Humanity’s Victory: Commemorating the Christmas Truce of 1914

One-hundred years ago today, one of the most miraculous, magical events in the history of modern warfare occurred along stretches of the Western Front during World War I; soldiers on both sides of the conflict put aside their weapons and spontaneously ventured out onto “no-man’s-land” in a gesture of goodwill and peace associated with Christmas.

Watch the 2014 English video advertisement on The Christmas Truce of 1914.

In an examples of the facts being as true as the story told, in many locations along the 450 miles of trenches stretching along the French and Belgian countrysides, German and British soldiers declared an unofficial Christmas armistice of the fighting that began just four months before.

The first inkling of  began around midnight late Christmas Eve (the day most German’s celebrated the holiday) as German’s shouted out holiday greetings and could be heard singing Christmas songs and carols well known and loved by British including “Silent Night, Holy Night.” British soldiers began singing along through the night. British troops could also see the German’s decorating the wire with evergreen branches and candles.

According to countless accounts, letters and reports, on Christmas morning, Germans emerged from the shelter of the trenches to first wave, then cautiously cross onto the strip of land barely one hundred meters wide separating the two foes.

Writing to his mother, Capt. A. D. Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders described “one of the most extraordinary sights anyone has ever seen.”

About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.

We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.

I went out myself and shook hands with several of their officers and men,” wrote Chater wrote.

From what I gathered most of them would be glad to get home again as we should – we have had our pipes playing all day and everyone has been walking about in the open unmolested.”

Cigarettes and rations were exchanged, photos taken, in one instance a Brit gave a German a haircut and conversations took place about the war, home and loved ones. Unit buttons were traded and addresses provided. It was also a time for both sides to recover the remains of comrades who were killed earlier.

There is also references to soccer matches between the two sides at different locations with the writer’s side always winning.

It would be the one and only day-long truce to occur during the war that continued for almost four more years, resulting in the deaths of 37 million civilians and soldiers.

Many historians believe the truce took place as many of the combatants in the first few months of the war were professional soldiers rather than conscripts which came after the wholesale slaughter to tens of thousands in single day battles that would begin in the spring of 1915.

Both sides in the trenches saw the men across “No-Man’s Land” almost as respected, brave colleagues in the prosecution of battles.

And for one glorious day, the common humanity within all men triumphed over the call of war.

Restoring Memories: Group Set to Mend Belmont’s Vet Memorials

The pain of John Ray’s brother’s death nearly half-a-century ago still haunts him.

“Even to this day, I still have dreams that he comes back to me,” said Ray speaking of his older brother, Walter “Donny” Ray, killed in action in Vietnam in November 1967.

Ray, along with Edward “Teddy” Lee – his teammate on Belmont High School’s 1964 state championship football team – and six other young men died fighting in Vietnam. They join the nearly 200 from Belmont, who died for their country in conflicts ranging from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Monday, a group of veterans and friends and relatives of Ray and Lee came before the Belmont Board of Selectmen Monday, Aug. 18, to seek its support to raise nearly $350,000 to restore three monuments honoring those young residents who sacrificed their lives in defense of the country.

“This is about honoring our soldiers … and to find the capital to do this and really recognizing what the veterans have done for us,” said former selectman William Skelley, speaking for the newly-formed Belmont Veterans’ Memorial Project.

Kevin Ryan, a retired US Army brigadier general and currently a director at Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said the group’s mission is to repair two existing monuments – the World War I monument across from the MBTA commuter rail station abutting Common Street and the flag pole memorial for all veterans at Clay Pit Pond near Belmont High School – and creating a new site for the WWII dead.

While Belmont has done what he believes is an excellent job acknowledging veterans, over the years, the locations have fallen in disrepair, said Ryan. Vegetation has overgrown the Clay Pit Pond site, and the location is not tidy and the memorial is small and not well presented. The WWI memorial is threadbare under years of gray paint with the stone work in need of repair.

“What we want to do is refurbish some of the sites, spruce them up and add a couple of sites as memorial for veterans” including moving the memorials for World War II, Korea, Vietnam and subsequent conflict currently located in the main lobby of the Belmont Public Library, said Ryan.

“We want it out into the open so people can [see] them more readily,” said Ryan.

“I don’t know about you but the library was not a place I hung out all the time as a kid or as an adult,” said Ryan.

A portion of the $350,000 will be used to clean and repair the WWI monument revealing the pink granite and also for repairs. Additional funds will create a WWII memorial possibly in the front of the White Field House abutting Concord Avenue named for James Paul White, who died in the Battle of the Bugle.

The majority of the funds, approximately $240,000, will go into major improvements at the Clay Pit Memorial. It will include renovating the site and adding plaques from each conflict with the names of those who died mounted on boulders or low stone walls “blending with the current monument and the surrounding landscape,” Ryan said.

The group said it hoped to raise from veteran and donations such as $150 for brick paver, $20,000 for a memorial bench and $10,000 each from major donors.

At the suggestion of the Selectmen, the group will approach the town’s Community Preservation Committee in September on the possibility of qualifying for a grant from the town’s Community Preservation Act Fund. Grants from the fund – supplied by a surcharge of the real estate tax levy – and used for open space protection, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation.

After the Selectmen enthusiastically approved the project’s goals and efforts, both the veterans and family of those who will be recognized celebrated this initial victory.

Teddy Lee’s sister, Patty and Barbara, hugged many who came to support the new group’s efforts.

“It’s very touching,” said Patty.

“You can’t forget these young men, and it’s important to everyone to know what they did,” added Barbara.

A Century After the First, Belmont Resident Ponders If Another World War is Around the Corner

From her room in the Central Station Hotel in Newcastle, Willena Benton excitedly wrote to her hometown newspaper on the great events taking place outside her window.

“England has sent an ultimatum demanding an answer before midnight. That probably means WAR!” Benton wrote in a letter dated Aug. 4, 1914 to the Belmont Courier; the newspaper started in 1889 by her husband, Everett Chamberlin Benton, Belmont’s most-prominent resident.

On a grand tour of northern Norway after the wedding of their second daughter, Dorothy, at their Oakley Road estate, the Bentons were stranded in England after passenger liners suspended North Sea trips to Christiania (which returned to its original name, Oslo, 11 years later) due to the threat of the Imperial German Navy venturing out of its Kiel base.

The Bentons, along with two dozen of their fellow Belmont residents – including Henry Yeoman, assistant Harvard dean, and his wife of 72 Trapelo Road – were attempting to find passage home among the few boats traveling to New York yet found “our letter of credit and our American Express cheques were not cashable” said Benton, leaving many, according to the Courier, “financially embarrassed abroad.”

“Nevertheless, strange to say, we are enjoying the excitement,” wrote Benton, especially all things “in a military way;” the marching of the Scotch regiments with kilts and bagpipes, the building of sandbags entrenchments, the weaving of barbed wire “and the gathering of the British war vessels in the Firth of Forth.”

Benton’s first-hand observation hardly conveyed the world-changing events beginning with an incident the Courier noted in its review of foreign events a month earlier. Between the news of Ernest Shackleton receiving a grant for his proposed Antarctic exposition and the typhoid epidemic in Jamaica, a small note informed Belmont readers that “Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungry, and his wife were shot to death in the main street of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.”

A century later, countries across Europe this week observed the beginning of hostilities that would be called the “Great War” and later World War I. And while the war – that took the lives of nine million combatants and seven million civilians – forever changed the political and social norms around the world, many contend the conflict’s lessons are not restricted to historians; they are relevant today.

In an article in the Atlantic titled, “Just How Likely is Another World War,” Pinehurst Road’s Graham Allison takes a comprehensive assessment of the similarities and differences between 1914 and 2014 and just how close the world is to revisiting the unthinkable. 

“In this centennial of what participants named the ‘Great War,’ many have recalled Mark Twain’s observation that while history never repeats itself, it does sometimes rhyme,” writes Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.