Return To Episode Page Return to Peace Talks Radio Home Page

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Stanley Weintraub,
author of Silent Night: The Story of the 1911 Christmas Truce.

Paul Ingles: I know it’s kind of basic history, but let’s remind listeners of the “where” and the “who” of this event. Now approaching Christmastime 1914, describe the place and the principles assembled there.

Stanley Weintraub: There was war going on between Germany and Belgium, France and England that was largely focused upon the area in Flanders which is lowland close to the English Channel and the North Sea yet the fighting went on south all the way to Switzerland, several hundred miles of trench warfare at that point.

Ingles: And opposing sides were often just yards apart isn’t that right?

Weintraub: They were often only yards apart, perhaps 75 yards apart which isn’t much when you think in terms of a football field being 100 yards. Therefore they were very close. They were also very uncomfortable. The trenches filled with water. They put down wooden planks when they could. There were rats infesting the trenches. The rats fed on the dead. The dead were in what we call “no man’s land” between the two sides. The area between the two sides was close. It was also a terrible, smelly, awful mess.

Ingles: It sounds like there was some fraternization from afar in a way between the sides in the weeks before Christmas.

Weintraub: Because they were so close, as we’ve been talking about, they could shout to each other, they could call each other names, they even got to know the first names of troops across the way. Many of the Germans had actually worked in England. They worked as barbers, they worked as wagon drivers and so on and they knew English and they were called back to Germany when the war began. Even if the English didn’t know much German, the Germans knew a great deal of English.

Ingles: About a week ahead of Christmas proper according to these stories, there was a brief cooperative truce around a German trench concert. Can you tell that story?

Weintraub: The Germans, they wanted to have a concert and they said if you stop firing you’ll be able to listen to our concert and the troops nearby (and of course this was one small sector) actually did so. But during the truce itself, it became such a spontaneous and widespread event that the Germans sent one member of the general’s staff who was a singer in the Berlin Opera out to sing Silent Night across the trenches. The French, who claimed that they hated the Germans, wouldn’t have any cease fire of any sort, sent a tenor from the Paris Opera and he sang Oh Holy Night, Cantique de Noël across the trenches. So the idea of we can do better than you can do with Christmas songs continued that business of music across the enemy lines.

Weintraub: When the Germans began to actually light the candles on their little trees, the British
wondered what it was, what was going on, and at distance of 75 or 100 yards they weren’t sure. Some of
them crept closer through the mud to see what was going on and discovered that the Germans were
lighting their Christmas trees.

The Germans, realizing that there were troops approaching them, crawled out too and the troops met
each other. This happened in many places along the front lines especially in Flanders.

The British did not have trees but they had something else that they could show the Germans. I’m
holding in my hand a brass box that says, “Christmas 1914.” It has the embossed head of Princess Mary on
it, the daughter of King George V. The British actually sent over to the front lines hundreds of thousands
of these brass boxes. Some of them were filled with candy, some of them had tobacco and there was a
campaign to get these to the troops.

When the Germans discovered that the British were doing this, they quickly began to fabricate wooden
boxes with sausages and cigars and so on and both sides it seemed, as they crawled out to meet each
other, had things to trade and so there was a swapping of Christmas gifts. This was not expected. No one
thought that when you sent something for your own troops’ morale they would use it to swap these little boxes to do this.

When they got together in “no man’s land” on Christmas Eve, they were not only in mucky territory, but there were shell holes and there were bodies. They began to think in terms of burying the dead, that if they buried the dead they might be able to get together the next day and not only do that, but perhaps trade gifts and some of them said and play football (football meaning our soccer) and they did.

This was one of the things that, when I was working on the earlier book on the Armistice had been considered absolutely absurd. They couldn’t possibly have played football in such circumstances and in such terrain and yet I found in the Imperial War Museum and in German documents war diaries; official documents, the daily reports that not only talked about the football games, but gave the scores.

Ingles: The scores corroborated each other in many senses didn’t they?

Weintraub: Yes, they did and the result was that more and more of what had been called a myth turned out to be reality.

Ingles: Dr. Weintraub, you unearthed many letters and artifacts proving this rather widespread fraternizing. I’m wondering if you would for us read this one letter that you quoted starting on page 83.

Weintraub: This is a British officer writing. More Germans had emerged between the lines and he wrote, “Things are getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited. We didn’t light the fire as they were all unarmed but we had strict orders and someone might have fired so I climbed over the parapet and shouted my best German for the opposing captain to appear. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count something or other and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called one of his subalterns and formally introduced them with much clicking of heals and saluting. They were all very well turned out while I was in a goatskin coat. One of the subalterns could talk a few words of English. I said, ‘My orders are to keep my men in the trenches and allow no armistice. Don’t you think it is dangerous; all of your men running about in the open like this? Someone may open fire.’ He called out an order and all his men went back to their parapets leaving me and the five German officers and a barrel of beer in the middle of ‘No Man’s Land.’ He said, ‘You better take the beer. We have lots.’ So I called up two men to bring the barrel to our side. I didn’t like to take their beer without giving something in exchange and suddenly I had a brain wave. We had lots of plum puddings so I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then call out, ‘Waiter’ and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it and cheers from both sides. Then we all formally saluted and returned to our lines. Our men had sing songs, ditto the enemy.” So this is one example of how fraternization began and the truce continued.

Ingles: So how long did it go on and how did it come to an end?

Weintraub: It went on in some places just through Christmas. It depended on the area involved and how close the people were and how pressured they felt by commanding officers to the rear.

What is interesting, and the point is made very well in the film and the play, “Oh What a Lovely War,” is that senior officers seldom ventured towards the front lines so that meant that the troops could do pretty much what they wanted. But when reports came back to the fancy chateaux’s in the rear where the generals were stationed, they complained about it and they issued orders that this had to stop and it stopped as soon as they sent replacements out to take the places of the troops that had fraternized.

Ingles: From your standpoint Dr. Weintraub, why do you think this story resonates so well and so closely with people now almost 100 years later?

Weintraub: I think it resonates because we yearn for a time when there is greater peace than we have; a time when every day, as the poet said will be like Christmas Day, a day when families get together, when there’s comradery, when there’s friendliness, when hatred vanishes. It’s a utopian idea, a utopian vision, but we all long for it.

When we get close enough we realize that on both ends of the riffle we’re the same. The trouble is that we, or at least governments, never learn from history. The lesson of the Christmas Truce has vanished as all truces vanish this way because peace is harder to make than war.

Steve Pendlebury reports on the 100th anniversary of the 1911 National Peace Jubilee at Manassas Battlefield.

Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated and still, in late April of 1865, the civil war was not entirely finished. Tens of thousands of union and confederate troops in North Carolina stood ready to keep on fighting if negotiations between their commanders failed.

Among the war-weary southern soldiers camped in Greensboro was a young signal corpsman named David Hamilton Russell. To the east, in Raleigh, a northern signal corps lieutenant, George Carr Round, manned an observation post atop the state capitol building. Round, like Russell, had been a soldier since the war began – and he prayed that he would soon hear that Confederate General Joseph Johnston and Union General William Sherman had come to terms. When that news arrived at last, on the night of April 26, round sent what’s known as “the last signal message of the civil war” – launching color-coded rockets from the capitol dome to spell out “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Half a center later, Round and Russell’s life stories converged again. The result was the National Jubilee of Peace – the first major gathering of Civil War veterans from both sides. Steve Pendlebury has the story from the place where it happened in 1911 -- and was re-enacted in the summer of 2011 -- Manassas, Virginia.

KEN ELSTON: Reenactors don't always like it when I say it, but I’ve said for years, you know, why do we reenact the war when it’s the peace that’s so much more interesting exciting and ultimately beneficial to our children and their children and the generations to come?

That’s Ken Elston, who wrote and directed a dramatization of the 1911 peace jubilee for the city of Manassas. He’s chairman of the theater department at George Mason University in nearby Fairfax, Virginia.
KEN ELSTON: It’s a far-reaching, sort of epic outdoor piece that is part theater, part spectacle, part halftime show.

Elston’s historical theater troupe “Footsteps in Time” recreated the unprecedented reunion of veterans from north and south, who came together in Manassas on july 21st, 1911 -- 50 years to the day after the first major land battle of the Civil War – for a celebration of peace and national unity.
KEN ELSTON: With the possible exception of the Persian Wars, this is the first time in recorded history that former enemies met on the same battlefield where they once met in mortal combat to affirm peace. And that’s pretty exciting. When you look at the history of the world, the U.S. is unique for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that we had this terrible four-year struggle of the American Civil War and came out of it a stronger nation…You now, I’m from Philadelphia and in Philadelphia we always celebrate the birth of a nation, 1776. And it seems to me that here in Manassas, Virginia we celebrate the rebirth of a nation.
ED CLARK: I think one of the stories that is sometimes lost at Manassas, because the battle being the first battle grabs the nation’s attention, is this story of reconciliation.

It’s a story Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent Ed Clark doesn’t get to tell as often as he’d like.
ED CLARK: Both sides taking up their previous positions and marching across the field instead of this time not in anger and not with bloodshed on their mind but with peace and reconciliation in their mind and instead of meeting with arms they met with handshakes. And a very moving and stirring and very meaningful to those veterans.
More about how the 1911 Peace Jubilee came to be in a few moments. But first, to appreciate how extraordinary the event was, you have to understand what happened during the First Battle of Manassas – or Bull Run as it’s also known – 50 years earlier.


ED CLARK: At the beginning of the Civil War after Lincoln is elected and Fort Sumter occurs and he calls all the troops I think there was great excitement in both the North and the South for what was coming. They ended up meeting here as they said at the time on the plains of Manassas. And what both sides endured on that day, on that July 21st day, shocked the nation.


KEN ELSTON: Families brought their children and their picnic lunches from as far away as DC to sit and watch the spectacle of overwhelming force from the North taking on the ragged band from the South – or the plantation owners here believing that the show of southern pride and dedication to state and this new idea of the new Confederate states of America would overwhelm the forces of the Union. Certainly no one believed in their heart of hearts, at least these people with their picnic lunches, that Americans would be killing Americans right in front of their eyes.
ED CLARK: What ended up in a very resounding Confederate victory and humiliating Union defeat shocked the nation. This was up until that time in American history the bloodiest day, the largest number of casualties in all of American history and it really deflated the notion that this was going to be a glorious, quick and relatively bloodless war.
ED CLARK: Soldiers were pining to be there. They were afraid that if they missed this one battle they would miss the entire war. But when you read those accounts of the soldiers who were there that time and you go back through their diaries and read their letters, the tenor of those comments and their perspective changes dramatically. And the sights that they witnessed and that they retell really shows how deeply that experience affected those soldiers.

George Carr Round, the Union officer who proclaimed peace with his signal rockets in Raleigh at the end of the war, was not at the first battle of Manassas -- although he too was profoundly affected by his experiences throughout the conflict. He was stationed in Manassas for a while later in the war, to defend the strategic railroad junction. Round became a lawyer in New York and returned to settle in Manassas in 1868. Although some of the locals dismissed him as a carpetbagger at first, Round became a pillar of the community.

KEN ELSTON: He named the streets. So we’re at the corner of Grant and Lee. We’re at the corner of Grant and Lee so that the two would forever meet in peaceful accord. That was very important to him.

The inscription on his tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery hails Round as the ‘originator’ of the Peace Jubilee, but the idea for the event actually came from D.H. Russell, who was among the last confederate troops to surrender in Greensboro. Russell was wounded at first Manassas. After the war, he became a newspaper editor and civic leader in Anderson, South Carolina. On January 2, 1911, Russell wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington post. (Bob Root reads from that letter.)

BOB ROOT: The 21st day of next July will be the 50th anniversary of the first battle of Manassas, and it has occurred to me that it would be a gracious thing, and tending to promote peace and good feeling, if Congress would make an appropriation to bring together in a national encampment on that celebrated field the survivors of both armies who actually participated in the battle.

It would be a spectacle that could not take place in any other country on the globe, and would have a good effect in promoting the rising tide of peace and goodwill that seems to be prevailing over the country, and in wiping out any remaining animosities. What do you think of it?

George Round thought it was a great idea – and it was the old veteran, not Congress, who turned it into a reality just half a year after reading Russell’s letter in the newspaper. A remarkable feat, says Ed Clark.

ED CLARK: He pulled all of these people together and if you think about trying to get in rural Virginia of that time, this many people to transport that far, to get that message out that far, to coordinate all that. It must have taken a tremendous amount of effort and energy. But I think his whole life was an example of that energy.

KEN ELSTON: He was very powerful and very wealthy at that time and he could write to people across the nation saying you know what we’re going to do and we need the money to do it. And he did.

ED CLARK: It was so successful that many of the later events of that 50th anniversary throughout America really modeled itself after what was done here at Manassas.

Hundreds of veterans gathered on the hilltop where the tide of the battle had turned, where confederate General Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname and where the blood-curdling rebel yell was heard for the first time. This time, the former foes embraced. They shared a picnic lunch. Then they headed to the courthouse in town to see the president of the United States, William Howard Taft.
KEN ELSTON: If you can imagine being on the field with people you were shooting at 50 years before, and now you’re old and grizzled and probably walking with a cane, and shaking hands with someone looking them in the eye and realizing well we both survived. We can honor each other’s dedication. We can honor each other’s service and we can look at each other as veterans, American veterans, and move forward.
To bring this often-overlooked moment in history to life a century later, Elston combined characters from past and present to play out scenes on the old courthouse lawn – 100 years to the day after the original event.

KEN ELSTON: It’s a kind of environmental impact piece of theater and history that I’ve sort of been dreaming about for this community for a long time. So when I was asked to consider writing this piece it didn’t take me long to sort of have at least the bones of what I wanted to do together. Making it an enjoyable piece of theater was another step. And so the investment of comedy, the investment of particular characters and their stories so that we are pulled in and become interested. The mixing of environment and then and now. All of that, we hope, creates a tapestry, a mosaic of celebration.


When you look at the Civil War it’s difficult to celebrate. You can commemorate. You can keep memories alive. You can talk about the stories that weave together. But you can’t really celebrate such a bloody war. You can celebrate the peace jubilee. You can celebrate people coming together and those veterans meeting again in their dotage to hold hands, to put their arms around each other to stand around a campfire, which they did here on the lawn – we’re sitting in the courthouse in Manassas city where the event happened in 1911 and the lawn was dotted with campfires for an entire week as the veterans didn’t leave this property and they told stories and they laughed and they sang and they really had a jubilee.
Round: Colonel Berkeley, you live in Virginia all your life?
Berkeley: Heck no. Not yet anyway.
Round: We have been remembering those bygone days and Manassas has offered us so many fond memories to last us forever.
Berkeley: Oh fond memories. The last time I was down here my tent leaked something awful.
Round: Well didn’t you fix it?
Berkeley: Couldn’t fix it in the rain.
Round: Well why didn’t you fix it when the sun was shining?
Berkeley: It didn’t leak then.

KEN ELSTON: When I did my research, the best research that I found and enjoyed – there were wonderful letters and diary entries from people – but it was the journalists -- competing reporters were capturing the events surrounding the peace jubilee in that turn-of-the-century journalistic voice…

(1911 REPORTER: Manassas – the 21st of July 19 hundred and 11.)

… which is very evocative and I enjoyed that and thought well if we do need a narrator to sort of weave us through this piece wouldn’t this journalist from 1911 be good?

(1911 REPORTER: After the strains of America put a spark to the kindling of patriotic fervor, at last our anticipation for this great event is satisfied. Masses have come here to celebrate this national jubilee of peace. )
In addition to the 1911 journalist we have a 2011 journalist who I hope speaks in a very different sort of rhythm.

(2011 REPORTER: 150 years after the first battle of the civil war, and 100 years since the veterans of that battle met yet again, we gather to recreate the peace and celebrate our nation, and in the spirit of common bonds, the strength of that nation.)

KEN ELSTON: And they have their own stage so they can comment on the action. And then we have the action itself.


KEN ELSTON: You know we have this dance among the people, we have these scenarios among this crowd. We have the president of the United States coming down Grant Avenue in his car being led by children of the community.

ED CLARK: I think it’s so iconic to have President Taft, the US president, on the stage with the last Virginia governor who had served in the Confederacy on that stage together.


As promised folks, the President of the United States…

Ladies and Gentlemen. When we look back on that period of 50 years ago, a feeling of sadness must overcome us, for that is a period we dislike to look back upon. A period of sorrow and discouragement, reviving in our minds all the strain and trial of that awful struggle. I do not know if it might have been achieved in some more peaceful way. I do not know if we could have found an alternate path. But I do know that in that struggle each side showed a strength which neither side had known it possessed – developed a strength of character before the entire world that the world had never witnessed before.

It is my greatest ambition as President of these United States to do everything sensible and everything reasonably possible to bring the two sections of this country even closer together if such be possible – to make them feel in the South, as well as in the North, that the Supreme Court of the United States is their Supreme Court, the Congress their Congress, the President of the United States their president.

(Huzzah, huzzah, applause)

Elston and Clark say the Peace Jubilee – proposed by one-time rebel soldier D.H. Russell and organized by his former enemy George Round – was an expression of a new spirit in America. It showed how much the country had changed in the 50 years since the Civil War began.

KEN ELSTON: We were moving as most of the world was, at least the Western world, into industrialization, moving out of the agrarian culture of the 19th century and into the industrial culture of the 20th century. And we were as a nation the center of invention on the globe. And so it was a time of we as a people could make anything happen. Time of hope. There was a sense of identity that was new. We were trying to figure it out in the 1800s. Identity was by state. And the Civil War made us say as a nation, well what’s our identity as a nation?

ED CLARK: I think the country was still struggling in many ways with a lot of the aftermath and a lot of what came out of that war. This is 50 years later and so those young teenagers and 20-somethings were now elderly men. And I think as generations pass on I think there is a desire to connect with them and learn from them and share their experiences before they’re gone and I think that might be a part of this.
KEN ELSTON: We all know there is a linger of aspects of the Civil War. Unfortunately in our society there are echoes. But it’s not the predominant voice. The predominant voice in America is about unification. The predominant voice in America is about how we came together.
The Manassas Peace Jubilee attracted national, even international, attention and inspired similar events, including one that drew more than 50 thousand Civil War vets to Gettysburg in 1913. A few years later, those old soldiers saw their united nation enter World War I – the “war to end all wars,” as it was called. And as we know, it did not end wars. So did these peace jubilees have any lasting effect?

KEN ELSTON: There was certainly an impact on our knowledge of the war. Fifty years after the war just as there was again 100 years after the war, a real push to publish to research to interview so that these memories aren’t forgotten. So it’s important. And in many ways, and this is one of the reasons we work so hard in terms of historic preservation, is that that is in itself a legacy for peace and understanding. And a better understanding of who we are and who we are to each other.
ED CLARK: Americans’ perception of history is very narrow and we in most cases only teach the highest points or the highest of the high points of history and there’s so much to it. Not just that on a stage in July in 1911 politicians got up and said important things, it’s all of those individuals all of their individuals personal stories. That emotion that must have been played out was tremendous. And the things that were demonstrated there, the reconciliation, the recognition of peace, the recognition of union, is so moving and powerful I think but it’s one that is lost in the, at least nationally, lost to so much that has occurred since then. So I think it’s so important at these times, at these milestones, these markers in history, to recall these events and remind America of places we have been and great things we have done.


KEN ELSTON: I would love to be able to say that there was actual lasting attention to this idea of peace and love and unity and that we as a community put that on our shoulders as what we would model for the rest of the world. And I’m afraid that we as a society and as a people and as a race and a species maybe we haven’t yet come to that particular place in our lives yet.