as deep and as full of death as the Atlantic Ocean, as uncrossable as the spaces between the stars, as terrible as human hate. Christmas morning fell on it as brightly as if it were a lover’s lane or the aisle in some grand cathedral.”

By dusk, this remarkable event was, for the most part, over. Never again in history would there by a truce such as the one observed by the men in 1914. Soldiers quickly wrote letters home about what had happened. Phil Rader recalled, “Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was a Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where for days there had been only rifle barrels. The terror of no-man’s land fell away. The sounds of happy voices filled the air. We were all unhumanly happy for that one glorious instant, in which we all—English, Portugese, Americans and even Nadem, the Turk, and that savages, as we had been, cave men as we were, the awfulness of war had not filled the corners of our hearts, where love and Christmas live.” Indeed it was a miracle, a Christmas miracle.

As army censorships read mail from the participating soldiers that was being sent back home, it was revealed that an unofficial truce had taken place. The events that unfolded during Christmas were treasonous in the eyes of the high command in all of the armies. Their leaders were furious. However, there were several sectors of the battlefield where Christmas did not stop the war and fighting continued. Then again, there were certain areas of the battlefield where the Christmas Truce lasted until after the New Year of 1915. But in those areas, where the truce was observed, would leave a lasting memory on those who participated in the Christmas Truce. Phil Rader recalled the day after Christmas, “The sun was shining down again on a world gone mad.”

Monterey Pass Battlefield Park & Museum To Soon Open

The Monterey Pass Battlefield Park located in Blue Ridge Summit is finally ready for visitation. Over the course of the last year and a half, the Friends of the Monterey Pass Battlefield, Inc. (FMPB) have been working hard building a museum that will tell the story of the 1863 Pennsylvania Campaign, and how Monterey Pass played a role during the Confederate invasion, in addition to the American Civil War as it relates to Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Through these exhibits, the museum shall encourage audiences to examine the past and its relationship to our shared future.

The museum is fully interpreted with five galleries and artifacts that tell the story of this important and forgotten Civil War battle. The museum’s collection of artifacts, many of which were donated, are related to the battlefield. One such relic is a rifled musket carried by the Union army, which was found years later in between the walls of a house. The rifle is in great shape and still has its bayonet attached, one hundred and fifty-one years later.

The museum proudly displays a Union officer’s frock coat which was worn by Captain William Wilken, a member of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, who fought at the battle of Monterey Pass. Another artifact is an artillery mounted services jacket, which shows how crudely made some of the Union uniforms were. A nice mixture of infantry and cavalry accoutrements will show the public what soldiers were issued during the Civil War.

A Civil War era dress is also on display, complete with a bonnet. “One of the stories that we wanted to tell was the civilian aspect and how they coped with war being in their community” said Alicia Miller, who chairs the non-profit FMPB organization. One of the galleries, “A Summer of Crisis,” tells the story of the refugees and how they were faced with leaving their homes as the Confederate army was entering into Pennsylvania.

“Another story that I thought was important to tell was the role of the New York Sate National Guard in Washington Township” said John A. Miller, Washington Township Historian and Museum Director. “The New York State National Guard protected Harrisburg and Baltimore during the campaign. Many of these non-veteran soldiers from New York’s upper-class marched over two hundred and seventy-five miles” Miller said. Many of these New York regiments were wearing their gray fatigue uniforms, which from a distance, could be mistaken for that of a Confederate soldier.

Another feature of the new museum are the maps that show exactly how the battle of Monterey Pass was fought on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. Britt Isenberg, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, donated his time to create the maps which are on display. Many of the maps on the internet are not historically correct with regards to troop movements, landmarks, and many of those maps fail to show the battle west of modern day Route 16, headed westward toward Ringgold, which is how the battle entered into Maryland.

The new museum will also be an interactive experience for the visitors. There are different stations set up where the visitor can see original copies of occupational CDV’s from the Victorian era, get a look at the types of wagons that moved through Monterey Pass, as well as quotes from the soldiers themselves on the conditions they had to fight in. The museum also has clothing that even the littlest visitors can try on to see what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War. “We want this to be a fun and educational experience for everyone who visits the museum, from the Civil War buff, to our local school children” said Alicia Miller.

The museum will be staffed by volunteers and will be open during the weekends in 2015. Programs and special events for next year are already in the planning stages. “Since the battle of Monterey Pass was fought during the night, we would like to capitalize on this by having programs conducted during the evening” said Miller. “Especially, since several visitors to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center are looking for things to do in the evening after the Gettysburg facility is closed.”

Although, the grand opening is taking place in October, the museum exhibits will continue to grow during the winter and spring of 2015. One of the exhibits the FMPB would like to install is a timeline of the Civil War, showing the visitor the much larger picture with regards to the Civil War and the 1863 Confederate invasion. Artifact cases are still needed for the floor area to help protect the larger artifacts that are currently in the building. A flat panel TV with DVD player will also be installed to run various documentaries and slides pertaining to Monterey Pass, and the Pennsylvania Campaign. Funding is still needed for these projects.

There is a possibility that the Monterey Pass Battlefield Park will gain an additional one hundred and sixteen acres of battlefield land. In June, Washington Township officials applied and were awarded a $100,000.00 grant from Franklin County. In October, the township applied for another $100,000.00 grant from the county to complete the purchase for this important battlefield ground. If awarded the second grant, the battlefield park will consist of about 117 acres of land.

The land the FMPB and Washington Township are currently trying to buy is the old Maria Furnace Road. The property also features Monterey Peak, which on a clear day has a spectacular view to the east. “This property will feature trails and interpretation that will explain the Confederate retreat and the experiences of those Confederate soldiers marching through Monterey Pass” said Miller. “And then we have the Union aspect with General Thomas Neill’s Brigade of infantry who followed the rear of the Confederate army.”

The battle of Monterey Pass is Pennsylvania’s second largest Civil War battle and was the only battle to be fought on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. It began at dusk on July 4, 1863, as Union cavalry under the command of General Judson Kilpatrick collided with Confederate forces under the command of General William Jones. The battle was hard fought during a serve storm and continued till dawn on July 5.

As the Union cavalry withdrew from Monterey Pass, this allowed the Confederate army, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, to safely march his army from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to the Cumberland Valley, and eventually to Williamsport, Maryland. Following on the heels of Lee’s army was a brigade of Union cavalry and infantry. They skirmished with the rear of Lee’s army without engaging in a full battle.

To donate, volunteer, or become a member of the Friends of the Monterey Pass Battlefield, Inc., please log on to http://www.montereypassbattlefield.org and download the membership/donation form.

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore

coloredAfter the news of the burning of Washington, the 45,000 people of Baltimore knew it was only a matter of time before they too, would see the British ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore was the third largest city in the United States during that time. It was also a place where privateers captured or collected bounty from over five hundred British ships, as well as fanned the war with Britain.

Since 1813, Baltimore had already built up their defenses for a possible British raid. The city officials called upon Major General Samuel Smith, commanding the Maryland Militia Third Division to defend the city. Aside from the Maryland militia, Major George Armistead commanded the Fort McHenry garrison. There was also a naval presence at Baltimore too.

On August 27, 1814, Major General Smith ordered Brigadier General Stansbury’s militia to Baltimore, but due to the fighting at Bladensburg, his brigade was still scattered. Major General Smith had decided that Baltimore will not end up as another “Bladensburg Race.” The citizens were told to find and gather any tools, such as pickaxes, shovels and wheel barrels. The next day, all people would begin digging or improving entrenchments.

Militia from Virginia and Pennsylvania also reported to Baltimore. Major General Smith began to look at the area of what might become a battleground. He became interested in North Point Peninsula. It was here, at the tip, where the Patapsco River emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. It was a perfect place for the British to land their ground forces. Major General Smith would send Brigadier General John Stricker to deploy his command there, and buy as much as time as he could to stall the British advance.

As Maj. Gen. Smith made his plan, he was given more authority, including commanding all forces in Baltimore over Federal Brigadier General William Winder. This made Brig. Gen. Winder very upset. On September 5, Brig. Gen. Winder received his orders defending Ferry Branch. Brigadier General Winder kept pleading to Maj. Gen. Smith about changing his orders, but Smith ignored him, as he had a city to defend.

On September 10, the British navy moved down the Potomac River where they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay. From there, they began sailing to Baltimore. By this time, Maj. Gen. Smith had about 10,000 troops, mostly militia, to defend the city.

On September 11, signal guns fired announcing the arrival of the British. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane made plans to attack Baltimore using a two prong attack. He was unaware that Baltimore was waiting for the British to arrive. He ordered Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn to advance on the city by way of North Point, while the British navy continued by sea to Baltimore, and attack Fort McHenry.

On September 12, at 4:00 a.m., the British ground forces were on American soil. By dawn, 4,700 soldiers, marines, and sailors began their advance on Baltimore, twelve miles away. Later in the morning, Brigadier General John Stricker discovered the British advance. He readied his men for the battle ahead. But after a few hours had passed, Brig. Gen. Stricker decided to force Maj. Gen. Ross’ hand, and draw him into a fight. By 1:30 p.m., the first shots were exchanged by the men of Ross’ and Stricker’s commands.

The wounding of Maj. Gen. Ross. He would die from his wounds suffered at North Point.

The wounding of Maj. Gen. Ross. He would die from his wounds suffered at North Point.

Major General Ross quickly ordered up two of his regiments to the front. As the British infantry arrived with Maj. Gen. Ross at the head, a bullet stuck his right arm and went into his chest. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Stricker’s skirmish line fell back to the main line. British Colonel Arthur Brooke took over for the fallen Ross, and within an hour, advanced on Brig. Gen. Stricker’s main line. As two British infantry regiments charged the center of the main line, and after twenty minutes of heavy fighting, Stricker’s men fell back. Stricker lost 163 men killed or wounded and another 50 taken prisoner. For the British, the battle of North Point wasn’t as costly in numbers, but they lost Major General Robert Ross, as he died later from his wounds. For those at Baltimore, the battle of North Point bought them time to finish their defenses.

At dawn on September 13, British Colonel Brooke began his advance on Baltimore. As the British approached Hampstead Hill, they were faced with an earthwork that was about three miles wide. The interior featured one hundred cannon and about ten to fifteen thousand troops, all ready to defend the eastern approach to Baltimore. The rain fell upon Colonel Brooke’s men. Colonel Brooke attacked the position on the right, which he was able to overrun, but he knew a frontal assault would be devastating to his rank and file. After meeting with his officers, Colonel Brooke decided to withdraw before dawn the next morning.

While Colonel Brooke was advancing toward Baltimore, British Vice Admiral Cochrane, with about nineteen ships, began testing the defenses of Fort McHenry. At about 6:00 a.m. Congreve Rockets and mortar shells began screaming and flying through the air. The British ships were just out of range of fort’s guns. The one thousand man garrison under Major Armistead would have to wait for the British ships to move in closer before they would return the fire. For the next twenty-five hours the British bombarded Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key had been aboard the British vessel HMS Tonnant. He met with British commanders and the Prisoner Exchange Officer Colonel John Stuart Skinner to help release Dr. William Beanes, who had been arrested after the Burning of Washington. The British agreed to let them go, but they would have wait until after the battle of Baltimore was decided to be released. During the night, Key watched the “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” as the rain fell.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry.

During the night’s bombardment, a shell had landed in the powder magazine, but the shell failed to explode. Major Armistead quickly ordered the powder to be moved to a safer location. The British landed a small force on shore to try and pull some of Maj. Gen. Smith’s men away from the harbor opening, but the British force was unable to fool Maj. Gen. Smith. The British ships moved in closer and the Americans were finally able to open their artillery.

By dawn, the storm had passed and the British bombardment came to an end shortly afterward. They had fired over 1,500 rounds at Fort McHenry with no success. As the defenders of Fort McHenry took down the tattered storm flag and raised the garrison flag that was used for reveille, a portion of the British land force fired at the flag.

The American flag which was seen by Francis Scott Key.

The American flag which was seen by Francis Scott Key.

By sunrise, Francis Scott Key anxiously waited for the fog to lift, so he could see which flag now flew over Fort McHenry. With much relief, he saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Key became inspired by the site, and would write the poem “Defiance of Ft. McHenry” that would become our National Anthem on March 3, 1931. The poem was based upon the British song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

With Fort McHenry still in American possession, and Colonel Brooke falling back from near Baltimore, Vice Admiral Cochrane ordered his ships back. He was running low on ammunition and to retry to take the city by force would not prove anything. During the battle of Fort McHenry, the Americans had four killed and twenty-four wounded. The British had one man wounded that was on the vessel which took a hit from Fort McHenry’s artillery.

After the American victories at the battle of Plattsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans, the War of 1812 officially came to an end by the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The U.S approved the treaty on February 16, 1815, and by February 18, the War of 1812 was over.

Resources:
Gleig, George Robert (1827). The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815. London: J. Murray,
Herrick, Carole. August 24, 1814 Washington in Flames. Falls Church, VA: Higher Education Publishing, 2005.
Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972.
Muller, Charles C. The Darkest Day. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.
Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Flight Six Weeks that Saved a Nation. New York: Random House, 2013.