Civil War and World War I winter parallels

I’ve almost finished S.C. Gwynne’s excellent book Rebel Yell – The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. And the parallels between one scene set in the winter of 1862-1863 with the first winter of World War I are revealing.

The Confederate Army is camped for four and a half months over the winter after the battle of Fredericksburg near the Rappahannock River. They are free of fighting, after one of the bloodiest battles they (or anyone else in the world, for that matter) had ever seen. Similar to the first winter on the Western Front in World War I, the men of the armies on both sides have seen slaughter of their fellow man on a scale unknown.

And now they get a chance for leisure time. From pages 512-513:

Probably the most fun the soldiers had that winter were the snowball fights. Many of them had never seen snow before. Now there was lots of it, and they knew just what to do. Every time it snowed – which was frequently – there were battles, usually involving small groups of soldiers. But on a least one occasion they mounted a fight on a massive scale. Two armies were formed, of 2,500 men each, complete with authentic generals, colors, signal corps, fifers and drummers beating the long roll, couriers and cavalry. They conducted head-on assaults and flanking attacks. There were formal demands under flags of truce, and fortifications everywhere. “It was probably the greatest snowball fight ever fought,” wrote one participant, “and showed that ‘men are but children of larger growth…’. If all battles would terminate that way it would be a great improvement over the old slaughtering plan.” Robert E. Lee, who came out to observe the battle, was struck by several snowballs. The Richmond newspapers each devoted several columns to accounts of the fight.

The sweetest and saddest moment of this dreamy season came one evening when several Union bands appeared on the northern bank of the Rappahannock to play some favorites, songs such as “When This Cruel War Is Over” (by far the most popular),  “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Thousands of soldiers in groups on the hillside sang along while the rebels listened. Finally the Confederates called out across the river “Now play on of ours!” Without missing a beat the Yankee bands pitched into “Dixie”, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Maryland, My Maryland.” They ended the concert by playing “Home, Sweet Home,” with 150,00 men on both sides choking up as they sang it.

To my knowledge and limited research, this did not happen again during the war.

Similarly in World War I, the Germans and British held an informal Christmas truce at several places along the front, that supposedly started with the singing of Christmas carols. As this article from Time says:

“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­ two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.

The phenomenon took different forms across the Western front. One account mentions a British soldier having his hair cut by his pre-war German barber; another talks of a pig-roast. Several mention impromptu kick-abouts with makeshift soccer balls, although, contrary to popular legend, it seems unlikely that there were any organized matches.

The truce was widespread but not universal. Evidence suggests that in many places firing continued and in at least two a truce was attempted but soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces.

And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Hostilities returned, in some places later that day and in others not until after New Year’s Day. “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one veteran from the Fifth Batallion the Black Watch, Alfred Anderson, later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.” As the Great War resumed, it wreaked such destruction and devastation that soldiers became hardened to the brutality of the war. While there were occasional moments of peace throughout the rest of World War I, they never again came on the scale of the Christmas truce in 1914.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is far more publicized than what Gwynne relates in his book on the winter of 1862-63. But both should be remembered as signs of hope and humanity during a time of massive slaughter never seen before their times.


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